John Harrigan on Art, Strange Factories and Personal Transformation

“Yes, you could view my work as Shamanism. Although terms and names for what we do are difficult; they never quite cover it.”

This is a conversation with John Harrigan, writer, director, actor and founder of the performance group FoolishPeople. John trained at the London Academy of Performing Arts and founded Foolish People in 1989. For eleven years he had a parallel career as a social worker and trained as a drama therapist; both these paths inform the exquisite creative work produced by the collaborative performance group, FoolishPeople.

Our conversation took place via a Skype chat March 7, 2013. John was in London and I was in Bellingham, Washington. I studied his work online and then used an ethnographic interview approach to understand John’s creative work and learn more about the soon to be released immersive film experience from FoolishPeople entitled, Strange Factories.

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Cynthia:  Hi John, thank you for joining me for a conversation about your work and your soon to be released film Strange Factories.

John:  Yes of course.

Cynthia: I’ve been following you online after learning about Strange Factories and seeing your trailers for the film.  I love the avant garde aesthetic and the mystery in your promotions and am curious about you, your art, your film and FoolishPeople.

I wonder about something you wrote, “For a ritual to offer fundamental positive change it needs to deal with material that you as an artist want to confront.”

John: To create art/rituals that effect change you have to be honest with the reasons you’re creating the work in the first place. I can’t ask an audience to engage with my art in a deep transformative way unless I treat the journey I take in creating the work, in a similar fashion.  What I am saying is, “to create transformational art we need to be willing to sacrifice our own truth.”

Cynthia:  “We need to be willing to sacrifice our own truth.”  What does that mean to you?

John:  What I mean is that I have to be willing to share my innermost secrets. By making art, I transform who I am and a new truth emerges. When I talk about personal truth, I mean our own real truths; it has nothing to do with inherited identities.  Transformation for my audiences is about the relationship to art and what it has become and asks of us. When you attend one of our immersive theater pieces, you are not a passive observer; you become part of the story and this experience can be transforming.

Cynthia:  Can you talk a bit more about this John?

John:  Sure. When I am creating, the work is inspired by magical and alchemical perspectives. That is my own real truth. It’s something I do that feels essential to the continuous and progressive expression of my calling, my spirit.

Cynthia: Do I understand?  You must be honest with yourself and your audience about what motivates your art, for people in the audience to experience transformation.

John: Yes, but it’s more about creating a space that offers the audience the possibility of a numinous moment, that could effect change or not. Nothing is certain.  What I am talking about is a spiritual moment in which we experience something ‘other.’  A moment that takes us out of time and the world and offers true insights.

Cynthia: Insight into what?

John: Personal truth. That essence that is so often hidden under things we’ve learned from society or our parents or culture that we ingest and comes to feel like who we are.  What I am talking about is the personal essence that remains when all of this is removed; our free will. The essence of who we are.

It’s a large subject, but I think (as do many Shamanistic cultures) that everyone has a true purpose that exists to be unearthed.  Art and stories can play a part in reaching and revealing this truth.

Cynthia:  So being in your audience somehow sets the stage for “everything else to be removed so that truth (has the chance) to be revealed?”

John: Yes, we believe that being a member of our audience offers a space and possibility for all kinds of truth to be unearthed.

Cynthia:  Sounds intriguing.  Thank you John.  Let’s talk about FoolishPeople now.

Who and what is FoolishPeople?

FoolishPeople is the name of the group that produced Strange Factories. We engineer unique experiences that have the power to raise the numinous within the spectator.  We actively engage audiences through immersive theater, live cinema, ritual and independent film. Spectators must choose their own journey without guidance, which challenges their habitual way of watching art and entertainment in a passive manner. We have been commissioned by the BBC, ICA and Secret Cinema, and have produced our work for conventional theaters, galleries and site-specific venues.

Cynthia: Is there a true essence of the group that emerges as you work together? Does it change over time?

John: Yes, I think our work does have a form and essence. It changes from project to project, but at its heart stays true to our working practice, which of course, is forever evolving.

Cynthia: What is your working practice?

John: Theater of Manifestation.  It has developed over the last 20+ years.

Cynthia:  I’m not familiar with Theater of Manifestation.  I’ve read about your use of archetypes in your writing and performance art.  Does Theater of Manifestation involve drawing forth core archetypes and if so, is this through improvisation or is there a script?

John:  All of our projects start from one of my scripts, and yes, we do use archetypes a great deal. Improvisation is part of our practice as our performers have to be trained to respond to the audience but one of our key objectives is to manifest living characters to inhabit our performance spaces. To date, I have written and directed all of FoolishPeople’s productions, but this is slowly changing; Xanadu Xero and Craig Slee are two other writers who write for FoolishPeople. Craig is currently taking the lead on an important section of our ‘Strange Factories’ project with Dakota Crane and sound artist Ikipr. Dakota is an incredible artist who created the schematic which you can see on StrangeFactories.com and Ikipr created powerful soundscapes alongside Sonica Storm for our previous production ‘Dead Language’ performed at the ICA.

Cynthia:  Can you give an example of how you use archetypes?

John: The scripts I write often explore key archetypes. For example the archetype Punch is explored in Strange Factories. During rehearsal we work extensively with these archetypes, creating rituals to channel and manifest them.

Cynthia: Does the audience participate in the crafting of the story too?

John:  As they react to our live immersive theater events, they engage with the story and their interaction with the story can change it.

Cynthia: I’ve looked at your online presence using your film ‘Strange Factories’ as a launching point. What isn’t clear to me is how the audience will be immersed in the film. How will they participate in what you write about as ‘”the hunt for the truth of the story?’”

John: I can’t give too much away as it may ruin the experience for audiences.  I can tell you that some of the characters in the film will exist in the flesh during the Strange Factories live cinema event.  Also, that the Strange Factories story exists outside the realm of the story as it is told through the film.  The setting is very important…

Cynthia: How so?

John: The location that the live aspect of the project is taking place in is vitally important to the story. When our audiences engage with the story within the film and the live ritual they will have a chance to learn what the truth of Strange Factories means to them personally.

Cynthia: I can only imagine what you have in mind.  I like how it sounds.  I wish I could be there for the show.  Will you film it?

John:  Yes we’re planning on filming some of the nights. I wish you could be there too. We’re hoping to tour the live cinema event.

Cynthia: Nice. Keep me informed about the tour please.

John: Yes absolutely.

Cynthia:  Is this your first live cinema event?

John: Of our own creation, yes.  It was very important we treat the creation of the film with respect and we’ve spent a great deal of time finding the right script.

Cynthia: I read that you’ve spent three years on Strange Factories. Who or what did you sacrifice to bring Strange Factories into creation?

John: Strange Factories is about the sacrifices that writers and artists make to bring a story into being.  This can mean sacrificing normal relationships and a peaceful life.

Cynthia: Will you elaborate for us?

John: My wife and I have had to make a number of difficult sacrifices over the years to keep creating art.  We’ve gone hungry and given up our home to name a couple. Of course we’re not the only ones.  Every member of FoolishPeople has made sacrifices to create art.

Cynthia: Could you ever seriously consider not making art?

John: No, creating art is who, what and why I am. This current stage is difficult because of how much Strange Factories has required of me and others to bring the story into being within the ritual.

Cynthia: You mean how much the writing has required?

John: I mean all the stages of the project over the past three years. Creating a film with the scale of Strange Factories with minimal budget and no traditional funding for our first feature has been quite the undertaking. The initial writing was probably the easiest, although if you’d asked me at the time I might have said something different.

Cynthia:  Are you a shaman John?

John: Yes, you could view my work as Shamanism. Although, terms and names for what we do are difficult; they never quite cover it.

Cynthia:  I think that is an indication that you’re bringing something new to the world. I have to tell you, I find your work to be deep, rich and transforming and I’ve only just seen your Strange Factories trailers, photos and posts on the Internet.  It’s mysterious.  Your aesthetic is compelling.

John: Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me. The most important part of our work is to set the stage for transformation to happen.

Cynthia: I have a sense that FoolishPeople is something very special to all of you; together you are a living breathing medicine pouch. You are an entity.  Is that true?

John: Yes, that’s a very apt way to describe it. FoolishPeople is our path and has rewarded me with the most wondrous existence. I’m very lucky.

Cynthia: I feel the same. Very lucky. And grateful.

John: Yes, I can tell your startup project New Intelligentsia is just as important to you as our work is to us. It’s easy to forget that the journey has equal importance to the destination and I hope you know that what you’re creating with NI is very important.

Cynthia:  I appreciate you saying so.  Can you tell me why you think its important?

John:  I think that a true non-judgemental space for avant garde film making is needed. A place that isn’t about money or net worth or how many YouTube hits you get, but is instead focused on the experience shared between audience and artist.  I think this is vital.  Especially right now.

Cynthia: Thank you John. Why do you say especially now?

John: I think that we’re on the brink of change and that true art is more important than it has ever been; the more people who are in tune with who they are, the better chance we have for survival.

Cynthia: What makes you think this is true?

John: When people are happy and in tune with who they are, they become less selfish and more open to the needs of others and that’s what we need more of. When you experience changes in your immediate environment, with extreme weather for example, it’s very hard to deny what’s happening. You see it and you feel it.

Cynthia: It’s easy to deny destructive effects of climate change until water is lapping at your ankles as the island you live on disappears under rising seas.  I think what you are saying is that immersive art can create the sense that your personal island is disappearing and the experience of feeling this can be transforming even when it is not happening to you. And yes, bringing forth this sense of empathy through art is a value and goal we share.

Cynthia:  Who has influenced you John?

John : I have been influenced by Andrei Tarkovsky and his film Stalker.

Cynthia: What is it about Tarkovsky and his film Stalker that influences your work?

John: Stalker stands alone as one of the few truly unique cinematic experiences; Stalker is a film unlike any other. The first act of Stalker as they’re venturing into the zone, influences how Victor’s journey begins in Strange Factories.

Cynthia:  I’m not familiar with Tarkovsky and will check Stalker out and post it here on Rare Sightings in a separate post for people to watch. (See link below.)

Will Foolish People be making more films John?

John: Yes, I’m working on the screenplay for our next feature at the moment.

Cynthia: What are your premier plans for Strange Factories?

John: I will tell you, but can’t quite yet; we will be making an announcement soon.

Cynthia:  I’ll be looking forward to it.  Thank you very much for the conversation John. Please give my best to all of your very talented collaborators and best of luck to all of you with your premier of Strange Factories.

John: Yes, of course.  I will.  Thank you Cynthia.

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Thanks everyone for stopping by the Rare Sightings blog on NewIntelligentsia.com. I hope you enjoyed reading this conversation with actor, writer, director John Harrigan and learning about FoolishPeople and their film project, Strange Factories.

Let’s support this innovative work by sharing it with all of the avant garde film and art lovers in our social networks and leaving some comments here for Foolish People.  I’ll post an update here and in our movie guide as soon as the premier and tour dates are announced.  Be sure to sign up for it.

Stalker, a film by Andrei Tarkovsky

Cynthia DuVal ~ New Intelligentsia Online Cinemas