Striving after Perfection

I'm thinking about the time it takes to refine one's craft, to pursue perfection in the arts. This is a different matter from perfectionism, which is a limitation.

Some pursue the refinement of their craft through productivity, regularly turning out work that grows in competence and effect as they go. They are up early, their drafts are submitted on time, and when the time comes, their piece is ready. Even if it is not perfect. The next project will be better. They find their audience and their audience finds them, and it is a mutually beneficial enterprise. Assuming one stays away from the sauce, this is the pathway of the successful artist.

Then there are those who pursue their craft, whether deliberately or not, with no regard for audience. They get a perfect idea and an idea for perfection in their head,  and they pursue only this idea, sometimes in fits and starts, other times zealously. Enthusiasm grows when others hear of the inspiration, but when the moment comes, the piece is not ready, because it is not perfect. The audience dissipates and is all but gone when the piece finally arrives in its splendid condition. There of course is no one left to witness. This is the path of the frustrated artist.  

Or is it?

Thoreau's Walden is a treasure trove that many of us plunder from time to time for help with seeing the big picture. Near the end of the book, Thoreau gives one of his most famous lines: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." This is a great quote, but it is not the part I remember. What I remember is the mythic Indian tale that follows as an illustration of the idea. And I share it in full (with paragraphs added for ease of reading):

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.

"He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.

"As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times.

"But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?”

Henry David Thoreau, the Artist from the City of Concord

Integrating Islam onto our Stage and "The Will of Bernard Boynton"

If we are to use theatre to build community, are we better served by a theatre that focuses on making us doubt and question or by one seeking to open our understanding and empathy? These are not mutually exclusive, just as the head and the heart are not mutually exclusive. But which is the servant and which the master? Much of modern theatre digs into its subjects with relentless questioning. This is useful when confronting powerful orthodoxies, hegemons and hypocrisies. But what about when we're handling new and possibly mind-shifting worldviews?

Islam is a part of our community, but a part that our community is not yet comfortable with. It goes deeper than a war on terror. A community so steeped in Christianity starts off on a prejudiced footing. Looking at history, we see how the Christian message has been shaped in opposition to Islam and framed to counter Muhammad's claims to Prophethood. For this and other reasons, many Americans maintain a surface-level tolerance of Muslims, but keep a psychic distance and a hidden storehouse of suspicion. Some of us might go so far as to call Islam "a religion of peace" without really understanding how that is or perhaps not even believing it. 

This is just the sort of social and psychological division that theatre can help bridge. Theatre works best when it allows us to see different points of view and feel characters' experiences from the inside--that is, through empathy. If the story is well-told, we can imagine American audiences opening up to the point of view and experience of a faithful Muslim individual or family. What about opening ourselves up to the principles, rituals and inner patterns of the Muslim Faith?

Since 9/11, mindful producers in the American theatre have sought to bring Muslim perspectives to the stage. Playwrights and actors of Middle-Eastern descent have been sought out and encouraged, and this is a good thing. Stories of Iraqis, Afghanis and Palestinians have helped humanize and familiarize Muslims who might otherwise be seen as Other. But Islam itself may be neglected in the bargain. For example, one recent, celebrated play treats Islam essentially as a political or tribal identity, eviscerating any sense of it as a viable spiritual path. Is a default setting in the theatre today to see every giant as a Goliath to be taken down? Not every giant means us harm. Can we overcome an institutional mistrust of institutions when it hinders our mission of opening up understanding? 

Watching "Fiddler on the Roof" immerses us in the culture, rites and spirit of Orthodox Judaism, and we all love it. Noh drama steeps us profoundly in a worldview of Zen Buddhism, and we teach it at university. I watched the TV show "Kung Fu" as a kid, and no one was afraid I was going to become a Shaolin Monk or a Taoist. I was learning though, seeing anew from a story steeped in a worldview, philosophy or belief different from my own. 

You’d never it know it from the title, but “The Will of Bernard Boynton” strives to do something similar. The play features an American who is a Muslim convert, but on a deeper level, Islam and Islamic mysticism is a kind of matrix in which the play is molded. (That and Classic Country, but that's for another blog.) You may know that the term 'Islam' signifies submission to the will of God and the peace that is found therein. Well, the play is set in Northern New England, a place of rugged Individualism that is the antithesis of this concept, in the town of Liberty, Maine--a very real place, only a stone's throw from my Dad's house. It is a play about liberty and submission, about the free will of the soul and the powerful jinns of ancestors and legacy. 

Dramaturg Ben French offers some insight in his Afterword to the play:

When performing the Sufi ceremony of the whirling dervishes, a group of participants spins in a mesmerizing circle, meditating on Allah and their place in the universe. As they spin, they drop their left hand towards the ground while their right reaches up. In this sacred act established by the followers of the Sufi poet Rumi, individuals are reminded that they are inextricably tied between this Earth and something much bigger than them—to the cosmos, to the seen and the unseen, to Allah.

Much like the whirling dervishes, everyone in Mark Perry’s new play ‘The Will of Bernard Boynton’ is inextricably caught between the immediate and the sustained. His characters are tied to one another, even after the tragic end of one life. They struggle with death, grief, the inevitability of legacy, and overarching questions of liberty. But as the play progresses and memories unfurl, the play itself becomes a ritual, a spiritual experience in and of itself…

Perry’s work in The Will of Bernard Boynton artfully turns a stage play into a stimulating poetic, melodic meditation on questions of liberty... Ultimately, ... seemingly daunting questions are brought down to an immediate, urgent, human level...
— Ben French

This is just one play and one approach, and we need more. The threat posed by not understanding Islam is not simply theoretical and its effects are not far off. Our community is affected by this impasse of cultural understanding. 5 months ago, an act of hate rocked our community of Chapel Hill, and ripples of it spread throughout the world. Only after that terrible loss did we get to know "our three winners": Deah, Yusor, and Razan. These were three vibrant examples of the goodness, charity and faith taught in Islam, true fruits of that tree, pure water from that spring. They were a vital part of our community here in Chapel Hill, and I can’t help but think that an alienating societal attitude towards Muslims emboldened a sick mind to insist otherwise. 


A Troubled Marriage

Fifty years ago, African-American playwright Alice Childress wrote a play about the racial climate in her home town of Charleston, SC—the racial climate, that is, of fifty years before that in 1918. It's called Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, and it laments the perpetual cycle of racial separation that seems impossible to overcome. This lament is embodied in the star-crossed lovers of Julia and Herman, who are black and white and very much in love, but whose people cannot abide their mutually-expressed union—the one side out of fear and suspicion, the other out of bigotry and privilege, the both institutionalized. 

Read More

The Resurrection of Drama Circle

Dear friends,

I am happy to announce the reboot of Drama Circle with a new website, a new blog, and a new publication, and with a renewed vision of using the arts to build community.

  1. The website is still but the look is all new, and it should work equally well on all devices. The content is changed some, streamlined to focus on a narrowed mission. 
  2. The blog is part of the website and will be the primary forum for a conversation on nurturing community through drama and other arts.
  3. My new play, The Will of Bernard Boynton, is now available in print and as an ebook! See the website for information on the play and on purchasing. (For a limited time, get 20% off this play and off The Lover at the Wall." (More details.) 

I'll be posting more in the days and weeks to come. If you like, have a look around the website--there are lots of pictures and videos of past projects. Like us on Facebook, and send a message or leave a comment if you find a problem or have a comment or question. 

Warm regards,
Mark Perry