Supernormal functioning in actors

Supernormal aesthetics: Sanctification of the ugly

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Supernormal aesthetics: Sanctification of the ugly.

Another subset of supernormal aesthetics was a sub-category that was named sanctification of the ugly. Ugly was a simplified term that in practical example in the interviews included various kinds of generally unwanted phenomenon: including failure, mistakes, pain, the grotesque and the like. This ability was defined as the capacity to elevate horrific tragedy or commonly unwanted, repulsive, or ugly experience, through deeply insightful artistic choice and revelation, into sacred or awesome beauty. This can also include a way of working that welcomes mistakes and embraces problems as not only valuable but desirable. At the highest levels, this treatment of celebrating mistakes is the ‘always already perfection’ that saints and sages talk about; the always already bliss of reality (Da, 2006); an experience of essentially no-problem or a feeling that all is as it should be in God’s world.

Joan spoke briefly about how her acting experience had led her to believe strongly in “how to use mistakes” but it this particular ability was at the very core of Patrycja’s way of being in the world and working with her artistic process; really it was a great forte of hers. She began by expressing distaste of attempts at cleaning or scrubbing ourselves or our experiences into some perfect and refined version. She said,

All this self-help and spiritual “super-ising" implies that we are broken, damaged, faulty, imperfect, and average; and fuck yes we are! I find beauty in it. I'm such a fan of human nature and the poetics of being lost.

She goes on to celebrate the quality of being lost and celebrating mistakes in her rehearsal process:

I love the natural freshness and factor of "unknown" at the beginning of a tour, when you make little discoveries, when you are still learning about the show, when little mistakes provides theatrical gold dust, keeping you on your toes . . . I'm drawn to the idea of failure; of failure as a value in theatre. We think of it in pejorative way, but I strongly believe that failure is a useful tool, and there is a place in beauty in it.

And she even spoke briefly to developmentally speaking, how she had only arrived at this attitude towards her work after a long phase of strict, almost militaristic, discipline and striving for technical perfection:

Within organizations (schools) I experienced more a feeling of failure and underachievement (often not related to exam results, which were mostly good); just a constant struggle to achieve . . . to be as close to perfection as I could be. Only after I finished schools, I left for some time classical music, feeling slightly raped by it all, I fearfully allowed myself to use my technic to improvise, to express myself, to play in ugly way, even dared to compose.

It is worth noting that Patrycja had most of her formal training and experience as a musician and only came to theatre later and life and through her music. Music and movement are a huge part of how she works as an actor and in this way she exemplified on aspect that emerged in this study, of transferable skills: her learning in the artistic medium of music did to some degree transfer and apply to her acting; a detailed exploration of how developmental abilities transfer from one to the other is complex and beyond the scope of this study.

To return to supernormal aesthetics, Patrycja’s celebration of mistake, failure, and ugliness led also to embracing difficulty in her performance work as an actress:

Our cast mate was having a panic attack. She started hyperventilating and was maybe going to pass out . . . and I kept thinking about the fact that the first 30 minutes of the show belong to her. She is major and we are minors during that stretch. But what happened was that the whole experience made the show so much more special . . . like seeing the finishing line . . . I felt like I was dedicating the show to her so she can make it through; like we were all in it together.
Robert also spoke of a very difficult time in his personal life as it related to his acting as ‘manna from heaven’. Through his artistic process he had alchemically, metaphorically, turned the lead of his situation into performance gold.

While working on Equus and doing intensive therapy . . . I was able to transfer the same questions I was asking personally, to my character. It just happened to dovetail like that -which might happen a lot for actors-but at that time it seemed like Manna from Heaven because it allowed me to keep working through stuff I really needed to work through and on multiple levels. I felt more raw than usual after that run because of the intense double whammy that was happening but I ultimately think it helped speed the healing as well as creating a supercharged incubator for the creative process.

And finally, Julia expressed deep gratitude for her participation in the film called “Baby of Macon” precisely because of the way it artistically used nudity to not just exploit or objectify female bodies, but to actually celebrate all human forms: the people who were naked were of all shapes and sizes: a very rare occurrence to someone used to Hollywood films.

Thinking back on my work on Peter Greenaway’s “Baby of Macon”; I’m deeply grateful that that film was a starting point for me; there were heaps of nudity, but for me his honoring of all form, was what protected it from being exploitative.

Supernormal aesthetics: Devotion to art & beauty.

This is the ability to treat art and beauty with a religious devotion; to treat service to beauty as a spiritual path. Larry was the only participant to mention such abilities:

Theater is that you are always constructing the set; you are always constructing the performance, the lights, making decisions that are constructive. My spiritual journey is through theater-working on it, observing it, learning about it, being fascinating by it. I don’t have a religion or spiritual guide. My spiritual guide is the theater.
It seems that his process with acting and theatre has been a devotional relationship that has led to transformation towards his highest self.

Supernormal Health and Vitality

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

These categories may not stand up over time as entirely separate categories and subcategories, but there were a few instances and likely more would come with a greater range of participants. Self-existent joy was defined as the ability to sustain happiness and joy unconditionally in a creative process; radical acceptance. Joan was the only participant that spoke in exactly these terms. She spoke of how her martial arts training had taught her transferable lessons for her acting. She said:

While training I had to figure out how to protect myself and how to take one step back and one step forward. The whole thing about martial arts is your body just accepts what is coming at you. It doesn’t train you to really be belligerent. Martial arts trains you to accept the intensity of the physicality and take it in and be able to send it back in.
In the context of her interview, this training in acceptance and utilization could be seen as contributing to her profound compassion and almost spiritual acceptance she was able to develop when playing the character of the Devil in Strindberg’s the Soldiers Tale.

Chapter 6: Discussion

Thematic Conclusions


In discussing the overall results of this study many themes arise that can be carried forward into practical application by actors and by teachers alike. Not only did patterns arise that suggested the categories listed in the results, but there were larger patterns when considering the study as a whole that start to suggest overarching issues related to accessing and sustaining supernormal functioning in professional actors. Each section that follows explores one of nine themes, and concludes with a few thoughts about practical application and possible further exploration into the particular aspect of the subject of supernormal functioning in actors.

Causes and blocks.

As the interviews unfolded and then were transcribed and coded, I started to notice that the stories that were told, because they were in narrative format, naturally contained plot points or obstacles that each actor encountered as they moved towards moments or periods of supernormal capacity. This was relatively unexpected but seemed natural once it started to happen. I began coding the causes and blocks as well. Although the causes and blocks were not listed in their entirety as part of the results of the study, and were instead lightly included in the discussion of each category and subcategory of supernormal abilities, the theme of causes and blocks to supernormal capacities became and relevant and valuable result of the interview process.

Participants were more or less articulate about the causes and blocks they experienced for several reasons. One reason seemed to be due to the kind of transformative or spiritual practice they were involved with. For example, one of the most articulate in terms of supernormal capacities, Matt Mitler, was also the one who had experienced some of the most intense ‘blocks’ to his growth as an artist. His expertise at specifically identifying and working with blocks in his acting work may well have been partially caused by his devoted spiritual work as a fourth way practitioner. Fourth way spiritual paths, like Gurdjieffian work, are spiritual lineages that do not attempt to transcend or even battle the ego, but instead work with it directly and even transmute or digests the gritty aspects of the ego as a kind of spiritual nourishment. By contrast, Hal Landon, a practitioner of transcendental meditation was not nearly as articulate about the various blocks and causes of supernormal or spiritual abilities in acting, again perhaps due to choice of transformative practice. Transcendental meditation simply goes directly to an unchanging transcendent source and is often critiqued as bypassing the gritty substance of life. For this reason, it may be with further study that actors who engage in particular types of transformative practices do in fact develop supernormal functioning more often and in more sustained and easily articulated ways.

Also, since Mitler’s case seems to demonstrate how developmental stages only proceed through facing and overcoming obstacles and specific, level specific challenges. Wilber (2000) propounds, with his comparison of many developmental systems that each stage of development requires new obstacles, challenges, and failures in order for a new level of complexity and capacity to emerge of necessity. Mitler’s ability to face and overcome so many obstacles to his performing may be precisely why he has come so far, developmentally speaking.

Finally, it started to seem that the blocks were not really obstacles to the long term development that leads to supernormal functioning but rather an integral part. In the extreme cases, as in hitting a bottom in addiction, extreme difficult can actually be a necessary part of the journey beyond seemingly intractable blocks to growth and eventually spiritual demonstrations on the level of charismas and supernormal capacity. This is perhaps why one other category of causes was the presence of exhaustion or impossible odds: in response subjects would surrender or leap to creatively emergent solutions and capacities.

One of the major blocks that almost everyone mentioned was of a negative, fearful, anxious, or busy mind. This was one major concrete result of this study; the potential application of which is hard to minimize, that the real enemy of superior acting and even supernormal capabilities is simply fear. The result of such a conclusion is that acting techniques must integrate transformative or spiritual processes that unearth and resolve fundamental fear and its many variations.

One participant, Jack Plotnick, described his fearful mind as his ‘vulture’; squawking away at him and telling constantly attempting to derail even his most modest efforts, let alone his extraordinary capacities. Almost everyone reported something similar; “the dreaded anticipation” Hal Landon, “the chattering mind” Robert Parsons, “the addict” Katie Rubin, etc. In almost all cases, the participants reported that they had to become painfully aware of this destructive force within themselves before they could start to combat it by exercising the power to choose differently.

What started to emerge was a sense of some ‘transpersonal’ evil force; impersonal in that every person experiences some version of it with very common patterns but calling it by various names. This impersonal force (impersonal like a hurricane) sometimes takes on an apparently personal relationship in human experience. At such times it is sometimes called ‘the addict’ in recovery circles, Satan in Christian circles, Mara in Buddhist circles, “the resistance” by Steven Pressfield (2002): and the list goes on.

Remarkably, upon further examination of the standing literature there is in fact quite a long and interesting tradition of discussing this resistive force. In Stanislavski’s (1936) first book his character Kostya runs into a literal critic character, but in the spirit of drama therapy, the character in the book represents the inner critique that all actors deal with. This notion that is now a popular psychological term, inner critic, possibly first appeared in Stanislavski’s writing. A.H. Almaas (1984) actually cites Building a Character in his first book as the source of notions of an inner critic. In addition A.H. Almaas worked with EJ Gold who was a Gurdjieffian that did some theatre explorations into consciousness. Following the Gurdjieffian thread to the supernormal non-acting side of the field, Gurdjieff has a concept called the “kundabuffer” which was defined as a force the kept the kundalini (otherwise known as the energy body) clamped and damped down. Kundabuffer was what he named the force that blocked the explosive energy of kundalini from erupting, presumably, into supernormal capacities, siddhis, and charismas of various sorts.

The experience people have is that there is some force that is attempting to destroy, derail, or stop them at every turn. Most of their practice and techniques were geared towards arresting or overcoming this force and thus unleashing magnificent innate and latent capacities within themselves. One possible further hypothesis is that this this ‘vulture’ operates as the primary block to access of divine communion or spiritual consciousness that seems to make supernormal functioning possible. Thus a spiritual self or spiritual communion is in fact the true power source behind supernormal capacities; after all charismas (the catholic name for various supernormal capacities) initially meant ‘gifts of the spirit’.

There are some ways to combat the vulture: “The more you concentrate on the circumstances that surround you, the more at ease you’ll be.” [Ste00] And Declan Donnellan (2002) reminds us “The world is discovered rather than created, found rather than imposed” (p. 77).

It started to seem that a spiritual experience or consciousness was the essential cause of supernormal capacities. The blocks were various forms of self-centered fear and prideful ‘control’. Trying to control the outcome seemed to be a “kiss of death” to the freedom that characterized the supernormal abilities. Most of the participants sought a kind of ‘via negativa’ approach to their blocks. Patrycja spoke about striving for consistently extraordinary work and how surrender paradoxically is a key:

I don’t want to go to the stage and allow myself to do a category “b’ show. I’m underneath the role. I’m chasing it. 8 shows. Exhaustion. Makes me feel angry about the set-up of this thing. It’s impossible to make a genius show every time . . . perhaps I’m over ambitious. I’ve tried it all to keep myself interested (oddly enough) and this makes me sad. I was completely not in the show tonight, so I just placed myself in the show; just as a body. I left the stage and was less stressed or frustrated or drained. When I finished the show, a stage hand said, “This show, tonight . . . belonged to you. You were the strongest on the stage”. I was surprised and thought to myself, maybe I just try too hard. I know nothing. I wasn’t “doing” as much . . . I wasn’t “trying” so hard. It couldn’t be that ‘simple’. But often, it seems it is.

There was a general consensus that if blocks are removed, then the magic and miracles just happen. Plotnick’s use of the word ‘miracle’ or ‘magic’ is perhaps a bit hyperbolic; but I think it’s a general term he’s giving to a mix of healthy and supernormal capacities. The solution seemed to be one of a ‘faith attitude” rather than ‘control delusion’. Faith thoughts and actions seemed to assuage the fear and busy/anxious mind. I define these as just trusting or believing that good things are happening or will happen without any prior knowledge. This is also related to the openness, curiosity, questioning, and exploration that seemed indicative of many who were reporting supernormal abilities on a regular basis.

Remarkably, another approach that seemed to work was taking the ‘via negativa’ approach of removing these blocks of control and self-centered fear; the end result of removing all these ‘blocks’ seemed to be a high spiritual experience of ‘being and doing nothing”; of no-self. Another solution to the over thinking problem was to ‘get into the body” through physical methods (hatha yoga, Suzuki training, yogic sexual practice, breathe, sensation, etc.) Also, Mitler used the solution of ‘acting faster than he can think’ to override his anxiety mind from hindering him. In a similar vein, another one of his solutions seemed to be ‘rushing’ towards the object of fear; embracing it and thus dispelling the object of fear. It seemed that participants had to become painfully aware of the fearful thoughts and anxious mind before they could start to combat it and choose differently.

Supernormal experiences vs. supernormal capacities.

Throughout the study, one major challenge was attempting to find supernormal functioning in particular, which are the result of long term practice and growth along a developmental sequence, not supernormal experiences which are more passive and can be spontaneous and occur at any stage of development. Yet it seemed that some of these experiences could only be of the receptive and grace-fueled nature.

Some of the stories of extraordinary occurrences seemed like passing states or spontaneous experiences that were actually a glimpse into supernormal capacities that might, over time and through intentional practice, become stabilized capacities that an actor could actually ‘enact’ on a regular basis. Again, refining which are state experiences only and which are part of a developmental sequence will take more research; including longitudinal studies designed to follow people over decades of development.

When looking at supernormal capacities as opposed to supernormal experiences, it is important to speak to context or circumstances as a factor. Many of the actors spoke of a larger context or a powerful circumstance in which they demonstrated supernormal experiences. Some of the actors sought out contexts conducive to supernormal functioning; even constructed them on a regular basis. For example, Theatre Dzieci and Matt Mitler consistently performed in sacred spaces and sought out retreat time with spiritual communities that they collectively agreed ‘refined’ or ‘lifted’ their energies. They also structured their performances to be conducive to surrender to grace given powers. Other cases, like Robert Parson’s story of playing Black Rider and also in The Rivalry, gave the impression that his greatest action was to align with the great convergence of forces. But even in such a case, it is possible to identify the perceptions, attitudes, and actions he took that allowed him to open up to or fully participate if not activate the energy present in each of these extraordinary circumstances.

Given less capable participants than the ones used in this study, it would likely be the case that actors would sabotage various extraordinary opportunities for supernormal functioning because of their various ‘blocks’ and lack of wisdom to spot opportunities to participate in larger contextual circumstances. And even though the subjects of this study were generally very qualified and skilled, still in some of these cases the actors needed exceptional contextual energy in order to sense the invisible network of energy surrounding them and participate in it. Perhaps with more specific training, these actors would be able to sense and participate in the atmospheric energy without needing it to be quite so intense; thus enact the same supernormal capacities even in less than constructive environments.

At the same time, more often than not, the actors describe the power for supernormal functioning coming from beyond themselves; from transpersonal or impersonal sources. This emerged as a key to supernormal experiences in the actors in this study, yet in almost all cases the actors had ‘actions’ to do consistently which would align them with the available forces; make them available to or wield that larger Force. These actions that align the actor to the larger impersonal or divine force could be seen as the ‘supernormal capacities’ themselves.

Developmentally speaking these actions were about more than just ‘actions’ to take, but rather were developmental and emergent capacities; each level displaying new levels of capacity and complexity. The level of complexity related to supernormal capacities seemed to be transpersonal and came well after pre-personal and personal developmental stages. The issue of how to activate the very highest latent capacities actors possess, and wake those up in others through performance is part and parcel of the more general evolutionary and spiritual purpose of this study.

This shift to transpersonal capacities seems a major shift for most actors. The notion that these moments of transpersonal experience actually have actions or paradigmatic processes that evoke them and can to some degree be actively practiced, thus developing ‘transpersonal or supernormal functions’ and ‘capacities’ rather than just focusing on the ‘transpersonal experience’ is an emergent result of this study. Eventually a series of transpersonal acting techniques may evolve that lead to consistent activation of transpersonal supernormal abilities in actors. This has the potential to be a paradigm shift in the best sense, a shift in ‘paradigmatic action’ and thus new data/experience; and new forms of artistic expression.

In some ways, the supernormal capacities can be seen as a result of personal surrender or alignment with larger than personal energies or actions. So, the supernormal capacities turn out to really be a series of activities that allow an individual body mind to relate to transpersonal forces. This is not about a directive will, but rather doing our part to be open or available to a Greater Circulation or Divine will.

An idea for further consideration that also emerged from the patterns in this data, is that supernormal capacities come unpredictably and appropriately so; so as to maintain our individual humility with relation to these apparent ‘powers’. Perhaps SNF are best as graces that come and go at the whim of a divine and enigmatic will rather than at the will of individual egos and personalities. In the interviews, some participants told stories of trying to repeat or will moments of supernormal functioning, but it doesn’t work. This begs the question, why doesn’t it work? Is it because by their very nature they are not nor should not malleable to personal will, and for good reason, or is it that she just doesn’t have the tools/techniques to consistently access those energies as many have experienced in paratheatrical work. Maybe all actors can do is develop the capacities of surrender, service, discipline, and faith; cultivating fertile soil or a clear vessel for supernormal energies to work through.

This notion that supernormal capacities cannot be directly willed contributes to the additional characteristic that many participants reported; not being able to take credit for the outcome of the supernormal capacities. Many participants have expressed a lack of ownership of their own brilliance or capacities; even an awkwardness when people try to give them praise for powers that seem beyond themselves. Again, the questions arises, is this because some impersonal force is at work, or do they not identify with the abilities because something in their frontal personality doesn’t yet identify with its own transpersonal aspects.

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