This is a continuation of my riffs on the idea of Minding the Gap that started here. It also connects to my series Salvation via the Stage, with previous posts here and here.
When I was a student at Starr King, I was introduced to the work of Martin Buber. Buber wrote about existence as dialogue, encounters between individuals, inanimate objects, and all of reality. For Buber, God was the eternal other and could be experienced through moments with art, nature, other people, and the world. Putting Buber’s ideas together with my growing secular humanism and my theatrical theories, I came to the idea that God happens in the space between people.
I no longer use words related to God or the divine to explain my understanding of the world. However, I do believe that the space between people and between individuals and the wider world holds the potential for wonder and awe.
I have had three experiences in my life that I would classify as mystical, by which I mean transcending human understanding. All three have happened in the context of the theatre. And all three were experiences in which I felt a connection to the reaches of the universe in one sense or another.
Being Heard by the Universe
For many years, I had easy access to dark theatres. A theatre that is “dark” is one in which the stage is not in use for a current or upcoming performance. All that exists in a dark theatre is the potential for performance.
When I had things on my mind that I wanted to get out, but didn’t have someone I felt comfortable sharing them with, I would go into a dark theatre, stand on stage, and deliver a monologue to an imaginary audience. I would simply say whatever I felt needed to be spoken. I would use all of my performance technique to give the space my story.
In InterPlay language, I was exforming through storytelling, passing burdens too great for me to bear out of my body.
One day, as I was speaking about whatever was coming up for me that day, I had a feeling that I was being heard. Not by a person, but by the air around me. Now, I don’t believe that there is a person-like God; I’m not comfortable with the idea of a transpersonal consciousness of any sort; and I don’t know what senses were triggered to give me that feeling, but I felt witnessed, heard, and accepted.
I have no explanation for my experience. The feeling was of being connected to the world outside me and held.
The Wonder of Possibility
A dark theatre consists of matte, black empty space in which an experience or story can be built. The paint is specially formulated to be a true black, absorbing all light. This creates an unusual atmosphere in a dark theatre.
Light from a ghost light, the small light that is left centre stage when the theatre is empty, casting just enough light for a stagehand to move safely into the space before the main lights can be turned on, is not reflected off any surface. There is a soft mystery to the black where the light hits. The lack of expected reflection tickles the brain, suggesting a lack of reality at the edges of the space.
In general, the true black of a theatrical space feels comforting and homey to me. This is not surprising. I have been hanging out in performance spaces for decades. But, once, when I was directing a play, I went into the theatre to have a look at the space in preparation for rehearsals and I had an entirely different experience.
The theatre was empty for a few hours. The previous show had been moved out that morning and the show that would be in the space while mine was in rehearsal hadn’t started moving in yet. For a brief moment in time, I could see the space empty and envision my show in there.
I walked from backstage across the stage towards the audience and planted myself in the centre before I turned back to look at the performance space with the widest view I could hold without stepping off the stage. I looked carefully around the space, trying to convert the ground plans and scenic design drawings into a three-dimensional image in my mind’s eye. Once I had that image constructed, I visualized some of the staging I was planning and imagined the actors speaking some of the important lines in various locations.
When I had an image that was strong, I turned out to face the empty seats, where the audience would be. I intended to continue the visualization exercise, to imagine the impact I wanted to play to have on the audience, but I didn’t get a chance.
As I turned, my visual focus softened. I saw everything muted, in a soft silence, and felt my body warm. The hairs on my skin stood up and I tingled everywhere my body touched air. Except for the fact that there was no visual effect, I would have said I glowed. I was struck with wonder at the infinite possibility of life, not only as contained within the confines of the theatre, but out into the rest of the world beyond.
And then, as suddenly as it had come, the feeling was gone and I was standing comfortably in a familiar theatre.
How Big is the Universe?
When I was part of the Summer Training Institute at Shakespeare & Company, Susan Dibble, the choreographer and movement instructor led an exercise that I wish I could remember in detail. It was part of the work she did to help actors bring the Elizabethan concept of the Great Chain of Being into their bodies.
The Great Chain of Being is a philosophical idea that there is a natural hierarchy of beings with God at the top, followed by the angels, the human hierarchy (king, noble, peasant, serf), the animals, plants, and inert matter. To change one’s individual place was to destabilise the whole system.
This concept was an accepted part of the culture in Shakespeare’s England, and being able to live with it in our bodies helped us capture the period more accurately in our performances. We did a lot of work trying to embody that idea.
In one exercise, Susan Dibble got us to imagine ourselves a each level of the chain of being and get in touch with it using some guidance she provided. When she got to the highest levels, one of the images she had us work with was omnipresence. And, I don’t remember what she said that triggered my experience, but I my whole sense of self exploded and I connected viscerally and emotionally with the vastness of the cosmos and the emptiness of the universe. I don’t know how long that experience lasted. From my lived perspective, time was non-existent.
What I remember even more vividly is coming back to normal reality. I trembled and retreated into myself, wrapping myself into a ball to bring myself back into my body, humbled by the enormity of the cosmos and the tiny, limited reality of human existence. Slowly, I integrated the experience and went on with my classes. But, I have never forgotten the vastness, the complete otherness of the universe.
The world’s traditions are full of people who have had simliar experiences, labelled them with the language of their local religious traditions, and been inspired to do good in and for the world. My language of explanation is secular, science-based and humanist.
The words we use to speak of such experiences matter less than the fact that they are universal, human experiences: moments where our consciousness jumps into another state and we are no longer aware of the space between ourselves and the universe.
And for me, they have always come in theatrical contexts.