Interview by Zachary Sheridan
PIAF’s philosopher-in-residence Ruth Little is a theatre and dance dramaturg, writer, and teacher. She is currently associate director at Cape Farewell, an international not-for-profit project that aims to bring creatives and scientists together to instigate a cultural response to the climate challenge. Awesome, highly intelligent, and very busy, Ruth was able to spare a few moments to answer some of my questions before departing back to the UK.
How much of your life has been spent in the arts’ sphere?
I’ve spent most of my adult life working in and around the arts – particularly in drama and theatre – and more recently dance. But I’ve always had an interest in the natural sciences too, and began my university career in veterinary science. I only did that for a year, but I’ve always been interested in the dialogue between art and science, and frustrated by their separation from one another as processes of knowledge creation and cultural formation.
Are there any particular artists who have most inspired you?
I’ve been inspired by many, many artists across all forms of practice. But my own work these days brings me closest to dance and live art, and there I’m constantly inspired by Akram Khan, with whom I’ve worked for a number of years as dramaturg. In terms of my own interdisciplinary practice, I’ve responded to and been influenced by many writers working across disciplines to weave new narratives of natural and cultural interaction: they include WG Sebald, who first opened up the possibilities of non-linear narration for me, Rebecca Solnit, who has both guided and accompanied so many of my own investigations into our entanglements with the world, William Bryant Logan, who taught me that dirt is art as well as life. I’m drawn to the articulacy of the body in dance and the movement of ideas in language – I like to look beyond the form I’m working with at any time to find inspiration in other forms, other gestures, to look for relationship in the seemingly unrelated. So I do a lot of foraging!
Could you talk about the most moving theatre you’ve experienced?
I’m deeply moved at different times and in different ways by my encounters with performance work, and I think I’ve been more sensitive to certain ideas and experiences at certain times in my own life, so this is a highly subjective and necessarily cumulative list! At the festival this year, I was profoundly affected by Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit, Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7 and Lynette Wallworth’s virtual reality film Collisions. But I was also touched and uplifted by Alex Desebrock’s Small Voices Louder, and the unfolding of Amy Sharrocks’ Museum of Water project has been a beautiful, humane, surprising and moving experience. I think the performance work that has, to date, moved me beyond all others was Louise Lowe/Anu Productions’ Laundry, a site-specific journey work about institutional abuse of women created at the Magdalene Laundry in Dublin in 2011. The combination of place, movement, imagery and encounter was astonishing, devastating, illuminating, unforgettable.
Given works such as Boorna Waanginy and The Encounter at this year’s Festival, I’m interested to know what role you think art has to play in the face of ecological disaster?
I think art, along with natural, social and citizen science, long form journalism and indigenous knowledge of place are together essential modes of enquiry and communication in a world subject to unprecedented systemic stress by human civilisation. And in its involvement of feeling and imagination, in its modes of participation and prediction, art reaches further into the heart and mind and can, I believe, produce new neural connections, new embodied practices which might underpin essential behaviour change towards wiser and humbler ways of living in association with other living things. That’s an aspiration of course, but I think it’s the most important work in the world…
What are your thoughts on speaking directly to issues such as climate change in theatre?
I think there have been some earnest attempts to speak directly ‘about’ climate change in theatre and these have tended to leave audiences cold because they address a vast, systemic problem, and don’t call on the embodied, metaphorical, meaning-making imagination – they engender broad intellectual rather than intimate emotional response, and I think that has less lasting or transformative impact than a felt response can have. My own feeling is that art (in partnership with science) can help us to think ‘with’ rather than ‘about’ universal, complex processes like climate change. Until we understand the contingency of all things, until we really feel what it means to be fully interdependent with natural and manmade processes, materials and patterns that we can design and influence but not, in the end, control, I think we’ll continue to behave as though our own individual actions are either irrelevant or insufficient in relation to climate change. But they’re not. We become a system by the accumulation of and feedback from individual acts, just as a hive or an ant colony do, and our technologies make possible very rapid cultural shifts in new directions. Art can push new metaphors, iconographies and social behaviours out into the world in inventive, playful and affective ways, but climate change isn’t a ‘thing’ to be observed and described; it’s a myriad of human choices reflected in behaviours around food, finance and fuel, as well as our relationships with non-human beings.
What are your thoughts on how contemporary theatre can appeal to those outside its main audiences?
Small Voices Louder proved that you can speak of anything with anyone, if you create a safe and welcoming context and do it with imagination and integrity. I think real participation is key – not simply making well-rounded works of art for audiences, but inviting audiences to be part of the process of questioning and seeking. The Museum of Water does this at every level and in every manifestation of its core question about what water means to us. Everyone in the project is both a performer and a researcher, and that egalitarianism is an invitation to those who have traditionally felt excluded from contemporary art and performance. The proof’s in the process, and the process of The Museum of Water has brought people together around a common concern in tangible and meaningful ways.