Jan 22, 2019

The thing about the past is that it’s not the past.

(old Irish saying)

Perhaps the theater is a form of eulogy and our job is to raid the graveyard regularly. The ways in which we remember dead people, those who did not finish what they had to say, and the way that we give them voice is what matters. I like to think that if the theater were a verb, it would be “to remember.” We re-member the parts. We put the fragments back together again. We excavate history in order to allow the past and those who had not finished communicating speak through us in the present moment. We are flesh and sensation and we look to be filled with the spirits of ghosts. Can we vibrate with their energy and consciousness?

In ancient Japan, stages were built over graves or mounds. To conjure up the spirits of their ancestors, actors began performances by stomping upon the stage to welcome the souls of the dead into their own bodies. It was assumed that the energy of these spirits could be accessed viscerally in this way. Most Japanese Noh plays featured supernatural beings, ghosts, transformed into human form as the hero to narrate a story. The ghost in these tales generally wanted to tell of their sufferings. Ghosts, spirits and specters have played central roles in the theater of all times and cultures, appearing as figments of the imagination, divine messengers, or ancestors returned from the dead intent on exacting revenge, revealing hidden crimes or searching for a way to pass through. We access the spirits through rituals, traditional magic phrases, ghost stories and folktales. It was believed that through specific conjuring, the souls of the dead could be accessed. Hamlet opens with the abrupt query, “who’s there?” Maybe these two words are a summoning, an invoking. One of the aspects that made Elizabethan audiences gasp during performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is that the playwright apparently lifted actual words from the conjuring rituals of witches of that time. These words were considered magical, powerful and capable of actually summoning apparitions. And, of course, the ghost of the dead Banquo at the feast was a winning feature of the play.

Shamanistic theater dates back to the paleolithic era. Cave paintings more than 30,000 years old in France show animal-masked figures in dance rituals. Many of the tricks of theater were developed by shamans: ventriloquism, for example, enabled the shamans to simulate the presence of spirits in dramatic seances; masks and puppets enabled them to present the spirits who spoke to the people about the spiritual dimension.

During the 19th century in the United States, Spiritualism became a popular religious movement based upon the belief that the spirits of the dead exist (they called them as “discarnate humans”) and had both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. In the spiritualist community, receiving messages was meant be a demonstration of the continuity of life. The word seance came to be used specifically for formal communication sessions to acquire messages from the dead or to listen to a spirit medium discourse with or relay messages from the spirits. A seance always asked the participants to proceed with an open mind and to unlock all of their senses. A medium’s task in a seance was to make visible what was invisible.

The theater as an art form continues to attempt to make the invisible visible. We also are attempting to communicate with spirits, to receive messages from ghosts. Sometimes I find it helpful to think of a rehearsal as a seance. As with the clairvoyants, great care must be taken with the circumstances that might allow these spirits to “come-through.” I have also often used the metaphor of a Ouija board for rehearsal. The Ouija is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 1-9 and the words “yes” or “no.” Participants start by asking a question and then placing their fingers on a planchette, a small heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic. The planchette subsequently moves around the board to spell out words. Similarly, in rehearsal we begin with a question, put our bodies into a shared space, listen and begin to move in order to address the question.

In producing Shakespeare do we summon the spirit of Shakespeare? What does an actor playing Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire do with the imprint of Marlon Brando? How do the spirits of actors who have played Hamlet infect the bodies of actors playing Hamlet in the present moment? Neil Patrick Harris, playing Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theater on Broadway,got onto his knees to literally lick the stage and give credence to other actors who had trod that very same stage. He spoke these words:

David Belasco built this theater in 1907. The Bishop of Broadway
they called him, since he dressed in dark priestly attire. They say if
his ghost appears at your opening night you’ll be a hit. His
customary seat was in that box.
(Points to a certain box.)
Ma’am, if you’re touched by a priest, for God sake, speak up.
I’m humbled by the thought that this mean abridged corpus is at
this very moment being supported by the same groaning planks
that cradled Brando’s debut and Barrymore’s farewell. Where
Bogie cracked wise, Mansfield rubbed thighs, and Tim Curry
batted his eyes.
(She licks the floor.)
Tastes like Kathy Griffin.
(shouting to the balcony)
“Raisin in the Sun”, “Awake and Sing”, “Oh Calcutta” “Your
Arms are Too Short, dot dot dot” and most recently… (gestures to
the set)… “Hurt Locker: the Musical” which opened last night
and closed 30 minutes later.

Patterns of activity that happened in the past, clearly inform the present moment. Morphic resonance, a concept popularized by scientist Rupert Sheldrake, proposes that every species inherits a collective memory from all previous experiences of their kind and that this memory can be accessed through nature. He describes mysterious “telepathy-type” interconnections between organisms and their collective memories, where the past vibrates, resonates, in the present. Mice around the world, according to Sheldrake, improve their ability to retrieve bait in a complex maze once a generation of mice have figured out the quickest way to negotiate that particular maze. Olympic athletes’ abilities expand exponentially, and they accomplish increasing extreme feats of prowess once someone has surpassed a limit, suggesting a connection between athletes across time and space. The same goes for IQ scores, which improve over time. Younger generations perform better than older ones. For each generation, average IQ tests improve by 10 points.

We live amidst scars, indentations and the impressions that are left behind and we seem to be attuned to the patterns of actions from the past. The struggles of my ancestors meet in me, in my body. Memory is imprinted in nature, in the traces left behind. The Tibetan word shul refers to a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by – a footprint, for example, or where a house once stood or the indentation in the grass where an animal slept. 

Are we receiving messages from the dead constantly? Do ghosts arise in our imaginations as visual memory, sound, flickers and associations? Perhaps when I think of someone who has passed, I can conjure the sound of their voice. In imagining the voice of John Lennon, I hear a shadow sound in my head. Is that sound a ghost? Does a tune conjure ghosts? Does a visual memory? A familiar fragrance? Do we see dead people’s faces in the bodies of our children? Roland Barthes described photography as a haunted artform.

My mother died in 1996 but her spirit continues to haunt me in ways that surpass my imagination. Occasionally I look down as I am writing, and I watch her handwriting emerge from my body. There is nothing I can do about it. Sometimes I catch sight of her unexpectedly when I look in a mirror. I am sure that she was not meant to die at the age of 76, rather she was supposed to live until 96. But I still hear her voice ringing in my own head with her consistent message to me: Get over yourself. Get on with it! Chin up!