Playing the Cosmic Trigger: An Interview with Daisy Eris Campbell
Following in the footsteps of her playwright father, Daisy Eris Campbell has been passed the blazing torch to invoke a new generation of cosmic caperers. She brings her stage adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger to Liverpool this weekend – the focal point of a Wilson-themed ‘conferestival’ of talks, music, cinema, art, performance and ritual. The cast of 23 also hit London next week with a consecutive series of shows at the Lost Theatre. Cosmic Trigger however, is not exactly a normal theatre production. It’s more like a modus operandi of discordianites that have been part of a remarkable series of synchronous events crossing the parameters of time and space. Daisy Campbell spoke to Anu Shukla.
Daisy herself was literally born into the theatre, conceived in 1976, backstage at her father’s adaptation of Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. Thirty-eight years on, she gives new life to a dusty old tale, making her the exact same age as when he staged Illuminatus!
So Daisy’s Cosmic Trigger is a play about a book about another book that inspired another play. It has several dimensions that flit between the parameters of fact and fiction, fizzling the borders in true Robert Anton Wilson style. As Alan Moore would have it, high art and high magick are one and the same. For Daisy too, other cosmic powers have been at play in the staging of this production.
“I don’t feel that this idea was entirely mine” she says. “I feel that forces basically aligned and that it stemmed from a moment soon after my dad died when I was in Liverpool at a memorial event, and we went to a place where Illuminatus! had originally been staged.”
It was the site of a Carl Jung statue. Jung had never been to Liverpool, but according to his book, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he’d dreamt that it was the ‘pool of life.’ Thanks to the poet, Peter O’Halligan, the location of that dream was discovered: an abandoned fruit and veg warehouse on the corner of Matthew Street and Rainford Square.
That derelict site was to become the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun; and within it was Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool: “It took Peter a while to do it, but he managed to find the site of Jung’s dream. He also discovered a derelict corner of the site, so he claimed it and asked my dad to put on some kind of production.”
As synchronicity would have it, Ken Campbell was planning to launch a science fiction theatre. He’d also been inspired by a certain book discovered at a Camden book shop. It was called Illuminatus! and it had a yellow submarine on its cover. Page 223 spoke of Carl Jung’s dream. What’s more, O’Halligan had dreamt of watching a spectacular show with a copy of Playboy Magazine on the seat next to him: non-sensical until he discovered Illuminatus! co-writers, Wilson and Shea, also worked at Playboy’s Chicago offices. Coincidence?
The nature of synchronicity has made itself apparent to Daisy Campbell for the entirety of her life. Her mother, Prunella Gee, who played the part of Eris in the 1978 production of Illuminatus! met Ken Campbell, fell in love and conceived her backstage.
“That’s always been part of my history, but ever since I staged The Warp, a revival of my father’s 24-hour play, people have been saying we should do Illuminatus!
My dad was always unsure and cagey about it because it was not without its casualties. They’ve incorporated so much fact and messed it in with all their strange fictional world that it can really spin people out. It spun me out too when I first read it, but this isn’t what put me off. There was something else not quite right about doing that exact same play.”
Five years after Ken Campbell’s death and the phone started ringing. Requests for Daisy’s version of Illuminatus! were flying in: “I had a sense that something was being demanded from me: something wanted to come through from this old legacy.”
Not quite satisfied with the idea of a production based entirely on Illuminatus!, Daisy discovered her answer in Wilson’s autobiography, Cosmic Trigger.
“It’s a non-fiction sequel; it’s a tribute to Robert Anton Wilson, who as far as I’m concerned, is not remembered enough by as many people as he ought to be and alongside the likes of Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Alan Watts, James Joyce etc, and that he really is a fantastic counter culture figure…
It dawned that Cosmic Trigger was the book that Robert Anton Wilson had written directly after Illuminatus! It dealt with all the strange stuff that happened to him as a result of writing the book and I suddenly thought: this could be good… I’m gonna have to test this to see if the forces that be really do demand this book.” Page 223 of Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger confirmed the answer. “It was all about the time when Wilson had been to visit my dad at the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. That’s what’s on page 223.
Do you follow me when I say it kinda wasn’t my idea? I remained open and I still do, and this became the entire controlling principle of how the entire show is coming together: it’s based on signs and symbols quite early on in the process.”
John Higgs became another cog in that process. His book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and The Band who Burned a Million Pounds intertwines Alan Moore, Doctor Who, Ken Campbell, Illuminatus, Discordianism and a series of other factors. It was the connection that was to lead Daisy to Alan Moore, who plays the voice of the supercomputer, FUCKUP.
“Alan explained his theories about art and magick and how they’re essentially the same thing. He also said there’s high art and high magick, and high magick is when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but you just proceed and everything around you is just a sign or a message.
So that was yet more affirmation really that this is coming together in the way it ought to be. It becomes an enormous act of faith when you’re dealing with a magnet that’s attracting people.”
Science and Agnosticism:
How is it possible to scientifically understand an experience without stepping into it and fully embracing it? Wilson researched the occult, psychedelics and meta-programming and stepped into the ‘Chapel Perilous’ which he described as a dangerous crossing point from which one can only emerge either ‘paranoid or agnostic.’
Daisy explains: “There comes a point where Bob Wilson thinks he may have stumbled upon an ancient dialogue with the Dog Star Sirius, stretching back thousands of years. Now, he’s a rational, sceptical person and could easily dismiss this perception that he’s having, but the minute he realises ‘this is my left brain talking to my right brain,’ all the interesting results stop.
So he recognises he needs to enter the belief system: yes he’s being contacted by some kind of extraterrestrial being. The synchronicities in the science seem to indicate that it comes from the Dog Star Sirius. He needs to enter that belief system fully in order to scientifically garner the results of what happens when you enter a belief system, right? There’s no other way to do it.
And I think again, this is what’s so interesting about this stance of agnosticism – and it’s what my dad would say is ‘supposing’: don’t believe anything, but with ‘supposing’ stuff you open yourself up to interesting results.
And it’s the same with the whole ‘is this an enormous piece of Discordian magick which may result in pulling the cosmic trigger?’ Well, it certainly isn’t if we can’t even open ourselves up to the possibility that it might!
It’s naturally what the spirit of Cosmic Trigger is: it’s how to explore your own agnosticism and to do it in a scientific way. There’s a great quote from Aleister Crowley where he says: ‘we place no reliance on virgin or pigeon, our method is science, our goal is religion.’
It says that we have to subjectively experiment with altered states, whatever methods we might use for contacting them. In the case of Wilson, there was quite a lot of psychedelics involved, but also in conjunction with Aleister Crowley, magical rituals, tantric yoga, and Bhakti yoga. You know, he was also using a scientific approach to journaling and keeping a record of what happens when you enter into these particular realms.”
Ken Campbell was cautious about introducing Illuminatus! to his daughter and he knew why. For Daisy however, it wasn’t the conspiracy stuff that spun her out, though it had been a contributing factor. Rather, it was the fact it had “unleashed an unbelievable torrent of synchronicity. Life became too meaningful and I found myself at a posh loony bin down in Kent.
For me, it was a case of pro-noia (as opposed to paranoia) where you get the creeping sensation that everyone everywhere is out to help you. I went into a realm of extraordinary positivity but also extremes of narcissism because of course, the world is out to help me exclusively achieve my aims!
It’s a lot to do with the kind of society you find yourself in. If I had been in some kind of tribal scenario, perhaps I would have been considered some kind of healer at that point going through some kind of initiation. That’s why the term ‘spiritual emergency’ is so good because there was enough neurosis wrapped into it that it was not a sane and safe state of mind for me to be in.
Whereas now, there’s nothing for me that will endure that pro-anoia better than a big old piece of collaborative creativity that really should be as close to as impossible to achieve! That always seems to get the old pro-noia flowing, but not in that tyrannical fashion!”
Growing up with Ken Campbell:
“When I was a kid, he was just so much fun. We lived next to the River Lea in Stamford Hill and he’d do stuff like get the world’s strongest magnet and we’d go fishing for supermarket trollies.
Sometimes I’d go away for a week and come back to my bedroom to find all these disgusting glasses of half-drunken juice and mouldy cereal bowls lined up on my shelf. He’d type out little notices saying, ‘experiment 1: the cereal bowl… experiment 2: the glass of juice… experiment 3: the over-flowing plate of baked beans!’
It was just an example of how endlessly he was on the look-out for ways to bring me up using the most sense of fun you could possibly imagine. I think things changed a bit when I hit adolescence. He found that tougher and I found him tougher, so we’d have a lot of blazing rows. Then from the age of 17, I began to work with him.
When he started the revival of Warp, which was also a collaboration with Fraser Clark from Megatripolis, I was his assistant director. I went on to direct it myself when it moved to London Bridge.
But I left school at 16 and joined his academy of bizarre and adventurous education where he’d send me off to do an NLP course one week and then a Punch & Judy course the next; and then off to some other mad potty escapade like clowning.
He was my teacher in many ways and doing the Warp with him was incredibly instructive! The next thing that followed was Pigeon Macbeth, where we both translated Macbeth into pigeon-English and that ended up in the West End!
It was a really bizarre, extraordinary thing. I mean Macbeth in pigeon-English was my dad’s attempt to teach the world a world language. And it was really brilliant. By then I was in my late 20s and I began to put a bit of distance between us so as to not get subsumed by his enormous, enormous presence.
But nothing was ever as much fun as doing a caper with my dad. It was a real conundrum of my late 20s really, you know?
Then of course he died so young, and at that point, I was only 30 and I kind of thought, ‘oh crumbs, I might as well have stayed around.’ But I didn’t miss that much, I missed some of the later stuff where he got into long-form improvisation, making people improvise for 50 – 60 hours straight.
At one point he said to me, ‘It’s almost as if you won’t do anything because it’s my idea’ and I said, that is actually the vow I have taken, it’s exactly that!”
An application to funding from the Arts Council was unceremoniously turned down. Instead, a crowd-funder campaign for the production of Cosmic Trigger was launched, raising over £25k over two months.
“Well, my dad used to call funded theatre ‘fun-dead theatre,’ that once you’ve got that kind of funding involved, some part of the spirit gets lost. But to be fair to the Arts Council, they did actually fund him back in the early days.
We did put in an application to the Arts Council and we thought they’d go for it, but it didn’t happen. In some ways rightly so, because it separates the men from the boys in terms of ‘we can do it anyway.’
It’s really difficult these days… When we did the Warp 15 years ago, people did not need to continue to work to survive full-time and do the project on the side. Now, it’s really, really tough to do a piece of creative collaborative work, even with people self-funding because they can’t even take the time off work to do it.
The cultural lock down on these kinds of expressions of spontaneous creative capers is really, really tough for people. I mean yeah, we’re doing it, but we’re all going to have to recover from doing it on every level because we’ve had zero support for it from any kind of arts organisation, but from the people themselves, we’ve had nothing but incredible support.
Do I hope it has a life beyond? Yes, I really, really do. I really wanna get it out to the States. There are people like Robert Anton Wilson’s daughter. She told me: ‘My god I’m getting daily emails from people asking when’s the play coming to the States?!’ So yes, I’m hoping that will happen.
It’s been a self-producing DIY thing: it’s not been commissioned, it’s not been supported or co-produced with any theatre, it’s an entirely grassroots endeavour. So for a Discordian production, it makes total sense that this is the way it’s having its first outing. What lies beyond, I don’t know. What happens when you pull together all these people in this way? Let’s pull the cosmic trigger and see what the fall out is.”
Cosmic Capering in the Spirit of Ken Campbell:
“When we first put out that we wanted to do a crowd-funder and we were asking people to donate 23 pounds, in that first few days, I got a royalty cheque for £23. I got it from my dad because it was his work. It feels like he’s very present and very involved, his spirit has been very involved.
And actually, someone said to me: ‘this whole project, it’s backward looking no? Because you’re looking back to this time in the sixties and early seventies of Robert Anton Wilson writing Illuminatus! and when Timothy Leary, William Burroughs and all those other guys were getting to know each other, isn’t that a bit backward looking?’
But in fact, what’s become clearer and clearer is that it’s honouring the ancestors and it feels really important. John Higgs’ book is another example: that there’s a kind of need to look back and understand this sort of strange subterranean lineage and the heritage that’s still running through a lot of peoples’ veins and they need another expression for it.
I’d like inspire others to take up the mantle of cosmic capering. Not everything has to be funded and professional in the way that we get told. We can do it ourselves and we can let it come through; let the high magick rise, proceed even though you don’t know what the hell you’re doing and let’s pull the cosmic trigger!”
Cosmic Trigger is happening in Liverpool right now at the Camp and Furnace. Get there in time for this Saturday afternoon’s four-hour play which kicks off at 14:23 precisely. You can also enjoy the ‘potty merriment after the play’ at the Papal Ball (featuring comedy from ventriloquist, Nina Conti and a DJ set from Youth), and then join the Conferestival the following day. Cosmic Trigger the Play will be staged in London at the Lost Theatre everyday from 26 until 29 November 2014.