standard form: notes on day one of The Soap Factory, pt. 1

The life of a group is, by the nature of the thing, in a nervously transient state. … In the sociology of institutions, it is held that groups do not move irreversibly deathward as individuals do. But continuity is also a function of number, that is, the size of an institution or a culture. … The group is more like an elemental molecular organism, dissolving and coming together at best, consuming itself to extinction at worst. … There are not, overall, many groups that have survived for very long. With rare exceptions, they start out young. They don’t age in their own service. They usually disintegrate before maturity, when the task of earning something other than a marginal living also enters the behavioural structure. Some … can’t resolve the participatory dilemma, rejecting leadership and needing it. One of Grotowski’s achievements was that he was able, over the years, to draw upon the cohesive integrity of actors aging on their own behalf. … No sooner did his group come to America than it was as if the virus of dispersion entered the organism. On their return to Poland, the original unity was gone. … In America, characteristically, we lose our innocence not to maturity but to impatience. The disintegrative forces are all around us. The years are wasted, they divide us.

– Herbert Blau, Take Up The Bodies, University of Illinois Press, USA, 1982, p. 129.

I suppose that’s what we are, have been always. The idea of the group has remained in the heart and head even when reduced to a couple of friends. To paraphrase it, there is Bruce Chatwin’s admission, that he never had a friend he couldn’t in some way use. Unlike the experience – that vast and varied experience – of Herbert Blau in the U.S., however close we come to a loss of innocence due to impatience, there is another feature, a professional idealism, because we have since 1992 been a company, Stronghold Theatre Co., co-founded by Marton Csokas and myself.

Friends are those who’ve been infected by the bug of serving the professional ideal of a company, a company inspired and informed by a professional idealism deriving more from the European model of ensemble than from the industrial model of workers involved in production – than from a remunerative model. This may be in recognition of the stakes: New Zealand has too small a population base to justify financial optimism when one is involved in artistic production. At stake is less due payment than due process, less the use of time in pursuing uncertain monetary goals, than the waste of time in proceeding without professionally gaining from the participation in company. The nearest corollary we now have to a professional theatre ethos or culture is safety culture, as it exists particularly among technicians and production workers, as it ceases to apply to performers, except in companies like ours – the couple of friends who form its core.

As for the ‘use’ of friends, perhaps there is here an Idea that allows us to remain friends still, even those who in absentia pursue their ambitions, theatrical or otherwise, according to different agenda, elsewhere. For example, in our equally but less conventionally theatrical capacity as the company owning Cafe Brazil, 256 Karangahape Rd., Auckland, professionally different but articulated according to an identical expectation of professionalism, there are friends, more numerous than those who’ve worked in the eponymous theatre company, who remain such, regardless of any acknowledgement of the Idea. Brazil is the institution. Stronghold Theatre is not. That part of its activities identified with the cafe is professional insofar as it is businesslike, serious, productive – although for not being treated in a businesslike serious manner, it’s quite friendly – while, naturally, the on-off-again involvement of the statutory company in theatre, film and media, possessing the continuity of the Idea, gets relegated to amateur hobbyism, to that group of activities indulged in by likeminded ‘friends.’

A cafe may be a place which makes coffee. A theatre may be invisible, even to the culture in which it takes up the pretense of being one. A company may be friends and give the lie to the notion of industrial, or latterly asocially, albeit organised relations, coordinated fields in which the individual pursues his or her self-interest. The social breaks down. And the social takes up – at the margins. This has been the most disconcerting to observe: friends need each other more than they need what they are doing, regardless of the accidental and chance uses to which they are put, whether industrial, postindustrial, service, secretive or creative. In fact, creative liaisons and true collaborations in the general field of the arts are much rarer, weaker and more ephemeral than factory-floor, water-cooler or photo-copier friendships. The margins of the social occupy a terrain vague, a no-man’s land, where the social actually occurs and it has little to do with the imaginatively fulfilled potential inside communication. Lovers need not greater honesty but better fictions, as David Byrne writes in The New Sins.

So, how to pursue the sort of misdirected energy giving rise to personal affiliation and influence? the game of distraction away from serving social needs that serves those needs in producing social effects? How to give amateurism the rights of freedom while having the Idea of an absolute standard in mind and heart, genital, as it were, in groin? The Idea is inessential after all.