Healing the Theatre and Clown Training?
by Ira Seidenstein, PhD
Shakespeare warned all of Humanity:
“There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio then are dreamt of in your philosophy” Hamlet.
Hamlet also said “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.
To heal something, first one must acknowledge an ailment and ideally find the ailment’s cause.
This essay will discuss what I see as a possible ‘ailment’ in theatre training.
I provide an introduction in order to present a large quote from the following essay:
“Looking for another Feldenkrais through Kabbalah and Wilfred Bion’s Psychoanalysis” – Rome, July 30, 2013
‘Anyone who came into contact with the Feldenkrais Method has received a priceless gift. He began to learn the language of movement, the language in which the universe was created and in which all living creatures have learned to run their lives, because every form of knowledge flows through movement.” p 1.
Introduction to Healing the Theatre and Clown Training
For people who have read my books and some of my early blog essays you know I question the myths and ‘authority’ of a certain theatre school and its derivatives. Particularly I question their supposed ‘method’. They may not call their schools or methods by the name ‘method’ none the less they perpetuate the myth that their schools and derivatives are ‘methodical’. I have always acknowledged the school and its derivatives are what I call “survey courses” rather than actual training or a method. I also acknowledge that the school and its derivatives are methodical businesses. That is they are money making schemes. As the saying goes “I should be so lucky”. If popularity equalled quality then McDonald’s would be the best place to get a good meal, and to see a good Clown. “It ain’t necessarily so”.
If you have read my work you know that I have always been an admirer of three ‘esoteric’ systems of movement trainings in part because the three ‘esoteric’ systems also incorporate a positive use of one’s mental faculties.
By ‘esoteric’ I mean methods that are physical and use mental concentration housed within a philosophical understanding about the nature of the Human Body in Space/Earth.
Those three ‘esoteric’ systems have long been used as part of physical trainings in theatre within some Western theatre courses. The three ‘esoteric’ systems are: Yoga; Alexander Technique; Feldenkrais Method.
I think all three have wonderful benefits for theatre practice and also for most people. I don’t prefer any one of those three methods over the remaining two. There may well be a number of other such useful ‘esoteric’ systems which may possibly be of benefit within performance training programs. Certainly Tai Chi Chuan would be another such. great One of the greatest American scholars Herbert Blau, who was a primary teacher of Julie Taymour and Bill Irwin and who as theatre students were also in Blau’s small company Kraken, used Tai Chi as the primary physical and ‘esoteric’ training. Blau earlier had brought the works of the Absurdist playwrights to the USA starting in the early 1950s.
In this essay however I will disclose something about the ‘hidden’ source of Moshe Pinhas Feldenkrais’s great Method. Although some things are beginning to be revealed there is one source that I will quote that is more revealing and revelatory. That source also provides several great references.
Even early in my first book Clown Secret I acknowledge openly and bluntly what I view are the key benefits of the school/training (and its derivatives) as well as giving several examples of ways the school/training (and its derivatives) are perpetuating a hoax in ‘theatre training’.
I did have some training in that school’s ‘system’ as a novice theatre person who was then 24-25 years old. I was also blatantly intuitive yet very interested in finding the most clear or even scientific ways of training the body for theatre performance. During my training which included some of the soon to be named school/’training’ I did every exercise with 100% commitment. But I was also observing a problem at the core of what was being offered and often how it was being offered i.e. in an ‘authoritarian’ manner.
Before I attended the school, I had only 2 years of theatre training from age 21-23. During that time I had begun to coincidently learn some ‘esoteric’ ideas. First I sought a hypnotist to assist me with my undergraduate study. I made one phone call to one hypnotist. Over the phone she could tell me some coincidental things about myself before I told her anything. I drove straight away to meet her. She gave me a simple technique that she had learned from her hypnotism teacher named Dewey also in Pittsburgh. Then sometime later I decided to find some fitness books and went to type of ‘alternative’ or ‘esoteric’ bookstore. Straight away I saw a book that offered ‘fitness in 20 minutes a day’. It was an excellent instruction book of Tai Chi. I took it from the shelf and saw a smaller book that offered fitness in 4-minutes a day. That was the 1970s book of the Chinese 4-Minutes Exercise Plan. My Mother had taught me that with books one could learn anything. So I was off on a journey that’s lasting a lifetime. I began to teach myself both 4 and 20 minute methods. With the tai chi practice of even the few very first movements which I would repeat endlessly, I began to ‘feel the Chi’. That in itself was important and interesting. Then when I began to train with the circus clown Danny Chapman in his backyard, I also sought the ‘esoteric’ book that the clown Jango Edwards suggested to me in a letter. The book was The Fourth Way by P.D.Ouspensky explaining Gurdjief’s ideas. At the same ‘esoteric’ bookstore I got a book on self-hypnosis and began to write my dreams down first thing every morning. According to the self-hypnosis book I also ‘programmed’ my working dreams before going to sleep.
Soon I moved to the other coast of the USA to attend a course at the theatre school. There I continued to study The Fourth Way’s ideas and to work with self-hypnosis and my dreams. I had just turned 24 and my own method began to emerge naturally from being frustrated with some of the illusionary methods at the school. I wanted to know ‘the truth’ or a ‘truth’ about: What works? When? Under what circumstances? Within 2 months of doing my own private, hidden practices a few fellow students observed that in class I was clearly improving and they asked my secret. When I explained what I was doing that asked if I would start to teach them outside of class time.
During the exact period I was in this derivative school, and while I was training myself physically outside of class; I was also coincidently beginning to study esoteric philosophies. My esoteric study was through; reading, contemplation, and direct application and testing. That application and testing occurred internally/secretly within the school exercises I was asked to do; and, during my outside training on my own which included research in performing regularly for small public audiences on weekends.
During this school time as a 24-25 year old, one of our theatre teachers was also an Alexander Technique teacher and her multi-skilled work was excellent and integrated to performance. I also began to study and practice Hatha Yoga on my own each morning 2 hrs before the school began. I practiced about 90 minutes and then had a quick breakfast.
The school (and its derivatives doing the same methodology) is known casually as the Lecoq school. As I mention early in Clown Secret the founder Jacques Lecoq had many positive attributes as a teacher, primarily stemming from his own intellectual curiosity. As one lifetime friend of his informed me, for the later 15 or so years of Lecoq’s life he was passionate to learn about the Japanese Noh Theatre. Lecoq understood that the Noh Theatre had very advanced knowledge in ‘the way of the actor’. Noh Theatre originated as an ancient Indigenous form in Japan that incorporated Indigenous shamanic knowledge about the body and space and time. The formal formulator of Noh was known as Zeami, trained in Noh by his Father. Zeami was also personally inspired by a form of Buddhism. One could easily say that Noh is an ‘esoteric’ form of theatre with in-depth practical knowledge.
As noted in Clown Secret, one of Lecoq’s early graduates upon graduation immediately told Lecoq that ‘Your school needs the Feldenkrais Method and you need me to teach it’. She was Monika Pagneux. As noted in my book, when I asked actors about their training as I always did, those who were graduates of Lecoq school always acknowledged openly that their favourite teacher was Monika and that it was with Feldenkrais and Monika’s creative application that the graduates felt they received something ‘real’ or at least truly inspiring. Monika had already been a professional dancer before she attended the Lecoq school. I am generally adamant that the single best physical training for Western actors is Classical Ballet along with complementary and alternative dance techniques. With such a technical base it is very easy to add on techniques such as mime, mask, acrobatics etc. I also acknowledge that perhaps the most in-depth trainings for actors are: the extensive training of the Beijing Opera; and, the former Soviet methods which originated with and from Konstantin Stanislavsky and his closes Associates. Additionally, the Western system stemming from Michel Saint-Denis who combined the work of his Uncle Jacques Copeau with that of Stanislavsky, and, the creativity of the individual actor.
I am currently researching towards my 3rd book titled Remnants: Encounters With My Culture. There is a 22 page blog online serving as a prelude to the book. Officially I began researching in late 2019. Clown Secret was published in 2018 and Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare was published in 2020.
Moshe Pinchas Feldenkrais was definitely a form of genius. However, as part of the premise of Remnants: Encounters With My Culture; I propose that somehow the modern manifested accomplishments by many people from the Jewish Culture actually have a source no matter how removed which is an ancient source. The source is a system of encountering Humanity on Earth in Space i.e. our normative Cultural Practices. What is most strange is that no matter how removed we may seem from the orthodoxy of our Cultural Practices, somehow the “remnants” continue to manifest into the modern world. To some degree I would propose that anyone’s most ancient ancestors continue to be one’s source. My show “Harlequin Dreams” available on youtube, tells the same. I strongly suspect, and perhaps even observe that such sources are not all automatically ‘good’. They are natural tendencies which need tended.
Yoga means “yoke” as in the wooden yoke that went around the neck of bullocks to harness their brute energy to plough the fields and to turn the millstones and to hoist up the water from a well. In Jewish and specifically in Hassidic culture in which Moshe Pinchas Feldenkrais was raised and educated there is said to be inside the Human a Nefesh Behemot (animal soul) and Nefesh Elochit (spiritual or godly soul). In a way the big journey of Life involves harnessing our good and less good inclinations.
I remind the reader of Shakespeare’s adage “There are more things in heaven and earth…”. Some of which are only being revealed in new ways in ‘our time’ some of which may be of benefit and interest?
Here then, finally without much ado is the quote I want to offer. This page 14 is out of a 45 page essay by Eugenio Bongioanni whose Hebrew name he informs the reader is Baruch Ben-Or (ברוך בן אר).
The remainder of this blog is all a quote from pg 14 of Eugenio Bongioanni’s “Looking for another Feldenkrais through Kabbalah and Wilfred Bion’s Psychoanalysis”:
“This is a level for very advanced practitioners and has been mentioned only to illustrate the kind of approach. That it would be incomprehensible to most people is obvious as well as that this is not the place to put even the basics of an explanation.
But it is clear that the roots of the Method sink in that esoteric world and, at the same time symbolic and physical.
In his studio in Tel Aviv, M. Feldenkrais had large leather-bound folio volumes of the Talmud. His father was a famous Talmudist and at Slavuta the typography of his great-grandfather had printed some sublime editions. It was probably one of those (see below, p. 13). (Additional Note: “In 1776 he published Tanya, by Rabbi Schneur of Liadi, the base of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic lineage, which counts now two million members worldwide”.)
In the last days of his life (1984) describes them to Jeff Haller, the future trainer of David Kaetz – who watched them curiously but did not read Hebrew:
“Those are the best books of physics in the world. I read them all since I was thirteen years old. I brought them with me on that wagon [of the train to Palestine which Moshe had taken at 14, in 1918.] ” ( Kaetz, p. 119).
There is therefore no wonder that the Talmudic method pervades the argument and the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais:
“… This type of study gave priority to the question than the answer. The purpose of the application is to create an opening: a response closes the opening, the wealth of possibilities …. ” (1)
“Studying the Talmud is like entering a hall of discussion between Multi- wise. It is free to join. No one must agree with anything, but everyone should be able to justify its position on the basis of a common methodology. You enter just for the sake of speech and learns to reason from the wise. The Torah is the text, the Talmud is the way of questioning to bring out the right answers to our needs. ” ( Kaetz, chap. 2, p. 31).
It’s quite amazing that this fascinating world of Jewish culture – historical and philosophical but even more profoundly spiritual – is subtracted from the Feldenkrais trainers – with very few exceptions – to their students during the four years of practical training.
Some trainers apply, sometimes, Talmudist like reasoning, trying to keep open some questions during an introductory lesson or an ATM – and this is very positive. But without declaring it, without historicizing, without saying “now we do this because it is in our lineage, which originates from Torah, Talmud, Zohar, Sefer Yetzirah … “. Most people are puzzled, do not grasp the logic. This I have seen and experienced personally during my training.
Expressions are used such as “try to do this with all you,” or ” try to stay with the person” totally out of context from the spiritual traditions and practices from which they come. Therefore unintelligible. But people! In the first case we are talking about Mitzvot, Yichud and Kavvanah – that is Kabbalah – and in the second about rêverie, the dimension in which the mother contains and detoxifies the aggressive fantasies of the child and returns them to him purified, reassuring him. The discovery of Klein, improved by Winnicott that becomes in Bion the paradigm of the mystic analytic relationship.
It takes years and years to get them on board, and then to handle the sails under their wind. But if you don’t even call them with their names, if you give an obscure and confused definition, you will never get them.” Pg 14 “Looking for another Feldenkrais through Kabbalah and Wilfred Bion’s Psychoanalysis”
Regards from Ira Seidenstein, PhD. If you know others who may relate to my Blogs and work please Share.
www.iraseid.com for blog, Creative Mentorship. The pair of books: Clown Secret; and, Quantum Theatre: Slapstick to Shakespeare are available as Print-On-Demand via any independent bookseller; and via all major online booksellers. Also both books are available in minutes via Kindle.