I want to tell a story about an event in my life which helped direct me towards working in theatre. It was an unlikely piece of career advice, but it had a profound effect.
Three years ago, I was the victim of an assault. It was the last night of a play I was in, and I was out with the other three cast members. I was hit in the face with a ‘Diversions Ahead’ road sign, and I fell over.
I balled up and covered my face as best I could as the group kicked me in the head and the small of my back. Most of the kicks landed on my arms, forehead, cheeks and chin. One hit the jackpot of my nose though, and I experienced a flowering explosion of pain like I have never known before or since. I began to bleed pretty fast from my nose, and, because the expanding puddle of blood in front of my head didn’t stop the kicking, I tried going as still and silent as I could, rabbit-style. This worked. The group ran off, and I got up.
Interestingly, I was able to pretend to be unconscious because, apart from when you get hit in the nose, being kicked very hard in the head isn’t that painful. It was a real surprise to me – even as it was happening, I found myself thinking, I could take a lot of this. I suppose there isn’t actually that much bruisable flesh covering the skull – there aren’t many nerves to damage. And the brain has no nerves at all, so you can’t feel the damage being done as it rattles about, like a jelly in a blender.
After this encounter I was left with a fractured thumb, two swollen black eyes I couldn’t see out of for a few days afterwards, and trainer marks all over my face (for a week I sported a Nike tick on my forehead). I could insert my little finger up to the second joint in my left nostril (this doesn’t sound like much, but try it, it’s twice as far as you can go, I bet). For two years afterwards, I suffered occasional, incredibly sharp stabbing pains on the right side of my skull, from what I think was another fracture. To this day, I still get pains in my lower back. My face is also a slightly different shape – I have a Neanderthal indent where my nose meets my forehead, and a wider bridge.
I was also left feeling very sorry for my assailants. These people had nothing to fill their lives with but violence, and that seemed sad and wrong to me. I wanted to find a way to engage with the reasons they had beaten me up, to try and stop it happening again. Not just for the sake of people like me, but for them as well. These young boys out in the dark with nothing to do.
I made the decision that the most effective place I could try to engage with this problem was in a theatre. A play isn’t a direct way of solving anything, but in my own life, the place where I engaged most fruitfully with ideas and problems was in the dark of an auditorium. And I believed imaginative engagement was the most important work I could do to challenge this kind of violence. Because what’s missing from the debate over youth crime, I think, is sympathy.
You can’t divorce the actions of people from the conditions of their lives, so to confuse motiveless, mindless violence with causeless violence is an imaginative failure. When a crime is committed, we should look to understand and tackle the conditions that led to it. We should engage with the problem, because otherwise it won’t go away. Punishment can suppress it, but the problem stays. The perceived or actual social isolation of the young men who attacked me is, I believe, part of why I experienced that assault. They felt a distance between themselves and the world, a lack of sympathy, and that informed their violence. My assault was also the result, I think, of a failure of sympathy on their part – I don’t think you could hurt another person as I was hurt if you really knew what you were doing to the victim.
This is loosely the definition of psychopathy – an inability to empathise, to imagine – and I came to believe that what I saw in the society around me, where it failed, was a kind of psychopathy, an absence of sympathetic understanding. Just as psychopathy in an individual is considered a condition requiring treatment and support, I felt it required the same when manifested in society. Our ability to sympathise needed strengthening. I felt that a theatre was the best place to do this.
Theatre opens the world to us. Being a dialectic medium, it engages with ideas as questions, weaving points of view together to undermine ways of thinking, to make us challenge our preconceptions, to make us imaginative. In David Hare’s play Fanshen, a Chinese peasant shouts to a crowd, “Think! All think of your lives!” This, for me, is the challenge good theatre always sets down to its audience. It doesn’t advocate or argue – it asks us to sympathise, to empathise, and to engage with ideas we don’t examine in our everyday existence.
By working in theatre, I believed I could challenge the psychopathic tendency that exists in all of us, and tears through the fabric of our society more and more as we lose own capacity for sympathy. I had always thought of theatre as an extension of the dressing up game. After my assault, I began to believe that dressing up in the lives of others can help change the world. Because a society that drifts apart, whose members find themselves inhabiting different islands, has failed. So work needs to be done to hold us together.
Barney Norris is a playwright, currently under commission at the Bush and developing work at the Finborough. His play, AT FIRST SIGHT, toured earlier this year. He is Co-Artistic Director of the theatre company Up In Arms: www.upinarms.org.uk
Image by Hozinja