A Thought Experiment

by Anthony Simpson-Pike

I want to imagine something together. I want to imagine that stories really matter. Not in an airy-fairy way, but in the language of brick and bone. Stories as architecture. They make the world and as humans we react to each other and live in the world, based on the stories we know. Some of us are afraid to go into the sea because we’ve heard stories of big fish with sharp teeth. Others might follow me in a shop because of the stories they’ve been told, and internalised, about people who look like me. So stories have real power. And real consequences. We learn our way of being from the stories we are told. And in retelling them, we also reinforce the way of the world. We make the story ‘true’.

But even so, the institutions, the rules, the regulations, the fundamentals of how we live life are made up, invented by us. They’re stories that have calcified and assumed supremacy until we can’t imagine any other way of doing things. Our entire economic system relies on the story of giving each other bits of otherwise worthless paper that we’ve agreed is called money. We live in bits of land we’ve decided to call countries, though nature and indeed the climate crisis don’t recognise borders. We’ve made up rules about gender, ‘race’, class and we are asked to buy into these stories every day or face the consequences. We must keep performing the roles that keep the story going. There is little room for other stories, and any that do exist are shot down. So what does this mean for storytellers? What is our role in this picture?

I was struck, years ago, to read about a thought experiment called The Veil of Ignorance by a philosopher called John Rawls in his book Theory of Justice. Everyone is biased by their own experiences, he wrote, so it is difficult to agree on a fair social contract for organising the world. If the essence of justice is fairness, then to make a just world it needs to be a fair one. Rawls’ thought experiment entails placing yourself under a veil of ignorance in which you do not know your race, class, gender, your body, your position in society. If one writes the story of the world that they will be born into, liable to end up anywhere in society under these circumstances, there might be a better chance of achieving fairness and avoiding your own biases in the design. Rawls’ experiment is about imagining that different stories are possible. If we take a step back we can see the building blocks of the current story and our place in it clearly. The world doesn’t have to be like this, we could reimagine it. We could tell a new story.

The climate crisis is also a crisis of the imagination. We can’t imagine living differently so we can’t remake the world for the better. We can only be what we have previously imagined. The American literary critic Frederic Jameson wrote “someone once said it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. Responding to this Mark Fisher argued this is a product of a general atmosphere called capitalist realism, which is produced through culture, work and education and constrains thought and action so no-one can imagine living outside of capitalism. Our imaginations are being constrained by a single story. Ask yourself, how many stories have you seen that don’t take place in the conditions of capitalism? Hard, right? Much easier to make a list of stories about apocalypse.

Today, every story is told in the context of the climate emergency whether we face it head on or not. Nothing is made outside of that context. I think if we were asked to hypothetically imagine what people who lived in a society that had 9 years left to transform or implode would do with that time, we would come up with something very different from what’s actually happening. Because stories make the world, and don’t just describe it, all art is political. How we tell stories, as well as which stories we tell, matters. Each story told is a choice not to tell another, that’s inevitable. But if stories genuinely matter, how can we tell stories of and in the way we’d like to live life? What if theatres could be imagination centres, breaking open the single story of how life can be organised? What if we could imagine different futures and rehearse them now? Show they’re possible. Defeat the single story.

This post was first published as part of a toolkit series by The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. You can read the full post here.  We are grateful for the permission to republish this post.

Anthony Simpson-Pike is a director, writer and dramaturg whose work has been staged in theatres including The Gate, The Young Vic and The Royal Court. He is currently the Associate Director at The Yard Theatre, was previously the associate director at The Gate Theatre and was a finalist for the 20th JMK award. He is interested in new writing as well as radical re-stagings of classic works, exploring the political function of theatre and questions around identity, power, representation and the environment. As well as working as a dramaturg, Anthony is a reader for The Royal Court. 

Anthony is also a facilitator, with a passion for theatre centring young people and communities, having worked at The Gate, The Royal Court, The Young Vic and The Globe in this capacity. In addition to theatre, Anthony has worked with Tamasha Theatre company to make audio drama for the National Archives (Loyalty and Dissent) and enjoys working across different media. He is passionate about international work having received a British Council bursary to visit the Informal European Theatre Meeting in Brussels, as well as being selected by the British Council to attend DirectorsLab North in Toronto. In 2019, he was invited to be a visiting guest artist for the Banff Playwrights Lab.

Recent directorial work includes The Ridiculous Darkness by Wolfram Lotz at The Gate, which received 5-star reviews, “stunning and subversive” (The Stage), “you’d be sorely pressed to find anything more riveting or stupendous” (WhatsOnStage).

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