Wednesday, March 31, 2010


As a drama teacher and director, it is my job is to help to ease the performer into a place, whereby they can achieve a more convincing multi-dimensional portrayal of a character within a given context. Most aspiring performers are bound and gagged by an inner voice, known in drama circles as ' the Cop in the Head', a phrase coined by Argentinian practitioner, Augusto Boal.

Yesterday, as some of my students were missing because of the Easter break, I put away the rehearsal schedule for up and coming production of 'Annie' to work on this age-old problem and affliction, with an exercise that was introduced to me at UCC. It has been my experience that children are able to comprehend much more than we 'adults' give them credit for.
I have two groups 5-10 yr olds and 11- 16yr olds and quite often exercises vary accordingly.

I decided that this particular exercise might be applicable for both age groups, and dividing them into pairs, I threw them into the space with no suggestions of time, place, or character and stripped away conventional language. They could only use 'gobbledegook'... probably more akin to the language of our neanderthal forefathers. Miriam, my assistant, (who is hoping to get onto the drama/theatre studies course in UCC this coming September) and myself threw ourselves into the space to show them what was expected of this exercise. There are always one or two extremely quiet youngsters in the group, as there are always one or two, who constantly talk when they should be listening. I was amazed that once the conventional language tool of their existence was removed, a more direct and honest communication seemed to surface. The quieter ones of the groups seemed to be more at ease liberated and likewise the attention seekers within the group were more relaxed and centred.

It is said that verbal language developed to enhance co-operation amongst the hunters, which led to the migration and success of human societies throughout the world, as people needed to eat and proliferate. Trading systems sprang from this and cuneiform writing developed in West Asia c.3000BCE as a means to record commercial transactions and inventories. The hyoid bone found in the neck, between the larynx and pharynx, which is required for speech to occur, is believed to have developed in Homo heidebergensis about 400,000 years ago. It wasn't until 100,000 years later as the base of the skull evolved, that articulate speech could develop. There is an on-going debate about whether neanderthal man was capable of fully articulate speech, because of the position of the larynx etc. Some anthropologists say they had the communication skills of modern infants. (That's interesting! Methinks I'll return to this point later!) It is commonly acknowledged that the language we know today would have been recognizable around 40,000 years ago, during the time known as 'The Great Leap Forward'.

I find myself in a constant debate with myself about the whole nature of language, and I know I tend to over-simplify things. It would seem that the spoken language was a tool that developed in order for the human species to survive... to exist. I'm back, I suppose to my soap-box again, because now I believe that the spoken language that once aided development and survival, is often being mis-used and manipulated by governments, multi-million dollar drug industries, the advertising media, religious bodies..etc..etc. Does our general acceptance of this behaviour reflect a further evolution within homo sapiens? Of course the whole notion of the word 'survival' has changed, and in particular, the Western World. At one time 'survival' was to do with having a roof over ones head and enough food to eat. Now, in many cases, its about what car you drive, what handbag you buy, whether you can have one holiday a year or two!

Wouldn't it make sense then that the nature and conscience of language has changed to suit, perhaps without even our knowing. If we want to pretend that we haven't regressed into greedy, self-serving barbarians, then we can manipulate our highly sophisticated language to suit. Some would say we were always barbarians ... just dressed differently! Did language ever have a conscience? Does the spoken language coommunicate emotions effectively? Was the spoken language developed from a metaphysical or scientific base or both? It would seem to me that words rarely convey the true nature of our feelings, without being cliched or somehow trite. How do you describe disaster? Do photographs capture that more readily? Have we become immune to those too, following years of witnessing images of the holocaust, starving children of Biafra and Ethiopia etc. So what was different about the recent Tsunami around Thailand and environs? Did the images, that caused an unprecedented amount of financial aid contribution from millions of individual citizens globally, strike so much more of a chord, because we watched the images of destruction and devastation unfold before our very eyes on our own TV screens!This is a debate that could go on ... and on.

There are those who have real problems connecting to their hearts, feelings and emotions, and thereby a direct and truthful communication is difficult. This calls for patience and understanding. Then, of course, there are those, who deliberately set out to mislead. Some are addicted to the taste of words on their palates as others are to Swiss or Belgian chocolate, and while both are capable of stimulating the release of happy endorphins, they lack real substance! There is an honesty between a poet and his words, a composer and his notes, an artist with his paints that speaks volumes to me. Somehow, they haven't been interrupted by the head and its workings.
Because of the nature of my job, and because I am a political animal, I find myself more and more interested in the way people use words. During my time in UCC, it was sometimes painfully obvious that some lecturers were 'talking at you' as opposed to 'talking to you'. It seemed that it was not really their intention to share their knowledge with you, their main concern was to support themselves in further research. There appeared to be a concerted effort on the part of some to shroud things in academic, quite often empty rhetorical jargon as if communicating knowledge was part and parcel of some kind of exclusive club or secret society like the Free Masons or Knights of St. Templar. I have so much admiration for people who actually enjoy sharing their knowledge with others, and if they don't succeed following one tack, will try another, because receiving and learning is dependent on the individual.

Back to Neanderthal man and their connection to the language of wee ones. Small children don't engage with their heads too much in their communications, they speak from their hearts. I'm not a regular church-goer... I like churches when they're empty ... just me and Jesus, but there is one occasion that sticks out in my mind like the Spike in Dublin. I'd had quite a large operation performed in Galway some years ago, and decided to visit the little chapel within the hospital to give thanks for coming out of the anaesthetic at least... I was alive! The priest was humble, a good speaker and spoke about this very subject. He said we were all too busy 'thinking' instead of 'feeling'. I found myself in floods of tears and even spoke out during the ceremony. This holy man just made so much sense to me! Yes one might say I would be inclined to weepiness following surgery, but his words of communication were just so direct and heartfelt... that's what touched me so deeply.

On a less abstract note, I would like to congratulate Tom Hayes Fine Gael TD South Tipperary for circulating, 'Know Where You Stand', a guide to entitlements. I am not aligned to any particular political party at present, but would have socialist leanings. I have lived in Ireland now for 34 years, and I believe this is the most important piece of political literature to come through my letter box. This is an honest, direct, well-meaning 'communication'. I am not certain whether this is part of the Fine Gael party initiative, or part of Tom's personal agenda, but it is hugely welcome. There are people who know absolutely everything there is to know about the system and make it work to the tax-payers disavantage at times, but there are also many, and in particular, older citizens, who have no idea whatsoever of their entitlements. So well done Tom! This comes at a time when cynism is rife. We have lost faith in our government, the financial and religious institutions of this state. Isn't it more important than ever to open a direct and honest discourse that encourages an involvement of the heart and 'feeling' alongside the head and 'thinking.' I know I will be poo-pooed as a dreamer, living in a fantasy world etc. etc. Why not give it a chance I say ... the other ways have failed miserably!
If activators of language don't use words conscientiously; or if words have ceased to mean what has been assigned to them semiotically, over decades and centuries... then what?

I appeal to the neanderthal that lurks in all of us!
Ciao for now!

Photos taken by Maureen Walsh of students from 'Class Act Theatre Productions'

Further Information: History: The Definitive Visual Guide. Hart-Davis Adam. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. London 2007

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