Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Understanding the mystery of a human being through acting, impersonating them, is quite different from the therapist’s task of getting them to understand themselves. Or is it? Can “impersonating oneself” be both therapy and art form?

A particular way of approaching acting is to look for the spine of the character — what is their central motivation? What is the drive-line of that person from which all else can be unfolded: the details, the emphasis, the context of the time and place, the family roots, the history? Then the problem becomes one of communication: how must it be shaded and edited and embellished for an audience to “get it”? The actor looks within his or her own life for connections, sense memories, melding with that person. People who live with actors sometimes complain that they don’t know this person who comes down to breakfast. They’re inhabiting their role.

The task of the therapeutic counselor is to stay OUTSIDE the person they are trying to understand but ALSO to go inside the way an actor would. A counselor who only uses some checklist based on theory OR only his own inner life might only be partially successful in calling out the person’s own understanding. So many times I’ve had counselors insist on things about me that weren’t there at all. Or blunder into something painful and then not to be able to deal with it. Not that I’m extraordinary. Everyone is extraordinary. Some hide it better than others.

Much of art is choosing the media and style or genre in the first place, though some brilliant artists can find the “way” from inside the subject matter, which makes it harder for a watcher to interpret because they expect one thing and get another. If you read “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” thinking “this book was written by a pornographer,” it will be a different story than if you read the book thinking “this book was written by a Navajo man.” The assumed persona of the author is a necessary part of the fiction. 

People have experimented with submitting famous books to publishers.  One of the most famous was “The Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kosinski who was hailed by Elie Wiesel, Arthur Miller and Cynthia Ozick, as brilliant and absolutely authentic. They were agreeing with the editor who recruited the writer at a cocktail party where she was impressed by his persona. When those people who feed off of revelations finally tracked down the somewhat less flamboyant truth, people still insisted on the earlier “truth” until the critics finally got bored and wandered off, muttering about the “Holocaust industry” and “Holocaust pornography.” Someone took the trouble to retype the whole manuscript and send it under a pseudonym to a publisher who pronounced it dreck.  That’s what they expected and that’s what they saw.

These flirtations are acting, theatre, staging. People who can recognize the loss of boundaries on television or the movies entirely forget that books are just as much an art form as cinema. 

Therapeutic role-playing is entirely different. The client is looking for truth, maybe by trying on possibilities to see whether they fit. It’s something dangerous to do without a community or a partner, who will keep track of the daily presentation of the individual so they can return to some kind of dependable base. In an airplane there is an instrument that stays parallel to the true horizon outside the machine and by consulting it, the pilot has a trustworthy reality, even though it’s only symbolic.

Perhaps insanity is losing that horizon instrument. But where is the therapist with a strong enough edge-of-land not to be lost while still open and intuitive enough to “fly” alongside as a reference point? How do you find him or her? 

As I write, we are all thinking about this because of the shooting at Fort Hood. Here was a man isolated by difference, a “painted bird,” and yet in the midst of people supposedly alert to healing. Why didn’t they put an arm around his shoulders and take him aside for a coffee? Because he was “different,” because he refused help, because they weren’t thinking about him but about their own safety — which turned out to be very much endangered?

The actor taking on the role of this killer will look for a “spine” that intends to help but becomes deformed somehow. The journalism about him — which is more delicate and resourceful than usual — is suggesting forces like pride; isolation; devoutness; and second-hand trauma from empathy with maimed, disfigured, terribly suffering combat survivors who really cannot be saved. Some of them walking dead. A therapist trying to help this man (there won’t be many volunteers) will have to step inside him, confront his demons alongside him, and then step back out to the larger context to understand what his life can mean from now on. Both the therapist and the actor will be changed.

Presumably this killer of many is not physically damaged or deformed, though we know that brains grow in response to the world around them and people exposed to ghastliness do not function normally. That’s the whole essence of post-traumatic stress syndrome, that it is not just “wrong thinking” but that the response system of the brain itself has been twisted into repetition and over-reaction. A result becomes a cause.

Tim says that the hard part of “saving” boys who have been abused and trafficked is not physically removing them from that life. Why should their captors be too anxious to catch someone rebellious when there are plenty more where those came from? The hardest moments come when the boy wants to go back to where things are familiar and he knows where he stands. It is a psychological captivity. 

In a new life a kind of homesickness sets in, the danger of the unknown future overwhelming the danger of the known past. It takes a community and a lot of long walks to create a new “spine”. But the driving arrow of time pushes on through the newly familiar, capturing it, as experience does in every life. A growing brain, increasing skills, wider experience, more options, and pretty soon the ego has enough traction to begin moving again.  We hope.  It enlists the parts of the brain “under the horizon,” the subconscious that can only be accessed through images and music, where so many youngsters dwell.

(This is an old post I thought could bear repeating.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


On the surface it might seem that I’m working on several different contexts at the same time.  Maybe I am:  the acting methods of Alvina Krause; reflection on my life “trajectory”; theory about liturgy and brain function; social criticism, particularly the issues raised by “Law & Order SVU” and related television serieses now presented in a new “long form” on DVD’s; my friendship with Tim; Blackfeet history; and ordinary things around Valier.  (We had early snow and cold last week, chaperoned by grizzly bears in our yards.)

I keep meeting myself coming and going.  Idea-wise, I mean, with a few virtual grizzlies maybe.  I mean that what lies under Krause’s career is a convinced moral sense of human life that she acquired in a rural place not unlike this one and that might have been expressed as ministry under different circumstances.  Her way of understanding theatre is as a kind of secular church.  She says that when JFK was assassinated she longed for a church, but passed them by, and ended up at home reading Greek drama.  At that time I was teaching in Browning, on the Blackfeet rez, so I just looked at the mountains longer than usual.  Same with 9/11 since I was back here by then.

She asks her interviewer why she never wrote any books, and Dave Press offers that maybe she’s just too physical.  She thinks with her muscles, striding and striking and whirling.  She agrees, ironically citing a book:  “THE THINKING BODY.”   Mabel Todd.  There’s a demonstration of the message on YouTube.  In her letter advice to Dave Downs she says over and over,  “Make them DO something.  Don’t let them just talk.  They must get out of their heads.”  Tim says the same thing to me, but this piece in me is lacking.  I didn’t get the gene or something -- so I sit here happily in this chair, writing and writing and writing.  In my head.  But brain theory makes it clear that no one just thinks in their heads: the thinking involves the gut, the molecules in the blood, muscle tension, responsiveness, the senses.

I’ve just watched “An Affair to Remember” with Deborah Kerr who is always acting out an English ideal: the virtuous woman who “saves” the wayward man.  Irene Dunne acted it, Greer Garson, Ingrid Bergman.  Me, too, in the Sixties.  There’s a little of that in AK except that she’s not saving a lover, she’s a teacher inspiring a student to achieve great things.  This pattern is very deep in human life.  I suppose it’s the Madonna thing.  But also very English because there are so many stories about the tough coal country where sons unsuited for going “down the hole” had only one way out: education.  AK acted in “How Green Was My Valley.”  It was one of her abiding texts.  My version was more French, Camille Claudel meets Rodin or Francoise Gilot meets Picasso.  Except on the high prairie.

These stories are patterns that throw people into intense circumstances where it is hard to know what to do and the consequences may be grave.  Or might, indeed, trigger greatness.  Maybe they become more muted later in life.  It helps to find a partner who neither competes nor draws energy as AK did.  (David Downs‘ post today was about Lucy suffering a concussion and AK tending her in the hospital.)  Surely I’m not the only one beguiled by the detective partnership of “Elliot” and “Olivia” in their roles.  Surely I’m not the only one who values scripts that illustrate how two people can stay in a cooperative, equal relationship, esp. when the focus of the stories is on violent, sexual, destructive dysfunction.

Which is in part where the rez comes in.  So many stories of desperate, deranged, impoverished people trying to force others, punish others, suck the blood of others, and all the time the refusal of those with the resources to make the arrangements that might re-pattern everyone’s lives.  And then a few rise above it all, with the help of a mentor, and we are grateful.  A microcosm of the planet.  Grizzlies stalking everywhere: raw predation has been symbolized by bears since the cave days.  And yet bears also swim desperately in the shoreless sea as it becomes more acid.  

The time frame for the study of AK’s teaching acting methods is the same as the early days of television -- about 1950 to 1965.  She does not address television, does not teach acting for a camera.  My very early adult years overlap with her late adult years.  By now. fifty years later, I’m watching brief shocking clips made by feral street boys with little pocket video cameras.  They are like poems, metaphorical.  AK might understand that.  But she says she believes in the live actor, scripted, on a real stage -- other things are fine, just not theatre.  But there’s got to be some underlying force.  I think it is what we call spirituality.  Or life force.  Truth.  Love.  All that jazz and jizm.

The basic pattern of evolution -- which is only unfolding life finding its way -- is a mainstream with side-channels where circumstances allow development of something a little different.  For a while after AK was pushed out of her lifelong teaching in Evanston, she felt excluded from mainstream theatre, maybe headed for extinction.  In a few years she had reinvented herself as a lecturer and visiting professor and BTE had formed.  Then clearly she was able to contribute something unique and valuable.  It’s an obvious truism that detours turn out to be valuable paths.   This sort of thing was happening to a lot of us in the late Sixties and early Seventies, so many new horizons as to induce vertigo.  But AK was a good gardener, which saved her.  Except she never wrote a book. She was too busy nurturing people.  

The work of a writer, an actor, a minister, a therapist, a teacher comes out of the authentic reality of the person, so to some extent a person who teaches these things must address the essential nature of the person who comes to be taught.  Shallow, greedy, needy people cannot provide the understanding that will attract and guide others.  Fifty years ago, when I was an undergrad, the goal of a university used to be to create good human beings, ethical and resourceful.  Now the idea is to run up a huge debt in order to make sure that no student will shirk the task of making a lot of money.  What of substance might be taught is, well, open to negotiation.  You don’t need university for that -- ask Tim.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Back in the day, when Meadville/Lombard Theological School was a dignified and historic marker of the Unitarian tradition and each student had a key to the library stacks that occupied all of one end, I found the rows of old masters’ theses and decided to read them.  NO ONE ever read them.  Carefully bound in hardback dun muslin and full of heart-blood from generations of aspiring ministers, mostly dead by then, I thought they deserved some attention.  There were no major insights in them.  Mostly the ideas had just absorbed into the mainstream.  A thesis is generally supposed to be received wisdom.  One does not cut trail but re-affirms one’s mentor’s views.  One of my classmates was famous for having on his thesis pages more footnotes referring to previous authorities than text.

Now that I’m trying to frame up the materials available about the lifework of Alvina Krause -- in hopes that someone else will see how rich and meaningful it all is and decide to write the definitive book before it’s too late -- I’ve been trying to read theses through Interlibrary Loan.  Now and then I buy one outright, like David Press’ thesis about AK’s methods.  

In the past the assumption has been that book publishers would immediately pounce on anything worthy and put it on the market as a formal book.  That doesn’t happen anymore, at least not in the humanities.  Even in the sciences the safeguards and legal issues have become such a thicket that it’s certainly not automatic.  The first problem is just knowing that the subject exists.

This week I’ve ordered two theses from NUcat, the catalogue of thesis archives of Northwestern University.  I am an alumn (Sp ’61).  When my local librarian couldn’t follow the cybertrail into NUcat, I picked up the phone and called them.  (People don’t think of that very much these days.)  The NUcat librarian walked me through.  One thesis was Robert Benedetti’s “Encounter Theatre” (1971) and the other was Alvina Krause’s 1933 Master’s thesis, “A Study of Creative Imagination.”  They should be along in a few weeks.  I’ll tell you about them when they come.

In the process of searching, I did lot of googling and discovered other fascinating things.  For instance, Calgary (which is about a four hour drive north of Valier) has an Encounter Theatre !  http:/

It’s worth quoting the website at length.

"The core of the theatre is an encounter." [Grotowski]  "It must have searing physical and oral impact." [Artaud]   

Cruel.  Happy.  Challenge.  
Theatre Encounter’s mandate is to create expressive alternative productions of theatre’s classic works with a focus on physical explorations and textual interpretations. Theatre Encounter enhances community development by artistic and social means through the essence of quintessential theatre. 

By reinventing classic texts through a modern Canadian perspective, with a strong emphasis on provocative language and embodying movement, Theatre Encounter offers Calgarians an alternative to the mainstream view of classic dramatic literature. 

Welcome to Theatre Encounter.

Approaching art through a performance medium (regardless of the other artistic mediums and multi-media facets that it encompasses) starts with the question of whether we want to tell a story or not. The creation is then able to have focus, which opens it up to style. The experimentation within specific styles is what allows for the discovery of exciting creation, and staves off banality and the trite. What Theatre Encounter insists on from their performers is full commitment to the implementation of the style at hand; this is very demanding work, which comes from full internalization before the aesthetic, and attempts to push the performer to their limits. 

The result edges them into a critical state of awareness that offers the viewer a dynamic connection that inanimate creations lack; as one’s body relates to another body on intellectual, emotional, visceral and energetic levels; the viewer and the viewed are engaged in a relationship that bring livened responses and transformations.  

Thus, the theatre becomes an engagement of individuals in a collective dynamic, and through the art of the actor, the relationship between audience and actor is the source of creativity and embodiment. The actor’s body becomes a dynamic relationship which reciprocates verbal or non-verbal messages and provides an opportunity for performers and audience members to integrate a totality of physical and mental reactions into their awareness. Moments more 'real' than others can be experienced.

In order for the performer to reach this unrestriction, a framework must be used in which the diversity of experience can be experimented within. We at Theatre Encounter believe that literature’s classic works, and a contemporary approach through style, are the perfect avenues for this inquiry; time-tested structures create a trusted code in which a contained modality of artistic and personal research is created.

Theatre Encounter produces a creative environment where a performer can be vulnerable and therefore open to this experiment, so their best work can be harnessed for the greater good of the group. The expulsion of this committed and imaginative work flows through the classic texts emblazoned throughout the ages.

We hope you will be as excited as the team here at Theatre Encounter about this season, as we strive to fully engage you with our art. As theatre theorist Antonin Artaud said, “we are not appealing to the audience’s minds or senses, but to their whole existence. To theirs and ours.” 

Michael Fenton & Mike Unrau
Co-Artistic Directors

Theatre Encounter’s vision is to create a world-class experimental theatre company and artistic & social research environment by reinventing the traditional into the contemporary, in order to push the cutting edge of artistic and social boundaries.

I’m not sure I really get it, but this spring I ought to have enough money to renew my passport and afford a trip to Calgary.  Sometimes it feels as though I’m balancing on the lip of an abyss and other times it’s as though my feet are guided by fate to a place I’ve been seeking a long time.  Most of the time, it’s both.  And that’s the way I want my life to be.  Encountered.

Nevertheless it’s surprising to discover “encounter theatre” which I’m only newly aware of and yet -- through NU -- deeply connected to, just a four hour drive across the border.  But then, Calgary was a key city for Bob and I in the Sixties as well.  I wonder if the Jade Palace is still open.

A sample review:

Sunday, October 28, 2012


This election has become an exercise in polarization -- everything in black or white, Evil or Virtue, the only question being which is which.  Therefore, in a spirit of reform, this little essay is an exercise is “gray” (very trendy in the erotica world) by which I hope to liberate a thousand (why stop at fifty?) little gray cockroaches of doubt and confusion.

First, I want to point out that what is considered Evil depends in large part on what one knows as reality, though on reflection we all realize there are many realities.  Therefore, what is Evil to a person whose world seems largely good and optimistic is going to be a much different idea of what Evil might be than to a person whose world seems mostly Evil -- constant deprivation and suffering in which an occasional bit of Good might fall.  The latter group is under-represented in all discussions because they are not likely to have necessary resources, motivation or access.  Therefore, no really thorough discussion with them is possible except maybe through the symbolism of antisocial acts.

Lately one definition of Evil has come to appeal to a lot of good people:  that Evil is separation from God -- being unable to contact God.  That is, there is no Satan or Devil actively making bad things happen, just a lack of good.  I don’t see where that’s very helpful unless a passive, careless God is better than an active torturer.  Which still brings up the Middle Eastern Big Three Monotheism problem of theodicy:  if God is all powerful, why is “he” so malevolent?  Which has got to be a major argument in favor of atheism.

But it does relate to the idea that even disorder is Evil because it leads to oversights and unintentional damage, as in the guerrilla street wars where people are trying to overthrow human dictators.  But the reason the people are wanting to be rid of them is that they kept order by imposing suffering, an Evil.

Isn’t suffering Evil?  It certainly is considered Evil if you’re selling pain-killers but don’t forget that childbirth pain-killers were originally opposed on grounds that God meant women to suffer when giving birth, perhaps in expiation for the joys of sex.  And there are many kinds of suffering.  What about the child who cuts herself to get relief from the anguish of bad conscience or feelings of worthlessness?  We try to define suffering as chemical, neurological, a biological problem -- and therefore suppress the question of deservingness.  What about expiation of sins?  What about the motivation for change?

Suffering and loss are often seen as deserving compensation, which leads to the question of who’s to blame, responsibility that must be assigned because the culprit is supposed to “pay.”  Insurance companies keep lists of how much each suffering or loss is “worth.”  A missing arm, a lost child, in today’s market will be -- let’s see now -- is this the most recent list?  Today’s dollars?

Putting a price on suffering encourages the inflation of trivial offenses into compensable events -- sort of commodity vacuums that are worth money.  Calling someone by a nasty name can cost a penalty.  (Whether it is nasty and how nasty depends on the culture.)

But we give a “pass” to some kinds of suffering.  One is whether the killing, suffering, loss, and injustice was an “an Act of God.”  You can’t send God a bill.  So volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and the like can’t be Evil.  Evil has to mean that someone can be billed for the dollar equivalent of suffering.  This is the part where the corporations who claim they are persons suddenly claim that they are NOT persons and that the event was due to an Act of God.

Motivation for selfishness, greed, and status are all markers of Evil and yet many provocative stories emerge from acts motivated by Evil that end up doing good.  People have done many Evil things for Virtuous reasons, like Harry Truman dropping the Atomic Bomb.  The tricky part is knowing whether the outcome will truly justify the means since one doesn’t always know the extended circumstances or the possible bad effects over time.  (Thalidomide babies.)  One rule for Virtue is to do the greatest good for the greatest number, but how does that prevent one from burning a village in order to save the country?

And how do you know it isn’t madness?  The insanity defense only applies to individual human beings, presuming that they don’t know what they are doing, even if the deed meant the enormous effort of chopping people up with an ax.  (Can a corporation be insane?  Can a nation be insane?  Can a political party be insane?  Out of touch with reality?)

Sanity is often defined as agreement with the larger culture as to how information should be processed into action.  So to some people in our divided culture, the information that someone is homosexual should mean the action that they are excluded from marriage, employment, housing, and the army or anything else “regular” people enjoy through the protection of the law.  Maybe even freedom from violent attack.  Is this sane?  The claim is made that a big humanoid in the sky told them this is righteous and they know because it was written down on a scroll two thousand years ago.  Or in the case of the Latter Day Saints, on a sheet of gold more recently.  Is this sane?

It all gets too hard to figure out or else leads us into a field of conflicts of interest that are too confusing.  Why is it all right to have a lot of wives?  Why ISN’T it all right to have a lot of wives?  Why is it suspect to be “filthy” rich?  Why isn’t it a GOOD thing to have tons of money in offshore banks?

Horror, as opposed to Evil, comes as a big relief so thank goodness (?) we are almost to Halloween.  We can abandon all attempts at rational parsing and wrenching compassion so as to deal with zombies and vampires and wild half-seen night creatures who come to sit on your chest, stopping your heart and blowing their fetid breath up your nose so that you dream of rottenness and corruption and know there is no hope of escaping this planet in any way but death.  

What a relief when you wake up!  If you do.  And if your world is not one that is ALWAYS like the worst nightmares of “good” people.  And if the wrong president has not been elected.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


This is myself and my brother, the only surviving members of our nuclear family, and prime pedophile objects.  The photo was taken in 1948.  We didn’t know anything about pedophiles.  There were always moms watching.  The newspaper was mute on the subject.  This was about the time that our teenaged boy babysitter hanged himself in Macleay Park but we knew nothing about that.  There was only a Grimm’s fairy tale aura that sometimes crept along the street, a sense of darkness.  We didn’t think of Evil, but we were a little wary.

About this time there was a PTA meeting at Vernon Grade School about a case that upset the parents.  A representative of the police department would be there to discuss it with parents.  My mother was the president of the PTA and she felt she HAD to be there but there was no babysitter available.  She took us.  With a big stack of comic books and strict instructions to sit in the back row of the auditorium and read -- NOT pay attention.  Of course, we were all ears.

What registered with me was not the content, which had been the molestation of a little girl -- fondling not technical rape -- but the extreme discomfort of the police officer.  I didn’t know much about police officers, so this great big strong man in uniform being so ill-at-ease was fascinating.  A few dads were in a rage and my mother had to work to keep things under control.  There was a lot of talk about underpants.  Later some people, including my father (he was on the road at the time), questioned my mother’s judgement in taking us along, but no one offered to babysit us in another room.  As an adult, I wonder why it was so important to my mother.  Was it the hanged boy?  Was there something deep in her own childhood?  Was it her lifelong drive to fix things -- which I also have?

Not that I’m any good at it.  In the Sixties and early Seventies there were many situations that demanded action because of suffering on the part of children this age and then older.  I didn’t do very well and now I wonder why.  In a spirit of objective research, I can list the following.

1.  Ignorance.  I could tell something was wrong, but not what it was or what to do about it.  For all my reading, I knew little about real life.

2.  Distrust of authority figures.  Not that I thought they were malevolent but I thought they were powerless and irrelevant.  Youngsters today are often full of hatred, fear and contempt for ALL authority figures, but esp. police.  And they will say over and over that grownups just don’t know anything.  I’m inclined to agree in view of the above.

3.  Lack of entitlement.  I was married to a grandfather for four years during a decade-long relationship with him.  I was the third of four wives and because the first wife married multiple times and had children who married multiple times, all with a little thread of alcoholism, depression, violence, cancer death and other tangling forces,  I was never sure when I was entitled to interfere and others couldn’t figure out what to do with me either.  If someone brings a teenager to emergency and is the ex-step-grandmother from ten years earlier on an Indian reservation who is now standing there in a dogcatcher uniform, what would you think?  In order to get school people to pay attention, I had to dress up and wear heels.

4.  Both knowing too much and knowing too little.  Too much Krafft-Ebbing and not enough Social Work 101.  What do you do with a teenaged girl who flees from her home because of abuse, because her father and stepmother are alcoholics, who takes refuge with a classmate whose apparently generous and honorable family turns out to allow drinking parties and sex while not admitting even to themselves that anything is happening?  What if none of the legal parents involved will act, all of them depending on denial and talking libel.  The law requires “standing” to interfere in matters legally but I had no legal standing -- just emotional connection.

5.  Issues of class, race, and conflicting moralities made it hard to figure out where the other involved people were coming from.  Virtue confused with sentimentality, disobedience considered as Sin, reform contaminated by endless punishment.  Everything I said made it worse.

6.  Lack of intimate experience.  I never dated at all.  When I was 21, I picked out the man I wanted to be in relationship with, jumped into it completely, and never really left, though the sex eventually ended.  (He's been dead thirteen years.)  Faithfulness and tenacity are strong non-negotiable values of mine, but they can be anchors around one’s feet.  Otherwise, I could just break off ties and walk away. I can do that with institutions -- then it’s easy.  (Corporations are NOT people!!)

7.  Fear of traps.  I did NOT want to have children, did NOT want other people living with me once I was divorced (legally, not emotionally), did NOT want surprise bills and emergency calls at 3AM, and so on.  I wanted grad school.   I do not drink or smoke, don’t want to deal with the cost, mess and danger of them.  That’s not even mentioning hard drugs.  Or staying on a diabetic diet, though that didn’t apply then.

8.  Lack of money.  If I’d been a millionaire, I could have bought help, rented separate apartments, paid for someone else’s baby, flown cross-country to the rescue, gotten us all good educations. 

9.  Too much caution.  I worry too much, imagine too many scenarios, try to anticipate to the point of paralysis, and obsess about irrevocable consequences or unintended damage to people I didn’t know about in situations I didn’t understand.

10.  Playing Lone Ranger.  It rarely occurs to me that someone else might be willing to help or, indeed, be an effective helper.  It’s a grandiose arrogance to think this.

Some people think that blogs are gut-spilling confessionals and probably to them this one seems to be an example. But you might recognize yourself; it might be a way to help.  We weren’t an extraordinary family.  In 1948 in Portland, Oregon, things were quiet and a little sad.  We lived in small houses and my grandparents had to have financial help from their children.  There were not so many mutilated soldiers as now because in those days they just died, so it was the families that were mutilated.  The post-war prosperity had not started up, but the war industries were closed down.

In 1948 “The Red Shoes,” fairy tale romance ballet movie, was released and I saw it.  That same year “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” by Alfred C. Kinsey was published.  My father bought a copy.  I read it.  I didn’t comprehend either one very well, but they remain useful reference points for thinking about sex.  Neither had much about pedophiles directly.  Indirectly?  Quite a lot.  

I’m 73 today.  Done a lot of living since I was 8.  I remember those shoes.  They weren’t red, but they were patent leather with ankle straps.  It was my hair that was red.  Today it’s white hair and I’m happy to wear rubber Crocs.  Think anyone ever had a shoe fetish about Crocs?  

Friday, October 26, 2012






When my mother was in her last years, which she knew were exactly that because she had a blood cancer that takes about five years to kill the victim, she wanted to be “taken away” or -- as they say now in the book world -- “immersed” so as to forget the oppression of her fate.  She was 89.   I would suggest that she watch movies she had loved as a younger person, but she refused on grounds that it would remove the magic, the swelling and swept-away feelings they had given her as a girl. 

Modern equivalents of the books and movies she had so enjoyed did not speak to her generation.  Romance now is cynical, history is revisionist.  Now and then I would manage a success:  “Rob Roy,”  “Mrs. Brown.”  I thought she could have gotten interested in PBS/BBC (she liked the prestige and the fact that things were slow enough to grasp) except that my brother dominated the TV, watching the endless series reruns made for his generation.  (How to characterize them?  Witty slackers, I guess.  Faux community.)

But the point is not who watched what, the point is her refusal to let the magic of her first viewings be touched.  It was all mysterious to her and she wanted that mystery to remain.  To her it was the value of the art that the machinery should be invisible.  I understand what she was saying.  I’ve been disappointed by old movies that had previously gripped me so hard that I dreamt about them for years.  

Track of the Cat” was one of those gripping films.  I watched it again the other night.  It was a little hokey -- like the old man who hid whiskey bottles everywhere -- but Robert Mitchum and Beulah Bondi are as formidable now as then.  Wisely, the black panther is never shown so it can never be de-mystified.  Clearly the passive youngest son (Tab Hunter before he retired to Kalispell and gained weight) was a little wooden and his girl friend a little too pleased when she roused him to get rough with her.  As a child I didn’t know about the Montana connection.  (Walter von Tilburg Clark taught at the U of Montana.)

The film as a whole has kept its power because it is in the structure, the ideas being well played out.  It’s good luck that I’ve learned to look at shows BOTH as “magic” (virtual realities) and as technical accomplishments.  I can switch back and forth in my mind or even to some degree contain both at once.  It’s great to have so many DVD’s of excellent movies with voice-overs from directors and actors who truly understood what they were doing.  I have little use for the mutual admiration stuff or the joking around by actors who either didn’t know what they were doing or don’t want to appear to be skillful for some reason.

Why is that "joking" thing?  Our culture likes to protect the fiction that genius is unaccountable, that it cannot be taught.  People say,  “Oh, I wish I had talent like yours.”   If they worked at it, maybe they would.  As I explore the field of acting teachers, I see that one of the constraints is commodification: teachers trying to “sell” their unique ability to make charismatic, compelling movie stars out of run-of-the-mill nice kids.  By magic.  Or pretense.

Having the POTENTIAL to be an artist who rocks people back on their heels is one thing.  For a collaborative art like theatre the most fabulously talented person is still dependent on worthy material and colleagues in the same league.  As I work my way through “Law & Order, SVU”, watching Chris Meloni because I followed him over from “Oz” purposely to see where he would develop, I’m realizing how much his gift is being chopped up by episodic plot and predictable moments.  He needs material as strong as “Oz”.  He knows it.  Once in a while he gets a worthy episode.  The same was true of Andre Braugher.

I’m convinced that as we learn more about how our body/minds actually work and become more adept at managing our own consciousnesses purposely and with focus, artists and their teachers will be more and more effective.  The question is whether the technical means of presentation, the public openness to vicarious life and the trained creators of structure/unstructure will mesh enough to kindle something like the Elizabethan Age or Greek Theatre.  The technical part is moving quickly.  Our willingness to look at what was once forbidden is growing.  But maybe we’ve starved all the writers to death.

Our culture is being re-composed from fragments forced onto us by global economic change, migration, war, and scientific insight that is much different from Fifties confidence that we could just “cock it and pull it,” as Tim puts it.  We can’t build ourselves out of the problem.  Better machinery won’t do the job.   Today the newspaper had a story about the planetary collision that recomposed whatever asteroids smashed together into becoming the earth and the moon we know.  Our cultural change is almost on that scale.

This is not new.  Elizabethan England and American New England were both transformed by sea traffic.  (The whole planet has become a port culture now.)  Native Americans and Afghanis have both taught corporate authorities about the power of small, committed, reckless resistance.  (Goodbye, Russell Means.)  But that always means a lot of crime, disorder, and the destruction of innocents -- a high price to pay but one that Mother Nature imposes all the time and that Shakespeare and Aeschylus documented vividly.

The salvific forces of the world (and Mother Nature knows about them, too) are usually not apparent at first, but are often triggered and driven by the failure of the status quo.  For instance, the corporate co-optation of the mega-universities, the prestigious cachet of expensive educations, is destroying student assumptions with debt loads.  At the same time, apprenticeships, conservatories, on-line education, and good old-fashioned autodidacticism is developing new and passionate talent.  As Broadway sells out, ensemble repertory companies form in the boonies with high idealism and considerable personal sacrifice.   Encounter theatre.

Most of this goes right over the heads of standard middle-aged working-class folks with business educations and an addiction to scandals.  But there is a new day coming and the youngsters among us will recognize it and rejoice.  I believe this.  What we need most are the transforming ideas.  They are just below the surface, still obscured, mostly by fear.  The hardest part of transformation is giving up what “was” in order to take a chance on what comes next.  In her last days my mother said,  “I hope the next world is as much fun as this one was.”  No need to be grim about it.  Sing while we row the boat until the wind comes up.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


When Julene Kennerly was the drug resource person in Heart Butte, one of the things she taught us was that people whose horizons have been narrowed by addiction or who became addicted BECAUSE their horizons were narrow, needed to have memories given to them.  Therefore, we organized a private showing of “Dances with Wolves” and went down to Great Falls in our yellow buses as a whole school to watch it together.  The theatre owner -- who had to have his arm twisted since he’d not been impressed by stray kids he thought were that way because they were Indians -- was in this case admiring of the good behavior he saw.

When Tim’s Cinematheque crew was in Paris, one little boy from a northern country had faded off to the side until one day he broke.  No one had given him any special attention and he was hurting.  But ya gotta ask.  Within 24 hours he and Tim were kitted out in cold weather gear and ice fishing in his homeland.  Photos show his face shining with happy concentration on his line through the hole in the ice.

When I found the Unitarians, they were more sophisticated than I was used to: they had fine arts educations and money.  Soon I had learned about the "Pachelbel Canon", Barbour’s "Pavane for a Dead Princess", and Mary Oliver’s poetry.  We used them in services and for memorials.  Now they are dear and meaningful.  Saskatoon used Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a call to worship.  When I hear it on the radio, I sit down and listen, smiling.

At a meeting at First Unitarian Church, Chicago,  kitty-corner from M/L seminary, people struggled with their feelings about the ingredients of worship.  “More singing,” said the former Methodists.  “More quiet meditation,” said the former Quaker.  “More ceremony,” said the former Episcopalian.  “A little emotion puh-leeze,” begged the black lady.  Realizing we were all missing what we had left, we wondered what was uniquely Unitarian.  “More arguments!” laughed the birthright Unitarian.

When designing liturgy, it is all very well to carefully consider structure and transitions and logistics, but where do we get the content?  It was easy when I was preaching for the Blackfeet Methodist congregations.  I went to the landscape: cows, snow, wheat and all the sense memories connected to them.  Not so different from Biblical material:  storms, herding, newborns.  

One must know the congregation. which is why ministers from the same ethnic, educational, regional backgrounds as their congregations get along more smoothly.  Generational differences -- now what?  I remember the kid at a Seattle retreat who sang “Wild Thing” in a talent show.  He used his own lyrics:  “Wild thing, you make my dick swing!”  And then he blushed furiously.  It was a declaration of independence.  He CREATED a great memory for us.
A most dramatic and ingenious project was the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  Huge, medieval, unfinished, the stone building was in a neighborhood that had become ghetto.  Members had to travel from their upscale homes; neighbors felt nothing for it.  The inspired Dean, thinking about the historical origins and uses of such cathedrals, took the building back to its roots.  That’s how stone-cutting classes for gang members started; how tightropes got strung across the sanctuary; how jugglers in whiteface came up the aisles; how the Paul Winter Consort played at midnight on the Winter Solstice and raised the huge Sun Gong up into the darkness until the time came for it to be light-struck.  Memorable?  Yup.

It has to be sincere, authentic, well-done, deeply felt -- not just a bunch of junky improvisations.  I say no “junky” but ordinary is fine.  Once the Bozeman UU fellowship -- only a few dozen at that point -- went en masse out for ice cream after the evening service.  Oldsters and youngsters.   A fine memory.  Music is great -- slammin’ music at top volume while taking down folding chairs, singing harmony while doing the dishes together after a Thanksgiving feast.  Indelible happy memories of service call us back to them.

It is thought that mammal brains build memory according to spatial layouts --this idea here, that thought there, we’re forever drawing diagrams on napkins and the backs of envelopes.  This is the one of the senses they test when they run white rats through labyrinths and make them swim in tanks to find platforms under the surface.  Beyond that, every event comes into the body through the senses, is processed into concepts and decisions, and goes back out through actions, which are -- in turn -- sensed.  This is the keystone to “Method” acting and also to the kind of writing that uses sense images.  Like Psalms.  

It makes sense [sic] when we remember that all animals have evolved from “eukaryotes,” the tiny one-celled critters that have DNA for their microchip.  They swim in a fluid -- a milieu, an environment, an ecology.  Their lives are about letting wanted molecules into their one cell, pushing unwanted molecules back out, moving towards the wanted molecules (a sense that developed into smell) and moving away from unwanted molecules or dangers (stinks).  A eukaryote that couldn’t do those things didn’t last long.  ALL, ALL of our ancestors could and did, or we wouldn’t be here.

So my Blackfeet friend steps into my house, looks astonished and says,  “You’ve smudged!”  I throw a bit of sweetgrass onto my stove burner when I make coffee.  Suddenly he thinks of his grandmother -- it’s not just the sweetgrass, it’s also the Bengay I put on my sore leg.  Now when he sees me, his grandmother comes to his mind.  One book writer says,  “Proust Was a Neuroscientist.”

A good liturgist must study the community to see what they sense and then weave those senses into the ceremony.  So in Eastend, Saskatchewan, at a “fowl supper” honoring Wallace Stegner, who called his memoir “Wolf Willow” after a common shrub in the area, the organizers (poets among them) provided us corsages of wolf willow, which smells of green apples.  If I get a whiff of EITHER wolf willow or green apples, I think of Wallace Stegner.  

Marketing people know all about this.  Department stores don’t just have Muzack -- they also orchestrate smells and the lights.  But that’s predatory.  A liturgist wants to provide an environment that a eukaryote would find safe.  Because when there is focus and safety, the microchip -- even in a one-celled critter -- begins to mark the moment, the place -- and to open up portals in the cell walls to take in nutrition.  Ideas are as important as apples and oranges.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


The Kenty/Carroll thesis called "The Space Between" has made a very helpful map.  Consider these “places” and “paths” marked on it by the willingness of an assortment of undergrad actors reflecting on what it is that happens when they are acting onstage.  

1.  A young man in the group asks,  “When I have an erection onstage, is it the character having the erection or myself, the actor?”

2.  A young woman says, “A person with whom I acted and who was fine onstage afterwards could not give up seeing me as the character.  In spite of me asking him to stop, he just couldn’t realize that I was NOT the character, not anything like the person I was acting, and that for him to treat me as the character was offensive."

3.  Another student remarked on being jolted when a member of the audience, absorbed into the “reality” of the play, called out to her character,  “Get rid of that guy!  He’s poison!”  The “fourth wall” came smashing down.

4.  An actress was cast in a part that called on her to “murder” a character being played by her long time good friend.  She said she simply could not overcome her “real” feelings about the person enough to imagine killing or even harming her.  

5.  A grown man recalled as a young adolescent acting in a scene from “Huckleberry Finn” with the boy acting as “Tom Sawyer” and them actually entering that virtual world together, a phenomenon so powerful that it has followed him all his life, so that he has tried many times to recapture the mystical intimacy offstage.

My own theoretical exploration has been through object relations psychology (Winnicott’s “play space” between mother and child), introspective psychology (Gendlin’s “focussing”), anthropology (Turner’s “liminal space”), and “Method” acting classes (Krause’s “responsiveness.”)  Kelty/Carroll, who is much younger than myself, goes to Lacan’s theory of transference, which builds on but differs from Freud’s version of transference.  Clearly, this phenomenon is interesting cross-discipline and it may be time to coordinate.

One main focus has been the management of boundaries.  In acting, these would include:

1.  The boundary within between the actor and the character he or she portrays.
2.  The relationship/boundary between one actor and another onstage and then the boundary between the relationship/encounter between those same persons when they are not acting.
3.  The boundary between the actors onstage and the audience in their seats.
4.  The boundary between the context of acting in a play and living real lives outside the theatre.
5.  The boundary between the teacher/director as an authority figure and the student/actor in the context of the institution (school/theatre company).

Kelt/Carroll mentions all but the fifth, even though the Lacanian/Freudian theory depends upon an asymmetrical relationship in which the lesser “transfers” a previous key relationship onto the more dominant party.  This might happen unconsciously or deliberately and might be used constructively or not.  Most parties seem to think that the more transparent the phenomenon is -- that is, the more both parties are aware and willing -- the more useful it can be.

But I like Winnicott’s idea of a shared “play” or learning space much better, even though the relationship between mother and child is asymmetrical and a child cannot know what is happening.  I think it is a more “pure” occasion close to the formation of identity and boundaries: an origin rather than a repetition.  It is as though a bubble had formed that creates a safety zone in which “focus” is on the kind of task that would create emergent“flow.”  Maybe piling blocks, maybe saying words, but almost always with eye contact that “kindles” whatever it is that enables empathy so that one partner knows how the other is thinking and feeling -- in an accepting and valuing way.

A preacher, a liturgist, might try to achieve that kind of “shared space” between the speaker and the congregation, with the boundary willingly suspended in the task of considering the ideas.  These might be quite emotional in their impact and likely to be full of sense images, metaphors like “God’s Love,” which presumes that same kind of shared positive regard.  But possibly preaching could be about a judgemental, potentially destroying relationship.  A sermon might not just be happy talk.  A mother relating to her child might not be loving.  So the feel-good dimension is not what makes this “space between us” happen.  (In fact, deliberate infliction of pain as in torture might also be intimate -- but that’s not usual in acting.  Maybe in films.)

Kelty/Carroll mentions some possible factors in the creation of the “space between” two actors who are in the midst of a successful “connection”.  The safety of the situation.  Having the skills and knowledge (learned lines) to respond without conscious weighing -- “blurring.”  Absence of distractions from outside the interaction.  A rather mysterious component is that of being “seen.”  She doesn’t talk about it much. There is a lot of post-structuralist theory about the “gaze,” and there IS something about an audience sitting out there watching, but I think what makes this “space between” happen is the sensation of being truly understood, comprehended, so that what one does is effective and important.  

The importance of the “story”, the plot, the “through line”, is not emphasized in this thesis, but surely this helps to motivate the shared “seeing,” to “see” what will happen next, where things are going.  I’ve experienced speaking to an audience who are somehow “pulling the speech out of me” by listening acutely with understanding.  Feminists used to talk about “listening stories out of women” by giving them space to tell them and understanding of what they said.  

Getting it wrong will break the experience.  The student actors were eloquent about what it was like to work with other actors who couldn’t interact in this communicating way, maybe because they didn’t learn their lines or blocking.   They are described as closed, shut down.  One described them eloquently as being “a cow staring uncomprehending at an oncoming train.”  No sense of where things were going.  Therefore no ability to communicate and therefore no -- this is their word -- communion.  Coming together.

In short, acting is not a single actor emoting alone, but rather a communion between actors that creates some kind of space between them and also the audience: the willing suspension of disbelief, the blurring of boundaries, vulnerability in the interest of understanding, and a sense of where things are likely to go.  If all that sounds dangerous, that’s because it is.