Our old friend Mahesh Dattani (pictured) is in London. My work with him in India was what led to Border Crossings being established in the first place, and his play Bravely Fought the Queen was one of our first productions. More recently, he was involved as a dramaturg on Re-Orientations. So it's always a good thing to meet up with him. Oddly enough, he was speaking yesterday at a conference for Kings College, and the other person on the panel was the South African writer Craig Higginson. Craig's play Dream of the Dog was one of the pieces I discussed with Janet Suzman the other day - he's a really important voice in modern SA.
What was wonderful about their conversation was the way they overturned the conventional wisdom doled out to writers (and other artists, actually) to "write from experience", to "write what you know". Writing about yourself, Craig argued, is narcissistic. Making work about people who are somehow foreign to you, people who are different, is what stretches the writer, and so will stretch the audience. It requires imagination and empathy. It moves us out of the comfort zone.
Mahesh agreed completely. To his way of thinking, there's been far too much concentration on something called a "voice" in the critical discussion of artists. If we concentrate on finding a "voice", we become limited. Both of these writers try to do something different, and to sound different, every time they make a new play. What Mahesh felt was more important than the writer's voice was the writer's gaze - how a writer sees and hears the world. Much of writing, much of creativity, is actually not to do with making things at all. It's to do with absorbing things and responding to them. That's why neither Mahesh nor Craig is didactic in political terms. As Mahesh said: "It's not my politics that shape my writing - it's my writing that's shaped my politics."
The other topic I've been wanting to blog about is not really related to this - but I want to say it anyway. What has got into opera managements? I went to see Julius Caesar at the ENO the other night. It's not great. As so often recently, this was an opera directed by somebody who doesn't direct operas. In this case, it's a choreographer (a very good one, I may add - but not someone who knows this form). There have also been film directors, documentary makers, actors, conductors and administrators. Having directed an opera before seems to be an actual disadvantage in this area. If Madonna wanted to direct an opera, she could - it would be a press story, right?
What's so odd, and so insulting about this, is that nobody would ever dream of hiring such people to conduct the opera, or to sing it, or play the violin. Somehow the art of the director is still regarded as the preserve of the imaginative amateur. Nobody seems to have noticed that it helps to know what you're doing.
I once heard one of these amateurs comment that she could direct opera because she'd been going to see operas for many years. Well, I've been on a lot of planes. That doesn't make me a pilot.