Happiness would make for boring theatre.
It lacks drama and size, and has no sharp edges. Far better to work with a more extreme emotion, something that jumps out at you and demands to be understood.
That’s what Maxine Heppner began thinking about five years ago when introduced to contemporary manga or Japanese print comics. She had long been aware of the ancient art form, but hadn’t taken much interest in the pop culture version. “And when I saw them, I was struck by the energy that comes off the page, that comes out and meets the eye.”
She was also intrigued by the way a book of them is an act of containment. “It is this benign little volume of paper, sitting there on a shelf. You open it and go ‘wow’ and then you can close it and the emotion of it goes away,” says the award-winning dance artist, director and teacher in a phone interview.
An idea for the exploration of a human condition – a big, raw emotion we hold inside and only periodically let out – began to percolate. “The idea of rage is extreme anger. I don’t think of it as the opposite of happiness. That would be sadness, which has no energy and is a deflation. Rage is in a different realm. It’s extreme, like ecstasy. And I wanted to look at it in all its complexity.”
I thought about rage as the inspiration for art when I sat in the darkened theatre to see Heppner’s latest production, My Heart Is a Spoon. It’s well known from happiness studies that a sense of contentment makes us more productive at work and better citizens who want to volunteer and contribute. But does it help create art? I know many creative people – writers and artists – who feel that their discontent is the engine of their work. Friedrich Nietzsche would agree: “You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star,” he wrote.
The play takes place in a simple, white box of a stage set, onto which large manga cartoons and other images were projected. Two characters, a male and a female, one young, one older, offer different respond differently to their contained rage. Created in collaboration with light artist Fujimoto Takayuki, the theatrical environment is surreal, flooded with visions of fantasy, memory, fear and longing. The female character, performed by Takako Segawa, is constantly moving, writhing around on a large ball, unsettled, whereas the older male character (Gerry Trentham) is more self-contained. Part of his expression of rage comes out in the creation of small, origami tigers, which litter the stage at the end.
It’s an interesting investigation of an emotion often seen as something to be avoided, repressed – almost shameful in the largeness of its expression. We condemn it when we speak of road rage, the rage of a parent directed at a child, of one spouse raging at the other. We’re a culture obsessed with happiness, eager to achieve a peaceful, serene state, still as a pond, a lack of drama. We praise and desire the positive. But what Ms. Heppner, who has spent 30 years in theatre exploring human reaction and interaction, sets out to do is show how rage should not be feared.
As part of the creative process, she convened a “rage roundtable” with people who had experienced the extreme state (often characterized by a sense of injustice) as well as psychoanalysts. “It’s not in absence of happiness. It’s just this moment of extreme pressure. It’s energy condensed, like a little time bomb. It can vent very slowly. It can implode inside itself. Or it can explode. Something has to happen with the energy of it.”
And surprisingly, that can be good. “I think we have to face these things,” Ms. Heppner says. “If we ignore them, it’s not good. These strong emotions are intense. It’s more practical to recognize it, because then you can integrate it into your life, the same way we do with grief over a loved one.”
One revelation came while interviewing Hiroshima survivors who discussed how they coped with feelings of rage. “We were talking about what went on in Hiroshima and the aftermath of [the Second World War]in Asia Pacific. We found out that the Japanese government directed survivors [of the atomic bomb]to ‘swallow your anger’ if I can paraphrase. They had fought the war and lost, and there was this unimaginable destruction of people and geography. And I thought about that. If you swallow it, you digest it, and then it becomes something else. There’s potential for the positive. The possibilities are endless. If it explodes, it’s over and destruction is involved.”
The metaphor of the spoon helped explain the condition. “People spoke about feeling empty or very full. How do you live with nothing inside of you or with too much inside of you?” she asks rhetorically. “And the nature of a spoon is that it’s made to be emptied and filled, emptied and filled, pouring self-administered or force-fed sensations of hot, cold, sweet and sour into our bodies.”
I thought about that as I exited the theatre – it, too, a containment of sorts, a closed space apart from the dark rush of evening traffic, where we are asked to confront truths. Neil Munro, the late Canadian director at the Shaw Festival, once described theatre to me as “a signpost” for navigating daily life. We should take this direction I thought – that rage is a life force, not be ignored, dismissed or spat out, a state that can lead to greater understanding of who we are and, ultimately, to what we must resolve, what we must digest, to find peace.