Monday, August 8, 2011

Conscience of an Artist - Vaneshran Arumugam

At the Fourth International Conference on Consciousness, Literature and the Arts (University of Lincoln, UK), Bibliotekos general editor Gregory F. Tague had the pleasure of seeing Vaneshran Arumugam perform Not an Angry Ape: Shakespeare’s Vision of Consciousness. The piece was co-written by Kriben Pillay, an associate professor in the Leadership Centre, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Vaneshran. To quote from the program brochure: “. . . the major clue to Shakespeare’s vision is the performance event itself; a compelling story stills the thinking mind to foreground mindful awareness, the what is of the here-and-now, where the perceiver and perceived, unobstructed by any false duality, collapse into the simplicity of seeing. This seeing is the ultimate consciousness.”

Vaneshran Arumugam has been a professional actor on stage and screen for nearly fourteen years, having completed his undergraduate studies at Wits University in Dramatic Art and Social Anthropology where he received the Marcella Pisanello prize for acting for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello. He is much loved for his roles on TV, in particular that of Kash, in the longest running comedy series South Africa has to date – SOS. His highest award so far must be considered to be the International Fellowship from the Ford Foundation, which afforded him his postgraduate study at both Columbia University (New York) and the University of Cape Town, where he concentrated the experiences of his career into understanding Performance as a natural effect of Consciousness. These experiences included performing in local and international film and TV, but most notably on stages around the world, including the title role of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon, in 2006. He appeared int the 2006 BBC arts programme Imagine Being Hamlet, which documented his RSC performance.

After his Profile, you will also find “Coming to the Point,” a manifesto of sorts by Vanesharan. We have also had the privilege of reading Vaneshran’s poetry and are happy to announce that some will be published soon – a link to the journal will be added when available.
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I grew up with the legend of my grandmother’s amateur acting in East London, a small town on the southeast coast of South Africa. My grandmother had acted in both Tamil and English in her hometown of Durban as well as with an amateur group of dramatists in East London, whom I came to know much later as family friends and grandparents of some of my own friends in the Seventies and Eighties. It was inspiring for me to feel what respect and love my grandmother’s onstage and offstage storytelling inspired among her family, friends and in our community. This might be considered my beginning as an actor, for as the first grandchild I stage-managed/directed and starred in many a concert or play that we siblings or cousins mounted for the family or visitors.

But, it wasn’t until much later that I would give up the study of Physical Science and Biology, and commit myself to the study and practice of Performing in earnest with a penchant for classical texts, since already in primary school I had won the admiration of my principal by putting on a version of Oedipus Rex. (I was struck then by the protagonist’s crisis of having blessings and tragedies visit at once and how it was that none of us were familiar with this apparently famous story that had so much to teach about Fate.) With classmates in high school we made school history by mounting the first official school production to be directed by students. I also played King Henry in a production of Henry IV Part One. I think I had even then intuited the power that acting was able to wield, to change people’s minds or rally them around an idea. When I did eventually decide to follow acting as a study, and by implication, a career choice, I also intuited the science in acting, that there was more to it than entertaining a crowd with funny voices and that my dreams of being a scientist would not totally be going to waste by becoming an actor – at that time these ideas were viewed as diametrically opposed to each other.


Being an actor seemed, after a while, the only choice for me, to capture the interest I was developing in science, social science, poetry and spirituality. As an undergraduate I completed a drama degree with a Social (cultural) Anthropology degree, which made even more obvious to me that the science of performing was by no means confined to the stage.

In the beginning of my career, while my intellect was enchanted with the possibilities that seemed to be “locked” within the practice of performing, I was becoming a very popular TV actor, changing the way black actors, particularly of minority descent, were being cast, written for and enjoyed. I was resolute that I could not do my characters the injustice of being portrayed as one dimensional or stereotyped for only one viewpoint’s pleasure. So the personas of those early TV characters were driven by this sense of responsibility, while my theatre characters enjoyed more freedom from the political milieu of the Nineties – I was able to play roles far further from myself such as a corrupt Cuban government official in Michael Frayn’s Clouds, or a nineteenth century British Army kiddyfiddler in Churchills’s Cloud 9 – and was able to stretch myself in ways that weren’t dictated to purely from the environment’s political lens.

A good role is one that starts working on me even as I read it for the first time. I am still not certain how this works, but a good role always seems to be written for me and that there is no alternative but to play. There are many factors surrounding the role itself that will either contribute or detract from this initial feeling, such as the other people I am working with and so on. Perhaps all roles, once you have committed to making them yours, have the potential to become “good.” Having said that, there are some roles in television, particularly, that seem to have escaped this pattern.

A good story is one that has space enough to contain what is being related, but also what is actually happening between people performing and those watching. Sometimes it’s the skill of the writing that brings this about, sometimes the direction or the acting, or design, but there seems to be a golden ratio of balance unique to each story, or even the story of the particular production. The object is to release the imagination – my own, my fellow actors, the audience – and for these energies to commingle. For me there are various ways to achieving this, by embodying something familiar in a character, a trait, a habit, or by forcefully inciting a scene vocally, with power or poetic virtuosity and so on. But all are enticing the audience, other players, the moment into the act of imagining, co-creating even.

So for me, I do my best to stay imaginative, even around everyday things from cooking to exercising my body, to raising my daughter or holding conversation. I am conscious, as much as I can be, of acting a role, of participating in a performance, observing as a student the nature of people and situations and even the energy of things. In some ways I am always preparing for another role, even if I’ve not yet been cast in any particular role.

As I become familiar with a role, I begin to formulate a habit around what is required from me, whether it is spending time with the words, reading other texts, exercise (sometimes particular kinds of exercises, like tai chi or singing exercises). By the time it comes to performance, I “know” what the day needs before I can perform – how much I must eat, rest, train or even speak. So, the habit transforms each time, and has the ability even to change within a role when things arise that challenge or require attention. I learn about myself and others I am working with in this time; what my possible strengths and weaknesses might be in relation to this role, or even in my life. Some roles, like Hamlet, or Othello bring a lot to the table, while a comic role in a film might demand more from me than it “offers.”

Each role seems to have its own life, and in turn offers me a life, and usually this has resulted in a life that an audience gets a real feeling of, so it’s extremely difficult to pick out any one role that has been a favourite. There are, however, several that have brought with them immense change or realisations such as playing Angel in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the A Train or Othello, or an unnamed host of characters in my one person play titled You Expected Something Else.  Each piece has been customised to fit into my life, carving part of my story and shaping something of my future – this may sound somewhat trite, but I’ll try to illustrate. My great love and mother of my daughter played Osric opposite me in Shakepeare’s Hamlet when I was twenty three and at the height of my university career, which led to our wonderful relationship and parenthood of our child etc. When we separated some seven years later and I thought my existence had lost all meaning, I was cast as Hamlet on a far more epic scale – I would be performing at the Swan theatre at Stratford upon Avon for the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of “Dame” Janet Suzman, no less. I had the keen sense that my life was arranged in concentric circles and the play was marking the coincidence of the closing and opening of a few great circles in my life – and that’s just following one simple narrative trail! That play took me to London, and while I may not have visited the queen, I did end up in a long conversation with Sting about Shakespeare and performing at his home around the corner from Buckingham Palace – of course, we also spoke about his favourite role…Hamlet. It was in the performance of this role (the second time round) under the expert guidance of Ms. Suzman, that I experienced a sustained manifestation of the full power of theatre, of my own potential as a storyteller, of the potency of ensemble, and the pervasive influence of Shakespeare. Things I had felt before, touched on, seen in glimpses, were here full blown and supported by an eager audience and production mechanism. I have not been the same since and neither has my acting.

I returned to study after that role and was awarded the Ford Foundation’s prestigious International Fellowship Programme award, investigating my own experiences of the overlap between Performing and Consciousness – drawing on my martial arts knowledge, to begin with, and other eastern philosophies and beginning research in neuroscience and modern physics to try to understand what it is that happens when we perform, or when a performance is “succeeding.” This took me to New York City where I studied under the generous wing of Kristin Linklater, one time teacher of Janet Suzman, at Columbia University. She seemed an adept of all the concepts I was trying to articulate and my six months with her revealed more to me about Performance and the Art of Not Knowing than I could have imagined – this is a master and I felt akin to a Shaolin monk learning a rare and potent form of Kung Fu at a faraway hilltop monastery.

And now my mission is to relate this “Kung Fu” in every performance I give, whether on stage, or on film, but also in the classes I teach, and if I’m really disciplined, the meals I cook and the conversations I hold. I believe it is this approach to performing that will incite the necessary cultural revolution that South Africa needs (perhaps the world too) – a revolution of the minds of people that brings about self- government through realising the power of your story and the stories you tell.
So, my project has been to bring this kind of storytelling to people here in South Africa and everywhere I can with the collaboration of as many as possible. I have, for instance, a project to bring A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a public garden in Cape Town at minimal or no cost to the audience that brings people together to enjoy, debate, and witness a different function of performance than they’re used to…one that has far more to do with their everyday lives than a lot of funny voices in costume, but hopefully we’ll have some of that too. I hope to bring another project called Not an Angry Ape, conceived and co-written with Prof. Kriben Pillay, which is a piece about Shakespeare’s precocious vision of human consciousness, into the world conversation around Being, how the mind works, what we humans actually are.

I write poetry, among plays and screenplays and whatever else brings ink to paper, but it is my idea that performing consciously is to being alive – what poetry is to the act of writing. Both these forms, intertwined as they are, ask everything of me to make my contribution to the world.

Copyright © 2011 by Vaneshran Arumugam

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“Coming to the Point”

by Vaneshran Arumugam

As inhabitants of this earth with at least a few hundred thousand years of evolution supporting our story, it seems we still have much to learn with many of our latest and most necessary lesson plans coming from an older, wizened form of ourselves. It would seem that especially in the all but forgotten wisdoms of Harmony and Creative Discretion - generated from the Self and expressed through the self - that our ancient consciousness knows more.

This idea cannot be more apparent than with the way the Performing Arts have been subjugated to cede to the dominant systems of thinking and practice, to the extent that even new ideas with the potential of creating change, only very briefly are able to do, and usually to minimal effect, before being assimilated into a system of money-making proliferation and replication, dilution and deployment to the ends of the self-same system. Perhaps we can trace the development of the idea of Government itself, as a kind of performing art and see how much abstraction from its intended purpose it has suffered to serve, not just the people, but more and more its own need to exist and become ever more powerful (usually over the people).

If we take a philosophical or karmic perspective we may see that our evolution, and the evolution of these forms of performance and the very idea of Performing Art has come to this point, and does indeed have a point to prove! It is through the performance of these forms, based on the intrinsic nature of reality – interactive relationship – that the individual can begin to express toward or against any idea or even create new ones, which necessitates the participation of an audience, a social environment. Consider another example – the development of performance forms under various manners of slavery and oppression which became potent means of binding people, protecting the individual, as well as re-interpreting harsh conditions of Life toward joy, freedom and salvation.

Art is the obscured throne to which we are all heir, not merely a product of the Capitalist machine. Great artists will never be machined out of reality shows, or franchised musical theatre productions. And so great commentary, observation and inspired guidance and re-interpreting of our very evolution will not come from these sources. These machines may, and likely will, always be there, just like the people who pretend to be artists couched in their denial (another powerful story form) but the Source must be reclaimed by Real artists, who are always people conscientized and awake in their communities, in their silence, even – in their world, in themselves.

We, the people, must realise the need to claim the Arts back, elevated to its proper concept – an infinite source able to generate ideas, change, perceptions and work for producers, theatres, broadcasters etc. and not be in their service. Art is to reality, what a hammer and chisel are to a lump of rock – a technology with which to shape things. While we leave our Art, our storytelling abilities, enslaved to “the system” we feel oppressed under, we will simply keep generating the very oppression and denaturation we see the world over today – the story of our world today…the point we have come to.

We must empower our real artists by liberating the forms from the machinery, equipped largely to court profit, so that rather than a glimmer of light through the most restricted of cracks, our Performing Arts can radiate like a disinfectant torch, illuminating our surrounding so that we can see for ourselves instead of believing what we’re told (by those who believe what they’re told)! Then we can begin to do our thousands of centuries of evolution justice.

Copyright © 2011 by Vaneshran Arumugam

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