The day the taxman(and woman) joined the Magic Circle.
Peter Wiegold is a composer, conductor, and creative workshop leader based in London. He holds B.Mus. and M.Mus. degrees from the University College of Wales and a Ph.D. in composition from Durham University.
2002 copyright Peter Wiegold
The headquarters of the Inland Revenue are in Somerset House, proudly sitting on the Thames by Waterloo Bridge.
The communications department, comprising tax specialists and publicity, invited me to lead an 'awayday'; for 40 of their staff.
They imagined a event where everyone could get to know one another in a different light, where their work issues could be reframed in another world. We planned a day of exploring communication and creative teamwork, but in which we also created a ''show'.
Picking up the creative spirit, they set out to find a special venue - they began with a Royal Navy cruiser moored in the Thames, moved to an trendy Arts Centre, but then were delighted to discover the "Magic Circle.” This is the headquarters of the British Society of Magicians, with offices and theatre hidden in a tiny street near Euston station.
The participants were not told in advance of the venue, just given the address, so they duly arrived at 9:30 to sit in the downstairs bar of the Magic Circle, surrounded by rather daunting photos of men with neat gray moustaches and beards and a frightening twinkle in their eye.
I introduced the themes of the day as 'transformation' and " the familiar becoming unfamiliar ,” and then we climbed a narrow spiral staircase to the museum.
Surrounded by ventriloquists dummies, and boxes in which women had been sawn in half, we began working. First in a circle - light and fast communication exercises led to the beginning of rhythm, and then we broke into playing ( I had surrounded them with instruments from a percussion store) The music started to gel, and, as ever, experienced musicians began to reveal themselves within the group - a head of section turned out to be a fine recorder player , there was a violin and sax, and several good singers.
I had also brought with me two colleagues, a very fine sax improviser, and a bass player, so with a bit of direction we began to sound like a band. Vibraphones, bells, and wind chimes helped set a magical atmosphere.
After coffee, up another flight of the spiral stairs (they were purple with glittering stars above) to a cute magic theatre with a tiny stage, that really did have torn playing cards on the floor from the previous nights show.
We began to look at work-related issues. . I started with a Peter Brook theatre exercise where participants have to field 4 kinds of simultaneous instructions/questions, leading to work on coping and acknowledging under pressure.
Then, working in creative teams. I asked them to quickly create tableau . This was fast and funny - involving, of course, people pulling one another, shouting at one another, having to make quick, authoritative decisions.
We explored this exercise with and without a director figure, and worked for a while on issues of creative management, time management and leadership.
There were very interesting interactions - a dialogue with a department head about how she accepted and rejected ideas, for example.
After lunch - and an interesting conversation with a creative director on the importance of 'atmosphere' to get the right kind of imagining - it was time to put all energies into making the show. (Performance 4:30)
We went back to the 'band', and worked on an overture. I structure things so that everyone can add a part - from just a straightforward supportive rhythm to something more developed. (Often the simplest of elements also make the perfect seed for the next step).
In the morning I had emphasized how the arts use simple natural things to bring presentations alive - color, rhythm, the elements (earth, air, fire, water). How important it is to evoke rather than describe.
One of the resultant tableaus had had a very convoluted shape, which involved several women wound round the feet of a tall black man. This, we discovered, symbolized the 'Blackpool Tower', a famous tourist landmark in a Northern seaside town.
To a Briton this is an icon of holiday gaudiness and glitz (and cheap "end-of the-pier" shows).
This provided a perfect frame for the whole show. The Blackpool Tower has several floors, so this was to be a surreal show moving from floor to floor to discover different entertainments. (much as we'd had in the Magic Circle building.)
It was to be tower of transformation, a series of theatres where nothing was what it seemed.
People set about creating 'floors' and one group made the "lift music", to go between the scenes.
The scenes included an interview panel led by a woman with a whip...... a saloon where instead of getting in touch with your "inner child" you got in touch with your "inner animal" - (some nice transformations here)...... a gentle song about change...... and a grand finale set in a surreal ballroom.
The whole MC'd by the aforesaid 'Blackpool Tower' himself.
The performance was just on time and delightful , followed by much applauding and congratulating.
At the very end of the last scene, Head and Deputy Head of Publicity, who had been at one anothers' throats for weeks, were seen improvising a dance duet .
The day went at a fast face and was only really a taste of what might be possible, but a worthwhile reminder that imagination opens doors, that everyday communication, so often habitual and wasteful, can be fresh and spontaneous.
And that the arts also involve 'management' - not just 'inspiration', but a more complicated set of skills - from clarity of intention, to open-hearted exploration to effective and committed delivery.
And that a human heart beats even in the taxman's breast.