Are you religious or spiritual? Does your work enhance or impede that? Does your work as an artist take the place of your spirituality?
Keith Hamilton Cobb
Three big questions, and as usual, there are no simple answers. But I like to say that all things are really one thing, and what separates us from our understanding is language. That is to say spirit has no vocabulary. There is no language to unequivocally define what it is, or how it works, or how it manifests in us. And a conversation about spirituality without a common language for what spirit is is rather pointless on its face. Given that, I shall try, and say that certainly, acting in a transcendent production can be a transcendent experience. I believe that acting in a less then transcendent production can even still be a spiritual experience, but I believe that washing the morning dishes, or brushing one’s teeth can be a spiritual experience as well. It’s all about how one comes to it; how available one is to the availability of spirit. If you’re asking me, I have to stress again that this is an extremely difficult thing to discuss in a country so sorely removed from its singularity with what I perceive spirit to be. Where humans are, we are mostly human in the extreme, acting out and upon the most base instincts of the human condition. And where that is so, discussions about love and vibration, attempts to dialogue in words about the intangible is beyond esoteric, it’s futile. Where does one even begin? Regardless of that, again, if you’re asking me, spirit remains. It is there; a most powerful force commensurate with any individual’s ability to access it. And it seems like a truly cruel joke that it is incumbent upon us, in all of our fleshy fallibility, to utilize our oneness with the divine. That is to say spirit is not going to help. It is not going to come find you. It awaits us, ironically, we, the least able to access it through the thick fog of our human perception. But there it is… Because there are truly few transcendent theatrical production, films, television shows, and by this I mean productions wherein all the elements have coalesced around the solitary purpose of manifesting transcendence, which is to say lifting it off the Earth, out of the mundane energies of mankind, channeling spirit, and moving audiences on a spiritual level, if an actor finds that he is not in one of these productions, all he is left to do is his utmost within the ensemble. And, of course, one needs to be very careful here. Where is the line between one doing one’s utmost as a member of an ensemble, even if the ensemble is disparate and misguided, where is the line between doing one’s utmost and grandstanding, which is a manifestation of ego? It takes a somewhat spiritually evolved individual to be able to distinguish between the two… I confess I’m not very good at it.
There is so much that is done in American theatre-making that runs counter to the perfect support of an actor’s process. Even an examination of how the money is distributed will show that the actor, as laborer, upon whose back the entire product is manufactured, is at the low end of the pay scale. As often as not, he can’t live on his wage. And one might reasonably argue that the only thing that will save one in poverty is one’s strength of spirit, which is to say faith in one’s purpose, faith in ones ability, faith that the divine is “pleased” with what one does; what one is. So, spiritual attunement is an actor’s asset as I see it… Undoubtedly there is always the ability of any individual to raise the spiritual vibration of a project, of a read-through, of a rehearsal, of a performance, even in the chaos of cross-purposes that most show-business ventures actually are. This up-leveling of the vibration may not save the production, but it does tend to save the individual if he can manage to do it, to be it. Most productions aren’t looking for salvation, but most individuals generally are, regardless of whether or not they are aware of it.
So the answer is yes, while it seldom manifests that way, living should be spiritual work. And if it is, how could the exploration and staged re-creation of life not be? We tend to fail at both because humanity obscures spirit in much of our American lives. It has been this way for a very long time, and the process doesn’t appear to be shifting in a more hopeful direction, quite the contrary, in fact… But, for the individual, the church, the temple remains where you make it, and how you respect it.
If you are available, you will see the presence of spirit in the work of an actor who is working from a place of spiritual connection. You will see it in a production if the mass of cumulative spiritually attuned attention within it is high enough. And something within you will shift. You will be moved to do something besides clap. You will be moved to acknowledge the riot of energies that someone else’s commitment to their purpose has stirred within you, and perhaps to recognize spirit in yourself. Transcendent theatre happens when theatre-makers and audience share a communal experience while gathered together in a single space, as in “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them…” Don’t misunderstand me. I am not making a case for God. I might, however, be making a case for theatre as savior, contingent of course upon our human ability to embrace its power, and to let it embrace us… like spirit…