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by James Wagner, professional actor
Fall of 2008
In an era when standardized test scores are education royalty, art budget genocide is rampant, and film and television have relegated grandfather Theatre to a retirement home and planned his cheep funeral, why would a book about a new vision for the theatre be relevant to the future of our emerging global culture? Luckily, in his book "Towards an Archeology of the Soul" Antero Alli gives precise tools and lucid descriptions for how theatre artists can use non-dogmatic ritual forms to continually refresh their human soul, artistic authenticity, and the theater’s vitality as a culturally essential art. Suddenly we see that uncovering the "soul" is the purpose of our art, and that there are some very specific ways to go about such an excavation.
While working for Ken Wilber and his Integral Institute a friend gave me the book. As I read the book, researched Alli's work online, and eventually came to work with him in San Francisco, I came to believe that Alli holds deeply needed wisdom. Although he openly dismisses any desire to replicate or stay true to any 'way' of working, theatrically Alli is clearly drawing on a lineage that began with Antonin Artaud and stretches through Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook. Alli's book is his singular significant printed contribution to the field. By questioning and refining Artaud's visionary madness and extending Grotowski's paratheatre, he offers a 21st century transformative wisdom that also includes subtle energetic technologies and non-dual spiritual practice. This much alone marks him as a singular contributor with an unprecedented, emergent, step forward.
I see Alli offering two primary contributions. First, he has set forth a detailed and precise non-dogmatic ritual technology that allows anyone to experience direct self-initiated contact with “soul and spirit” as a means of continual renewed, artistically and spiritually. He claims this as vital to the survival of theatre and the culture it serves. Without constant and precise refreshment of our authenticity, we cannot engage the archetypal and spiritual resonances with an audience that is, as Alli suggests, the purpose of theatre as a cultural medium. We can certainly entertain, and even lull into happy sleepiness, but we cannot create art that awakens the sheep and changes lives the way Artaud had tenaciously demanded from his burning heart.
Secondly, Alli judiciously integrates major contributions from various ways of knowing that are undeniably part of our human lexicon at this point in history. Most notably he combines the somatics of theatrical movement and sound with the transformative intent of a ritual technology for Self-initiation to access the internal landscapes. Of special note is his reliance on a technique he calls “No-Form”, taken from the non-dual school of mysticism in Zazen's Pure Emptiness variety.
Alli's early training was in Mime Theatre (from American Mime Theatre protégé Keith Berger) and Method acting (Lee Strasborg Institute of Hollywood). He's also been deeply influenced by his private scholarship in alchemy, Jungian psychology, and a variety of spiritual traditions. His book is specifically a paratheatrical workbook. Paratheatrical, meaning 'along side of' or 'beyond' theatre. It is a 'workbook' as its focus rests on giving the reader practical tools, first person accounts, and a theoretical framework to allow them to conduct their own paratheatre rituals. It is not just an ideological treatise.
The book is broken down into five sections. The first section outlines the basic principles and techniques of his ritual technology. The most important factors are how to actually sequence an evening of rituals, guideposts to the levels of maturity in the work, and specific skills needed to continue the work. The second section presents a series of short accounts, from a variety of authors, on their experiences in Alli’s paratheatre labs. Most interesting to me was a riveting account of Alli's experience facilitating a "crucifixion archetype" lab, meeting three times a week for four hours each time over a period of just five weeks.
The third section covers specifics of dreams and psychic projections in relationship to this ritual work. Here he includes short articles on specific rituals including the dreaming ritual that has become his chief focus these days, the "Anima Shrine" ritual, and "The Temple of the Animus" ritual. It is in this section that the Jungian influence becomes more obvious. However, these rituals are not just psychological dramatizations of archetypal material; they are not psychodrama. There is something else going on here, something that approaches the shamanic.
Entitled, “The Living Earth”, section four is about the particulars of doing paratheatre in outdoor spaces. Here, Alli invites other authors to write on the topics of Geomancy, Temple Construction, and Wilderness Rites, in addition to Alli’s own deceptively simple ritual for using the Earth as a stabilizing influence. It may seem disconnected from the work of a professional actor, but keep in mind that the great theatre visionary Jerzy Grotowski invested his exorbitant energy and effort working paratheatre in the forests with his actors, sometimes days at a time. Even luminaries like Robert Wilson have created outdoor performance rituals lasting days on end.
The fifth and final section, “Artist Interviews”, includes Alli’s personal meetings with an Aborigine Elder (Guboo Ted Thomas), a Cabalistic Ritualist (Elizabeth Cogburn), a Singer/Performer (Paul Oertel), a Mime Artist (Keith Berger), a Theatre Director/Performer (Fred Curchack) and a Musician/Painter (David Rosenbloom). These interviews cover a wide range of topics from aboriginal dream time and ecstatic ritual, to group dynamics and solo performance art, and the practice of no-form.
In terms of the actual sequence of this ritual approach, the process begins with selecting a group which Alli does via interview at this point. From what I understand, one of his main concerns is the person's capacity to take responsibility for their own experience and for their ability to fully commit to the process. He does this by asking questions to test a person's integrity and ability to take responsibility for their own experience.
Once selected, the group takes a silent vow on the first day of work. This vow is basically to be responsible for one's own safety and for exciting their own creative states. This creates an environment where people can drop social posturing and begin building their individual integrity and autonomy. This brings in a quick discussion of what Alli refers to as the "asocial climate" essential to this work. He writes extensively about the nature of culture's challenge to people who are struggling to maintain connection with their vertical sources, or connection to their own well springs of direct experience. He writes about how the soul and one's power can be drained by a variety of social considerations, such as “the courtship fixation” and “the martyr complex”. He aims to create an environment where those distractions are bypassed for the sake of strengthening the sourcing of Self. The most detailed account of this dynamic is expressed in the 'paratheatre manifesto' I mention at the end of this book review cum essay.
On any given evening the actual work always begins with laying a foundation. The most consistent and essential part of this foundational phase is the physical warm up cycle. The most important aspect of the warm up is to 'feel the body deeply' and includes stillness, flexing the spine, activating the core, stretching, and generating heat. By the end of the warm up, the body should be deeply felt, open, receptive, warm, and available for vigorous service to energies that will be evoked in the rituals of the evening.
The next phase usually involves polarity work of some kind. This involves either individual or group work that divides a space in two and projects a psychic polarity of some kind onto each space respectively. For example, love/fear, heaven/hell, masculine/feminine, etc. This process works by beginning in No-form outside the designated space and waiting until you are bodily pulled to one side or the other at which point you surrender as deeply as possible to being moved bodily by the energy of that area. The energy states already exist with the body. This technique, what Alli calls projection of ego-state cathexsis, sends the energy into an area of the ritual setting to be experienced firsthand. This results in a direct, bodily experience of the psychic dynamic being explored. One travels back and forth between the sides of the polarity and steps back out into no form whenever one losses connection to the energy source or when one feels finished.
This is a simplified description. The rest of the evening may offer more polarities or other ritual forms that develop the themes the group is exploring. After about two and half hours of working in this way, the group will come together for a closing circle. This is not a discussion but an opportunity for people to language what they experienced, to be heard, and perhaps have the facilitator offer some guidance or ask a few incisive questions.
It is important to touch briefly on the concept of No-Form. This is what sets Alli's approach significantly apart from anyone that has come before, be there shamanic, ritualists, magicians, paratheatrical artists, or actors. No-form is based roughly on Zen practice and can be done standing or sitting, walking or jogging… or really any posture that can temporarily still the mind and proffer a state of internal receptivity. Alli says that no form is really about developing an intimacy with The Void and becoming increasingly comfortable in an identity of being nothing. This also short-circuits the participant's ego from possessing the fruits of the ritual work. No-form serves two basic functions. Before a ritual no-form serves to clear the body/mind vessel so that it can receive the energy source and submit to its bodily expression. After the ritual, a return to no-form allows one to discharge and disidentify with whatever took place within the boundaries of the ritual.
There have been some further developments since the book that Alli continues to post on his web sites. His 'Paratheatre Manifesto' is the most concise, clear, and evolved thinking on this 'way' of working. If you want more information I suggest you see his web site. Included there is his paratheatre background, filmography and information on documentary films of his paratheatrical work over the years. He even has some stuff posted on YouTube. For a more well rounded perspective you might explore this list of names he notes as contemporaries in the development of paratheatre; Matt Mitler, Stephen Bogart, Stacy Klein, Stephen Wangh, Joseph & Jennifer Lavy, and James Slowiak.
James Wagner received a BFA in Acting from U.C. Santa Barbara and is currently attending the American Conservatory Theatre towards an MFA in Acting. His post grad pursuits have included slam poetry, stand up comedy, screenwriting, film acting, live theater, and one man shows. He is currently writing a solo piece on Antonin Artaud, finishing a screenplay, and teaching at A.C.T.
Review by Phil Hall
The Week of March 1, 2004
New York Resident Book Editor
Separating ritual from dogma has been the focus of Antero Alli, a filmmaker and playwright based in Berkeley, CA, who has conducted extensive workshops devoted to what he describes as paratheatrical experiments. In the paratheatrical setting, people engage in a combination of physical theater, dance, meditation, and the external projection of internal concerns to chart human behavior as it relates to predetermined societal expectations.
Alli has detailed his paratheatrical experiments in the fascinating workbook Towards an Archeology of the Soul. The book highlights the genesis and execution of his paratheatrical labs that were the basis of his acclaimed documentaries Archaic Community (1992) and Crux (1999), which brought groups of strangers together to simultaneously dissect their inner personalities while shaping a newly cohesive and united mass.
Allis focus is a profound mixture of psychology, drama, sociology, and physical energy. Theology is not on display here, mainly because the rigidity of organized religion shoehorns people into predetermined communities rather than allowing them to form unions of their own.
Towards an Archeology of the Soul is not for the casual reader, but it is invaluable to educators, social scientists, performing artists, and philosophers who have the courage to explore a fascinating new route that leads both to the inner self and the soul of a people.
Reviewed by Scotto, 6/27/2005.
Antero Allis Towards an Archaeology of the Soul is not an easy book to read, and this is perhaps best explained by the books subtitle: A Paratheatrical Workbook. Every page of this book asks you to get up and do, which can be quite a challenge to take sitting down.
Inspired by the groundbreaking laboratory theatre approach of Jerzy Grotowski, Alli set out to create a non-dogmatic, theatrical approach to sacred ritual. For more than two decades, Alli researched and developed a series of tools and techniques for unlocking, confronting, and embodying archetypal forces at play within the self. The first incarnation of this book, All Rites Reversed?!, was a slim metaprogrammers handbook; this greatly expanded new version encompasses much more of the aesthetic, artistic currents that drive the work. Theatre is the broad context, a place where the willing suspension of disbelief allows the actor in this case, the ritual participant to travel across time, space, and aethyr, returning regularly to what Alli calls No-Form (the actor off stage/the absence of self) to begin again anew.
The exercises within the book span forms of initiation, shadow work, and distillations toward performance-worthy forms. One exercise leads you through death and rebirth; another leads you into hell and back again; and several immerse you in emotional extremes, or polarizations. With enough discipline, talent, and emotional honesty, Alli writes, one can begin extracting from internal source material universal symbols, myths, and characters towards artwork and performances that elicit visceral and spiritual resonances in the audience. This is the experiment, the process and the goal.
Throughout the years, Alli has led both performers and non-performers through paratheatrical lab sessions. Ive noticed that ritual labs containing mostly performing artists invariably raise the performance standards of this work, he writes, just as those labs containing mostly non-performers tend to deepen its spirituality. This dichotomy characterizes the main challenge of the book: practiced artists may find the deliberate vagaries of Allis just go do and see what happens approach to be lacking in specifics, while non-artists may find the prospect of facing, and playing with, such archetypes as Death, Saviour, and Nightmare to be intimidating or bewildering. But Alli is not particularly interested in making you comfortable; quite the contrary, he is asking you to step onto a sacred-unto-itself ritual stage and take the risks inherent in being truly present in that environment.
The book is a very dry read, similar to how a book on music theory gives only the slightest hint that something potentially beautiful is being described. I can offer you this anecdotal evidence: I took a six-hour introductory workshop from Alli and experienced several of the ritual exercises described in this book first hand. As an actor, I felt challenged, often compelled, occasionally bored, and more than once, quite moved. Alli was there to remind us that we would only get out of it what we put into it, a maxim true of most things in life of course, and certainly true here. Afterward, it was clear to me that these exercises would have practical application in my life as an artist; Ill have to take his word that these tools are useful beyond the scope of the performing arts as well.
By now, you probably know if youre the target audience for this work, and this workbook. I once asked Alli in an interview if he thought that the use of psychedelics had an overt role in paratheatrical ritual work. He replied, I personally would not recommend mixing these levels at the same time and place. A powerful ritual, if approached with enough self-discipline, honesty and clarity of intent is trigger enough for parting the veils.
And that, as they say, is up to you.
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