I’d like to thank Gideon Lester. Gideon was my first dramaturgy teacher. While I have failed to stay in close touch over the years, his influence has been profound and lingering. Many teachers fail to discover the impact they have on their students. We, pupils, seldom have the chance to tell our mentors with enough space, time and experience to acknowledge our teachers’ significance. Perhaps, we fall shy as I have done. I have 20 letters or fragments of letters I started to pen to John Berger. I failed to send any. Now John Berger can not read any of them. That realisation, along with my re-emergence into arts, has tipped me over into writing a note on this.
A 20 year old boy steeped in science but with a fascination with theatre arrives at Harvard. The boy knows few to no people. He has directed a few plays, at the level of a student. He has read a fair amount of drama and poetry, considering his academic science studies. The boy knows enough to know he really doesn’t know an awful lot. About anything. Anything at all.
There’s an energy. There’s an hole. There’s an hunger. A father recently died. A restlessness needed to fill a grief.
The boy sits with Gideon. On Brattle Street, a hot chocolate is sipped, they talk theatre. And talk. Their lives have a loosely entangled tapestry from a shared London teenage experience, although a small generation apart. Large enough for the boy to consider Gideon an elder and mentor.
The boy takes Gideon’s dramaturgy course. It starts with Aristotle's Poetics.
Galaxies explode into life.
Casting back over 2000 years, we have a treatise on dramatic structure. Still relevant today, it catapults the boy’s understanding into another plane. The work provides an outline of rules to be followed, to be bent and to be broken. All the while with Gideon’s guiding light.
Gideon saunters us through plays, playwrights and thinkers. It is brilliant.
A steady Arts drum beat is sounding from various Harvard teachers, hopefully some future posts on this (Marcus Stern on directing - find the character’s intention - Adrienne Kennedy on play writing, Chris Kilip on photography - ways of seeing, Patrick Strzelec on sculpture - the visceral and seeing truth abstractly, and Forrest Gander on poetry - life, language and so much more).
The exact learnings from Gideon’s teaching, I am unable to pinpoint today. Nevertheless, the profound sense I had at the time lingers with me. The ideas of structure, what to follow, what to bend and possibly what to break have deeply embedded into my theatre writing. How to read dramatic works, how to think about theatre, and even how to enjoy plays, all of that enhanced by Gideon over the years. Nothing specific but without Gideon I doubt I would have created the handful of works that I have to my name, several performed and of moderate success. I’ve taught, helped and dramaturged others; and as a pebble thrown in a pond, the waves rippling, the influence echoes on.
I’ve mainly been helping others for the last eight years. Crafting little of my own writing. Family, autism and other life priorities have absorbed me. But I am emerging. I believe I will write again.
If I do and how I write will surely still be marked by that hot chocolate on Brattle Street and the ensuing Poetics. Thank you, Gideon.
If you'd like to feel inspired by commencement addresses and life lessons try: Ursula K Le Guin on literature as an operating manual for life; Neil Gaiman on making wonderful, fabulous, brilliant mistakes; or Nassim Taleb's commencement address; or JK Rowling on the benefits of failure. Or Charlie Munger on always inverting.
I hope to make a series thanking many of the influential mentors and teachers I have had over the years. The Gideon post is the first. I’d like to one day thank Miss Bradley (now Mrs James) for my introduction to clay amongst other things when I was 7. Many of my teachers from that time do resonate, but Miss Bradley echoed first and perhaps loudest. There are a whole host from high school but Mr Davies (maths and more), Dr Bevan (chemistry, learn to learn and the rubiayat of Omar Khayyam), Dr Katz (life), Mr Bateman (art practice and seeing) ring loud but most of my teachers at Westminster provoked lasting and memorable thoughts and experiences on a regular basis. At Cambridge University, Dr McLaren influenced me greatly and there is a part of me which still thinks I ought to have developed in acedemia as a neuroscientist or experimental psychologist. At Harvard University, perhaps partly driven by being on a scholarship and partly by my father’s recent death, I went into learning overdrive and had several mentors of note. Gideon Lester, as mentioned in this post, Marcus Stern (directing), Adrienne Kennedy (play writing), Chris Kilip (photography), Patrick Strzelec (sculpture) and Forrest Gander in poetry. That so many of my Harvard teachers were in the arts was perhaps telling on why I left academia to pursue multiple interests across arts, business and investing. Post institutional teaching, I count Jane Bodie (via Royal Court) on writing and dramatic structure as most influential (and still to this day) although I think I did learn from Lisa Goldman on dramaturgy too in my early twenties.