Since 1989, FoolishPeople have been creating extraordinarily complex, intricate worlds of immersive performance magic. They’ve been commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Arcola Theatre, Secret Cinema, the BBC, and the Wilderness Festival.
John Harrigan is artistic director and cofounder of FoolishPeople and we have been trying to find the time to get together and have a bit of a chat for quite some time, now. With recent world and personal events being as they are, we eventually came to the realization that there would be no time like the present. On a personal level, John and I have both experienced monumental losses, in the course of the past year, and it can easily be said that they’ve transformed us in some unexpected ways. We’ve also both been given new and unprecedented opportunities, and so now seemed like the perfect time for Technoccult and FoolishPeople to meet.
John’s raw openness about life, art, magick, and the process of creating living, immersive theater is amazing, and really made this interview process something special to facilitate.
Speaking of, let’s take a minute to talk about the process of this interview. I wanted to come up with a format that would do justice to the mythic otherworldliness that FP manages to breathe into every one of their creations, and eventually I settled on using Tarot in a traditional cross and staff formation to devise and guide the questions . Each answer got followed up with another clarification question, determined by another drawn card.
First ten cards and questions, John’s answers, second ten cards and questions, John’s answers. To frame the whole process, I intentionally opened with the Fool and closed with the World, the first and last cards of the Tarot’s Major Arcana. My questions are in bold, and John’s answers are in plaintext.
As a fun side note, the deck I use is the Dave McKean-illustrated Vertigo Tarot. When I showed him the pictures of the spreads, last week, John informed me that this style of deck was the first he ever owned.
So with that bit of synchronicity and without further ado:
The longer I’m on this path, the more difficult it is to answer this question in a succinct manner.
When you engage in the creation of ritual, and spend your life telling stories, the nature of beginnings and endings shift like sand beneath your feet.
The simple answer I was encouraged to create my own work, my own stories, at a very early stage in my career. I was lucky and supported by a fantastic lecturer named Les Tucker and I enjoyed a great deal of freedom. The first FoolishPeople project ‘Enochian: Language of Angels’ was written and directed when I was still at college back in 1989. The research for this project exposed me to Enochian as a system of magick, which in turn helped me to begin to understand the path I was on. The performance had a lot of interesting feedback that informed my understanding of the value in creating new work and the power of engaging in the creation of new stories as a writer, director and a performer.
I had an ensemble of actors to work with. Learning from these artists, feeding this knowledge back into the process, how this in turn deepened our relationships as collaborators were immensely valuable lessons to learn.
The foundations of our working practice ‘Theatre of Manifestation’ began here. All of these early experiments began to define the development of FoolishPeople.
I have, throughout my work and career, always searched for the next cliff to step off of.
There will always be another, I hope. That which challenges us, offers the greatest possibility for developing as artists and humans. Solve Et Coagula.
You As You See Yourself: The Queen of Cups. This card is about someone who knows their own emotions, and makes the conscious choice to be open with them, as needed. So here is a dangerous, vulnerable question: What is the secret, hidden heart of FoolishPeople? What is the mystery of your motivation?
I do believe that the secret desire, the hidden heart of FoolishPeople has never been hidden, we’ve always worn it on our sleeve.
Art is magic. Art is utterly vital. It has the power to heal deep wounds, to aid us in the darkest moments, to help us to carry on, when we are lost in life’s lowest moments, brought to our knees, when we believe we might not be able to stand again. Art is the most powerful form of communication. It has given our species everything, taught early humans how to venture forth from the caves via stories shared as art. It offers us glimpses of all possibilities, art allows us to imagine the infinite, aids us to confirm all that we know and don’t know.
Art and magic are one and the same thing.
The Two of Wands. How much control do you have when you create? I know you speak about how much the *place* influences the work, but what of the people? And specifically, who balances your fire?
Interesting question. For over twenty years I’ve worked as a director and writer with FoolishPeople, after a great deal of time I’ve come to learn that control is overrated. The amount of control you exert when creating and manifesting art has to be very carefully considered. Truth is often gained in those moments when things feel out of control. When you relinquish control, and allow the current to take you beyond what you thought the work was. There’s a great deal of trust within our group. There has to be, to create the kind of rituals we manifest.
I can’t even begin to put down in words how important this is. FP is a family, and I know that I can trust others to chart the course in a particular area if it’s necessary. We understand and know what each of our strengths and weaknesses are, both inside and outside of the work.
Lucy, Tereza, Claire, Vicky (aka Sonica Storm), Kate and David and the other members of FP balance my fire. Lucy, who has been my partner for ten years, has helped me maintain balance so many times that I’ve lost count.
Immediate Influence: The Eight of Wands. A card about increased inspiration and rising passion as one project culminates and others begin. What are the projects on the FP docket, right now? What’s coming to fruition, and what is developing?
2016 marks the ten year anniversary of ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’, a thirteen month ritual that took place as part of our residency at the Horse Hospital in London. Ten years later this ritual still resonates through our lives.
A decade feels like a good point in time to contemplate the body of work we’ve created.
We’re about to redefine how we connect and share our art with our audiences, in May we’ll start a year long season of work exploring the theme of borders. The borders that divide us, geographically, spiritually, sexually and the liminal borders, between dream and reality. We will soon be releasing a new anthology of immersive theatre that explores one aspect of our borders season. This is a narrative that exist as standalone episodes, but can also be experienced as a larger work, in the same manner that ‘Dark Nights of the Soul’ existed. All this work will be shared via Patreon, which I know you’re familiar with. It’s a relatively new way for artists to connect and deliver work directly with their audience.
Alongside that, we’ve just started development of our second feature film.
I feel excited and empowered about our work, in a way I haven’t since I first began this journey. I feel passionate about the stories and work we’re about to share.
FoolishPeople has never been stronger.
The Queen of Swords. A card about digging under the surface of things, and deep into the earth of them. What new things have you uncovered in this intervening ten years? How does that seminal working look to you, from this vantage?
I look back and I see the risks I took, the punk ethos. The choice between eating or making art: buying a sandwich or a train ticket to rehearsals. I see the repercussions all around me, in my life and my children. And to a certain degree, on culture as a whole.
Certain things grew from the ritual, that exist today that no one but myself and a few others know. It would be wrong for me to state what these events are.
It’s very interesting to see the tendrils of the magick spread out. I struggle to know where to begin, to share everything that’s been uncovered in the last ten years. From a personal level, everything I have today was born of a willingness to do whatever the fuck it took, for both good and bad, in the pursuit of my calling and to impart a positive impact on society and culture, via the work we create. FoolishPeople are one of the very few groups, that openly conduct large scale ritual theatre in public. We’ve done this for over twenty years now, with audiences who often have little exposure to this form of ritual.
Goal: The Ace of Cups. The burgeoning and brand new feeling. That sense of some hard-won joyous thing beginning. I know that it likely varies from performance to performance, but if you could encapsulate the heart of it, what new thing do you want your audience to feel, to desire, after they experience a FoolishPeople Working?
That anything is possible if you believe and imagine it hard enough.
The Queen of Wands. All about wildness and mystery and wonder. The dichotomy between stately composure and raw creative ferocity, with a wild joy under it all. Are all of your creations beneficial? Have any of your workings and audiences taught you lessons about creation through less than joyous means?
‘A Red Threatening Sky’, (which explored the true nature of love) was the most painful ritual that I experienced, it very nearly ended me. Love is very dangerous. Love has killed more people than all the guns in the world.
When I look back at ‘A Red Threatening Sky’ now I’m very proud of the work we created.
Every single project and ritual I’ve ever been involved with, has had a stage that I would describe as less than joyous, if I was being generous. Fucking brutal and painful would be the other way to describe this stage. Many times I’ve thought I wouldn’t survive, but if your work doesn’t take you through this suburb, then I think you’re not making the most of what art has to offer, to us as creators. I don’t seek out pain, but I know its value.
Recent Past: The Page of Pentacles. A studentship, a professional apprentice of the work. Has FoolishPeople ever (or ever considered) taking on apprentices? Initiating raw talented actors into the ways of FP’s ritual process?
Yes, this links back to my comments about the book I’m working on, which will be the first to share a very specific aspect of our working practice. The core team of FP varies from project to project, but we always recruit new artists and performers for each project.
The Page of Cups. This is just an affirmation of everything you said. But also a hint of the fluidity of these kinds of collaborations. When you let people into your space and your work, something new happens, and you all walk away changed.
Absolutely, the nature of what’s exchanged between collaborators in the creation of the work and also between audience and performer is immense. Change happens in each and every moment you’re performing within a story that has the ability to shift and adapt in real time, to the influence of audience and performer.
Further Past: Seven of Wands. This card is about passion emerging from the quiet. FP’s had a bit of a period of introspection and solitude, the past little while? has it resulted in a new fire? What’s the shape of the flame like?
Lucy and I have been caring for my mother for the last six years, who had Alzheimer’s. She passed away in February.
It’s been a hard and strange time, to continue creating, whilst caring for someone with this terrible disease. Many families have to deal with this, yet it’s often hidden away. The process of caring for our parents, as they age and become sick and unwell. Human culture had developed rituals to help us during these times, but many of these have been removed, dismantled, so it’s hard to come to terms with. However when you’ve learnt to see life as a story with many highs and lows, this can redefine the painful experiences as vital and empowering milestones.
This whole period of reflection has contained so many powerful experiences. Sadness, love, nostalgia, fear and of course grief, which I believe is a hybrid of many different emotions. As an artist and storyteller, as a son and father it has been one of the most interesting times.
For example, engaging with the ritual of my mother’s funeral helped me to come to terms with the loss, by diving deep, as I’d learnt to within the rituals I had previously engaged in.
It’s almost too much to comprehend when we lose our mothers, the person so utterly connected to our manifestation here on Earth.
The flame, it feels renewed due to the experience of watching my mother leave this world.
Seven of Pentacles. The card that signifies throwing yourself into your work, to overcome a struggle. If you wouldn’t mind, tell me a little more about your mother’s influence on you, your worldview, and your work.
She endured a great deal of loss, her husband (my father) died when I was four, then her father and mother a few years later. I know my mother had a calling, she sought out and explored various forms of religion, but I think that none of them really connected or offered what she was seeking or needed long term. She was intuitive beyond what would be recognised as normal and she drifted away from organised religion at the end and found her own connection to the divine.
She was never fully able to teach or guide me in the mysteries, because no one had taught my mum about these things, yet I still felt the immense impact as a child, from the natural connection she had with the numinous.
As a boy, I spent most weekends at the cemetery, watching my mum tend to the graves of our family. This alone speaks to who and what she was. This was my playground, even though I hated going there at the time. Now I see this for what it was and I’ve finally come to terms to who she was, the process of viewing her life, now she’s moved on. My mother shaped me. She raised me alone, in a one parent family unit, on a council estate. She was both fierce and loving.
Near Future: The Lovers: All about mergers and unions. What is the opposite force to that which you seek to bring out in your work? How would you go about unifying with it, to become stronger?
Fear of the unknown and the hatred that fear breeds. I think to face fear, is to reclaim the knowledge that fear hides.
Four of Swords. Rest and repose while knowledge and information does as it will. How much do you have to give yourself over to the fact of the fear, in the process of confronting it?
This comes back again to control and the process of letting go of control. In my experience you have to be willing to give yourself over to the fear in its entirety, in doing so you understand that fear is a landscape that can be charted, that can be crossed if you’re humble enough and have the will and determination to endure.
You As Others See You: The Fool (I swear I shuffled this deck MANY times). What is in the sack you carry with you? What do you absolutely need before you can start any new FP experience?
More often than not, I have the luxury of knowing where our work will take place before I begin to imagine the story and ritual. This is the essence of site specific work, in text and performance. So you’ll very often find a landscape within my sack. These sites and locations help inform the creation of the story I’m about to tell. Just being in the space and allowing it
to communicate the essence of the hidden story that exists within a location is very important to how I begin work.
Four of Cups. What have people said you’ve lost, as you’ve grown into the kind of people you are? The kind of creators you are?
Innocence. Anger. I’ve worked out a lot of anger through the work. Although the experience of growing up poor on a council estate is never too far away. Perhaps I’ve lost some of the passion of youth. I think wisdom can diminish passion. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Further Future: The Page of Swords. I see this card as a call to examine our own assumptions and biases? to pick apart our own so-called objectivity. So what do you assume is obvious about the Work? What basic starting point do you assume the audience has, when they enter into the worlds you create?
There are so many viewpoints that an audience member might have that I have found it counter intuitive to attempt to guess or assume what they are.
Common sense and the knowledge that we all experience cognitive bias.
I always begin by imagining what my own starting point would be, as I enter the world the story exists within. I’m quite average in many ways. I’m good at becoming the everyman.
Five of Wands. A card in which we do not speak as we would wish to. Have you ever failed… to model your perspective in a way that guides the audience in?
With my work as filmmaker I’ve felt that I’ve been too respectful and in awe of the medium of film, and I felt I had something to prove: that I could make the transition between live work and filmmaking. The first tour of ‘Strange Factories’ toured to independent cinemas, it had a live component that was too honest, too brutal and too challenging to some people. I think it took time for me to realise this.
I mean, I sat with every audience who watched the film, in character, with a black hood over my head, I could feel everything good and bad, between the work and the viewers.
The second script I developed for the second stage of the ‘Strange Factories’ tour embraced the audience and the film that we had created in a different manner. I accepted the truth and this helped open the heart of the work. A lot of people responded to this.
Emotional/Mental State: The Queen of Pentacles. A card about intense connection to the realm of your work, to the nature of the world, but lost in it. What is it, right now, that you know and about which you keep silent?
Mystery is the most important and vital component in the work.
That you should always lean on the art. The creation of the work itself will always be the next step on the winding path through the forest.
The Star. There’s this sense of being bound to your gifts. What do you think of the idea that, in this mystery, there’s a way for you to truly give of yourself in an open and vulnerable way? What does that in/sub/conversion look like to you?
I think that our gifts are tied to our destinies. I think this returns again to the fact that I’ve learnt that you need to attempt to be open hearted and vulnerable, even when you’re confronting fear. Or perhaps especially when you’re confronting fear. This has to be part of the process of giving yourself to anything of value. Otherwise, you’re holding back the aspects of self that need to be offered up.
There has to come a time when we have to have a willingness to accept the journey for what it is, rather than what we think it is or what we think it might become. This is certainly something that I’ve learnt through the experience of thinking I understand. When, in fact we can never ever really know, because the final part of the journey, the true mystery, has to be shared alone.
Ultimate Outcome: The Ace of Pentacles. This card is always all about a moment of practical, financial, earthly clarity. Being firmly rooted in the real. It’s about a new period of wealth, as a result of having all your ducks in a row. Aside from a wish for this to be true out of FP’s works, what do you mark as wealth and success?
That after such an intense emotional period, I feel renewed instead of depleted. Yet I don’t feel any pressure to create. The journey to date has given me the right tools to tell the stories that I want to tell next.
I feel blessed to have such an incredible group of artists working together, as FoolishPeople. Finally, that we’ve created a body of work, created new stories that are highly regarded by the audiences that have experienced them.
The Moon. Do you fear the possibility that this might not come to be? What do you fear, in all of this?
I don’t fear any of this, but I do feel sad that it could very well be the case. The reason I feel sad, is because that the people I love and care about have devoted their lives to the creation of this type of work.
I do however recognise that this is a trap, that this form of ritual work, that we create is somehow designed to hide what it is from culture, media and society at large, to ensure that the mystery remains intact. I’ve faithfully tried to bring it out into the open, so the truth of art can benefit as many people as possible, but I’ve come to learn there’s a very good reason that my kind lived at the edge of the village, or in the depth of the forest. It’s a good reason. Through my work and my origin on a council estate, I’ve had to come to terms with existing within a society that admonishes truth and the purity of the mysteries in all their guises. I’ve witnessed people I work with become ill, from trying to settle these two sides of the same coin.
The World. I realized there were 21 questions, with the follow-ups, and since I started with the fool, let’s end here: Describe a world filled with FoolishPeople. How does it feel? How do we live?
It’s a world where we’re all encouraged and permitted to be able to pursue the truth that exists within. A world where we face our fears and grow and learn, instead of harboring them for life and infecting everything around us with hatred and violence.
Where common sense, decency and bravery lead to encounters with spirits, gods, angels and demons.
A world where nothing is impossible, a world where stories are respected and are not manipulated and turned into lies. A world where life is respected, all life. A world, which we plan on leaving intact, so other living things might enjoy it, before our sun dies.
A world which our species have decided to leave, so we can explore the stars and remember our home with love and passion.
It feels good. We don’t resent each other because we know who and what we are. We live for the pursuit of truth in all its many guises.
I want to once again thank John Harrigan for his raw honesty and intensity, here, and in the work he and his team of collaborators create. The process of generating this interview has been an extraordinarily illuminating and rewarding one.
Until Next Time.