H I S T O R Y
Henry McGrath has been developing his solo practice since 2009. In 2007, he was accepted into one of the summer productions of the Youth Music Theatre at a monastic convent a few miles outside of the historic city of Bath. Under the direction of Kath Burlinson, a director and the founder of the Authentic Artist Collective (http://authenticartist.co.uk/) the project sought to explore ‘dreams’. Crucially, Kath had invited two American artists, whom she had met two years previously, Nancy Spanier and Paul Oertel, life partners and artistic collaborators since 1972 (http://www.performanceinventions.org/). Together they facilitated and developed a rich, explorative, expressive and highly organic process. Exercises deliberating on forest bark and fauna, dancing to the shape of petals, searching for the animal in the other, writing letters of destiny, frozen figures from Pompeii awakening slowly – the entire process took on a dreamlike quality as each young participant was allowed to journey, consciously or not, into the world of their dreams.
A critical part of the encounter Henry had during this time was with Paul during a regular two-hour slot where the young boys and girls each had their own separate time, exploring dreams within the context of their own group. With Paul, the male group was given the unique opportunity to enter into the energy of the masculine. In the space drums were set out, and the group was offered the freedom to dance or drum in a free-form exchange of expression that lifted the spirit of the group in a profound and meaningful way. For Henry, these short but intense sessions were a surprising and liberating ‘Rites of Passage’.
At the end of the course, Henry, at the age of 17, approached Nancy and asked whether he could come and work with herself and Paul at their home in the Dordogne region of Southern France. It was not until two years later, at the age of 19, after completing his first year at university, that in August 2009 Henry made the journey down to work alone with Nancy and Paul for a week.
The intention for the work was to explore texts and monologues and to develop improvisational techniques. Two years previously Henry had sought to get into drama school, with no opening. He had done well with auditions at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), and this was to develop further in 2012 when Henry attended RADA’s MA Theatre LAB.
Nancy and Paul collected Henry from the small yellow-stoned rail station of Sarlat. In the car back to their residence, Nancy and Paul enquired into Henry’s recent life events, exploring with enthusiasm, interest and great care. The detail in which this initial exchange manifested set up the depth in which the work was able to go over the week and brought to surface some of the essential matters that were investigated in the working space.
Nancy and Paul live in an old and small French manoir. They live simply but with great elegance. Beside the house is a separate studio, an old barn that they have carefully reinstated into a beautiful, light and spacious working space with its traditional stone walls and a carefully managed wooden floor. Below the house is a small petit appartement, where over the week Henry stayed.
Surrounding their home (La Gafferie) is an ancient forest within the watchful eye of the towers of the Chateau de Commarque, a 12th century hillside castle situated in a rocky outcrop over luscious glades; the foundations of what was once a prehistoric river. Nancy names this valley, the ‘Valley of the Goddess’, as many years previously a prehistoric Venus figure had been found amongst the dense woodlands.
Henry stayed at their residence for 7 days. Over this time, they worked together for 8 hours over the course of a week. Here, Nancy and Paul invited Henry into an exploration of his expression. Dance, sound, body work and text became ingredients for an alchemic research. There was a purposeful endeavour to move away from setting Henry up with the skills he needed for drama school, but rather a seeking to awaken the essential language of Henry’s expressive source. Paul and Nancy’s work is rooted in their desire to excavate the fundamental expressions of the human spirit, and they invited Henry into this work over the week, to discover the pure dance and the vital artistic voices that reside within all of us.
Over the week, Henry was invited to write poetry (for the first time) which fed into and developed layers of connectivity between the artistic forms. Dances became layered with images and emotional truths. Sounds sought to enter poetry and poetry desired to become sound. This richly textured interweaving of forms created a potent encounter with self. In essence, Henry experienced a vibrant artistic encounter with himself.
Following the work in France, Henry was deeply concerned about how to maintain the investigation and to set up an ongoing solo practice where he could continue to research the forms and worlds that had been opened and initiated in France. What began from here was (unknown to him) the beginning of an extraordinary and committed 3-year full time exploration of self and practice. Beginning in his mother’s woodcarving studio, he shut the door and continued the threads of practice that he had started. Playing between movement, poetry, sounding, text and writing in his journal, he slowly began to work out what practice was, the devotion to a practice and, over time, how a regularity to personal excavation yields richly layered expressions.
For two years at university and a further (gap) year from 2009-2012, Henry developed his personal solo practice and learned about the prism of artistic and personal possibility within each person.
Henry continued to work with Nancy Spanier, Paul Oertel and Kath Burlinson through the ‘Discipline of Freedom’ workshops in 2011, 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2019. DOF is Pauls life’s work, to facilitate the manifestation of artistry to artists of all levels. Henry also went to work with Nancy and Paul alone in France in 2015, which was another deeply enriching experience.
As Henry’s work developed, he went on to work with experimental theatre groups and as an actor in the traditional mainstream. Most recently his solo work has moved into film and he has opened his work into the ‘Solo School’. His practice has moved and meandered through different stages and colorations of focus over 11 years, and this has developed and widened his perspective and understanding of practice and the devotion to self. His work has roots in the time he spent in France in 2009, his collaboration within the Authentic Artist Collective and the ‘laboratory’ stages of his solo research from 2009-2012. His artistic work always arrives back to these discoveries, and his films and theatre pieces reflect and explore the dedication to personal transformation and the journey that we all seek towards inner and expressive freedom.