Artistic hammering: An interview with Donovan King

0 Posted by - October 15, 2009 - Conversations, Features, Performance
King in Toronto at FANEXPO 2007

King in Toronto at FANEXPO 2007

Depending on who you ask, Donovan King is either a creative genius who consistently pushes the boundaries of “acceptable” art in his quest to live out Brecht’s dictum that “art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”, or an insufferable pain in the ass.

He is a celebrated author, playwright and director (artistic facilitator, in his parlance) and a relentless creator who never stops innovating, or challenging the boundaries of conventional theatre. King is the creator of the award winning Car Stories experimental theatre project, and co-founder of the critical-arts based Infringement Festival, which has now spread to cities across North America, Germany and France.

When writing and presenting scenes that are performed in cars, alleys, streets or corporate chain stores (in the case of his work culture jamming), King always injects hefty doses of the political. He is an unfailing critic of the corporate monoculture which he believes threatens creativity and artistic expression, and a thorn in the side of commercial interests and the powers that be, from city hall to corporate theatre fests. King and Sinking Neptune, his recent work challenging Canada’s history of colonialism, were profiled in a book on the most influential currents in Canadian theatre.

[Art Threat] Can you elaborate on what the Brecht quote you often use, about art being a hammer  rather than a mirror, means to you and, more specifically, how it informs your creative process?

[Donovan King] Certainly. Theatre is often seen as a mirror to society, whereas Brecht considered theatre and other art forms as powerful tools to destroy oppressive systems within society, in order to rebuild them in non-oppressive ways. Creatively this means that all of the art I create is intended to challenge hegemony, dismantle oppressive systems, and present more humane alternatives. It is quite the opposite of the capitalist system that wants to maintain hegemony, create oppressive systems, and dehumanize people in order to facilitate profits for the most manipulative and conniving.

There is a common theme across many of the works you have created. From Car Stories where you refer to the audience of three as “Spect-Actors”, to Culture Jams and pieces of invisible theatre, you ask more than passive observation from your audience. It seems to be very important to you that your audience be part of the spectacle. Can you elaborate on why that engagement with your audience is so important to your creative process?

The traditional relationship of performer/spectator is that of disempowerment. Not only is the spectator passive, immobilized and unable to do anything but watch, but the performer is often a puppet to disseminate a message that is not necessarily their own. I try to radically transform this relationship whereby the performer is free to create their own material, while the spectator is encouraged to adopt a role in the show, essentially becoming a “spect-actor”. In this way I hope to create not only more engaged performances, but also a feedback loop whereby both performer and spect-actor can engage, both theatrically and in a dialogue.

Can you describe what “creativity” means to you, and how you would define a “creative person”?

Creativity for me means having the imagination and drive to go out there and do something creative, whether it involves producing a tangible work of art or a performance. For me a “creative person” is someone who puts their own artistry first and who does not accept prescribed ways of seeing, being, doing and playing.

You are well known for creating works that are extraordinarily original and inventive, and that challenge some of the basic assumptions of mainstream theatre. Where do these ideas come from? What inspires you to put a theatre into a car for example?

I wish I knew where they came from, but I do not. Sometimes I have creative splurges where I need to get out there and do as much as possible, whereas at other times, like now unfortunately, I am in a bit of a creative dry spell. This is probably due to the fact that I am in an oppressive and hegemonic environment most of the time (McGill University) where being creative on an activist level will certainly get you expelled.

To follow up on that, can you describe your creative process? How do you take a great idea and transform it into words on a page?

Inspiration hits me, often when I detect an oppressive or hegemonic situation. I begin to analyze why things are the way they are, why they need to be challenged, and then I imagine ways to challenge them. Finally it becomes impossible NOT to take action, and in this way many of my projects are born.

Writer’s block is a common phenomenon among novelists and other creative types. Have you ever experienced a dry spell like that, where your creativity was stifled for an extended period of time?

Yes, but it is usually stifled by circumstances such as authority figures I cannot afford to challenge. There are a lot of projects in the back of my mind that I want to carry out, but fear doing so for risk of reprisals that would certainly affect my personal life.

Has creativity always been such a central aspect of your character, from childhood onwards? Did you always know you would be a writer and director, or was that something that came later?

I only started doing anything artistic, drama in my case, when I was a teenager. At first, it was an escape from the oppressive social reality that encompassed me. It wasn’t until many years later that I actually considered myself an “artist”. It was only when I realised that I had to use the arts in the pursuit of social justice that I felt comfortable using that term.

What inspires you to do the work you do? It’s obviously not money! What fires you up, and motivates you to get out there and create theatre?

I get fired up when I detect injustice and oppression, and I often think of some sort of theatrical response to counter the unpleasant situation. Our society is far too co-opted by the capitalist system, so it may seem unusual to question or challenge what seems “normal”, but when we begin examining the nature of our society we can see injustice and oppression existing covertly everywhere. If we don’t create something to challenge it, we are complicit. Motivation is a must if anything is to change.

To what extent do you think creativity is a solitary endeavour, where we isolate ourselves from the world and create by the dim glow of our computer screens, or a communal process by which people come together to create? Do you prefer to create alone, in concert with others or both?

The projects I facilitate are usually interactive, so I suppose you could say I prefer working creatively with others. That being said, I also do a lot of creating solo, such as writing, but I always have an interactive goal in mind (e.g. that book on ghosts you mention is fodder for live storytelling, and I hope to make it into a film soon).

How has your creativity, and refusal to play by the rules as it were, impacted your life?

It has gotten me into a lot of trouble and caused many doors to slam shut in my face. I have been pilloried in the corporate media and endured personal attacks. At the same time, it has opened up new transformative spaces and presented an alternative vision of the future. I have also met a lot of activists and like-minded folk who also want to usher in a new era where oppression is the target, not the norm.

Is creativity a gift, bestowed upon the few, or an aspect of us all that only needs the right circumstances to be unleashed?

I believe that everyone has creativity inside of them, but our society only permits it to be used in prescribed and contained ways. Otherwise, surely it would only be a matter of time before a revolution swept across the globe to usher in a new and oppression free era.

You talk a lot about meta-theatrics, and the importance in works like Car Stories, of bringing your audience into a separate reality, confusing them about where the line is between reality and theatre. Can you elaborate on how that concept impacts your work, and why you think it’s important?

I think it is very important to investigate borders between theatre and “reality” because our society, while frowning upon theatre in general, actually employs it in insidious ways. While an actor is often derided and asked what restaurant they work at, rarely do people question the roles and even scripts that are bestowed upon us through a process known as interpellation. When we challenge these boundaries it empowers us to both detect prescribed roles and simultaneously take charge of our own role-playing.

Can you elaborate a little more on what you think the role of theatre is in our world? Obviously you think it’s a tool for social change, but what role does it need to play in our lives to create that kind of change? How central should theatre, and more generally the arts, be in our lives?

Whether we like it or not we inhabit a highly theatricalized world. The theatre is central to our lives, from all of the media that is created and consumed, to the roles we play in our daily existence. Reclaiming the use of that theatre instead of being cast by others should be a central concern to anyone hoping for a better future.  I consider a lot of the work I facilitate to be empowering precisely because it offers a user-based theatre.

Many social theorists talk about the concept of “play” being all but forgotten in modern society, and the detrimental effects of this perpetual seriousness on our society. Does the work that you do help to reintroduce the concept of play to adults? Do you think doing so is important?

Absolutely. Play has been all but abolished in our capitalist society. Play is now equated with consumption, and not freedom, imagination, vision, transformation and empowerment. For example, in Car Stories anyone at all is invited to create a character and play a role of their choosing within the show. There is no training required, no audition, nor are connections and agents required, unlike in the case of professional “players” (actors). In our dramatic world people are invited to play with others, no strings attached. Where else in our society can you get that opportunity? It is the same thing with the infringement festival – anyone can play there, create their own work, and do it without paying anything. Reintroducing the concept of play is crucial for empowerment because not only does it provide tools of expression, but also a way of working that is fun, meaningful, and empowering.

Are there any final thoughts on creativity, the creative process, or your own sources of creativity you would like to share with us?

“Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. – Brecht

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