Playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie teaches self-expression centered in the body and the moment. Theater, he says, is all about “the vividness of now.” Novelist Suzi Wizowaty attends his workshop called “Writing on Your Feet.”
“Center yourself in your physical body. It’s less tricky than the mind,” says Jean-Claude van Itallie.
We have gathered in a loose circle inside a large, screened tent in the middle of the woods, because we can no longer use the beautiful barn that used to be up the road. Six of us have come here to Shantigar, the retreat center developed by van Itallie in Rowe, Massachusetts, to attend his workshop, called “Writing on Your Feet.”
Jean-Claude jumps in without preliminaries. He does not care for discursive chatter. When I had asked him earlier whether the workshop would include time at the end to reflect on the experience, he said, “No. I hate that.”
As a novelist and a Buddhist, I have come with certain questions: What is the overlap between Buddhist practice and writing? Does having a spiritual practice change the way one creates art? Can creative work be a spiritual practice in its own right? The first thing I learn here is that I will have to experience the answers.
Now we begin walking, at street pace. He reminds us to breathe. He suggests we walk through the space with a sense of exploration, of curiosity. Every thirty seconds or so, he reminds us, “Come back to your body. Remember your breath.” It is like having a meditation instructor on-site.
At sixty-seven, van Itallie is slight and wiry, with white hair and sharp blue eyes and a manner that is both brusque and warm. He laughs easily. He is best known as the author of the important 1960’s avant-garde plays America Hurrah and The Serpent, and more recently as the author of the play The Tibetan Book of the Dead, based on traditional Buddhist teachings. He is intensely present. Later he will bark corrections during our stories, and yet, under his direction, within the safe atmosphere he creates, I will take risks I can hardly imagine.
Now he asks us to find a partner. “Without using your hands, maintain physical contact with your partner. Move in any way you want. Keep your eyes closed. Remember your breath.”
I hook up with another woman. We’ve never met before, but for the next few minutes, we nuzzle and slide around each other like puppies in slow motion. Because Jean-Claude keeps reminding us at regular intervals to come back to our bodies, it’s hard to get worked up about whether my partner might feel uncomfortable. No sooner have I begun to worry than I have to return my focus to my own body. It is an unexpected relief.
“Now break physical contact and maintain eye contact with your partner. Continue moving.”
My partner and I walk backward and forward and around, tracing a complex pattern on the floor. We wave our arms, we create a dance—not beautiful, perhaps, or particularly graceful, at least in my case, but authentic. Sometimes a smile steals over our faces and erupts into a laugh. I can imagine crying, too, but I don’t feel sad. Jean-Claude reminds us that emotions might arise but just to notice them and let them go. “It’s intimate, but it’s not personal,” he says.
We repeat this twice more with different partners. Our connections may not be personal, but they are indeed intimate. And we haven’t even introduced ourselves yet.
Shantigar is a center for theater, meditation and healing established on the land where Jean-Claude lives most of the time. (He still maintains an apartment in New York.) “What interests me,” he says, “is the way in which the creation of art, healing and spiritual practice are identical.” To this group, in this abbreviated workshop, he will not stress the role of meditation or contemplative practice. He simply incorporates its function and vocabulary.
The name Shantigar—“peaceful home” in Sanskrit—was bestowed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama who did several personal retreats at Jean-Claude’s farmhouse in the 1970’s, including one of nearly a year’s length.
Jean-Claude’s parents, Belgian Jewish refugees who’d settled in Long Island, bought the 470 wooded acres on which Shantigar now stands as a lumber investment in 1948. Jean-Claude was twelve. A collapsing eighteenth-century farmhouse came with the property. In 1962, Jean-Claude, then a young playwright living in Greenwich Village, retreated to Rowe in search of a quiet place to write. He began to renovate the house. He invited his friends from the Open Theater, where he was playwright-of-the-ensemble, to visit and work. In 1966, the worldwide success of his trilogy, America Hurrah, developed with the Open Theater, enabled Jean-Claude to buy the land from his family and the friends with whom they’d owned it. Although the Open Theater would disband shortly, a pattern was established: For the next nearly forty years, culminating in the creation of Shantigar, Jean-Claude would provide a setting for artists to generate creative work, in collaboration with others or individually.
After our warm-up, we return to the circle. Now we are each to tell two stories—one of a childhood memory and one of something that happened within the last twenty-four hours. There are two rules: We must use only the present tense, and we must avoid using the word “and” to link sentences.
“The present tense is very theatrical. Theater is all about now, now, now, now, now. It’s got all the vividness of now,” says Jean-Claude. That’s first. Second, running your sentences together with “and” tends to lead to a kind of automatic, habitual speaking.
When my turn comes, I follow the instructions we have been given: I stand with my eyes closed, breathe, try to remember the centeredness I experienced during the previous hour, and consciously connect with the energies of sky and earth, above and below. “Take your time,” urges Jean-Claude. “Remember your breath. Feel your body.”
Finally, I am to signal my embrace of the others in the room by making eye contact with each one. “It is your moment of generosity,” Jean-Claude has said. I am struck by how natural—how unawkward—it feels to look at each person. I close my eyes again for the telling.
“I am six years old and I’m—”
“No and. I’m.”
“I’m six years old. I’m in a cabin in Bastrop State Park. I’m in bed with my little brother and sister and there is—”
“No and. There is.”
“There is a scratching sound at the door.”
The effect of telling a story in first person is intriguing. I do feel more present, more inside the story. On the other hand, I can’t quite get at the fear I felt about bears in the woods—perhaps because I’m thinking about the fact that it was my father making the scratching. I finish my first story and launch into my even briefer second story.
“I am in Jean-Claude’s kitchen. He has just told me the workshop is in the tent. Oh, no! I think. There will be mosquitoes. I am afraid of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes like me.”
Jean-Claude interrupts. “Show us the mosquitoes.”
With my eyes closed, I become mosquitoes. I feel furious and aggressive. I buzz angrily, jabbing at the air. My face is pinched. In my raging mosquito dance I knock over my chair, and open my eyes.
My heart is pounding, my breathing hard. Oh, I think, so this is what it’s about. Working from—or with—my body takes me deeper into the experience than merely thinking and imagining. I’m beginning to get it.
Jean-Claude has instructed us to clap for each other—“Applause is good.” He has complimented each of us in turn, praised our work, our creativity, our energy. He reminds me to slow down. “Think of the terrain as having holes you can dive down into. Take your time.”
Later he echoes this with someone else. “Take all the time in the world. You have infinity.” Where have I heard this before, this injunction to slow down, to stay, stay?
And yet, as we break for lunch, I can’t help wondering how all this connects with playwriting. How does one turn personal storytelling into drama—or use it to create fiction, or painting, or dance?
In the early 1980’s, van Itallie was teaching performing and writing at Middlebury College—a class of each—when he decided to teach the two together as a connected activity. “It was the year the Dalai Lama visited Middlebury,” he remembers. Then Doug Wilson at the Rowe Conference Center invited him to give a workshop that “combines everything you know.” For van Itallie, a devoted Buddhist, this meant incorporating meditation instruction into the teaching of writing and performing.
Van Itallie describes “Writing on Your Feet” as “a way of bypassing doing merely mental energy, merely coming from your head, which is spinning all these tapes. Rather, by getting up and physically experiencing your center, by closing your eyes, allowing the body to inform you before you speak, you’re coming from a place which is your physical center of awareness, your hara.
“The words that you speak then are only the top of the iceberg. Someone writes them down for you, and there you have a text. The skillful means is allowing yourself to inhabit your own body, to use your body, your breath, to be fully realized in your movements so that the words come up because they’re needed.”
But he had not yet applied this new way of teaching to himself. “I thought, well, you better put your mouth where your teaching is.” He began with a segment of a piece called Guys Dreamin’.
“And then I did a one-person show with a wonderful accompanist named Steve Sweeting called War, Sex and Dreams, which was autobiographical,” he says. “I did it in L.A. at The Highways and at La Mama in New York, and it got good reviews in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. And then I realized that if I could do this with autobiographical material, why couldn’t I use this same method of improvising on my feet with characters?”
He wrote his newest play, Light, using this process. He believes it’s the best thing he’s ever written. Set in the eighteenth century, the play revolves around Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Emilie du Chatelet—a love triangle—and the coming of the French Revolution. The first performance was in Pasadena at the Boston Court Theater in October. Earlier, I saw a staged reading of Light at Smith College; the dialogue was riveting.
In a wooden building next to the tent, we are served a delicious lunch. Van Itallie eats only raw food—raw chicken, beef and fish, as well as vegetables and fruit. The rest of us have salad, tofu, couscous and brownies.
Before the afternoon program begins, some of us wander through the woods. Jean-Claude’s farmhouse sits a quarter of a mile away. He has restored it with great care and filled it with laughing stone buddhas, Japanese prints, intricately carved wise men from China, and hand-woven rugs from Tibet and Afghanistan. Behind it rises a sloping meadow. At the edge of the meadow, two-thousand-year-old Chinese pillars mark the entrance to a carefully tended trail, which winds through a few acres of woods, presided over here and there by stone beings, including Hanuman, the Hindu Monkey King. Jean-Claude describes his tireless, almost obsessive, work of clearing dead brush from these woods as if it is an art—and a practice. “The land will tell you what it requires.”
Before returning, we pause at the site of the great barn, where little remains but a four-foot stone buddha.
In the afternoon we warm up with an exercise in Continuum Movement, a process developed by Emilie Conrad, the powerful seventy-year-old pioneer who teaches at Shantigar as well as at Esalen, Kripalu and the Omega Institute. Continuum uses a deep breath Conrad calls theta to inform the body’s cells—“the water of the body.” Jean-Claude describes it as an excavating tool that brings one into “open attention.” He will show us. “Demonstration is important,” he says. “Transmission happens.”
Lying on his back with his eyes closed, he begins to move with infinite slowness, like a butoh dancer—first his hand, then his wrist, arm and shoulder, until finally he has engaged his entire body in an intense flow, “a deep, liquid, slow movement, the sensation of being underwater.” All motion travels more or less in one direction, that is to say, to one side. Afterward, he will move toward the other side. Conrad describes this process as resulting in the body’s having “changed density.”
Jean-Claude says, “The theory is deep. The practice is quite simple,” reminding me again of a meditation instructor.
Now we are ready for our second experience of writing on our feet. This time he asks us to tell a story or a dream. “Allow yourselves to become fertile ground for something to arise—particularly something of mystery. Theater—good theater—is always about questions. Allow us to see the awkwardness.”
He reminds us to connect again with the sky and earth energies, and the visual embrace of the others, and then to “move slowly until your body is in the story, in the moment.”
Linda Hoffman, a successful sculptor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose work also combines elements of painting and poetry, volunteers. Jean-Claude asks whether she would like someone to write down her words as she speaks—the next step in the process that allows one to take a piece further in the direction of writing. She does. Sean O’Clair, a participant who teaches a workshop at Shantigar called “Hug an Angry Man,” agrees.
“Take your time,” Jean-Claude says as she begins to center herself. “Feel your breath.” He notes that she did the Continuum work brilliantly. “Go into that slowed-down place. When you do, use it to good effect. Ask yourself, ‘What are my senses telling me?’”
After a moment, Linda begins to walk. “I am walking, and—”
“No and,” says Jean-Claude.
“I’m walking with my husband of twenty years. It is dense, really dark. It’s like a carnival in the middle ages. There is a fire eater.” She mimes eating fire. “A knife thrower.” She mimes hurling knives.
“We walk among the vendors, the wagons and food. He leads me up some stairs to a friend’s apartment—a gathering of people, eating, chatting.”
Briefly she becomes the other people conversing. She resumes as herself.
“Out of the comer of my eye I see a picture. It’s a painting of me. I ask him what the painting is doing here. He says, It’s a beautiful painting; I love that painting.
“I say, It’s a horrible painting.
“It’s a painting of my face with broad black and white brush strokes. A Frida Kahlo picture. My face expresses angst, pain, ugliness. Around the edge of the painting are colorful flowers, trees and leaves. A beautiful Eden.”
This is a performance, which words on the page cannot capture adequately. Imagine the energy of a human being before you, trembling with feeling. (“It’s all about energy,” Jean-Claude has told us. “If we learn to go home to our bodies, we can learn how to affect.”)
Linda pauses, slows, breathes.
“We couldn’t agree about the picture. We couldn’t agree about our marriage.”
A profound moment of silence follows.
“Magnificent!” cries Jean-Claude. “Magnificent!”
What is van Itallie trying to accomplish with this work? Why does he do it?
“It’s always been my passion, and a powerful relief—and release—to lift the walls between the compartments in my mind, to experience where art and meditation meet, where art and science meet, art and psychology—where all the different but parallel languages say something about the quality of living.” He points out that this impulse does not originate with him. “The Kalachakra tantra, which the Dalai Lama gives teachings on, and in which I’ve been initiated, is a big arrow pointing in the direction of parallel languages. It may be the highest yoga.” He hurries to say he doesn’t know much about it.
The speakers of the languages of theater, spirituality and healing whom van Itallie admires come from different traditions. In theater, he names the late Polish director Jerzy Grotowski; the internationally acclaimed British director Peter Brook; Anton Chekhov, whose major plays van Itallie translated; Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater; Emilie Conrad; Carol Fox Prescott, the renowned New York acting teacher; and Ellen Stewart, founder and director of La MaMa Experimental Theater Company, among others. In addition to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, his root guru, van Itallie considers himself a student of Adnan Sarhan, a Sufi master, and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Bön teacher. In the field of healing, he names as major influences Dr. Bernard Bail, founder of Holistic Dream Analysis; Dr. Vincent Medici, “for celebrating unity of body, speech and mind”; and Aajonus Vonderplonitz, founder of Primal Diet.
If there is an image that expresses van Itallie’s underlying philosophy, it is a mandala. He says, “If you imagine a mandala with four petals and a center, each petal is a different color, a different season, a different element. Each part of these five intrinsic energies can be experienced. You can stick a needle through any part of the universal mandala and find parallels of language.” He considers. “But it’s not enough to know about this, not enough to read the philosophy. It needs to be experienced.”
Van Itallie warns against “jumping all over the map” in one’s practice. He describes himself as an accumulator, one who tends to add practices rather than shed them. “If you keep working in these ways [within the disciplines of art, healing, and spiritual practice], parallels arise in you, and you know what they are.” And if you happen to be a teacher, you teach.
In the early 1970’s, van Itallie began teaching playwriting at places like Princeton, Yale, NYU, Amherst, University of Colorado, and later Naropa, and elsewhere. Now he travels around the country teaching his core workshop, “The Healing Power of Theatre,” which uses the same basic approach as “Writing on Your Feet.” He summarizes the work of both this way:
“You go into yourself, touch center, bring up whatever detritus there is, and spew it out. With a little craft you shape it. You do it again. Doing this is a spiritual practice. It’s healing because you’re detoxing.
“I don’t know what else is worthwhile doing, certainly with my life.”
In addition to van Itallie’s workshops, other related programs take place at Shantigar throughout the year. Emilie Conrad teaches Continuum and Carol Fox Prescott leads workshops in “Joyous Performance.” Tulku Thondup Rinpoche leads a weekend on “Boundless Healing.” Workshops called “Dying and Co-Meditation,” “Survival Theater for Teens,” “Way of the Taoist Warrior” and “In Your Wildest Dreams” are only a few of the others. (See www.shantigar.com for a fuller listing.)
Van Itallie began building Shantigar into a not-for-profit foundation in the 1980’s. For nearly twenty years its workshops took place in a beautiful, hundred-year-old dairy barn across the road from the farmhouse. Two years’ worth of renovations culminated in a Buddhist ceremony and a grand millenium celebration on December 31, 1999. The barn had been insulated and heated. It had new floors, an office, a kitchen, exercise space, bathrooms, bedrooms, catwalks, and a meditation space inside the silo. Visitors struck a large eighteenth-century Chinese bell invoking blessings for the future.
A month later, the barn burned to the ground.
It was mourned, but it will be rebuilt. Jean-Claude says, “The barn is only temporarily invisible.”
If the barn stands at Shantigar’s literal and symbolic center, van Itallie himself inhabits its spiritual center. From there, his commitment to spiritual practice, creative work and healing radiates outward. I tend to think of writing as an intellectual activity. “Writing on Your Feet” reminds me of the way in which writing—I suspect all creative work—is a full-bodied, full-souled, that is to say spiritual, process. One brings to it one’s entire self. Paradoxically, the work goes best when that same “self” gets out of the way.
Jean-Claude sums it up thus: “What you want to come awake to is that meaning arises from the belly. It’s a question of getting out of the way and being fully present to yourself.” He clarifies: “Fully inhabiting the present moment is getting out of the way.”
At the end of the workshop, Jean-Claude thanks us and we say goodbye. He is right: no further words are necessary.