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Exploring Eco Shamanic Acting & Performing Arts
by David Sparenberg
2013-12-11 10:00:17
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My focus here is on the performing arts—acting, dance, mime, live music, oral storytelling, performance poetry—and what connections might be possible in the 21st century between these performing arts and shamanism.  In my eco ebook THE GREEN TROUBADOUR SOURCE BOOK: Eco-Shamanic Actor Training & Performance, are three opening essays exploring the same questions of connective possibilities and cultural relevance.  While the intention is sincere and even ardent there may be little in these writings that is especially original other than my combining various elements into a specific perspective.  While I do unfold a partial training program, much valuable pioneering work has long since taken place, from Artaud’s demand for a reintroduction of myth and magic into his Theatre of Cruelty to the reflexive insistence of Jerzy Grotowski on the holy actor, and forward into the internationalization of Butoh dance, as counterculture alchemy and a shamanism of movement.
forest01_400The debate in academic circles as to whether or not the origin of theatre is to be found in shamanism continues.  It is probable that no definitive evidence will surface, so the inquiry spins its wheels in speculation and answers may forever remain subjective, decided from person to person by individual disposition.
While both formal theatre in its earliest trans-cultural appearances and shamanism, even in contemporary practices, involve ritual, the presence of ritual alone does not prove a shamanic origin for dramatic art.  The Greek meaning of the word tragedy is “goat song” and it is highly suggestive.  Still, the lowering of the “god of the machine” onto the amphitheatre stage of Attic tragedy is already a far remove from ecstasy-seers and spirit or ancestor summoning shamans. 
Personally I am inclined to think that any foundational link between shaman and actor may have begun with the latter performing parodies of the former (in the same way, say, that Ben Johnson made entertainment out of satirizing alchemists).  If so, this would have initiated an alienating progression away from the sacred into the profane.  Both mythic-mystic and healing powers of the shaman would not be presented as lived experience in incipient theatre but represented as an imitative “as if”.
From such speculation I previously dismissed the 21st century actor-into-shaman; specifically what I call eco-shaman or green troubadour; as not being effectively connected during performance; even in ritual simulating performance; to occupy sufficient verticality in the moment to be a master or mistress of ecstasy.  The imagination falters between a simultaneous state of ecstatic transport—being out of one’s mind—and the maintenance of scripted action, a choreography or characterization joined in plot to others also in  studied pursuit of credible characterizations.
While the shaman may sometimes employ techniques of acting, the actor as performing artist is not a shaman and therefore not a priest or priestess either.  There is a question too of power—in the medicine way understanding of power as spiritual connectivity and investiture—and the location of conscious or mindful presence.  Both performing artist and shaman may practice bi-location, but one is mental, undisclosed and individually crafted, the other soulful, collectively acknowledged and numinous.
I would say then that the shaman, as a legitimate trans-dimensional traveler, maintains a consciousness even in an ecstatic state, albeit a consciousness altered or expanded beyond consensual reality.  Because of this capacity to be ecstatically conscious; to see oneself in flight and to see oneself in action throughout the subtle realities of other worlds; the shaman earns the extraordinary title of “master of ecstasy,” rather than one lost in the ecstatic and possibly suffering a psychotic disconnection.  On the other hand, while an actor certainly can elevate a performance and foot the edge of the imaginal—the event horizon of betwixt and between—an actor lost in ecstasy would be dead in space, no longer performing in the here and now, but removed in a direction of experience outside performance, as we think of performance ordinarily.
So the actor into shaman and eco-shaman as master/mistress of ecstasy is out.  Yet imitation and thereby intimation is possible. 
Once I had a stranger engage me in a peculiar conversation on empathy.  A man even older than myself and with an obvious medically related disability, asked if I believed empathy to be  possible.  The question spoke pointedly into my situation at the time, which I need not go into now.  But I did not hesitate to reply, “yes,” my affirmation based in experience.  I have always been empathy-prone.  But the stranger continued by saying that if you were empathetically participating with another who was ill and dying, that is, should you be absolute in the authenticity of your empathy, would you not also be dying?  Would your empathy not also conclude in death?
It was a striking confrontation, one of those mysterious encounters of synchronicity, and the conversation ended with a gentleman’s agreement that while empathy is possible  absolute empathy is dangerous and requires either withdrawal or acquiescence to  direst consequence. 
The same I would contend to be true of the actor.  In acting a sincerity of the make believe is requested, yet the actor stops short of crossing the threshold the shaman in free soul journeying moves over.  The actor as actor is not empowered as the shaman is to pass into the beyond, consult, adjust, rescue, and return from.  The actor may imitate and thereby point in the direction of the archetypal role of pathfinder and navigator of the geography of the dead, but the genuine shaman is a socially accepted guide of souls and inter-dimensional healer experientially familiar with both above and below.
Too, there may yet be a further projection in dramatizing imitation, an emotional and imagistic  transference which Eugenio Barba has spoken of.  First defining the Greek word for our ecstasy, ex-statis, as being outside of oneself, Barba writes: “It is not the actor who must enter ecstasy but the spectator who must go out of himself, who must, that is, transcend the limits of the direct and literal perception of what the actor is doing in order to see behind the screen of the obvious and the known.”
This quotation touches upon what actual power and magic a skilled performing artist may have, which is the radiating and guiding of stylized energies to draw others into the believable reality of the make believe.
Actors work in the theatres of memory and imagination, and may certainly grow, through intention, quest and discipline, to feel and even publically shape the meeting of imagination with the imaginal.  But the shaman to be healed healer, master of ecstasy and technician of the sacred, must be able, through spiritual morphing, to enter into, effect, abide within and return victoriously from the imaginal, which begins beyond the limits of subjective imagination and is a sphere-experiential  possessing its own kindred-otherness and dynamics of governance.  This is a substantial difference.
In my book essays I move from the shaman’s designation of master of ecstasy to technician of the sacred and with the transition recognize that a specifically trained actor or other performing artist might indeed be a culturally active, intentional presence committed to altered and eco-adjusting relationships between what is sacred and what profane. Here is a subject of greatest challenge, struggle and yet potential, as nearly every aspect of human culture is now located within the exploited and exploitable commercial territories of an ominously out of balance materialistic and profane civilization.  So while inviting readers to look into these published essays, I have lifted out and share now the following quotation.
“Eco-shamanism is about relationships and about re-establishing lost or broken connections of interdependence; the actor as eco-shaman is involved in contributing to a green village public culture, a social art of re-established and renewed relationships—Earth Life relationships and Sacred Earth and Sacredness of Life relationships…
“In this capacity, the actor-eco-shaman may yet bring the invisible into visibility, rediscover and recover the holy and prove to be a colorful cartographer of the spheres of the ecstatic, as well as a revolutionizing threshold crosser.  Perhaps never working anticipated miracles but offering the miracle of indication by pointing in a direction of changes.  Indeed, the actor as eco-shaman works on the threshold and offers outward an alternative aesthetic generated out of the Heraclitian collusion between harsh realities and an emergent dreamtime.” *
Likely there are contradictions between what I am saying presently and these earlier expressions.  But growth often takes place through patterns that are repetitious yet innovative due to antithetical developments  Which is to say that I am not involved with a system or a method—rather simply recording the furthering explorations of phases and episodes of experience and awakenings.
Thus I would share the following: a performing artist as eco-shaman could be envisioned as a sort of living, human-shaped and human endowed shaman’s drum.  As such this performer requires a repertory of different rhythms to stage (kinesthetic message lines), these being the creative materials of  soul invigorated words, postures, poses, gestures, movements, including silences, designed specially for the eco-shamanic or green troubadour performance and opening up both fallen reality and uplifted spirituality through what I term Episodic Theatre.
There remains for now a final area of traditional shamanic practice with which I wish to make a connection and that is the engagement of the shaman in soul retrieval .
My sense is that this is fertile terrain.  While it begins with a denouncement that necessitates intervention, I see how it can move on into a culture of healing that applies the age old medicine way model as standard for the performance initiating dialogue.  By this I mean the shamanic model of tri-dimensional alignment: the healthy individual emerges and is maintained within the context of the healthy community, which comes into being and has continuum by being organic and ecosophically harmonic within the transhuman, cosmic and Great Spirit community of creation.
The initiating denouncement is the recognition and shared articulation of soullessness in our contemporary global civilization, which we see everywhere is disastrously disconnected, out of balance, and consequently causing widespread soul loss to individual existence.  From denouncement through serious, dedicated creativity, and not for ego-self but out of eco-self, the performing artist I speak of here commits to actualizing inter-layered healing by way of the medium of live public art and the sharing of Episodic Theatre, striving to engage and transform society as a curative, cultural actual.
In this way, it might be that performance as an act of beauty (a structured aesthetic designed to liberate spontaneities of awe and honoring, agony, longing and hope) the poem as living voice, the dance as physical prayer-chant, music as rhythmic attunement and emotional reflection, story as re-membering the human role and responsibility in a narrative universe, each and all are themselves authenticating means of healing and the medicine of the actor etc. who would enter the world as a green millennium eco-shaman.
I will add that this is certainly true for myself.  My creative words and creative voice, these are my medicine bundle, my healing way.  Even so as the red tail hawk is my animal spirit guide, the winged messenger who sends a plaintive cry out over earth and sky, I trust and treat my poems as reflexive and intercessional prayers.  My poetic prose I call episodes of my soul-in-context and are chants and incantations.  Any public dramatization of this work is intentional-ritual to evoke  interplay of the unique and the universal. 
So all in all, to end with an open-outward consideration, who is really so self-referential to say that spiritual powers within and upon this living Earth did not for eons personate and grow attentive due to ancient human songs, to dance, poems/psalms, stories, and mimeses?  Who is to say that what may have been does not remain and cannot, if sufficient effort qualities are dedicated, come ‘round again?
David Sparenberg

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Emanuel Paparella2013-12-11 12:18:50
The above is a very intriguing and insightful essay which, from my perspective as a lover of philosophy, brought me immediately back to Nietzsche’s first philosophical work, The Birth of Tragedy and the Spirit of Music, which is a must for anybody interested in the origin of the theater, specifically Athenian tragic drama. Philosophically speaking the book is not very methodical and therefore it contributed to the demise of Nietzsche’s aspiring academic career; and yet the book has some valuable insights which were all but missed by its critics, specifically the insight on the dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian side of Greek theater which as Nietzsche surmised reflects life itself.

If I understand Nietzsche’s thesis correctly, he seems to be saying that the challenge for us is how to synthesize the Apollonian to the Dionysian so that they do not destroy each other. Myth devoid of logos is a very dangerous thing indeed as the rituals of the Nazi Party only sixty years ago witness to. Nietzsche in fact does not consider it very healthy for an individual, or a whole nation for that matter, to become wholly absorbed in the rule of one or the other aspect of tragedy and life. The two are not mutually exclusive. One needs to maintain a foothold in both the Dionysian (the ecstatic) and the Apollonian (the rational). It is not a question of either or but of both and. This is quite similar to Vico’s synthesis of the mytho-poetic with the rational in his New Science as well as to Sparenberg’s postulating of the actor as eco-shaman which suggests a synthesis of actor (conscious and rational) and shaman (as “master of ecstasy” and “technician of the sacred”).

What Nietzsche is specifically suggesting in The Birth of Tragedy is that before Euripides and Socrates, the Dionysian and the Apollonian elements of life were artistically and harmoniously woven together. As Aristotle also suggests in his analysis of Greek theater in his Poetics where he postulates the experience of a catharsis, the Greek spectator became healthy through direct experience of the Dionysian within the protective spirit-of-tragedy on the Apollonian stage.

Valerie Sartor2013-12-12 01:34:45
Very intriguing article...I'm wondering if you read the work of MM Balzar or Anna Reid concerning shamanic practices??

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