Supernormal functioning in actors



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As a narrative study, the strength of this study is the particulars of each story in that the specificity of each story, at best, touches a universal theme of transformation and supernormal functioning for professional actors as a whole community. Though it does attempt to draw some thematic and thus theoretical conclusions in relation to its hypothesis, it is a very small corner of a much larger effort needed to thoroughly tackle a comprehensive theory of supernormal functioning in actors.

A limitation of this study is its focus and basis on American professional actors. Although I draw on literature from other cultures in the literature review, I was not able to connect with qualified candidates on other continents and this fact threatens to leave the American cultural biases firmly intact and color all its conclusions.

There may be many actors who don’t have formal training, and thus fall outside the criteria for this study, that are experiencing many cases of supernormal functioning in their rehearsal and performance. This inquiry will use a qualitative narrative inquiry, which has limitations with generalizing to a broader population. Patton (2002) offered “social phenomena are too variable and context bound to permit very significant empirical generalizations” (p. 74) I’ve tried to be critical enough to focus on the particulars of each case before trying to make generalizations across data gathered (p. 382).

Issues of Validity

While realizing that, with Narrative, "validity cannot be used in the mechanical manner” [Kat01], and that “all validity is valid to varying degrees" (p. 114). I will attempt to address a few possible measures of validity here. One primary issue was whether these stories had been too heavily influenced by me and my research agenda (including the categories and definitions from the literature that made up the starting categories for the interviews.). It might be seen that as a researcher, my method, assumptions, and process were too heavy handed, attempting to mold the data to fit my goals. I embrace and freely admit my very active part in the formulation of the themes, the structuring of the gathered data, and the final interpretation but hope that I’ve been fair and based my assumptions on valid previous scholarly work.

Having clear definitions of supernormal functioning, aiming to find only a few well refined story from each participant, and guiding the co-researchers to reveal (or address) certain domains of causation (personal foundation, spiritual practice, training and technique, social cultural context, etc.) kept the focus tight while allowing for unexpected categories to emerge.

There are, of course, alternative explanations for the data I collected. But, I am drawing my hypothesis, theories, and thematic coding from an integral perspective which tends to be inclusive of many explanations, while still recognizing each explanation as partial. Also, the best this research could reasonably do is to collect a handful of narratives that are ‘suggestive of’ SNF in actors, not conclusive.

One issue of validity may be that the separation of data and interpretation of data may be too interwoven. In fact, the process of gather the data is intimately linked in this case to the meaning the data has, due to the fact that there will be several iterations of writing with the co-researchers, in emails back and forth. I hope the gathered narratives have some aesthetic validity (narratives that are persuasive to drawing the reader closer to the actual experience) in addition to pragmatic validity in terms of the application to acting theory and technique I attempt in the theoretical analysis of this studies results. The aesthetic component may invalidate the results in some academic contexts but seems suitable within the context and academic program in which this study was undertaken.

I limited the conclusions I drew from this study. Although I drew some thematic and perhaps theoretical conclusions regarding supernormal functioning in professional actors, I did not attempt a comprehensive theoretical critique of actor theory and training in this country all together. I can, in this context, attempt only in a general way, to weave the results of this study into the larger tapestry of acting theory, technique, and pedagogy. When all was complete, it felt that I was able to relevant conclusions from these cases regarding this one corner of actor experiences that could prove valuable for other actors to use in the cultivation of these types of experiences in their work.

Chapter 4: Results

Patrycja Kujawska

Introduction.

Patrycja is a Polish woman, born in 1975. She lives in Bristol England and travels and performs with Vincent Dance Theatre and Kneehigh Theatre Company. Of note in Patrycja’s case was her capacity for what might be called, “not knowing”. She seemed to have a radical capacity to stand ambiguity, paradox, and complexity. This I believe is a root of her great capacity as a performer. The level of uncertainty she can handle leads to high levels of play, experimentation, and creative response. It also generates a extraordinarily high level of vulnerability.

Relevant background.

Another aspect of her narrative was a strong sense of inclusion and community. She seems to have an inclination to leave nobody out; to thrive on inclusion as a kind of way of loving everyone and everything. She seems to embrace ‘error’ to such an extent, that she was able to work creatively with any circumstance of life or artistry in a vital and creative way. This too I think aids in the freedom and bravery of her artistic play.

Red shoes.

Two of her stories stood out as strongly suggestive of supernormal functioning in actors. The first is an example of supernormal energetic abilities in her performance of The Red Shoes on tour with the Kneehigh Theatre Company in Manhattan. She explains the intensity of her personal experience and artistic devotion to the character and to each night’s performances. Then she related that:

Towards the end of the show The Girl screams. It is a scream of survival and freedom. I remember on few occasions that my scream was not human. The volume and quality of it often scared and surprised me. It thrilled me. I experienced on couple of occasions that the scream was accompanied by the fountain of rays of light shooting out of my belly into the audience.
This story is suggestive of the extraordinary energetic capacities that an actor can develop through devotional exertion.

God of theatre.

Her second example of supernormal functioning was in a ‘second wind’ experience. She said that the experience came on stage when she was tired and in utter exhaustive despair. She reported:

I was quietly begging "the God of Theatre" . . . to help me, and all of a sudden I felt like a second ‘Me’ is embraced me from behind, and pushed forward; it was a strange self-embrace. I clearly felt my presence glued to my back and breathing with me, like I became my own angel . . . it was a sensation that lasted for a few minutes.


Although she was unable to recreate the experience it is suggestive of supernormal capacities that could emerge and perhaps be reliably accessed with the right approach. This experience is suggestive of other supernormal capacities including but not limited to ‘deity service’, ‘acting as prayer’, ‘divine self-sense’,

Robert Parsons

Introduction.

Robert Parsons is a professional actor based in the San Francisco Bay Area that works nationally in theatre. At the time of the interview he was 51 years old, had been meditating for over 15 years, and had been a working professional actor for more than 20.

Relevant background.

Robert had familial support for his artistic and spiritual development. His father was a minister, his mother was an artisan, and his brother was a professor of mysticism and long term tai chi practitioner. A formative trauma experience was the death of Robert’s father; this apparently led to a more contemplative search for meaning in life’s happenings. Culturally he grew up in Oakland, California in the 60s and 70s which had a very strong spirit of exploration regarding things spiritual and artistic. He also had an ‘initiatory’ experience; being introduced to poetic sensibilities from a Black Panther who boarded with his mother after his father’s death. Also relevant to Bob’s background is his life as an athlete. This paved the way for his focus on physical training and sensitivity to energy and flow experiences.

Training.

He did train at a traditional three year MFA Acting program at an American University, so he has at least three years of intensive training. He has also chosen to continue to train as a professional; of note is his training in the Suzuki method. He chose a teacher that had a direct line of “transmissional learning” from the great twentieth Century Master theatre artist, Tadashi Suzuki.

Abe Lincoln at the Ford.

One of the most interesting of Bob’s stories was his playing of Abraham Lincoln in a “The Rivalry”, a play about the Lincoln Douglas debates. Bob described the end of the play, where-in he exited the main stage, was given the traditionally recognizable Abe Lincoln beard and top had, and sent to emerge for the final moments of the play as the older, more recognizable Lincoln. Bob reported a very high level of energy coursing through this his body each night, and not just his body, but his sensations of the whole body of the space or “collective body” of the room. He could feel the “invisible network” of energy connecting and moving through everyone in the space. The context of location (at the actual Ford theatre where Lincoln was shot), the historical context, the nature of the audience that attended (many Washington DC political elite), and the iconic nature of the character (Lincoln) as someone who had actually lived and died in the spot of the performance led to a very large ‘energetic weather system’ to which Bob was at best a catalyst, vessel, and participant. In his closing comments about his experience playing Abe Lincoln, he seems to suggest that these moments of high energy and flow reach the level of ‘sacred’ experiences for many actors; he even speaks to such moments as being the sort of thing that inspires and artist to start on the path, and to keep going.

Like religion, a work of art takes us out of the ordinary selves by reminding us of our connections with larger things – with others, with our society, with history. We should recall too, that actors in many cultures have been considered shamans, magicians, or priests. [Ric92]
Black Rider.

Mr. Parsons said that acting in Black Rider was “a tremendously pure and unencumbered form of beauty.” His experience on that show was characterized by the need to submit and fully commit to Robert Wilson’s meticulous direction. In an odd way, Mr. Parsons achieves this through almost devotional submission; he accepts Robert Wilson’s Supernormal Aesthetics by submitting entirely to his God-like perspective as a director. Mr. Parsons says that he had to just “get on board” and “completely commit, to go to the fullest extent” that the play can go. Because of his sensitivity to energies through various kinds of physical training Robert speaks to the invisible networks of energy in the theatre when he says:

Throughout the show there was a deep stratum of connection between the performers . . . that connection created a unique energy that transformed everyone in the building- from performers to audience-which manifested itself in this vast almost non-corporeal world that again had different rules for space and time.
This physical and energetic sensitivity as well as his ability for high levels of physical commitment characterize his personality, his artistic work, and the sorts of supernormal capacities he seemed likely to demonstrate.

Gemma Wilcox

Relevant background.

Gemma Wilcox had a pre-birth experience of what it was like to be an unwanted pregnancy and almost aborted. She has come to the humbling realization that her strong need to “exist” and “be seen” has been a core yet unconscious motivator to her performance work. It makes sense of her particular style of work (multi-character solo shows) and also her primary supernormal capacities which is ‘maximum personal encounter’ and ‘unconditional presence’. As a young girl, she says she “always knew” that she wanted to be an actor but much familial and generational support helped her advance quickly and persist. Due to fortuitous circumstances she was exposed to professional theatre (as an audience member and as a visitor backstage) at a very early age. These experiences lit a passion within her and continue to fuel her. She started doing multi-character work almost spontaneously; and there was a confluence of natural proclivities and contextual circumstances (high school training, fellow performers backing out and leaving her to perform alone, etc.) that helped her grow along those lines.

Transformative practice.

Her experience with transformative practice was quite remarkable. She was exposed to three pivotal spiritual teachers/ transformative practices that she reports; a training program called “Avatar”, the Guru Gangaji, and David Deida. Avatar seemed to be a program about ‘manifesting’, Gangaji was about pure spirituality, and Deida’s work grounded her in bodily and energetic practices of yogic sexuality. They seem to have come about seven years apart each, starting at 14 years old. In addition she watched lots of theatre in London as a youngster, worked with a small intimate high school theatre program, and studied theatre at university. She also worked extensively with teachers Jonathan Kay and Paul Oertel who helped refine her improvisational, vulnerable, multi-character work in her twenties and thirties.

The show speaks.

One significant story she shared related to the supernormal capacity of ‘deity service” or “deity relations”. She had been performing a show for a long time and had a strange experience while performing that the show itself started to talk to her and interrupting her performance. She heard it say that it was upset that she was still performing it. It urged her to move on and try something new. This could be seen as projection, or for many artists, it could be contact with the autonomous spirit of the show itself.

Dangerously safe.

One story Gemma told was of her most recent project. She described how she worked with a partner to build a piece to explore spiritual themes of duality and presence. By splitting the room in half, separating the audience and the performers by black curtains and having absolutely no structure other than a process and intention of moment to moment presence and encounter with the audience as expressed in ‘theatrical authenticity”. The result was “intense” for all involved leading many audience members and reviewers to be very unhappy. But the response was quite split. Some were thrilled and opened by it, others angered and shut down. She counted this a good development in that she felt free of the need to ‘please’ an audience and very successful in engaging a truly ‘transformative’ theatrical event that proved as difficult as, for example, a silent meditation of two hours or extended sexual yogic practice might be; infuriating to the ego and burning off any irritation or block to pure presence. This process was filled with a sense of collective ritual, energetic union with the audience, moments of ESP as the performers ‘felt’ into the energy of an audience, a sensation of the invisible network throughout the whole event and many other hints at the presence of SNFs.

Hal Landon

Introduction.

Hal Landon was 70 at the time of our interview. At the time of the interview he’d practiced transcendental meditation as a daily practice for 42 years and had been a company actor at South Coast Repertory for almost as long.

Relevant background.

Hal’s parents were professional actors. This can be seen as stimulating “generational development” which is that children, who are raised by other actors or spiritual practitioners, might get a sort of inheritance, and perhaps accelerate through stages of development to supernormal abilities faster as a result of the osmosis that comes from parenting in early years; much like being exposed to a foreign language at an early age. In addition, his participation in sports was striking to me. It seems to me that from early on he was ambitions to make a living at ‘play’ and ‘peak performance’. Theatre and sports both have those elements. He was also attracted to physical approaches and I found over and over that acting related to the common presence of supernormal functioning in sports and sex because of the intense somatic nature of both.

Transformative practice.

His 42 years of daily TM practice seems to have contributed to his ‘steadiness’ and ‘spaciousness’ on stage. In addition, Hal is a good example of integral development because he complemented meditation practice with therapy and ADD psycho-pharmacological solutions. These three transformative tools and certain aspects of his actor training led Hal to value “lightness and ease” in his work. Even his ‘indirect’ approach to acting seems to part of his desire to “ease” in and gently approach overcoming obstacles in his acting. Chekov (2003) said, “an actor has to burn inside with an outer ease" and these qualities are essentially passion (burning) and the grace of faith (ease).

Training.

Beyond his exposure very early to lots of acting and theatre through his parents, Hal didn’t consider being an actor until have to give up on his dream of professional sports after getting cut from the college basketball team. He needed something to get involved in so he started acting in a few plays. The training there was more academic than artistic, but the department picked great literary plays to produce. The result was that Hal received little technical training but lots of good experience. Through that he found out about the burgeoning regional theatre movement and soon joined South Coast Repertory where he stayed for the rest of his career. He says that working in a repertory theatre was his dream and he achieved it. There was one period when the theatre was expanding that suddenly Hal had to compete with a more competitive talent pool. He had to grow as an actor or else continue to get stuck in the smaller parts; that’s when he went back to train in the Chekhov technique with the man who actually was a close friend of Chekhov and helped him formulate his teaching; a true Master Teacher. This training in using the energy body, developing lightness and ease, and especially the tool of the psychological gesture seem to have become central to his work and did allow him to make the developmental leap he needed to in order to maintain his status

Scrooge.

Another subject that came up here was the slow and steadiness of his approach as a whole. Even his peak experiences, two of the three, were very late career and both he described as the culmination of literally decades of work. Most significantly he describes playing on role for over 30 years, year after year. He said that due to his attention to the grosser needs of blocking, lines, costumes, and such were no longer drawing on his energy and attention; he had free energy available to attend to the more subtle aspects of his experience. This speaks to long term practice as the root of supernormal functioning, implying perhaps that action and awareness of the more subtle dimensions and energies become available in a stable way when the more gross realms are well grounded and settled. He valued the ability to be completely absorbed in the dream of the play because of his familiarity. In addition this seems to be a story that highlights the resonance between the essence of a performer and the material they are working on; Hal seems to be by nature a person involved in long term commitment and practice and to have a piece that has the same kind of longevity and stability as his meditation practice, his membership in South Coast Rep, and his essential nature.

The madness of Buffalo Bill.

His experience with a trance like altered state while playing buffalo bill early in his career brought up several issue. First, it was a spontaneous and, for him, quite scary. I believe it reflected the power of trance, ritual energy, and perhaps even an impersonal force of ‘Chaos’ accessed through the ritual of theater. Unfortunately it terrified him because he was young, untrained, and had no cognitive container for such an experience. Even all these years later he seems to not be able to find a way to usefully relate to it. The results of this study and others like it could be exactly the kind of information that could help an actor like him at any stage to successfully relate to such experiences.

Jack Plotnick

Introduction.

Jack Plotnick (40-something-year-old) actor and acting teacher that trained at Carnegie Melon University. He has worked and lived in NYC and Los Angeles. His primary transformative practices have been self-help books and workshops and exposure to a course in miracles as taught by Marianne Williamson.

Training.

He always knew he wanted to be an actor; a kind of all at once perception of his life and place in it. Jack grew up performing as a very young child, with a great high school drama teacher (transmission) whom he still speaks with, and attended a Carnegie Melon University’s undergraduate actor training program. His ‘always already’ approach to the magic of acting is reflected when he said that the main lesson he took away from acting school was when one teacher told him “you know more than you think you know”. He moved to Los Angeles after finding many successful theatre actors in New York were very unhappy and also realizing he cherished a relationship with a camera as a pure witness; as a way to reveal and know his soul.

Transformative practice.

Jack admits that he had previously experienced the ‘block’ of “addiction to negative thinking and negative thoughts”; he now calls those thoughts collectively, his vulture, and recognizes that he must deal with them every day to stay open and available to his life and work. An ‘intervention’ by a friend who told him to read a self-help book called Way of the Peaceful Warrior later led to many self-help books and various kinds of new thought practices. Long term exposure to Marianne Williamson’s ‘A Course in Miracles’ inspired teaching was a big part of how he reached such freedom and access to various seemingly miraculous abilities: including his ability to feel the divine self-sense of himself and all people (even saying that everyone is like Jesus). He seems to relate to people he works with from that place of service and mutual Divine Self-Recognition.

Teaching.

And he says that “for ten years I was applying all this new thought or self-help work to my acting” so he started to develop an idiosyncratic approach to his craft that became so refined that now he teaches it. I believe, like many other members of this study this lead him to teach actors as a form of service, in addition to acting as a form of spiritual service. His teaching is a “via negative” approach. His is a way of dropping blocks to miracles which are waiting to happen at any moment. “We can all access it (the magic) any time with no training or with lots of training . . . because it’s who we are as humans.”

Supernormal capacities.

Jack focuses on the physical sensate experience as being essential. He speaks of the moment of performance like a quickening, and even hints that the psycho-somatic practice of the Alexander Technique was useful in allowing this kind of quickening:

That’s why we act; so our heart races and we can touch god or have some magic happen. That’s why people want to climb Mount Everest; because intense physical activity makes them feel like they’ve touched god or experienced magic. What I love about actors is that all we have to do is pick up a script and stand in front of people and we get to touch God or experience magic.
He says that the magic is not “our own” and that the miraculous is always in the air around us if would only participate in it. He says that an actor’s number one job is to choose your thoughts not control the scene. Like others he eschews ‘knowing’ as another kind of control. He is not interested in ‘finding the answer’ or ‘figuring it out’ as it kills the work to ‘know’ how to do it.

Follow the joy.

Jack talks about surrendering to “divine will” by following his joy. He does this by focusing on spiritual principles that allow him to receive rather than chase after. He follows a series of events that led him to being in a film with Ian McKellen and being in Sir Ian’s Oscar clip at the Oscar presentation. This would seem like an extraordinary turn of events and seems to be related to his practice of trusting and following his joy. He summed it up by saying “that’s an example of what you call magic, but really is just one of the principles of how the universe works”.

Crying on cue.

He also told a story about a scene where he had to cry about losing his dog. He worked with his “vulture” (his fearful thoughts) and entered into a state of surrender and trust that lead him to have faith that magic would happen. His eyes were open and curious, and he discovered clues and ideas in his environment that lead to a spontaneous, thrilling, seemingly magical performance that a more willful method almost always fails to do. We see in this example, that his ability to deliver the depth of emotional honesty needed, on cue, time after time is a result of knowing how to work with his anxious mind. Also to be able to deliver a hilarious, improvisational performance on cue, time after time, almost regardless of circumstances, at will is an extraordinary capacity he has developed from this way of working with his mind.

Wise selfishness.

Finally, he has a very simple response to his relationship to the audience, which is actually about transmission and a bit like the bodhisattva vow, which is simply, if I’m feeling it, then they will. So if he is having fun and enjoying his performance, then they will to. If he is scared and trying to impress them, they will feel the fear and feel scared and probably angry also. In opposition to his focus on the negative thinking that blocks his work, his focus is on experiencing ‘joy’ in his work. Like many others, he finds that an indirect or via negative approach is actually the best way to get to joy in his work.

Larry Moss

Introduction.

Larry had acted nonstop for 20 years and at the time of the interview had been teaching for almost 40 years. He had an attitude of, “you never stop”. Such long term practice leads to the possibility of supernormal capacities emerging. Larry is one of the great acting teachers of the end of the twentieth century and is often well known for being a celebrity acting coach to Oscar nominated performances.

Relevant background.

He shared over and over how exposure to great shows and great performers of various art forms (starting at an early age) left indelible impressions. His mother was mentally ill and sought mystical paths to help explain her suffering, but to little avail. Larry experienced many traumatic events as a child that left him emotionally ill but highly motivated to heal for years to come.

Transformative practice.

He started therapy at 20 years old and eventually discovered that part of the issue was chemical and needed a psychopharmaceutical solution. He says that looking back, theatre has been his spirituality: the place where he was devoted; where he went to be healed, find hope, hear his higher self, and become renewed. The voice of that higher self sometimes comes as a little voice that says “Larry! Larry! Larry!” which he has understood as implying, ‘Wake up’! He does express a feeling of a force larger than himself at work in other places as well, especially when certain creative projects or directions start to happen.

Teaching.

His sensation of ‘living’ not ‘performing’ is what characterizes his work. His book is called The Intent to Live not The Intent to Act. He speaks of “the now of now” as a kind of absolute presence in performance; “You are making it up because you are not thinking ahead or behind, you’re exploring it’s in the ‘not knowing’ that makes for great acting. The exploration of the ‘now of now’ which the audience gets to witness” is what causes people to leave the theater and have a sensation of life’s purpose. This quality of presence or of truly and fully living creates a kind of ‘direct transmission’. Through contact with the vital “aliveness” of the actors, the audience is revitalized and suddenly is more present to their lives; simple as that. He says, when someone is truly alive on stage “it changes people’s lives”. This sort of aliveness can be seen as a value and capacity for maximum personal encounter and is present in his teaching work as well. He describes students “clutching and hugging each other and crying” during his classes.

Supernormal capacities.

In particular, Larry’s case demonstrates extraordinary “book knowledge” and “self-knowledge” due to a lifetime of voracious reading in the arts and humanities, to insatiable attendance of live theatre, and to a lifetime of work with world class therapist. But oddly, most of Larry’s accounts of supernormal functioning in actors were from witnessing performers or from working with student actors; not from recounting his own experiences. Occasionally he told stories of the emergence of his own supernormal capacities although they can be inferred by proxy in that he is able to see and facilitate their development in others. He spoke of Pamela Dean whose work on a solo-show was heightened to the level of a ritual shaman and sometimes demonstrated transformative capacities to the point of uncanny shape-shifting. He shared a story of coaching Michael Clark Duncan in his preparation for the role of John Coffey in The Green Mile. In this case Larry describes how he worked with Duncan to touch the depth of his own personal gratitude and compassion and travel through it to a universal level of compassion energy that he called a “Christ figure”. A thirst story he told was of a new actress he’s working with to develop a solo-show. The actress has had experiences of non-human communication with spirits since she was a child and in the play, that material is being used. He shared personal experiences of the actress around these non-human communications, but did not share how that manifest in performance specifically. Finally, he talks about witnessing a radiant auric field around certain performers; specifically Vanessa Redgrave in a production of Ghosts. Finally he spoke of how he’d witnessed addictions and self-destructive behaviors block the emergence of these great capacities in actors and how particularly talented actors could actually be destroyed if they couldn’t handle the force of their own raw talents.

Katie Rubin

Introduction.

Katie Rubin is an actress in her mid-thirties, living and working as a teacher, actor, writer, and director in Los Angeles. She was born in Miami attended college and Amherst college and earned an MFA in Acting from UC Davis.

Relevant background.

In her case, early childhood trauma also lead to many experiences that both hindered and drove her work as an actor. Her parents did expose her to lots of art training and put her (as a child) in an adult acting class in which she felt immediately at home. She reported that as a teenager she experienced of visiting a sculpture exhibition wherein she found a lit up pyramid of light. She said, “I got into the pyramid and just being inside of it I had a profound spiritual experience of expansion. I experienced my being expand and I felt very light and I didn’t feel dense or burdened by troubles. I felt like everything was fine for the first time ever. I felt like this expansion and after that experience I’ve been sort of seeking that again in a variety of ways.”

Training.

Her trauma and addiction led to a feeling of not being in her body and many of her acting issues (blocks) revolve around being seen, being present, and being in her body. But throughout her life she reports an instant knowing or attraction to acting. Also, she felt over and over again an intuitive response to her actor training; feeling she already knew what she was being taught. Her training included a long form improv group in college. She said that her MFA at UC Davis was not great actor training but did prepare her to develop her own material which has become her forte for her, leading to successful touring solo-shows. Being new to Los Angeles and relatively fresh out of Sufi healing school she is feeling a shift of wanting to do dramatic roles. She is also experiencing a need to ‘do less’ which is counter to her previously broad comedic solo theatre style. She is learning to ‘do less’ and to ultimately relinquish a ‘self’ that can take ownership of the work. She also reported that this transition between developmental stages has led her to a reduced need to be seen and that she needs to rediscover her motivations for wanting to act.

Transformative practice.

Spirituality and religion in general were ridiculed and shamed as idiotic in her childhood home. She started looking for a solution to her problems on her own by reading self-help books by age 10. By her teenage years and early twenties she developed addictions to boys, sex, booze, and then various moderate and hard drugs. These blocked her ability to function in life altogether and led to her hitting bottom followed by a fierce spiritual awakening that has fueled her journey through recovery. She said, “Theater then became my transformative place. Writing in particular was a transformational process; it was spiritual for me. It would alter me, settle me, and expand me all at the same time. Once I got sober, then that’s where the whole thing really starts- the transformational seeking.” She searched for a way to go beyond her own experience without drugs and got deeply into various ways of meditation. Then, after an “emotional and spiritual bottom” while in recovery, she took a big leap away from 12-step recovery and into Sufi healing school. The techniques were all about conducting healing energy through her body. She now earns part of her income as an energy healer using the Sufi techniques she learned. She also had experiences with ‘channeling’ previous to healing school that still act as a litmus test for the quality of her performance; she notices if she is open to a creative channel or if she is trying to ‘make something happen’.

Impossible odds and a second wind.

Katie talked quite a bit about what might be considered getting a ‘second wind’ in sports. Usually this has to do with a sense of being utterly overwhelmed with the difficulty of the task she has set before herself as a performer. She feels certainty of immanent failure but then feels as if something miraculous comes into her and suddenly the energy and ability comes to her. She says, “Something takes over and I become this crazed, highly energetic athlete. Everything just heightens and my system just seems to go onto auto-pilot”. This “dropping in” happens as soon as she gives up trying. She says that there is

Energy motivating or moving me. I almost feel carried around by the face by it. It’s not hyper charged. It’s actually very calm. It’s like a down and in and expanding experience. Calming and grounding but it’s supernormal in that I don’t feel like I’m the originator of the movement. I feel like I’m being moved like a puppet and yet clearly I have control over what my limbs do and what words my mouth says. It’s clearly this interplay of my will and divine will. I can’t take a lot of credit. The only credit I feel like I can take is I usually that hit a point where I finally allow it to occur. Every time I drop and allow this ‘channeling’, [audience response] couldn’t be more positive.”


Matt Mitler

Introduction.

Matt Mitler was fifty seven at the time of this interview. He is a professional actor that lives and works in New York City. He is the director and one of the founders of Theatre Dzieci.

Relevant background.

He was ‘raised’ with comedy; performing as a comedy duo with his mother on the radio and listening to comedy albums. He had early experiences of other arts (sculpture, painting, and drawing) and watched several formative performances that inspired him to move in the direction of acting. Also, in college, he dealt with a terrible physical trauma in part by working with a college experimental theatre group and the result was that a major turning point in his movement from shy and constrained to rigorous and fearlessly playful.

Training.

In his early professional life he sought out master teachers in both theatre and psychotherapeutic transformations; Jerzy Grotowski and Carl Rogers respectively. In many ways, the transmissions he received from these two men formed the way he now works with Theatre Dzieci. He mentions several performances that formed him as an artist; especially The Polish Theatre Lab’s “Apocalypsis Cum Figuris”.

Transformative practices.

Matt’s started out terrified and stuck in performance. His journey to feeling consistently free and joyous took much transformative work. Matt started exploring the relationship between “art and therapy” very early on. He also became heavily involved in Gurdjieffian inner work and he continues with that community as a core transformative process to this day. As a result, he very consciously approaches his artistic pursuits as transformative practice, and likes “to take [acting] as a meditation” as a way to cultivate “an inner possibility not influenced by outer conditions”. This reinforces what was stated earlier, it’s possible that supernormal capacities outside the context of acting work can lead to the development of similar capacities in performance. Mitler did share a remarkable and difficult to explain story of telekinetic force during a peyote ritual, but he did not seem to relate that to his acting work. Dzieci does use chanting and ritual se of Native American rattles in their ensemble work for the sake of energy release and transformation.

Dzieci.

His primary work now is as founder and member of Theatre Dzieci. Groups were always intensely intimate processes wherein he experienced ‘being lifted”, “being cradled”, and “being allowed to fail” which led to periods of dramatic development. Dzieci has developed a group practice of encountering spiritual leaders and communities to stimulate their own sense of collective development. He also sees spiritual transmission to an audience as essential to the purpose and nature of the group. “In Dzieci, the message is the work (we do on ourselves), it’s not that play or this play; it’s the way we are together; and the way we are together is what people are experiencing more than anything.” The power of the group is undeniable to Mitler. He says, “I don’t even know what I’m working for anymore, except to be able to function in community for my own salvation . . . for my relationships”

Energy sensitivity.

For Dzieci, development of energy sensitivity is of high importance, and it tends to be grounded in sensate based physical training. Mitler emphasized that (inspired by his own training experiences) long periods of silence were necessary in Dzieci’s work to develop “a corporeal intelligence, a knowledge based on sensation”. Corporeal sensitivity increases as they work and the “aftertaste” of various experiences are evaluated; do they drain or revitalize energy. Energetic attention to harmony leads them to guidance for right action. This energetic sensitivity starts with personal sensations but then starts to spread beyond the physical body to energy in the atmosphere; including gravity, celestial bodies, group energy, and even abstract forces like space and time.

Presence.

Physical and Energetic sensation starts to lead Dzieci to its highest or ultimate pursuit of cultivating “presence”. Mitler discriminates the difference between ‘changes of state’ and ‘changes of being’. He focuses on changes of being in himself and his ensemble. This change of being included but is not limited to the artistic process . . . it becomes about the way one is being in life, and art is just a place to practice and transform.

Fools Mass.

Dzieci has been performing “Fools Mass” for fifteen years at Christmas and Easter. It is really “an investigation into the meaning of the Mass” performed in churches and sacred spaces. The group plays village idiots whose ‘priest’ just died leaving them to perform the mass by themselves. One of Mitler’s responsibilities during the show is to perform the sermon; but in 15 years he has never once planned what to say. This creates a theatrical structure that demands a high level of surrender to grace. He said, “I usually end up weeping”. It is a feeling of being “drenched by grace, purged of some part of myself” and that “there is a transformation that occurs”. He goes on to say that “the whole performance is like that” and that it the experience happens “for the audience” too. He says purification is an ongoing value and purpose of Dzieci’s work. He is looking for theatrical forms to aid the purification of the individual participants.

Makbet.

In Dzieci’s piece, Makbet, three people perform an edit version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The piece is performed as if they are a band of three gypsies and between the three of them they perform all the roles. Mitler says, “The thing with “Makbet” is that there is such a level of unknown, I’m really at the mercy of something [larger than myself]” thus creating an opportunity to experience the mercy of a higher power. He sets up insurmountable circumstances to create an opportunity for deliberate self-transcendence through seemingly impossible challenge. Makbet’s structure is also designed to increase the psychic and intuitive abilities between the performers and audience. Developing psychic and intuitive abilities are ongoing themes in the way Dzieci works. This focus has led the group to extraordinary circumstances where it seems as if the group is doing collective remote viewing and able to gather reliable psychic information about important situations. Mitler says that Makbet is also about “doing a different experiment, which is: how far out can I go toward possible possession and still have (presence) to come back to?” which seems to really just be a process of strengthening presence to withstand even the most challenging circumstances.

Collectively purifying ritual.

Mitler also shares the experience of a ‘dream’ image that manifests as a block in his body and gets worked out through directly through the ritual of performance. He describes how he had a dream where he was shot in the chest. He says he felt a burning pain in the dram and work up to find he still had this burning pain. And it would not go away for months. When he finally did, it was during a performance piece where he held his hand over a flame while doing a chant and absorbing the pain; suddenly his body and voice started to shake violently with energy and he let out a powerful scream that shoot and released the energy pain from his chest.

Julia Ormond

Introduction.

Julia Ormond is a British born film star that now lives and works in Los Angeles. In addition to acting in major Hollywood films, she has devoted a large portion of her life to charitable work.

Relevant background.

Her grandparents inspired her to paint through most of her adolescence. It wasn’t until college that she switched from visual art to acting. Many skills she acquired as a painter turned out to be transferable to her work in the art of acting including learning how to perceive directly rather than project, learning how to silence her analytical mind, learning to improvise, and learning how to calm doubt and panic in favor of simple presence.

Training.

Her training was at a British university and was based on a standard Stanislavski acting technique. The training included lots of voice, movement, speech and dialect work. One of the central goals of her training was to be a neutral and empty vessel so as to allow energy to flow freely through her. She stills aims to completely invite “another physicality to take over” when she is playing a character; to surrender her ego to a kind of possession. She feels that this relaxation of body and mind really allows her soul to be present and her perception to be free of fixed ideas.

Transformation.

Spiritually she was brought up in the Church of England. Later, she questioned Christian beliefs for various reasons and resorted to meditation based spirituality to provide a sense of ‘connection’. She described her meditation experience as, “sensing my notion of defined physical body disappearing and bleeding into a very freeing state of connectedness, relaxation, and unity.” She used meditation to prepare for performance while doing theatre in London but generally hasn’t had a consistent daily practice. Now her sense of spirituality is that “we are an absolute part of the thing that is around us” that there is “no delineation.” She say, “as I grow older, spirituality is about everybody understanding their connectedness; and love being about respect and not seeing someone as different, as something to fear, or as less than.”

Another major transformative process for her has been the experience of synchronicity: it acts as a “guide” for her and seems to accelerate the more she follows it. She also spoke of energetic blocks in her life and environment; in terms of old possessions or even the Fung Shui of her house or office. She also has found value in astrologers’ guidance, but treats it as a symbolic sounding board to find what she resonates with more than an absolute truth that the medium is reporting.

First Night.

Julia was cast in First Night from early on in the process of the film, and although she didn’t ‘see’ why the director was so convinced she’d be perfect for the role, she later found a host of synchronistic connections between the filming, the script, and her ancestral past that transformed her life. First, it turned out the location for Camelot was the valley where her grandparents would go to paint every year: the same paintings that inspired her to become an artist herself. Then she followed hunches to move her lodgings to a place that turned out to be an ancestral family home. She said these experiences “felt like they spiritually had some weight; I had literally felt a ‘coming home’…” Turned out her father’s ancestors had lived on that land for 800 years. She also began to see how Guinevere was a transformative experience, especially as she looked at her relationship with her father and with Arthur. She says that “My paternal sense of self definitely grew from that point of view, and shifted and changed. Because I also dealt with personal demons through that process, it unlocked something; afterwards I was able to turn my energies to a more useful end; towards social causes.”

Legends of the Fall.

Julia had always been interested in Native American traditions and her experience shooting Legends of the Fall allowed her to explore some native people, land, and traditions. Part of her experience was heading off to do a sweat lodge and vision quest towards the end of filming. She describes that she remained in silence for 48 hours during the vision quest and entered an altered state where she started to perceive meaning in the ‘earthy signals’ that came her way. The actual vision quest itself was, for me, an experience of swaying from moments of peace and being settled to unbelievably discomfort, hunger, and intense anger; I experienced a lot of frustration at not being able to turn off the chatter in my head. Afterwards she discussed her experience with the medicine woman, to interpret the signs. In conclusion she said, “I think the actual ritual of doing that around a very emotionally difficult time was cathartic and releasing and enabled me to really move on.” This story, like the First Night story seems to show how her process and her experience altogether transformed her; but neither story seems so much about supernormal capacities in performance itself.

Ancestral offering.

In terms of her actual process as an actor, she did report a ritual gesture that she used before many film takes. She said, “For me, one of the meditations around performance is about ancestral connection through women and men, connecting historically through ancestors and then it is about giving it away. I gather myself through concentration and relaxation. Then for some reason I tap the bridge of my nose and then I offer it up. In the offering it up, it releases me from responsibility of what happens. I say to myself, “I’ve done my preparation, I’ve done my rehearsal. I’ve worked as hard as I could to get to this moment now. Now I have to relax and be free. I hope that it honors my ancestors and I give it out.” This released her from dread or a need to control the outcome. She also shared that generally she keeps this information very private as it feels almost sacred.

Most current.

Since supernormal capacities come from long term practice, it’s notable that she mentioned her passion to “always keep learning.” She feels she is at her best as an actress today because she has less fear blocking her, has more creative flexibility, and is able to ‘forget about herself’; to be free and generous with her fellow actors.

Joan Mankin

Introduction.

Joan Mankin is a 65 year old Bay Area based actress. She was born and raised near Chicago and has lived in San Francisco since 1969. At 3 or 4 years old she did performances for her family. In high school she had a drama teacher that inspired her, but even though she studied theatre at the University of Chicago, she never planned on becoming a professional actor and didn’t start working professionally until a family event took her to San Francisco at twenty two years old.

Training.

Her core training in terms of techniques and experiences came from working with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. She fell in love with their work because they weren’t “trying to be artistic” but rather “trying to relate to an audience and bring out ideas in a physical way”. She auditioned and on her second try, got in. She worked with them for the next five years. She did say that after her time with the Troupe she would occasionally take other acting workshops, but nothing significant. She did study martial arts and yoga continually and she said, “Those two things really encouraged my approach” to acting.

Transformation.

She says the discipline of her martial arts training has been the most transformative part of her 40 years of studying different styles. She also said that martial arts taught her, not to fight, but to ‘accept’ what was coming at her, which changed her life and her work as an actor: “You don’t guard yourself from it. You take it in and send it back.”

Mind reading.

In a recent production of “Taming of the Shrew” Joan exhibited exceptional sensitivity and clarity in communicating non-verbally with an audience. She played two different men in the production, but in the final scene she played a woman. Each time she came out as a woman, the audience would ‘crack up”. She could tell they weren’t sure whether she was really a woman or not. Due to her extensive experience with audience interaction while on stage, she could feel what they were thinking and eventually started to look at them as if to say “c’mon, I’m a woman….don’t give me a hard time.” Then the entire audience would crack up. She was so accurate in reading them that she was able to totally accept the reality of their response and then find an improvisational way to communicate without violating the text. She said, “[The cast] will always remember that moment as something that allowed the audience to come in.”

Practicing perfection.

Joan demonstrated a capacity for radical acceptance and creativity with a story she shared about “how to use mistakes”. She said,

If you make a mistake on stage, you start to blame yourself and go oh fuck, how do I get out of this, then you’re screwed. But if you take the mistake and go with it, sometimes it takes you to a place that is so much better and so different. I’ve learned so much from this sense of embracing mistakes; from making a lot of mistakes on stage. In a play called Counter Attack there was a scene where the manager of the diner was supposed to come in and interrupt a conversation. He just forgot to come in. We just went on with the scene and at the end of the scene, he came in, after I had gone out . . . there was something about it I really loved. It didn’t really matter. It didn’t. That was really fascinating to me and me and the other waitress just went on. It gave the scene a whole different feeling.
This seems to be a very high level of work that boarders on the ability to sanctify mistakes which, when witnessed, often seem a miraculous capacity.

Iyengar yoga, Vipassana, and Boom.

Joan shared about a recent production of a show called “Boom” where a meditative process led her to a high level of presence and personalization at the start of each show. She felt her experiences with martial arts, Iyengar Yoga, and Vipassana all contributed to the capacities she explored in this story; the ability to really connect to what’s happening in her mind and body; to just be. Basically the structure of the show planted her on stage thirty minutes before the show started, so she had to sit in waiting, in a dark quiet place for thirty minutes before each show. This forced her into a kind of meditation. She said, “this allowed me to be on stage; to fully acknowledge where my body was in relationship to the other people there and what my thoughts; to not try to push that away, even if I was not thinking things my character would think” This is a uncommonly high level of presence, acceptance, self-awareness, and creative use. She said, “I remember standing off the stage and thinking of the things I had gone through that day and feeling right then. It was really important for me to take that in before I went out. It made it much realer for me.”

Compassion for the Devil.

Joan also recently played the Devil in Strindberg’s A Soldiers Tale. This story relates how she explored the archetype of the Devil and eventually was able to help the audience relate to the Devil within. She spoke of how the Devil was lonely and wanted to get close to the soldier character. She came to understand that his loneliness drove him and the reason he duped the soldier and captured him into hell was to assuage the loneliness. She went on to say that something changed for her during “, the two months “in terms of my recognizing, you know, the Devil inside of me. As we performed it more, the audience started to relate to the Devil more by the end of the play and I felt like they were relating to certain parts of themselves. That really interested me.” We both concluded the conversation by agreeing that such a capacity to have “compassion for the darker parts of ourselves and others” is a high (if not the highest) goal worthy of any great religious or spiritually transformative tradition.



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