Theatre maker Michael Pinchbeck talks about his involvement with the 2017 Emerging Perspectives’ artist development project inspired by John Berger’s masterpiece A Fortunate Man
1. John Berger’s 1967 book, A Fortunate Man is often described as a masterpiece of social observation. How did this project come about?
New Perspectives’ Artistic Director, Jack McNamara thought there might be a creative response we could make to the book to mark its 50th anniversary in 2017. I read the book twice cover to cover and thought it was a really beautiful piece of writing with evocative photos that give a vivid sense of time, place and one man’s life. It speaks of the way a doctor works, but back when the relationship between a doctor and their patients was very different to today. There’s a kind of romanticism about it, between the doctor and his work, the author and his subject. Since John Berger died in January, I think that romanticism has grown slightly and it feels timely and important to revisit the book and see how we can interpret it. At the same time, there is a lot of topical debate about the state of the NHS so we want to mark the 50th anniversary of the book and look at how things have changed since it was written.
2. John Berger’s work has influenced an illustrious line of theatre-makers. When did you first become aware of his work?
I know he worked closely with Complicite and also wrote his own plays. I actually read his book Ways of Seeing when I was doing an MA at NTU. I then cited his work quite a lot for my recent PhD at Loughborough University. He says something that is really important to artists working on a project: ‘to understand a landscape we have to situate ourselves in it’. I think about this when I make a show. You have to try and understand the world you are writing about, through research, through visiting places, through talking to people, and that is what we will do for this project.
3. This project sees you pair up with your frequent collaborator, photographer Julian Hughes. What do you hope to explore together through this project?
Because the book was a collaboration between John Berger and a photographer, Jean Mohr, I wanted the core of this project to be a collaboration with a photographer too. I have worked with Julian for over 10 years now on performance projects and he brings a brilliant visual awareness to the work and documents it beautifully. I am hoping he is going to be able to work with the selected visual artists and share with them how best to capture life in doctors’ surgeries, sensitively and discreetly, while also revealing a little more about the beauty of the everyday. I will work with the writers and theatre makers and then we will bring our work together.
4. The project is part of New Perspectives’ engagement programme, placing you as an established artist with emerging artists from the East Midlands region. What skills are you looking for in these creatives?
An ability to think creatively and find interesting solutions to challenging situations. I enjoy working with people who think on their feet, where the doing is the thinking. I don’t like talking too much about the work, I just like getting on and doing it. I hope we can find a group of artists who are all on the same wavelength and who can bring their complementary skills to the process. It is going to be a bit like a jigsaw.
5. These emerging artists will be working with you over a four-month period. What can they expect from the project?
They can expect to become a cross between artists and detectives, as we go out on a kind of field trip to visit different surgeries in different communities, like the one John Berger writes about in the book. His doctor, John Sassall, would visit people’s houses and know different generations of the same family and we want to see what doctors now are like. In the book, John Sassall says that he sometimes wonders how much he is the last of the old traditional country doctors and how much he is a doctor of the future. He asks if you can be both and I suppose we are exploring what this idea of a doctor of the future might look like. I want us all to bring a different lens to the process, as writer, photographer or artist. And I want us to be able to tell the story of John Berger’s book and the doctor that inspired it. Tragically, the doctor in the book took his own life, and I think this might be our starting point.
6. Lastly, what advice would you give to creatives who are thinking of applying to this project?
Make the work you want to make. Be the artist you want to be. Be yourself.
The A Fortunate Man project will run from April – July 2017. Keep a look our for project updates on www.newperspectives.co.uk