There’s a story about my great-great grandfather and a group of wild, shipwrecked Shetland ponies. Apparently, they were untameable, but he managed to train them and even hitch them up to a large wagon cart. There are newspaper accounts with photos and a sense that the locals in the area were a bit in awe of him. Training in this instance is a kind of domesticating process, a moulding and shaping, but it is also one of relationality and understanding between person and ‘animal’. My great-great grandfather was of full settler ancestry but raised by Wabanaki peoples in what is commonly referred to as Northeastern Canada and Maine. He integrated into the white settler world in his mid-twenties, training himself in settler customs and beliefs, but throughout his life he always lived between both worlds.
As an acting teacher in the 21st-century, I am acutely aware that training, particularly in a workshop or educational setting, is saturated with the expectation of acquisition: participants hope to gain a new skill or a new ‘key’ to unlock their abilities. Even in situations where performers might respectfully learn another’s cultural heritage, such as songs or dances, there is still the expectation of acquiring that particular cultural artifact.
In the workshop exchanges between K’ómox Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish Kumugwe Cultural Society representatives Jesse Recalma and Karver Everson, the University of Exeter and MED Youth Theatre, a different mode or approach to training was evident. This was brought to the sessions by Jesse and Karver who embody their traditional sense of potlatch: a long ceremony of gift exchange that reinforces traditional bonds. During a Northwest Coast potlatch, one watches and listens respectfully for hours, if not days on end. The songs, dances and other displays of cultural heritage are infused with the pride, knowledge and respect of one’s clan and one’s nation.
In the workshop with young Devon theatremakers who explicitly use myth in their processes, one of Jesse’s gifts was to speak about his belief in beings from the world that sits just on the edge of ours – what we in a colonized world might consider the supernatural. For Jesse, these beings are an integral part of one’s cultural heritage, are in fact an integral part of reality. Seeing how he offered himself to the space, listening to how he sang and drummed and observing how he interacted with the students, it was clear to me that Jesse’s sense of self is informed by a rich imaginative relationality to the world.
Jesse didn’t use the word ‘imagination’, but sharing space with him and Karver reminded me of how, for the Haudenosaunee (The Six Nations Confederacy), imagination is not bound within an individual’s skull. Rather, according to Joe Sheridan and Roronhiakewen ‘He Clears The Sky’ Dan Longboat, imagination is a growing into one’s being through one’s relationality with place: the land and ecology one is surrounded by.
In my own work as a performer and in particular as a trainer of performers, I focus on imagination and the importance of associations as stimuli for impulse and action. I’ve always tended towards the mythic, the speculative, the intimations of a world that sits just at the edge of our own, and I encourage my students to lean into these associations because I often find they can be powerful catalysts to changing the dynamics of the space and the ways in which the individual and the ensemble relate to, and synthesize, the training. However, in these instances, training is still primarily related to expanding and challenging the body to awaken and interact with an enlarged sense of imagination, as something that might not be fully contained within you but rather that you are contained within.
Listening to Jesse speak about his understanding of the beings on the edge shifted even further my own sense of relations. I’ve often considered the narrative that my great-great grandfather ‘tamed wild animals’ part of the paradigm of colonization, but through witnessing Jesse and Karver’s workshops and sharings, I realized that my great-great grandfather was quite possibly consciously collaborating with other-than-human persons, i.e. that he knew and respected the ‘animal’ as a ‘person’. Such a shift in language is essential as it shifts our imaginations. Thinking this way about my great-great grandfather and the training of ponies, made me consider training and the environment one trains in as an even more holistic enterprise than I have heretofore believed – one in which we might not simply be taking inspiration from something or someone but learning how to be responsible for that other and our relations to it.
I’m indebted to Jesse and Karver for the generous sharing of their cultural heritage and artistic practice. It fortified in me the essential need for relational and reciprocal work in all aspects of our lives, but particularly in our artistic and educational practices. The time with them provoked questions for me that I hope to take into my teaching and practice this year:
- How might the act of training in artistic contexts become less about acquisition and more about the art of gift exchange?
- Without discrediting the importance of mastery and pedagogical necessity – how might the conditions for deep reciprocity be enacted in a ‘training space’?
- How might our quality of listening change in such a space if we are not focused on what we are ‘taking’ from this moment but rather what we are receiving?
- Might such a space of exchange between ‘teacher’ and ‘students’ allow everyone to imagine differently, and for such imaginings to inform the work being made to be more ecologically and holistically mindful?
Joe Sheridan and Roronhiakewen ‘He Clears the Sky’ Dan Longboat, ‘The Haudenosaunee Imagination and the Ecology of the Sacred’ Space and culture, 9 (2006), p.365-381.
Notes on Contributors:
Bryan Brown is an artist-scholar, currently Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter, co-director of visual theatre company ARTEL (American Russian Theatre Ensemble Laboratory), and advisor to cultural laboratory Maketank. He is an editorial board member of Theatre Dance and Performance Training and co-curator of the journal’s blog.