‘The Manual Oracle’ is a theatre project exploring the ambiguities between paranoia, strategic thinking and self-consciousness. It is created and directed by Phoebe von Held, and currently in its development stage, pursuing script completion and pre-production activities.

This new performance piece is originally inspired by Baltasar Gracian’s 1647 ‘Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence’. In 300 maxims, Gracian, a Jesuit monk, offers advice on how to survive the intrigues of the court, how to act in public, and how to retain the upper hand over one’s competitors. What is fascinating about this seventeenth-century ‘self-help-book’ is that Gracian’s instructions can be compared to the methods of the stage actor: the courtier should conceal his true self, play a role, and simulate false intentions. But, Gracian also urges his readers to remain on the watch, because others are only waiting to harm you. Suspicion features strongly in ‘The Manual Oracle’, evoking a mental world where paranoia has become command: always act as if you are being watched! (Maxim 297, ‘The Manual Oracle’)

The ‘Manual Oracle’ theatre project explores this intersection between theatricality, self-consciousness and paranoia, projecting it onto contemporary scenarios, such as immigration, racist xenophobia, surveillance, political rhetoric, simulation in corporate professions, survivalist movements, etc. It uses the aphoristic structure of Gracian’s urgent instructions to create a kaleidoscope of brief scenarios, visual tableaux and sound pieces, dissecting states of mind in which strategic thinking has become almost indistinguishable from paranoia.

In 2012, the project was awarded final stage R&D funding from the Arts Council England and from the Maudsley Charity. The targets of this grant period from Oct 2012 – June 2013 are script completion, design conceptualisation and pre-production. This also includes the development of creative writing workshops for NHS mental health service users, in particular people having experienced paranoid thinking.

From Nov 2010 – Oct 11, Phoebe was awarded a Leverhulme Artists Residency, hosted by the Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London to research and develop this project. In collaboration with psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers, therapists and patients, as well as other writers, she developed a 55-minute script which was performed in a work-in-progress showing in Sept 2011.