Supernormal functioning in actors

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James Louis Wagner
A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of

the California Institute of Integral Studies

in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of

Doctor of Philosophy in Transformative Studies

California Institute of Integral Studies

San Francisco, CA



I certify that I have read SUPERNORMAL FUNCTIONING IN ACTORS, and that in my opinion this work meets the criteria for approving a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy in Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Allan Combs, Ph.D., Chair, Faculty, Transformative Studies
Michael Schwartz, Ph.D., Committee Member, GRU, Art History
Ashley Wain, Ph.D., Committee Member, Adjunct Lecturer, Charles Sturt U

© 2013 James Louis Wagner


This inquiry sought to answer the question, “Do professional actors experience supernormal functioning in their work?” Relevant subquestions included “What specific types and subtypes of supernormal capacities do professional actors develop and use?” and “What causes and sustains supernormal functioning in professional actors?” This thesis concludes and argues that supernormal functioning is, in fact, an integral and essential component of actors’ work across cultures and pedagogies.

Using narrative interviews with experienced actors who were also experienced spiritual practitioners this study identifies various specific categories of supernormal functioning, as well as some of the causes of, and blocks to, sustained access to these supernormal capacities. Using semi-structured interviews to explicate narratives relative to this inquiry, this study developed ten short case studies. Participants were working professional actors who had received at least 3 years of formal training in acting technique and had participated in some form of long term (five years or more) transformative practice.

By situating the data analysis within an integral epistemology, the thesis offers a meta-pedagogical framework which can assist individual actors, teachers, and training programs in developing modular integrative practices towards sustained access to supernormal capacities in performance.



Chapter 1: Introduction 1

Supernormal Functioning (SNF) 1

Researcher’s Bias and Background 4

Purpose and Vision 6

Nature of the Inquiry 8

Chapter 2: Literature Review 9

SNF Literature 11

Supernormal Functioning in Acting 15

Supernormal self-sense. 15

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities. 20

Supernormal play. 22

Supernormal service. 23

Supernormal will. 25

Supernormal knowledge. 27

Supernormal communication. 29

Supernormal aesthetics. 31

Supernormal health and vitality. 32

Conclusion 33

Chapter 3: Method 34

Rationale 34

Research Paradigm 36

Interview Protocols 36

Research Participants 38

Rationale for selection. 39

Recruitment. 39

Human Subject Procedures & Ethical Issues 40

Data Analysis 41

Interpretation of Data 42

Delimitations and Limitations 42

Issues of Validity 43

Chapter 4: Results 45

Patrycja Kujawska 45

Introduction. 45

Relevant background. 46

Red shoes. 46

God of theatre. 46

Robert Parsons 47

Introduction. 47

Relevant background. 47

Training. 48

Abe Lincoln at the Ford. 48

Black Rider. 49

Gemma Wilcox 49

Relevant background. 50

Transformative practice. 50

The show speaks. 51

Dangerously safe. 51

Hal Landon 52

Introduction. 52

Relevant background. 52

Transformative practice. 53

Training. 53

Scrooge. 54

The madness of Buffalo Bill. 55

Jack Plotnick 55

Introduction. 55

Training. 55

Transformative practice. 56

Teaching. 56

Supernormal capacities. 57

Follow the joy. 57

Crying on cue. 58

Wise selfishness. 58

Larry Moss 59

Introduction. 59

Relevant background. 59

Transformative practice. 59

Teaching. 60

Supernormal capacities. 60

Katie Rubin 61

Introduction. 61

Relevant background. 62

Training. 62

Transformative practice. 63

Impossible odds and a second wind. 64

Matt Mitler 64

Introduction. 64

Relevant background. 65

Training. 65

Transformative practices. 65

Dzieci. 66

Energy sensitivity. 67

Presence. 67

Fools Mass. 67

Makbet. 68

Collectively purifying ritual. 69

Julia Ormond 69

Introduction. 69

Relevant background. 69

Training. 70

Transformation. 70

First Night. 71

Legends of the Fall. 72

Ancestral offering. 72

Most current. 73

Joan Mankin 73

Introduction. 73

Training. 74

Transformation. 74

Mind reading. 74

Practicing perfection. 75

Iyengar yoga, Vipassana, and Boom. 75

Compassion for the Devil. 76

Chapter 5: Analysis of Coding 77

Supernormal Self-Sense 78

Supernormal self-sense: No-self. 78

Supernormal self-sense: Divine self. 79

Supernormal self-sense: Transpersonal or archetypal self. 80

Supernormal self-sense: Ancestor and past life identification. 80

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities. 83

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Invisible body. 86

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Causal body. 88

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Invisible network. 89

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Second winds. 91

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Telekinesis. 92

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Shape shifting. 93

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Auric radiation. 94

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Yogic union. 95

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Ecstasies. 97

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Channeling. 98

Supernormal Play 99

Supernormal play: Reclaimed inner child. 99

Supernormal play: Beginners mind. 100

Supernormal Service 102

Supernormal service: Self-sacrifice. 102

Supernormal service: Deity service. 104

Supernormal service: Collective ritual. 107

Supernormal service: Healing powers. 111

Supernormal service: Participation with synchronicity. 114

Supernormal Will 114

Supernormal will: Imperturbability/equanimity. 114

Supernormal will: Faith actions. 115

Supernormal will: Enactment of divine will. 117

Supernormal Knowledge (SNK) 120

Supernormal knowledge: ESP. 120

Supernormal knowledge: Self-knowledge. 121

Supernormal knowledge: All at once perception. 124

Supernormal Communication (SNC) 126

Supernormal communication: Direct transmission. 126

Supernormal communication: Non-human communication. 128

Supernormal communication: Maximum personal encounter. 129

Supernormal Aesthetics (SNA) 133

Supernormal aesthetics: Sanctification of the ugly. 134

Supernormal aesthetics: Devotion to art & beauty. 137

Supernormal Health and Vitality 137

Supernormal health and vitality: Self-existent joy/imperturbable happiness. 137

Chapter 6: Discussion 138

Thematic Conclusions 138

Introduction. 138

Causes and blocks. 139

Supernormal experiences vs. supernormal capacities. 145

Long Term Practice 149

Quality and kind of supernormal capacities. 153

Sex, sports, and theatre. 154

Ideas of supernormal functioning. 157

Various energies. 159

Synchronicity. 161

Transmission. 162

Evaluations of the Study Method and Validity 165

Introduction. 165

Literature review. 165

Coding review. 166

Interview process review. 166

Selection review. 167

Transcription review. 168

Coding review. 169

Results and analysis review. 169

Evaluation conclusion. 170

References 172

Appendix A: Committee Membership 178

Appendix B: Consent Form 180

Appendix C: Confidentiality Statement 184

Appendix D: Participants Bill of Rights 185

Chapter 1: Introduction

Oscar Wilde (2013) once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being” (para. 1). Oscar Wilde here expresses an almost spiritual reverence for theatre. It is a sentiment shared by many who have come to love acting and theatre. There is something magical and divine about transcendent art, regardless of the form, and acting is no different. Great acting has a luminous quality that awes and inspires audiences; that can liberate upon apprehension. Great actor poses the extreme dichotomy of being able to command a reverence that boarders on royalty and sainthood while ever playing the fool.

Acting is an ideal place to study supernormal capacities. Theatre and the art of acting have their roots in spiritual ritual, religious rites, shamanic mask possession, yogic energy anatomies, and esoteric magic and alchemical practices. It could be seen that actors must develop some aspects of supernormal capacities in order to fulfill their function in the collective ritual of theatre. This thesis explores specific ways that actors demonstrate spiritual development; it proposes that supernormal capacities in actors are essentially spiritual abilities and emerge through stages as developmental capacities primarily due to sustained practice.

Supernormal Functioning (SNF)

Murphy [Mic] coined the term supernormal functioning and compiled scholarship to catalogue examples of various supernormal capacities primarily from the literature sports, spiritual, and transformative practice. Murphy (Murphy & Leonard, 2005) concluded that these capacities were developmental in nature and could be cultivated through long term transformative practices of various kinds. He also defined them as exceptionally high levels of ability in any given developmental capacity; in his survey he created twelve categories of normal human functioning and laid out the supernormal versions of each. Supernormal functioning is cultivated through long term conscious practices [Wil08]. Defining “Supernormal Functioning” as various developmental capacities cultivated by long-term transformative practice sets it apart from related terms such as non-ordinary states (Grof, 2006), peak experience [Abr64], transpersonal experience [Ken81], and altered states of consciousness[Cha69]. Supernormal functioning contains aspects of peak, non-ordinary, or altered states; but over time and with ongoing practice these fleeting experiences can become stabilized as corresponding abilities [Ken07]. If they are to be reliably sustained [Mur05], they must involve long term regular practice and progress through a developmental sequence of stages.

Often supernormal functioning is transpersonal; coming from beyond the self and in a spiritual dimension of reality. These supernormal functions often involve forces or consciousness beyond a personal self-sense and are difficult to metabolize into one’s being without a robust transrational or transpersonal view such as offered by Grof [Sta06], Wilber [Ken07], Wade (2004), or Alli [All09].

An exhaustive list of supernormal capacities would be impossible here, but some examples of supernormal functioning include practices of rapture or bodily ecstasies, extrasensory perceptions, precognition, charismas, shape shifting, out-of-body capacities, psychic abilities, reliable access to flow states, participation with synchronicity, access to past-life memories, non-local or transrational access to knowledge, expressions of a nondual self-sense, extraordinary somatic regulation, and the ability to shift subjective and inter-subjective experiences of time and space (Braud & Anderson, 1998; Murphy, 1992; Wade, 2004; Wilber, 2007). Most compiled knowledge relevant to SNF breaks the abilities into types and subtypes for the sake of cataloguing and defining (Chaudhuri, 2013; Murphy, 1992; Murphy & White, 1995; Myers, 2013; Wade, 2004).

Some categories of SNF are abilities of perception or interior consciousness. Others are more observable behavioral capacities or communal and collectively observable intersubjectively reportable phenomenon. Among the categories and various abilities, it is not clear if they are related to each other; meaning that it’s unclear if certain abilities have a causative effect on others or if some are precursors to the emergence of others. There have been various categorizations of supernormal capacities, and although each has come up with similar styles of categorizations, their types, subtypes, and specific definitions vary. This study developed its own (yet similar) categories organically by overlapping SNF literature with relevant acting literature so as to develop distinctions that are relevant specifically to actors needs yet related to the larger field of SNF study.

These supernormal capacities often strike people as magical or miraculous or at least suggestive as revealing a mysterious and awesome dimension of life that leaves people feeling a sense of the sacred; or open to or convinced of spiritual dimensions of our existence. Often when actors are able to demonstrate such capacities they report that their interior states are exalted, connected to (or channeling) impersonal forces larger then themselves: some even report a sense of connection to or identification with the Source of Creation itself. In addition, audiences are often profoundly affected by witnessing such occurrences and flock to see such performers with an almost religious zeal.

Researcher’s Bias and Background

This study was inspired by my personal experiences with supernormal functioning as a professional actor. It began when I worked for and studied with Ken Wilber and took up an integral transformative practice in alignment with the views and values of an integral view of the world. I also became interested in pursuing supernormal functioning in my acting. Yet, I found that there was little dialogue among the professionals I work with on the subject. All the same, I knew many of them did in fact experience supernormal functioning in their work on a regular basis; or that they did pursue SNF as an ideal, whether or not they were conscious of doing so or calling what they were pursuing supernormal functioning.

In addition, I have felt as if the acting techniques I studied were less than satisfactory when compared to the size, scope, and sense of human potential present in the literature of Murphy (1992), Wilber (1995), Wade (2004), Grof (2006), and others that I’d read. After finishing my training at the American Conservatory Theatre and then acting and teaching in San Francisco Bay Area professional theatres, it became my experience that many actors have encountered the same dissatisfaction with the lack of transpersonal context for acting techniques. In addition, many actors, including myself, struggled with how to sustain supernormal functions in a healthy way; often falling prey to drugs, alcohol, or other bacchanalian or lascivious romps in order to fuel creative fires and chase altered states that felt spiritual and profoundly important. The limitations of such an approach and the ubiquity of it became obvious and sad. This research was born of that experience.

My integral bias as a researcher is born of my many years studying and even working for Wilber himself. I try to keep the bias in check, but it seems unavoidable to a certain degree. Wilber is often critiqued in that his theory of everything (his meta-theory) is far too general and broad and because of its scope it makes generalizations that are fallacious and do damage by oversimplifying significant debates in various fields of human knowledge. To whatever degree that may be true, the same may be said of this research. In it, generalizations are made that about various categories of, and topics related to, SNF. They are explored as possibly relating to supernormal functioning in actors. Because this is early mapping of a meta-pedagogical nature and it seeks to find some universal or common patterns that transcend any one tradition or culture of acting technique, it falls into the trap of oversimplifying at times. As a result, it may seem to some readers that terms are vaguely used, and sometimes they are. Occasionally terms that, to a discerning eye, have important distinctions are herein made to be too closely synonymous. Some of that might be my lack or rigor (or shortcoming as a scholar), but some of those fuzzy boundaries have to do with the generalizing nature and broad scope of the research approach.

Purpose and Vision

The basic motivation for studying supernormal functioning is one of spiritual service to actors and audiences. Supernormal capacities hold, as essentially spiritual events often reveal, or are achieved through, a spiritual reality; they hold the highest, most developed, and thus the most significant dimensions of human potential and human life. A presupposed value of this study is that it is fundamentally good that all people grow to the fullest capacity to satisfy an innate and fundamental evolutionary urge.

In addition, the hope of this effort is that actors can serve audiences by leading by example towards these actualized spiritual vistas. The combined examination of acting and SNF is purposeful and hopefully effective in the following ways. First, it can be seen by the review of the literature, that when great acting is discussed, often supernormal abilities (by any other name) are being referred to, thus a more comprehensive and integrated theory of supernormal functioning in acting could empower actor theory and practice altogether; to help actors understand how to grow towards and sustainably access SNF abilities relevant to the art of acting. Another advantage would be that the study would begin to develop a transpedagogical approach need to address one of the primary challenges facing postmodern acting: the profusion of techniques from all times, places, and cultures often leave actors with a disjointed uncertainty as to how various techniques are related to each other.

Also, actors are a subpopulation ripe for, and open to, exploration of supernormal capacities (actor training generally deals with the mind and body as an instrument of creative expression already and so lends itself to the integration of transformative practices). In addition, because of the proliferation of film, television, and other media, actors now hold a position of significant cultural influence, not only to disseminate ideas of supernormal functioning towards cultural acceptance, but to actually transmit, through their performative art, the actualization of those abilities to live audiences, or less powerfully but more broadly to larger audiences through recorded medias like television, films, and the internet.

It seems likely that supernormal capacities are already developing in actors and that some aspects of supernormal capacity are what actually make for great acting. In many cases, actors, teachers, and directors don’t know how to consciously language what they are experiencing. In this sense, supernormal functioning is a very useful term. Using that term and its associated body of knowledge, a) creates an opportunity to talk about developmental stages, the highest of which are essentially spiritual b) thus allowing for a contribution to both an transpersonal integral theory of acting but also for the possibility to start to see very broad cross-cultural patterns, as a result of a trans-pedagogical aperspectival integral view, that might begin to allow a more relatable and connected sense of various acting techniques available here in the early twenty first century.

The ultimate vision behind this inquiry is that someday the professional community of actors will be better supported, via theory and practice, in developing a contemporary spiritual yet practical and well integrated approach to their acting work. Some arts have a tradition of sacred context for their work (e.g., Ikebana, Kayudo, Indian temple dance, etc.) and one day there may be a similar detailed tradition for actors to use as a path to God. Supernormal Functioning is an ideal term for the sake of this research because it is meta-pedagogical and allows for the study of common spiritual capacities in actors across many traditions, cultures, and techniques. At best, the rough cartography of SNF in actors developed in this study will contributed to a lager movement towards a transpersonal and integral acting theory and practice. Ideally a school or artistic research institution would be created in the future, to continue this exploration into the topic of supernormal functioning in actors and its application in the professional artistic workplace.

Nature of the Inquiry

The primary question guiding this inquiry is: Do professional actors experience supernormal functioning in their work? Relevant subquestions include: (1) “What specific types of supernormal capacities do professional actors develop and use?” (2) “What causes and sustains supernormal functioning in professional actors?” Using these questions to guide the gathering of narrative case studies, this study teased out a rough and general cartography of supernormal capacities as they manifest in actors and made a few light theoretical distinctions relative to supernormal functioning in actors and as well as some practical proposals for generating sustained access to them.

An integral and developmental epistemological container is held for this research. This general framework is derived from many authors generally called integral and transdisciplinary in nature (Bateson, 2002; Gilligan, 1993; Graves, 2005; Murphy, 1992; Wade, 2004; Wilber 1995). An integral epistemological context seems to have plenty of room for a recursive processes that allow for its own endless evolution, thus assuring that this research has the possibility of not just using an integral lens but also evolving the integral lens itself. Even the department and program in which this study took place had an integral emphasis track and encouraged transdisciplinary (Montuori, in press) and creative inquiry [Mon98] in the research process. While the epistemological container is integral and transdisciplinary, the attempt was made to hold it lightly and bring in theoretical distinction and context only as it seemed useful while also letting themes and patterns emerge organically from the data collection and analysis process.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

This literature review argues for the value and necessity of the current study in light of a significant gap in the literature. Two fields of literature are of primary relevance to this inquiry, the small but burgeoning field of research into supernormal functioning altogether, and the rather large body of literature surrounding the theory and practice of acting. The essential point made herein, is that nobody has as yet applied the lens and distinctions that have emerged in the field of supernormal functioning research directly to their appearance and nature in the subculture of professional actors and that doing so is potentially a major contribution to an emerging transpersonal and integrative technique of acting.

In general, the theory and phenomenon of supernormal functioning is more explicit and developed in the field of SNF, but in acting it is often spoken of incidentally and inexplicitly. Often, as Murphy and White (1995) found in the field of sports, the experiences are happening all the time but the subculture doesn’t speak about them openly for one reason or another, and for that reason may be missing an opportunity to cultivate and sustain them towards a good end.

The first half of this literature review briefly reviews the emergence, maturation, and contributions of seminal literature in the field of supernormal functioning. The second half of this literature review looks at seminal works selected from the entire history of cross-cultural cannon on acting theory and praxis and how an integral approach to supernormal functioning will add a distinct and needed new layer to the current landscape of theory and praxis. Auxiliary relevant literature for this inquiry comes from transformative studies, spiritual practice, studies of supernormal functioning, acting theory and technique, integral psychology, transpersonal psychology, integral theory, actor biographies, actor interviews, drama therapy, and various sacred arts.

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