Huddersfield, 29th October 2015.
by Franc Chamberlain
Now It’s the Flight
Surrounded by mountains in south-eastern Sardinia, about ninety-minutes drive from Cagliari part of the way along twisting mountain roads and rough country tracks lies Casa Blanca, the White House, where Rena Mirecka is setting up the International Centre for Paratheatrical Research. I spent a week with Rena and nine others in September 1993 in the last of a series of ‘experiences’ with the provocative title Now it’s the Flight! . I had previously participated in a ‘workshop’ with Mirecka at the University of East Anglia in 1984 and had felt very positive about the work. Now, nine years on, I wondered what my relationship to the process would be.
In fact the nine year gap was an intriguing one in that I remembered Mirecka dressed in white sitting on a mat, or spread out scarf, and writing my name and address into a small notebook. I wondered at the time whether I was going to be summoned to Poland at some point in the future. But I heard nothing at all between 1984 and the spring of 1993, and the strange thing was that just before the notification of this series of workshops arrived I had been wondering what she was doing and how I might find a way to re-engage with her work after an exciting and stimulating workshop with Nicolás Nuñéz as part of the CPR conference ‘Performance, Ritual, and Shamanism’ in Cardiff. I checked with one of my fellow participants from the 1984 workshop to see if he had had any contact since then but he hadn’t. I asked Mirecka why she had contacted me after so long but I never managed to get a clear answer – “ Why? I don’t know. We will find out why before you go, I promise you.”
I arrived in Cagliari on the evening of September 17th and checked into my hotel which was ten minutes walk from the passenger terminal at the port where the participants were to be met the following afternoon. On the flight I’d started to read Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home , feeling that it might be an appropriate text for the week, I never finished it in the end because there wasn’t enough time, but there is a term introduced early in the book which I found useful to apply to most of the activities undertaken during the week – wakwa . This term is variously defined in the novel but some of the meanings are gathered together in the glossary:
wakwa spring, source of water; ceremony, festival, rite, ritual,
observance; dance; mystery. To spring, flow from a source, arise; to hold
or participate in a ceremony or festival of observance; to dance; to be
mysterious, to participate in mystery. (Le Guin, 1993:561)
This flexible term, Native American in its suggestion, but a respectful parody which de-naturalises, or de-doxifies, our habitual responses to familiar metaphors of creative and spiritual life, immediately seemed appropriate for the lasting images I had of the 1984 work: standing in a circle holding hands and swaying from foot to foot whilst gently chanting ‘shanti’; a bowl of water with flower petals; watching water run down the inside of my arm; extraordinary contacts with ordinary objects and actions. And the occasional ghost-critic whispering “If anyone came in now, they’d think we’re all mad”. Le Guin’s wakwa points towards both the creative and celebratory aspect of such activities and allows the boundary between ‘art’ and ‘religion’ to be blurred. Such a blurring of boundaries allows us to suspend the question “Is this Art or Religion” and replace it with an acknowledgement that it’s wakwa whilst always being doubled in the awareness that wakwa is a term drawn from the fictional language of a fictional people. This is useful because of the number of accounts by participants in paratheatrical experiences who have been unable to find words to describe their experience and have retreated from the possibility of a metaphorical description, which would always be false, into the ‘truthful’ dumbness of brute experience. In the 1984 workshop I saw a woman dancing whilst wearing a headscarf on which there was a picture of a woman feeding a flock of birds. In my imagination this woman was represented as Santa Sofia. I never believed that she was Santa Sofia, or that other people would necessarily see her in the same way, nor did I assume that she represented herself to herself in this way. Nonetheless, the vision made strong connections with my own imaginative life. It is an image not a proposition, it doesn’t require either agreement or disagreement but imaginative engagement. Such an engagement requires that we treat the image as poetry and not as a logical formula. Wakwa is a term which helps us to acknowledge some of the concerns of this particular type of poetry which is a “form disguising what it means to reveal” (Artaud, 1977:53).
Standing on my balcony, I looked across to the imposing baroque church in the Piazza Bonaria with a wide sweep of steps, like a design by Craig, flowing up to the entrance. In the morning I walked up the steps and discovered that the church was the Sanctuary of Bonaria which contained “the legendary simulacrum of the Holy Lady of Bonaria” , perhaps that’s what makes wakwa a useful word for me; it draws attention to its referrent as a simulacrum of the holy.
At the meeting point I sat with a workshop publicity leaflet on display until it was recognised