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actor, playwright, Australia
Phillip Hinton was born in war-time Britain and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa to where his parents emigrated in 1947. After undistinguished years at school, in 1961 he became a member of the young Bahá'í Community of Cape Town and by some quirk of fate, was invited to join a professional
theatre company as an actor. At the age of 18, the idea of being both applauded and paid to show off was irresistible, and Phillip decided on the stage as a career path.
In 1963 he made his way to London, to attend the first World Congress of the Bahá´í Faith, held at the Royal Albert Hall, and to pursue his profession. There followed 12 years working first in repertory, on television and with some of Britain's leading directors in The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, and the Hampstead Theatre Club. In London in a musical comedy, he met a dancer, Ann Constant. They have been married for thirty-four years and have three sons, Sean, Simon and Benjamin.
The Hinton family moved to Australia in 1975 and Phillip has continued his acting career on stage, television, films and in radio drama. Recently, he has had guest roles in several US TV productions, The Flood, The Thornbirds - the Missing Years, Tanker Incident, Time Trax and Flipper. He is also in great demand as one of Sydney's leading 'voice over' artists in radio and television advertising and for documentary narrations.
In 1992 at the Second Bahá´í World Congress in New York, Phillip played the role of Howard MacNutt in the drama, Heralds of the Covenant, which was performed twice before an audience of 15,000 people in the Jacob Javits Centre.
The solo performance, Portals to Freedom, has toured major cities in Australia and USA, and has been performed at the Seat of the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel and in London and Auckland.|
Portals to Freedom, adapted by Phillip Hinton from the book of the same name, is the story of Howard Colby Ives who, in 1911 was a minister in the Unitarian Church. Ives was one of a number of leaders of thought and society figures who were privileged to meet `Abdu'l-Bahá during His visit to America in 1911/12. In 1937, Ives published ‘Portals to Freedom’, a detailed memoir of his days in the presence of the Master, which profoundly altered the course of his life. Ives left his ministry in the church to become a devoted Bahá'í. His days of spiritual search and discovery which involved a certain amount of anguished soul-searching are examined in this performance by Phillip Hinton.
Descendants of Howard Colby Ives
(in Portland, Oregon)
with Phillip Hinton, 1996.
Late in 1993 I had a call from a member of a Bahá´í special projects' committee, planning a major National Bahá´í Conference in Melbourne in December that year. They asked me to devise and perform a piece 'in the spirit of the drama presented at the World Congress in 1992'. I had had an idea for some years to adapt Howard Colby Ives' 'Portals to Freedom' as a solo piece for the stage...
The initial brief was for a piece "no more than fifteen minutes long", so I set to work on the part of the book where Ives meets ‘Abdu'l-Bahá for the first time. I took it pretty well word for word from the text of the book and performed to a large audience with me seated in a single spotlight on a huge empty stage. The response was quite overwhelming - encouraging, to say the least! So in 1994 I began working on a longer version, about forty-five minutes, to perform at Yerrinbool Bahá´í Winter School. As I worked my way through the book I began to realise that what was appealing about Ives' account was the intimate and personal detail of his relationship with ‘Abdu'l-Bahá. As far as I know, no other diary or journal in the whole canon of Bahá´í literature is quite as specific.
What struck me particularly was his rather touching candour in talking about the mental conflict he went through to find a more secure belief in God - and to understand the meaning of 'renunciation' - as Howard explains it in the play: "...detachment from the things of this material world through the greater life of the spiritual kingdom."
The resolution of personal or inter-personal conflict, is of course, the stuff of good drama. A monologue can soon become dull, like a lecture, so I began to take random incidents from the book which occur in no particular sequence and edit and construct them into a narrative, which is in fact the progress of Ives' spiritual journey - ("a journey from self - to God") undertaken during the Master's time in America. Part of the process was to slightly adapt the rather prosaic 'book-writing' language into something closer to everyday speech, though I was conscious of not overdoing this and losing the 'period' feel of the play...
performing Portals to Freedom
...I decided to begin with Howard reciting part of the Lord's Prayer from Luke Chapter 11, verse 1, to place his story in its Christian roots from the
outset. (The last lines of the play are from ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's 'Tablet of Visitation'). Throughout the play Howard talks directly to the audience, they are like 'guests' in his drawing room. The different episodes are linked by a kind of commentary, some of which is in the book but for the most part, I imagined him telling the audience, for instance (after the story of the first meeting with the Master) "So! So was born - how can I describe it?
... that mystic bond, that attraction between the seeker and the object of his quest. You know, I have often asked myself how it was that I was chosen for so rare a privelege. But of course, I was not unique in this. He had the power to reach the spiritual centre of each and every soul. How
uncanny was that gift." (Which leads him into the story of arriving at the Kinney home unannounced and uninvited, where he creeps up the stairs to wait for the late diners at luncheon to finish, only to be summoned by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's voice!) "I was amazed! How could He have known so quickly and so surely that I was there!"
I guess a little over half the text is verbatim from the book and the rest is my interpretation of Ives' character and personality, some of is hinted at in the book and some supported by material received from his descendants who I met during the tour to the US in 1995...
...It occurs to me that perhaps my long experience as a performer in everything from Shakespeare to the 'bedroom' farces of Feydeau has equipped me to know something about what will touch or amuse an audition. I am sure that this instinct has guided me instinctively in devising the text thus far.
Although 'Portals' has many strong resonances for an informed Bahá´í audience, my main concern was to make the stories accessable to as wide an audience as possible without appearing to be at all 'preachy'. I think the play has achieved a measure of success in this, though I should stress that beyond this one concern, at no time in the writing was I concerned with achieving a specific 'outcome' - for example, "teaching the Faith through the arts", a phrase which I seem to hear over and over nowadays and which I deeply abhor. An artist's one concern should be to try to create a work of art, to tell the truth. If the writer or composer sets out with an 'aim' to win people over to an opinion or to 'teach' them in some way, he or she subverts the artistic process from its outset and the work will most likely be neither a work of art, nor will it achieve its so-called 'aim'! It is more likely to have the taste of cheap propaganda about it.
I hope that this little play of mine is an honest piece of work and that my audiences are touched in some way by the stories of the Master. If there is a 'teaching' effect then that is a bonus, a by-product - quite acceptable, but not my 'aim' or 'intention'! And simply being a Bahá´í does not in itself mean that you will create something worthwhile! I like these words, quoted in John McManners' foreword to 'The Oxford History of Christianity': 'It is safer to turn to geniuses without faith than to believers without talent', said the French Dominican, Marie-Alain Couturier - an aphorism which he tested by persuading Matisse, Braque, Chagall and other great names of the day to do work for the church of Assy in the French Alps.
To him, all great art is spiritual, since the genius of the artist lies in the depths, the secret inner being from whence faith also springs. Jacques Maritain has drawn out a further implication of the supposition of the unity of all spiritual experience...
...To perform, the play is actually not very demanding at all. It is in fact one of the most satisfying acting assignments I have ever undertaken - imagine being immersed in these stories of the Master's perfect life from the point of view of a man profoundly transformed by the experience of meeting Him. As an actor it is a wonderful journey to undertake, quite unlike anything else I have ever done, and each time I perform it I seem to discover something new about 'Daddy Howard'. In a 'play for solo actor' there is of course no-one else to relate to on the stage - one has to 'create' the other characters in the minds of the audience members. When people say to me every so often that they felt close to ‘Abdu'l-Bahá during the one hour of the play, it is a special reward, particularly in the light of the fact that, as you are no doubt aware, it is forbidden for Bahá'í s to portray on stage or film, the persons of the Central Figures of their Faith.
For one precious hour I am the medium which brings these touching stories of the Master to life in the minds and hearts of my audience. From the first moment of the play to the last - when the stage is dark save for the illuminated portrait of the Master, that hour seems to me to go by in a few minutes, no time at all. It is then a special, almost 'God-given' privelege to be an actor...
Excerpts from Arts Dialogue, June 2000, pages 16 - 18
If you would like to invite Phillip Hinton to perform Portals to Freedom in your Bahá´í Community, wherever you live,
please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The website for Portals to Freedom is: http://www.ozemail.com.au/~lingua/portals/
There is also a complete recording of the play on audio cassette.
Price: $10 (Australian) plus postage.
Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands