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Sympathetic Magic

Photo: Dr Kara McKechnie

Part of the Invisible Diaries series:

Week 4 / Day 2


Grades went in. No death threats. A student wrote: “I learnt something, and I laughed. That’s all I expect.” There can be no higher compliment.

I did three Zoom meetings today. You start out an Artist, you become a Teacher, and finally, you’re mired in Admin. Life is meetings. I read a corporate self-help book, Death By Meeting: A Leadership Fable about Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business by Patrick Lencioni.

It’s great. It made me wish I’d done an MBA. It’s about getting people to buy-in and how to run efficient meetings. I had the chance to chair a meeting. I used the book. Everyone checks in at the start about what they want from the meeting, you vote on the floating agenda – it’s fast and loose but dynamic. Two people came up afterwards and said it was the best meeting we’d ever had, and that I should chair all the meetings. Someone else didn’t. I was replaced as chair. I’m not a natural-born leader. When I was made a prefect at high school, I never gave out a single detention. I’m conflict-averse, maybe that’s why I love drama?

The Māori word for meeting is hui. This has spawned the whakatauki / proverb: “Too much hui and not enough doey.” It applies to theatre. When you bring a bunch of people into a room you need to make sure they buy in and things run efficiently. You need a mission statement, accountability, trust, an understanding of the roles and responsibilities...

I made a PowerPoint today. I smash them together. I’m a punk rocker from way back. They’re about energy, not slick production. While Covid-19 is causing most people to practice social distancing, building the controversial gas and oil pipelines of Canada is an essential service, so they’re taking advantage to go full speed ahead. The Mancamps that service these have proven to cause a rise in violence towards Indigenous women nearby. The Mancamps are part of what the 2019 Murdered and Missing Women Report called ‘genocide’.

Canadians don’t like the G-word.

My PowerPoint was about the Manuel family. George Manuel was a prominent First Nations leader who wrote about the Fourth World – the experience of living in third world conditions in a first world country. His son Arthur Manuel was a Chief, political activist and powerful writer. His co-authored book Unsettling Canada is a critically acclaimed bestseller.

Arthur’s daughter, Kanahus Manuel is a prominent activist supporting the Standing Rock pipeline protest in the US, and more recently leading the Tiny House Warriors movement. They build tiny houses in the path of the pipelines they consider illegally crossing Indigenous land. A week ago, Kanahus and other Tiny House Warriors were attacked. Barricades were smashed, Kanahus’ truck was stolen and crashed into a pole, and a warrior was assaulted. Two of the men responsible were caught on camera. They don’t seem to care. They probably think they will get away with it. They just might.

A month previous to this, the same RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) that are investigating the ‘alleged’ attack arrested Kanahus Manuel and broke her wrist. The friendly image of the Mounties is one of the first things you lose when you learn the true history of Canada.

If you aren’t a little ashamed of your country’s history, then you don’t know the history of your country.

Sometimes a dramaturg is a historian. They do research to give the play / production context. I used to think this was the playwright’s job. They wrote the play – they should know this stuff. Now I see the dramaturg can add depth to this. That’s why in two of the meetings today I played the ‘dramaturg-historian’ and spent 10 minutes to talk about the Manuels, Dr Ranginui Walker’s Māori history book – Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End – and to give some context as to how, for Indigenous Peoples, Covid-19 is just the latest struggle to add to all the others.

I did it because my university (Capilano University in North Vancouver) is committed to ‘Indigenisation and Decolonization’. This should be ‘top of mind in all activities’ but often we struggle to define these terms and worry that we’re just ticking a box. A commitment to educating ourselves is where it starts, and by doing these presentations I am also forced to educate myself.

Another historical figure I wanted to write about today was J.B. Priestley. I was struck by his theory of “Sympathetic Magic”. He proposed that the first theatre was our ancestors acting out a successful hunt in the safety of their caves. Someone dressed up as a beast. Others pretended to hunt and kill them. This ‘play’ created ‘magic’ so that in the real world they would have the same success. It’s naïve but isn’t that what theatre is all about? Some idealized performance of reality where we slay beasts / expose inner demons / achieve transformation / and are ultimately fed? And better equipped to win battles in the real world? The dramaturg is then a Sympathetic Magician doing what they can to help the hunt along the way. What is my Sympathetic-Magician-Dramaturg’s Creed? How does it relate to the Police?

Like Cops, we’re here to Protect and Serve... but sometimes we also Provoke.

We Serve the playwright and production any way we can. We Protect the playwright in the workshop / cave so that their words and vision are honoured. We Provoke? We are not always the playwright’s friend. We are the Outside Eye and ask the Hard Questions: Why this play now? Is it really a solo show? Can you combine these three characters? Are nine cups of coffee and three red bulls before lunch really good script fuel?

Yes, provocations are useful. We need to challenge and be challenged. I’m also quite prescriptive. I suggest how I’d fix ‘challenges’. I write lines, suggest scenes. Coming from TV story rooms, that’s what we do for each other. We collaborate. I make it part of the deal.

What does Solvitur Ambulando mean?

It will be solved by walking. In the original Latin, the walking was meant metaphorically – by exploring / experimenting. But going for a real walk helps too. Death by Desk, Death by Meeting, they’re real.

I need to stop staring at a screen, go for a walk, clear my head. Tomorrow, my wife goes to the new place in prep for us moving house on Friday. It’s very bad timing. Unless you’re writing a script, have your Heroes up a tree and want to throw more rocks at them. Then it’s a great External Obstacle to test what your characters are really made of. Eleanor Roosevelt said: "A woman is like a teabag — you never know how strong she is until it's in hot water." Or what a family is like until you get them to move house in the middle of a global pandemic. Will the movers wear gloves and masks as instructed? Will the rodents be gone? If we practice in our cave, will there be Sympathetic something?

Photography by Tae Hoon Kim.

Illustration by David Geary.


David Geary is a playwright, dramaturg, director & screenwriter who writes haiku on twitter: @gearsgeary.

David is of Māori, English, Irish and Scottish blood. His iwi / tribe in New Zealand is the Taranaki. He grew up immersed in the Polynesian trickster tales of Maui and is now honoured to live, work and play in the lands of the Coyote and Raven tricksters of Turtle Island/Canada.

He is an award-winning playwright, dramaturg, director, screenwriter, fiction writer and poet. David works at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Canada. He teaches screenwriting in the Indigenous Digital Filmmaking program, documentary, and playwriting. David’s recent work includes short plays for Climate Change Theatre Action and Centre Point.

David also teaches playwriting for Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC) in Vancouver. The Māori word ako means both to teach and to learn, and he finds as a teacher he learns as much from his students as they do from him. David’s most recent fiction work can be found in the Penguin Random House collection Purakau and Bawaajigan: Stories of Power (Exile).

He’s a member of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) and does script consultation for theatre, TV and Film, most recently with Women in Film and Television (WIFTV).

David lives by the yogic mantra: “Life is short, stretch it!”


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