What is Sensory Labyrinth Theatre?

Sensory Labyrinth Theatre (slt) lies at the beating heart of CoArts and it is the experience of performing in slt or being an audience to slt that  can bring about the consciousness with which CoArts is practiced.

Iwan Brioc here articulates what SLT involves for audience and performer.

What if all there is is this? That is the question Sensory Labyrinth Theatre (SLT) starts with and finishes with…and asks at all the moments in between. What if, in other words, the sensations arising and falling in your consciousness right now…reading, thinking, sitting, breathing, etc. are all there is? There is nothing missing that you need to find, no puzzle to solve, nowhere else to be. What if it’s all here, in front of your nose, but you are too busy looking for it to notice.

Reading this, dear reader, you might well protest because there is so much suffering in this world: so many things to do, so much injustice, inequality, prejudice and violence. The question can be as unwelcome as the one Jack Nicholson’s obsessive compulsive character asks in the film ‘As Good as it Gets’. On leaving his shrink’s office he stops in his tracks in a waiting room full of conflicted and confused people and says “What if this is as good as it gets?”

Sensory Labyrinth Theatre doesn’t deny that all is not well.   Its roots are in applied theatre, which uses theatre as a looking-glass to change ourselves and our world, to make it a better place for all. But being part of a Context Oriented approach to theatre, SLT invites us first to take the risk of falling awake to the miracle of being alive and in that awakened state become more creative in our approach to living on this planet. It asks us to rest our weary minds in the heart of ordinary, everyday treasures: a warm sea breeze scented with gorse and honeysuckle; the taste of solitude; the sound of our own heart breaking and made whole again; the notion of our death.   Mindfulness has become a very popular word to describe just this attitude of acceptance and letting be, and there are some common elements to our practices with that field, but we don’t ask audiences to meditate every day, we simply invite them to walk a path and go on an adventure into the timeless drama and power of now.

How we form and then frame that invitation is through a process provoked by a series of exercises that are taught on our training courses. How these exercises are practised does need some clarification in relation to this word ‘theatre’ and how it is used in the Context Oriented approach, otherwise as in all methods, we can get hold of the wrong end of the stick and find that we have a rude club not a magic wand in our hand.

If there was a list of all the things that make us human, near the top would surely be our amazing capacity to imagine tomorrow will be better when today is going really badly; or to remember happy moments we have enjoyed and in remembering them experience that joy again. Of course, this same mechanism can make every moment unbearable: the gnawing fear of an uncertain future or the uninvited memories of past trauma forcing their way into our minds. This capacity to imagine ourselves in the future and remember ourselves in the past is what allows us to create theatre. And the drama that theatre depicts, as comedy or tragedy, almost always arises from the conflict and occasional resolution between characters passing through time and change. Theatre, as Augusto Boal said, was the first human invention and Buddha said we are born to suffer, so right there we have the medium and the message rolled into one!

So what on earth is the point of a theatre which proposes that the only thing that actually exists is this that is happening right now? How can Sensory Labyrinth Theatre work if it renounces the one human capacity which theatre depends on to function? Well it appears that it does work and my best guess as to why is because SLT puts on stage the drama of the unfolding of this lived moment in all its sensory glory. The only character passing through time and change in our theatre is the audience themselves and the conflict is whatever is going on for them in how they receive and project onto the canvas we have sparsely decorated with our Labyrinth.

Rather than scenes our theatre has portals, sensory portals which are multi-sensory instillations which connected together make up the labyrinth. Rather than actors our theatre has gatekeepers who gently invite audiences through these portals. All theatre actors are, of course, also gatekeepers cajoling us into the imaginary world of the play they are performing. The difference with SLT is that our gatekeepers beckon us not into the imaginary world but into the mystery of the ever changing moment, where time and space collapse into a unity. You can’t perform that: which gives rise to another paradox of SLT. It is a theatre where the actors play with the tension of being on stage and not performing. Rather, they practice meeting the audience, one at a time, and sharing with them the embodied moment, the mindful movement and the energy or unique voice of the path that grows with its walking. Certainly, in the beginning, the gatekeeper is performing but after a while something else almost always takes over. A flow, a dance, a ritual where the gatekeeper also becomes an audience to a play that is as old as the universe.

And the audience too, walking alone along the path between these portals, might start to notice that portals are opening everywhere, with each footstep. So that everything they are experiencing is the play and the stage where the performance is really happening is in their own mind. They might at this point then realise that they are the main character in this play. And this is the moment that makes SLT all worthwhile because this feeling is suddenly so familiar and so intimate to ones being that to encounter it is like a fish suddenly noticing water. Only for us the water is theatre. We are theatre, it’s all theatre. We are literally ‘a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’.   And in SLT, on this path, there is the chance of stumbling into a knowing of this. Then there is no need to strut and fret, one can stop pretending because it’s all just a play. For some a great peace descends. And in that peace arises a new world that words cannot touch…which is why it is probably a good time to stop there.

Stumbling upon this proprioception of the human, of who we really are, is not guaranteed by the way. You might just have fun, and if you’re not having fun then you are definitely doing something wrong! I only describe it here to prepare you for what awaits us all around the corner and as a word of warning because once you start doing Sensory Labyrinth Theatre you meet it sooner rather than later and then you really will have to examine your life and ask for what you really really want.

Finally, please take great care with this method. Travellers are at their most vulnerable and you must meet them with compassion in that vulnerable place. Here is a poem I wrote as a guide to gatekeepers and which I suggest should be read before each performance as a reminder –

 Friends, colleagues, citizens of The Republic of the Imagination,

You are gatekeepers on the door between the two worlds.

With one foot in being and the other in doing.

You stand on the edge and invite me to fall with you.

Please don’t push me and watch me drop.

Stand with me in the circle of fire which burns the illusion that we are separate.

The fire is lit by presence and is fanned by surrender.

Its flames light the mysterious wonder unfolding in every moment.

Sometimes an explosion.

Sometimes a whisper from within.

What is within? What is without?

This world…it calls to you now.

Listen through the crack in your wall where it hurts the most.

The pain is life squeezing through.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]