Supernormal functioning in actors

Chapter 5: Analysis of Coding

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Chapter 5: Analysis of Coding

Coding was begun with the rough categories developed in the literature review as a starting point. Going back and forth, coding and redefining the codes and definitions, a group of categories were developed that came directly from the interviews. Some of them matched the categories found in the literature review section and some new classifications emerged. Some of the categories in the literature review did not show up in the data. This is very early and rough mapping of these capacities as they are particular to the experience of actors and the sampling of the group was quite small, though specialized. With a larger sample, more well-formed research protocols, and greater resources to evaluate the results, it is very likely that many of these definitions would be clarified and expanded. The groupings present in this data and their analysis in context represent a genuinely new but also very rough body of knowledge that could use much additional, well-structured research to flesh out and apply.

In addition, the chunking together of data into categories attempted to be as precise as possible, but many of the boundaries blur and the relationships between the various types of supernormal capacities in actors overlap or are sometimes hard to differentiate.

Each category is briefly defined and relevant specifics about how they occurred as various subtypes within the interviews themselves are presented. In addition, the detailed discussion of each category and subcategory of supernormal functioning in actors is sometimes very briefly contextualized within the larger context of existing literature, but most of the analysis and integration of the results is saved for the final conclusions of this study.

Supernormal Self-Sense

Supernormal self-sense: No-self.

This no-self sense capacity was defined as the ability to sense, identify with, and act from a self that was essentially empty: this might be parallel in Buddhism to the ability to realize fundamental emptiness. Such abilities were present only one time, in Julia Ormond’s interview. For Julia Ormond this larger sense of self came in the form of a kind of emptiness or ultimate loss of self. She started by speaking of forgetting the self by saying, “One of the greatest lessons I learned in acting was to forget about myself by doing my homework and then taking care of the other person on stage.” She went on to say that her relaxation techniques and meditation practices before performance brought her to say that,

What fascinates me is that from purely working with relaxation techniques in order to act better; free of tension and anxiety; I experienced that shifting from sensing my notion of defined physical body, into that disappearing and bleeding into a very freeing state of connectedness, relaxation and unity.

It was unclear whether she keeps this disappearing feeling during performance. Further exploration of the literature revealed the oceanic feeling of no-self is perhaps hidden in the literature, although rare. Here, Robert Cohen (1978) hints at the possibility: “This feeling of otherness, this transformation, is of course the essential quality of the acting experience. It is distinctively pleasurable, because it reconnects us with the oceanic feeling, that time when our self was without limit.” (p. 191)

Supernormal self-sense: Divine self.

Divine self-sense was a subcategory that came up in the literature review, and was corroborated by experiences that were reported in the interview data. Divine Self-Sense was defined as the ability to sense, identify with, and act from a divine self. Larry Moss, mentioned this ability but only as he witnessed it in others. The structure of the study didn’t exclude second person accounts, so this was kept as valid data. Speaking of a 90 year old performer he witnessed,

Those kind of people that work their whole lives , there is something chemical that happens to their bodies and to their brains that becomes . . . it’s hard for me to describe, a spiritual high level of putting together the physical world with the metaphysical world.

Here it can be inferred from what Larry received from this performer, that she was able to feel into the divine or spiritual nature of life and that something had literally changed in her cellular that allowed her to affect a revelatory effect in the audience. Katie Rubin was the only actor the spoke of this experience in first person, albeit with imprecise language that leaves interpretation of it as divine self-sense open to challenge:

I felt this spiritual energy in my being; I had these supernormal experiences a lot in the sense that I had the experiences of feeling transcended and fully present at the same time. Performers talk about this a lot. Being so not here and being here all at once. I understand now that the being is so expanded. Everything is open and I feel bigger than this Earth, and not even of this Earth. That used to happen a lot to me as a performer where I felt so alive at the moment and yet bigger than living.

Supernormal self-sense: Transpersonal or archetypal self.

Another form of supernormal self-sense had to do with identification with archetypal and transpersonal aspects as self; supernormal in that these people felt their self-sense as something greater than the personal self. This ability was defined as the capacity to sense, identify with, and act from identification with archetypal or transpersonal forces. The number of variations of archetypal forms varies widely because theatre is a ritual and poetic form that has a large amount of time exploring universal forces. Larry Moss said,

There is a heightened, I don’t want to use this word but it comes to mind, there is a universal high level of the human condition and understanding in the worst of us, there is also the best of us.
Again, turning briefly back to the literature we find that perhaps Meisner and Longwell (1987) were speaking of a similar experience as necessary for great acting when Meisner said, “Find in yourself those human things which are universal." (p. 48). Sam Raybrun (as cited in Bennett, 2013) said, "The real actor has a direct line to the collective heart" (p. 1). This ability to tap into a universal self-sense of some variation seems to be a supernormal capacity for most people, but for actors, it is essential.

Supernormal self-sense: Ancestor and past life identification.

Moving forward, another major category of extraordinary self-sense was a group of abilities that allowed people to identify with ancestors and/or past life experiences. This ability was defined as the capacity to sense, identify with, and act from membership in the living force of ancestors or from past life memories and knowledge. On one level, this sense of ancestry also speaks to the notion of honoring the tradition of acting as Robert Cohen (1978) does with his students and exhorts his readers when he said, “Don’t speak without a sense of your inheritance” (p. 78). Julia Ormond was the most vocal participant regarding the importance of her connection to ancestors as a vital source of power in being at the peak of her acting abilities.

She even incorporates a meditative practice to connect with her ancestors as a kind of final touch to her preparation as a way to consistently bring the best to her performances.

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. 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.
She went on in her interview to speak about how finding material that aligns with ancestral energy can elevate capacities in performance.

There is something that I think in the genetic coding that shifts or changes based on your lineage. It’s something that you will recognize in terms of when you get back to your native habitat in climate and land and blood and culture, but also in terms of characters and scripts and language.

Finally, speaking specifically she spoke of how she was cast in the film first night; how the director was so adamant about casting her because he could see something in her that at first she was not able to see in terms of what she could bring to the part. It later seemed that he intuited the ancestral force she could bring to role. She describes how her ancestral connection only became obvious half way through the film shoot. After being drawn to change hotels that ended up being an ancestral family home, she added:

I then found out from my mother’s side of the family that the site the movie was going to use for Camelot in was in Wales and was a nuclear power station that was designed by my mother’s side of the family. That felt like another odd coincidence; more than the average coincidences. Then, when I spoke to my Dad, he asked me where I stayed in Wales and I told him about it. He gave it its proper Welsh pronunciation and said, ‘That house used to be in the family. Your grandfather is buried a mile up the road and that’s right next to the village where I was born and raised.’ Now, some people would right that off as chance or coincidence, but that to me felt like it spiritually had some weight to it; I had literally felt a coming home, before knowing why. Then I found out more recently, that my father’s side of the family had been located there for 800 years. And until that point I never really registered to me that my dad was pure Welsh.

Julia went on to affirm that the experience of shooting First Knight had been personally deeply transformational in terms of her fundamental relationship to her ancestors and her father.

Finally, returning briefly to the literature again, we find an expression by Robert Cohen (1978) that perhaps ancestral power can be wielded not only from personal family but from the theatrical tradition and human tradition as a whole. He says,

You’re here to learn a tradition that goes back two millennia. The tradition embraces all the regional and national characteristics, all the languages, all the shifting, changing styles, the different periods of time, the different levels of society, the mores and morals of passing years, the different furniture, the very sound of the music in the air, the evolution that has changed the earthenware mug into a paper drinking cup. (p 128)
These instances in the data provide a few variations on a supernormal self-sense and suggest that experiences of union are not just for mystics in monasteries but are for actors on stage in communion with an audience a space and an energetic weather system.

It is worth expressing one final note on supernormal self-sense and supernormal functioning altogether. It was the aim of this study to establish supernormal capacities, not supernormal experiences. As such, it was hard to discern if these varieties of extraordinary self-sense were capacities or just experiences. Also it is unclear if they were supernormal functions in and of themselves, or rather if they were precursors to actual performable abilities. This study remains inconclusive on these issues and must leave the question to further exploration and refinement.

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities.

This next grouping of supernormal capacities is a series of abilities related to exceptional physical and energetic abilities. The physical and energetic dynamics are lumped together because most of the expressions of physical prowess and energetic states in the participants and in the literature spoke of to the inextricable connection between the physical body and the energetic capacities that can be wielded through physical action.

It is useful to first speak generally about the umbrella category of supernormal physical and energetic abilities. Robert Parson, who had a sports background and continued to train in a vigorous physical technique with a master Suzuki teacher as a way to keep his anxious mind silent said, “As an actor, it is a different kind of energy flowing through you than when you are an athlete, but it’s similar. I think there’s a parallel.” Matt Mitler was perhaps the most articulate and vocal, not surprising giving the rich detail with which he has dealt with these dynamics within his spiritual lineage as a Gurdjieffian. He said:

The more I can be in touch with finer energies, not just the energies of my being . . . which is a big deal, my heart beat, my pulse, the vibration on my skin, but then the subtle body; the energy that surrounds me, and if I begin to have an attention that can encompass that, now I’m dealing with the energies that don’t just emanate from me but more toward me; so now I have the energy of gravity, I have the energy of the moon and the sun and who knows what . . . the energy of my partner, the energy of a group, the energy of a space, nature . . . and that’s a lot of stuff to work with. I also have an opening of time because the moment becomes infinite and if I’m acting at this level then I have the capacity for choice, not choice in a mundane intellectual way, but choice in an intuitive, fully participated way, and it’s all like “whoosh” we are there . . . being more present, and by being more present, we mean being more present to the available energies.

Among other things, this passage from Mitler’s interview suggests stages of unfolding in the sensitivity to or availability of stages of energetic abilities, culminating in extraordinary alterations of time and connection to large sources like the moon and gravity itself. This is supportive of the notion of supernormal functioning which has been established for the purposes of this study as late stages of a developmental sequence. Also relevant to assuring that this is supernormal functioning, not just supernormal experience is that he and his theatre group seem to take specific actions that produce the energetic results intentionally.

Mitler went on to say that his group looks to continually refine their energetic work:

We looked at all different people and communities that we spend time collaborating with and everyone found it very easy to say, ‘This is the place that provides the most consistent level of finer energy’ and right now, that’s this abbey that we go to, The Abbey of Regina Laudis.
One specific type of coded energetic capacity got labeled as presence and verticality. This is the ability to be entirely in one’s own body and direct experience. Katie Rubin spoke to how supernormal capacities might spontaneously emerge early on as supernormal experiences that can later be converted to capacities with more conscious practice like what Mitler describes.

When I was even younger, I had this thing I would do privately where I would sit in the bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror. I would be looking into my own eyes and waiting for this particular experience to happen, and it was the same experience that would happen in that acting class. I would stare at myself and it would be this feeling of vagueness and then all of a sudden something would happen if I just waited long enough in the staring if I would just get present with myself.

Then relating that to her acting work;

[My mother] took me to this acting class. I don’t remember the class or the experience very much. What I remember is feeling a suddenly overwhelming seen and existent. I remember that experience as one of my first spiritual experiences. I suddenly was very present when I was on stage speaking and people were watching. It was almost an experience of fully dropping into my body all of a sudden, as if I had never been in my body prior to that moment. At that time, I wouldn’t have known to phrase it that way.

Mitler stated that presence was in fact the highest aim he had in his work and that states of possession are part of what he and his theatre groups work.

I had had, up until, I’d say ten years into the Gurdjieff work, only experiences of possession . . . to me that was success . . . tell me what I did . . . And it was only when I saw what the cost of that was, that it did not aid change of being, in fact it depleted me . . . I’d be left . . . I’d do these performances where there was a 2 hour, two act improvised play . . . and they would be fantastic and people would say, you were great, but I would be completely depleted.

Matt expressed the fundamental quality of presence as a foundation for all of an actor’s work: “What we’re looking for is presence . . . and, presence, being in the moment, is more . . . the more finely attuned I am to the moment, the more there is, the more possibilities I have.” He speaks as if presence is a key to unlocking creativity and play and possible actions or choices (abilities) some of them perhaps supernormal abilities/actions. Like, supernormal self-sense, it’s not clear from the work done in this study if vertical presence is a precursor to supernormal capacities or is best thought of as a capacity in and of itself.

Some actors, Matt Mitler included, purposefully test and extend the capacity to remain present by using stressful situations that could presence to dissipate if not strong enough. Mitler described developing presence as he works with his theatre troupe:

We’re doing a different experiment, which is: how far out can I go toward possible possession and still have something to come back to? So I go out too far and I realize I have nothing to come back to, so I take on ballast and then I go out again. So it’s a back and forth, back and forth.
Presence doesn’t enervate, it refines and increases an actor’s energy. The ability to be completely present as an extremely advanced level of acting came up with Larry Moss as well. “There’s a type of non-acting: meaning it’s experiential in the now of now as if you are making it up because you are not thinking ahead or behind, you’re exploring.” Moss goes on to talk about the ineffable nature of great acting in terms than mirror the way some mystics speak of the ineffable nature of god: “In a way that no one can understand where great acting lives because it is the experience of the actor or actress is having in that moment right in front of you. The ‘now of now.’”

Joan expresses the power of presence in a personal way by saying that her goal is often to simply,

Be on stage; to fully acknowledge where your body is in relationship to the other people there and what the thoughts are that are going on in your mind; to not try to push that away, even if you’re not thinking things your character would think.
Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Invisible body.

This is a variety of abilities related to being able to feel and manipulate the subtle energetic or imaginal body; it relates in the supernormal functioning literature to the auric or subtle body, a field of energy that moves through and around the physical body.

Julia Ormond shared that her early experiences of learning to pain introduced her to her imaginal body. She said:

There was a lot of stuff we would do in art school. For example, think of an emotion and paint that emotion in an abstract way. When you are in that emotion, what color does that bring up in you? If you look at someone like Georgia O'Keeffe, she apparently loved music but was tone deaf. When she describes her work in color, there is a whole movement to color; colors evoke music and music evokes certain colors. So she was painting music. That way of seeing is very connected. If I work backwards and conjure up color that I imagine fills my physical body, my physical body will move towards embodying that emotion.

Julia’s emotions in this passage begin as something simple as an imagined color, but it turn into an energy that fills her physical body. Another point of interest in this passage is that she described a kind of synesthesia which is consistent with other reports of supernormal experience report in sexual accounts by Jenny Wade (2004).

Hal Landon was one of the most expressive in terms of his ability to purposefully develop and use his imaginal body due to his extensive training with the techniques of Michael Chekhov, which is an acting technique that excels in developing this capacity in actors.

He talks of being able to use various imaginal dynamics: “the imaginary body, or imaginary center, or imaginary tempo . . . or you know something like that. Usually I get something from that. And sometimes it’s not what I was specifically looking for.” In saying that he finds something he wasn’t looking for he speaks of how to court inspiration, which is an allusive and often spiritual creative experience. He said that as his mastery of the technique increased what happens is that synchrony between the mental and imagination and the even the emotions and the physical body happens,

because they are both working at the same time in a focused and very intense way. And one of the byproducts for me was that my body, after doing those exercises for many years, became freer . . . after doing these exercises my body was more alive. I actually get people comment that that was something that I had, (which I had considered a weakness before) had developed as a strong point of mine.

The fact that he was able to go from a weakness in his physicalization to it being a strong and integrated aspect of his work bodes well for it trainable supernormal capacity attainable through long term practice. Other aspects of this energy body are covered in other subcategories with more specificity.

Again speaking with more specificity of how he was taught to use physical gesture to create effects in his energy body, Hal said:

We were taught energy movements; one for lightness and ease, one for contact, and most of it was done from psychological gesture. And the one for contact was very simple you just go from a closed position to a very open position . . . and that always helped me, but there have been a couple of times where the response to doing another technique called the psychological gesture was kind of overpowering; really shook me to the core so to speak, in a way that I’m not sure.
Unfortunately he’s not terribly articulate in this case, and he admitted that being verbally articulate is a general challenge for partially due to the contours of his adult attention deficit disorder.

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Causal body.

One particular and surprising sub-category that arose in one participant was the specific energy of what is sometimes called the causal body in the literature of supernormal functioning. The causal body is a third body that is sometimes equated with space itself and is an unchanging body of space itself. It is much larger than the egg shaped energy body that might be equated with the invisible body; in fact it is infinite and beyond space. Hal, as a forty two year practitioner of transcendental meditation was the only one to report anything potentially related to this ability. It could be described as a stabilized energetic grounding in stable and unchanging spaciousness or presence; it transmits to an audience a feeling of being grounded and trustable. Hal said, A number of times people have said “you’re so steady. There is a calm that you radiate” that is settling to them. I very seldom get nervous.”

Supernormal physical and energetic capacities: Invisible network.

The next subcategory of supernormal capacities related to the physical and energetic capacities present in an actor’s work are a category that got labeled Invisible Network. This is the ability to feel and work with the subtle energies between individual people, places, and things.

Sometimes an actor is surrounded by a powerful energetic network or context. Robert reported an experience of playing Lincoln in the very theatre where he had been shot. He recalled the experience saying:

Playing Lincoln in The Rivalry at Ford’s Theater; that experience was filled with those kinds of moments for me. I do believe it was somehow due the play and the story, but also the environment, the audiences’ involvement in it, and the energy that was flowing around the whole thing. It may be an imagined energy where we think because Lincoln was killed in this building it adds to the experience. Whether it’s real or imagined doesn’t really seem to matter I think.
In some ways this is a piece that is easy to feel the invisible network of energy because the energy was so collectively intense. Perhaps other actors more sensitively trained to the invisible network in particular could have these sorts of perceptions in less intense contexts. Robert related how he engaged with the experience but he never stated that he worked or trained in any specific way to increase his sensitivity to or participation with the invisible network of energy present in performance events; perhaps if he had then a more lucid example of the higher stages of this ability could have been gleaned.

Jack made sensitivity to this surrounding network of energy a much more consistent part of his work.

In terms of magic in acting, I always say, “the scene exists magically in the air around you and it just waiting for an honest vessel to funnel through. And to provide the scene an honest vessel you just simply have to be free of anxiety for the most part.”
Here we see a sensation of an impersonal energy weather system already extant as an autonomous force of the scene. Also, in this passage we get hints of the borderline shamanic capacity that actors can develop to serve this the scene as a power greater than themselves which relates to the category of capacities called supernormal service that will be explored later. It must be reiterated that many of these categories have blurry boundaries in actual practice and experience. In addition, often several causative factors and capacities seemed to emerge simultaneously and suggest generally being in an exalted, transpersonal, or spiritual consciousness in general in which supernormal capacities of various kinds emerge.

Jack also talked about how this sort of invisible connecting network could affect groups doing theatrical improvisation.

When I do improv, sometimes I do improv at The Groundlings, and when we have an amazing scene that feels like it was written beforehand, that’s really just two or three people that are all letting their higher power guide them and the universe is guiding the scene; it just feels joyful and it feels like something else made me say that. I guess you could say this is that we’re always totally connected to everyone around us because we’re all one. I mean, if there is a piece of God in each of us then that means we are literally all the same person.
Katie, as a professional energy healer and having gone to Sufi energy healing school has a very strong sensation of the invisible network of energy each night she performs.

There’s a kind of listening, that I do to an audience when I’m on stage. I’m always hyper tuned to the energy I’m organically getting from the house. It profoundly affects me and it affects me night to night.

And Gemma’s sensitivity to the energetic connection to the audience from night to night fundamentally guides the direction of a two person piece she created:

We look for a very very very very pure in the moment authenticity, whatever that might look like. It could be very simple and peaceful or if could be angry or sexual or whatever. And we would try to follow those threads, energetically, based on what we were feeling in the audience . . . which, in this case was sometimes people not even wanting to look at us because it was too intimate.

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