Shining Light Into Dark Places

Jun 16, 2020

I am working towards completion of a new book of essays entitled “The Art of Resonance.”  As part of the process over the past several months, I have been writing about the centrality of resonance in our work as artists in my SITI blog posts. Composing these posts helps me to clarify my thinking about the central theme of the book. This blog is a further meditation upon resonance and its role in the artistic process.

Resonance is the opposite of alienation. The experience of resonance requires a profound connection to the world, to the environment and to others. Alienation is the inability or impossibility to enter into a relation with the other, to form a meaningful relationship of mutual understanding and interaction, either with our material surroundings or with fellow human beings. Alienation from one another and from the environment leads to stagnant systems governed by domination and appropriation, a hegemony obsessed with accumulating resources and keeping out any unfamiliar or unwanted influences. 

Resonance is not harmony. In fact, resonance must be balanced with sufficient dissonance.  If I truly resonate with something, then the outcome becomes unpredictable.  Political movements are successful only when they converge with an aspect of resonance.  The words “I can’t breathe” have been echoing around the planet and have now, finally, hit a widespread sympathetic nerve. A man on the precipice of life and death pleads for the one thing he needs to live.  The impact of the cellphone-recorded physical violence and those three real and palpable words are inescapable, reprehensible and shocking. Those three words also became a powerful and meaningful metaphor for powerlessness and social injustice. The primal human fear, suffocation, not being able to breathe, speaks volumes and resonates with each of us. The metaphor of “I” becomes, in empathy and solidarity, a “we.” We empathize instantly with the inability to breathe and we can each feel the personal terror of being in that condition. From the trope, “I can’t breathe,” an outpouring of empathy, not hate, has motivated millions of fellow humans to exit their homes after a long confinement and hit the streets in protest against brutality, social inequality and unfair police practices.

Recent events have made it abundantly clear to me that I was born into a deeply racist society. Many of us, and I count myself as one, were shielded from the daily realities that face our brethren of color, and we were protected from their experiences by our own white privilege, the veiled realities of a pre-existing structural racism and even our own good intentions. And now, many of us are waking up and at last becoming aware of the extent and seriousness of these endemic conditions and there is no way to look away anymore. Wave upon wave of revelations, disclosures and eye-opening statistics are washing over us. Living in the discomfort of these revelations is a vital aspect to any personal or meaningful systemic change. Speaking for myself, I can only listen and receive the information, but I also know that I am called upon to take action.

Art is generally about awakening to the hidden realities of our lives and of our world.  Catharsis can be seen as “shining light into dark places.” Each work of art, in addition to being about something, offers a pathway to resonance, to an inherent essence that, hopefully, people can connect with in a deeply personal way.  Resonance is not consonance. Resonance is not agreement; it is in between consonance and dissonance, not confirming my identity or authenticity, rather challenging it. Resonance involves transformation. A new experience can be jarring but it also has the potential to lead to resonance. In order to perceive these hidden realities, our job as artists is to become resonant to the world as opposed to alienated from it.

Humans are resonating bodies in that each of us gains our identity, a sense of who we are, through our relationships to experiences outside ourselves. No good can be achieved by shutting oneself off from the world or from the environment. We become forceful human beings only through our processes of interaction with the world.  In order to adapt effectively to our changing circumstances, we require stimulation. We need to expose ourselves to discomfort and dissonance as much as we need food and water. The quality of our lives and the impact of our work cannot be measured by the amount of resources or budgets afforded us or by the options made available to us.  The impact is contingent upon the way the work resonates with our audiences and then spreads out into the world.

Last month I handed my wife Rena an early draft of my blog entitled “The Illusion of Control.” Rena is a writer, a great reader and an insightful, penetrating and always brutally honest editor. I value her feedback, no matter how pointed or ego-crushing. She read what I handed her and then she offered several observations and some perceptive notes. But her response felt, to me, cold and clinical. I found myself irritated by her lack of enthusiasm.  In a snit, I went back to work on the writing, delving deeper and trying to make it more personal.  But then, suddenly, I realized that what I had written had simply not resonated with her. Resonance is physical, it is visible, and it is palpable. It is discernable in the eyes and in the posture. What I felt in her response was not her judgment, but rather how the writing had not created the conditions for resonance in her.  Rena is a great barometer for both my directing and my writing. When I give her something to read, it must offer her access or a path from my own resonating body and mind to hers. For a work to be effective, I must reach far enough inside myself to create successful channels to others.

If my job is to awaken resonant channels to others, I must begin by creating the conditions for resonance in myself. But the process is not about being true to myself and I should not expect any kind of affirmation of my own authenticity. Resonance involves transformation. To begin with, I must be open to being affected, to being influenced. How am I being with others? How am I inviting resonance? Resonance is tied to openness, to wanting to be affected and also the willingness and readiness to answer the call. I am called upon to respond to something outside of myself. The ensuing intra-actions create a transformation within myself.

To be on the receiving end of resonance also requires a certain disposition, a specific way of being related to the world. I cannot be numb on the inside. Resonance requires perception, sensation, cognitive function, imagination and feeling. It is a relation of questioning and answering, and it refers to the connection between the subject and the world; reciprocity and transformation. It is not an echo chamber. I must be ready to reach out and be open to hearing the call and to being altered by the interaction. Resonance and dissonance need to be in an acceptable state of balance.  If something simply makes me cry, it is not necessarily resonance, rather it is emotion. Emotion is a strong sensation within myself, but in itself it is not necessarily encountering something that I must answer to. Resonance involves encountering something outside of myself which has an irritating feeling of “the other” and which calls upon me to answer.  Resonance is not only an intellectual idea, but also it is an embodied experience, involving sensation, emotion and perception as well as the cognitive function.

Recently, I was speaking about resonance during a Zoom conversation with young directors and one of the participants asked about the difference between resonance and presence. As with any good question, this one caused me to pause. “Well,” I said slowly, “you cannot experience resonance without the ingredient of presence.”  When I visit a museum and I am in a hurry, there is little chance that I will experience resonance. In order to connect, I have to stop and be present in the force field of a given work of art. Then something can start to happen; some vibration may transpire.

Until the recent Covid 19 lock-down, our world was accelerating at an increasingly untenable speed.  We were experiencing what Marxist thinker David Harvey called a “time-space compression,” where speed, technology and virtuality were becoming impossible to resist.  It seems that the cost of modernity is a shared feeling of a loss of control over one’s own life and the world, and therefore a loss of contact with it.  We were feeling the increasing pressure to do more in less time. The ever-increasing speed was distorting our relationship to the world and robbing us of the opportunity to resonate. Our relationship to the world around us was broken. This acceleration was leading to alienation and, as stated above, alienation is the opposite of resonance.

The western belief in the omnipotence of reason, introduced during the Enlightenment period of the 1800s, popularized a way of looking at the world as a place to dominate and control, scientifically and technologically.  Darkness and shadow, it was believed, could be dispersed through rational thought. We began to relate to the world as a place to explore and control in order to predict what was going to happen next.  This kind of thinking perpetrated hegemonic rule by the force of law. Seeing the world as something to control is not abstract, rather it lives with us and makes itself felt in the most ordinary daily phenomena.  And it has led to an increasingly aggressive system of hegemony, prisons, and forceful policing.  And this, in turn has created a world split by factions and an overabundance of frustration and aggression.

Art is a vitally essential antidote to this rationalist sphere of thinking because it is the one realm, perhaps next to the spiritual side of religion, that is not dominated by the values of conquering, classifying and controlling. The theater, and art in general, by accepting that there are in fact plenty of dark and mysterious corners in the experience of being human, can provide an oasis of resonance within an accelerating world. Within this sphere we can explore and experiment with different ways of being together and discover new approaches to relating to the world.  Through imagining, reconstructing and coming up with new possibilities, we may be able to accept the fact that, contrary to rational thinking, we are not in control of the world and to accept that our lives are full of dark, mysterious and thrilling elements.