Theatrical Ancestors, and creating the Thespis Tree

Theatre isn’t an escape; it’s a world we enter. It’s imagination that rekindles what it was to be childlike. We can wonder, imagine, and allow ourselves to believe. Theatre was born out of belief. It was a religious expression, meant to communicate with the Gods. Even a thousand years later, when Shakespeare’s The Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed Macbeth for the first time, the actors believed in the witches they portrayed. To the audience, witches and cunning-folk were a fact of life, as real and as fundamental as doctors, lawyers, and the Queen. When Hamlet met the ghost, it was a vital and real possibility to everyone in attendance.

The role of the actor was originally a Shaman; the actor’s job was sacred. When Thespis stepped forward and declared himself Dionysus, he did it as an act of faith. In traditional societies actors channeled spirits. They brought wisdom from the other world that was otherwise invisible. Shamanic actors, with the aid of costumes, props, music, and lighting, would enter a trance. As artists today these are our ancestors. What we do today exists solely because of these practices.

As a young actor in an urban city I find myself asking the fundamental questions:

Living in the northern tip of Manhattan I’m nestled between two beautiful parks, Ft. Tryon and Inwood Hills. The later is a tangle of woods and the last untouched forest in New York City. My sanity is rooted by the time I spend there. I’ll take morning walks with my dogs, enjoy a spring rain, picnic with my girlfriend Natalie, or take up a book of Walt Whitman, and attempt to reconnect with nature. I’ll sit in the woods and run my mind over those fundamental questions.

There is a melancholy to the work of an artist. I don’t mean sadness or depression, but a deep unsettling. Martha Graham described, “There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” That melancholy has continued to drive me forward.

The times I’ve felt most alive as an actor was when I was on tour. I’ve been fortunate enough to tour with two shows on three contracts, Monty Python’s Spamalot, and Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot (slowly moving toward legitimacy). The work is grueling: living out of a suitcase, sleeping on the bus, having no control of your life. It’s tiring, but the communities we visited made me feel alive. I felt a deep connection to my commedia dell’arte ancestors and to the traveling actors of the 19th century. Here I was continuing a 2,600 year old tradition. Arrive in a town, tell a story, and then pack up and leave. My job was to simply be present in front of a group of strangers every night. As I stood in the wings it was impossible not to feel a powerful thread connecting me through time.

I never imagined myself writing about theatre. There are so many words written on acting, it outnumbers the plays! But what I’m interested in isn’t technique, but rather the work we do to grow and develop, and how we maintain a dialogue with our ancestors.

The Unknown is the source of everything as an artist, and we’ve always had a torrid relationship with what they call ‘the muse’.

MUSE: noun: a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.

The Nine Muses: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Euterpe (flutes and lyric poetry), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry), Urania (astronomy)

The muse is a spring from which all inspiration emanates, and that’s a terrifying notion.

“Where is it? Is it real? What if it stops?”

When I see someone say, “oh, that actor has it,” or, “that actor doesn’t really have it,” the ‘it’ they’re referring to is a connection to the Unknown. Actors who have ‘it’ appear to transcend like our shaman ancestors. We all recognize that some actors are really connected with something that makes them great. In ourselves we have those great moments of performance where we’ve felt transcending. It may have only been in a rehearsal, or a dress rehearsal, or a single line in a performance, but if you‘ve experienced, it’s a feeling you don’t loose. In a way you spend the rest of your career chasing that feeling. I call it ‘The Unknown Muse’, and that is the purpose of this blog.

‘Alchemy and the Actor’ is in reference to the classic occult practice of alchemy, turning lead into gold. What psychologist C. G. Jung found in alchemy was a precursor to his own brand of psychology: in the effort to transform base metals into gold, alchemists were symbolically engaging in a process of transformation. In other words, alchemy was a metaphor for individuation. We break something down, and with those parts, create something divine.

The Thespis’ Tree, or, The Actor and the Unknown.

Thespis’ Tree is my attempt to map the relationship between the unknown and the artist, to recognize the duality of romanticism and pragmatism, and to find the spirituality in theatre. The tree is a culmination of my training, experiences, and philosophies as an actor: Lecoq, Leban, The Second Circle, Stanislavsky, Elizabethan performance, Melancholy and the biles, Hermogenes’ Style of oratory, to name a few.

The connection between these different disciplines and perspectives was unclear until I began reading about the Jewish Kabbalah. Its concepts at first were difficult and frustrating to grasp, but as my understanding grew, I observed connections with my own journals and meditations on art. I created a rough drawing of my own Tree of Life connecting the Muse to the artist, and found the wealth of my beliefs followed the powerful geometry of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The kabalistic meanings of the branches were surprisingly interchangeable, and even the historical occult interpretations of the Kabbalah could connect with the Thespis’ Tree: denoting powers and paths to Greek Gods, planetary beliefs, and anatomical correspondence.

Green Tārā, (Syamatara) known as the Buddha of enlightened activity

This is not intended to be a “New Age” interpretation of theatre, but rather a return to a more ancestral understanding. To see the process of creation and all of its stages helps to focus our minds back to the bigger picture, and to a more productive, inspired self. Connecting the circles to celestial images, anatomical points, and Greek Gods helps to visualize the areas we need to cultivate. Like the Buddhist practice of Tantric Meditation on Taras, the visual and sensory focus allows a point to meditate on. The Buddhists don’t believe that a Green Goddess exists in reality, but rather as a symbol to focus and to fill with memory all the attributes one wishes to grow.

Here is a breakdown of the tree:

The Thespis’ Tree excites me because it returns theatre to the Gods. Training can too often be intellectual, focused on raw emotion, or on precision and perfection; melancholy is weighed as negative, and is suppressed for the buoyant; but only a balanced approach connects the highest branch to the earth with stability. Academia may focus exclusively on the Body Triad, but the tree shows that it is necessary to till and keep the Heart and Soul Triad fertile. We tend to glorify the Heart Triad, putting an existential fetish on raw emotion; but that focus is still misdirected on self, and not on the true unknown. A focus on the Tree, and thus the greater picture, gives us scope; a source to meditate on; a connection with our bodies, with our natural world, and our ancestral world.

As actors, we are forever students, and one must maintain a fitness that isn’t only physical, but emotional and spiritual. The tree may seem overly intellectual, but throughout this series I hope to show the real world use and applications it can have.

The word theatre is derived from the Greek ‘theasthai’, or to behold. Thus we behold our natural world, not for sermons but for inspiration. Thespis’ Tree removes the falsity of perfection and polish, and embraces the Unknown for what it is: a gift; terrifying, but a gift.

“Art is not a nice extra — it is the umbilical cord which connects us to the divine. It guarantees our being human.”

- Nikolaus Harnoncourt