For me, acting is almost a spiritual discipline. First of all, the visualizations and meditations resemble spiritual techniques, which stem from what acting originally was; the original actors were priests and priestesses in the temples. For the real actor, I think it’s a spiritual calling. I don’t see it being talked about much anymore, but I think many good actors experience their art that way.
~ Ellen Burnstyn
In the middle of this, my year of everything-falling-to-pieces, the one beautiful shard has been how deeply my spiritual practice has grown. I ran across this quote in an old notebook and was struck by how relevant it still feels to me. I haven’t acted in many months, and I miss it every day, but I finally understand why acting has always felt so important to me, and why I feel so empty when I’m not able to engage with it.
Acting has been the one arena in my life where I feel completely myself. It never feels like work, I lose all track of time, and I feel joyful and fulfilled. I am in the zone and out of my head when I get to channel my creativity. It’s also been one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever encountered but it’s a challenge that thrills me.
This year, I’ve realized that acting has been my spiritual path–which, like any spiritual path, is meant to bring me closer to the Divine. However, because my other spiritual practices have deepened, I can now experience daily, without “doing” anything, what I used to only experience while acting. It is the sense of aliveness, presence, and connection to Consciousness. The amazing thing about it is that I don’t need a stage, a set, or to book an audition. I can experience this no matter what I’m doing, no matter where I am, and no matter what is going right or wrong at the time.
When an actor trains with Sense Memory, she encounters an object without any pre-conceived labels or judgements. The actor may sit in a chair and hold a cup. She observes the cup as if for the first time. She describes its qualities to her fellow classmates: it’s made of glass, it’s medium height, it has raised ridges, there’s a wide rim, it’s a bit heavy, the light comes through it, I see a distorted image if I hold it up to my eyes. Only after the actor has fully explored the glass objectively does she begin to attach personal meaning and a story. But, without that personal story, she is looking through the lens of Presence, and so even something as ordinary as describing a glass has become a totally spiritual practice.
Memorizing lines is akin to meditating and chanting with a Mantra. One focuses the mind on a word or series of words in order to keep random thoughts from taking over. At first there is effort involved but, finally, one goes into a sort of trance; instead of continually calling your attention back to the Mantra, you simply ride the waves of the sound of the words. I use a memorization technique I call “walk the lines.” Whenever I have large chunks of text to memorize, I go for a long walk outside, all the while chanting the text. Eventually, the rhythm of the words drops into the rhythm of my body, and they become one thing.
The practice of a Mantra is not about the Mantra itself. It’s meant for the moment when your mind suddenly releases thought and the Mantra disappears, without your knowing it, into No-Thought. Then, you’re in a state of union with the Divine, for as long as you allow yourself to remain there. When an actor’s lines have dropped into her body, she doesn’t think about them anymore; they simply arise out of her as if they are her.
Anything we do in life can be our spiritual practice: meditation, Yoga, relationships, sports, housework, nature, religious rituals, creativity–you name it. As long as we don’t mistake the practice for the Divine Itself, it doesn’t really matter what it is. I’m finding comfort in the knowledge that, even when I can’t participate in the practice I love the most, I can still experience the core of what I love about it, which is simply the formless quality without the form attached.
The theatre community of Elkhart, Indiana, is mourning the passing of Marcia Fulmer, a prolific arts editor, writer, critic, director, and actress. I met Marcia at the age of 15, when I was cast in the chorus of a musical called Carnival that she was directing for Elkhart Civic Theatre, which operates out of the historic Bristol Opera House. In terms of community theatre, ECT was one of the best around, and I was beside myself to be performing on that stage.
Early into rehearsals, someone left the show, and so I was “upgraded” to a role with one line, as half of a “fake Siamese twin” duo. Marcia told me, in a rush, to pick up my sides from the office. I was so green, I didn’t know what she meant, but was too scared to ask her. So I asked for my “sign” from the office and discovered that it was one square of paper bound between a cover. Typed on the page was the “cue” line and then my own line of dialogue. I didn’t have a full script so I had absolutely no idea where my line was supposed to come in, which caused me tremendous anxiety.
Marcia knew her stuff and pulled no punches in her direction. I realized I was working with the most professional person I’d encountered up to that point and tried to do everything right. One day, we were choreographing a big musical number with the entire cast, and I was situated up on a ladder with streamers in my hand. I was worried about calling attention to myself, certain that the focus should be elsewhere, and so I held the streamers still while I sang. Marcia singled me out in exasperation during notes, saying, “Don’t just stand all the way up there with your streamers hanging down. Wave them around!” I felt humiliated to be called out in front of everyone and for doing the “wrong thing” but it gave me a swift lesson I needed to learn: that I was allowed to be seen and that I was encouraged to contribute of my own accord instead of waiting for instruction. I also had trouble because my line was comedic and over-the-top and it felt like death-by-torture for someone as insecure as I was. Marcia had to demonstrate a possible line reading for me (which she rarely did) and, once again, she gave me permission to at least attempt to come out of my shell.
We had an amazing cast which included quite a few mischief-makers. During a tech rehearsal, I learned that it was a bit of a tradition to play practical jokes during the scenes. I was terrified of what Marcia would say but, to my surprise, she tolerated the tomfoolery while also refusing to crack or to deviate from her rigorous direction. I celebrated my 16th birthday during the run and the cast surprised me with singing, cake and cards one night, which she also tolerated, even though it cut into her time. Participating in that show was truly one of the happiest experiences of my life.
A couple of years later, I was cast in another musical, again in the chorus. In addition, I was given a little comedic featured role that had some solo singing. And, yet again, I was terrified. I worked hard to overcome my nerves but could never relax until that part of the show was over. My castmate, and the lead of the musical, congratulated me on “shaking less every night” at the end of the run. A dubious accomplishment. But perhaps the highlight for me was when Marcia came to review the show; I could hardly believe it when she included me in a trio of actors who “contributed some nice comedy bits.” It was the first review I’d ever received and I knew that, from her, it was significant. It remains one of my favorite pieces of feedback, especially since I knew how much those “comedy bits” scared the hell out of me.
I can’t begin to touch on the accomplishments of Marcia’s life, which are better relayed by those who knew her best. She was, however, a full-blown artist, who brought a level of insight and professionalism to a small Midwestern community in ways that completely raised the bar for many, many years. In a recent podcast, she touched on the rough spots in her life, saying that we may have tough times but being a part of something with our neighbors, like putting on a great show, can be an elixir: “God, theatre helps.” I hold such a special place in my heart for the people I worked with on those community theatre stages while I was growing up. Theatre saved my life, in so many ways, and it was artists like Marcia who helped me to see what was possible beyond those stages…even for a scared Indiana girl like me.
The creative process is not about hoping, wishing, waiting, wanting, trying, or looking–hope is a beggar. It’s about embodying and becoming your creation. ~ Dr. Joe Dispenza
There’s a reason they call it “practice.” Learning how to embody something, instead of muscling it, is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There are virtually no outward signs that anything is changing, which is a tough benchmark to explain in this world of form and results. Inside, though–explosions. Perhaps the greatest reward of finally reaching a moment of consciousness (sometimes only after an hour of battling myself) is that, once I get there, all of the wanting that led me there in the first place disappears. It’s like basking in the presence of someone you love, just because they are, and not for anything they might do for you. You could stay there forever. There is an awareness that something had been lacking but, in the Now, you can’t remember why it mattered. The sharp edges are gone. Outside of meditation…pain can still be felt but from a distance or, maybe, with the sense that it’s not you…not the way you once thought it was.