THE GRAND ILLUSION

by André De Shields

in Fox Fellowships

Post image for THE GRAND ILLUSION

“There is difficult, there is dangerous, but there is not impossible.” I was at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, searching for a dedicated rehearsal space, when I happened upon that pithy statement scrawled across a chalkboard. I have since used it as a daily mantra. I am forever grateful to its anonymous author.

In the winter of 1988, I reached what I then viewed as a plateau of impossibility. I had recently completed the tenth anniversary revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’ with the original cast. Five years prior both Nell Carter and I   had won Emmy Awards for the NBC Television Special. In fact Ain’t Misbehavin’ had been my good luck charm since its phenomenal transition—during four mind-blowing months in 1978—from its off-Broadway home at the Manhattan Theatre Club to Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. The show had allowed me to see the world—England, France, Alaska, Japan—and the world to see me. On the horizon hovered several options, each of them solicitations to do future productions of Ain’t Misbehavin’.  Still, the decade between 1978 and 1988 had been interspersed with periods of hand-wringing-full-body-sweat-would-I-ever-work-again panic. I was experiencing the silver lining syndrome, where all I could see was the cloud. Was it impossible to grow beyond Ain’t Misbehavin’?

In retrospect I was learning arguably the most important lesson of my adult life up to that point—that theatre as a way of life is not only finite, but hinders the evolution of one’s craft, while also encouraging the inevitable and steady deterioration of the society of one’s mind, body and spirit. The grand illusion, disguised as conundrum, unraveled as half nightmare, half revelation. To be infinite and liberating, theatre must be a way to life. A simple change of preposition altered for the better the approach to my life in the theatre and, indeed, the theatre in my life. With no formal training as an actor, I set about devising a methodology that, decades later, proved viable for my career sustainability and longevity.   But could the methodology resonate for other actors? I sought opportunities to test the model. What follows is an abridged account of a recent attempt.

WADE IN THE WATER

 It was the fall of 2013, and following numerous strategic conversations with Will Rogers, Associate Producer at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater (VG), 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, a survey was of made of alumni of past VG productions, regarding their interest and availability to participate in a weeklong Master Class with me serving as guide. Participation required a commitment of 7 days, 7 hours per day, divided into two sessions of equal length—3 morning hours and 3 hours in the afternoon, disjoined by an hour to refresh.

At 9 AM on Sunday, November 10, 2013—having learned that the rehearsal space at VG had been previously reserved—Will Rogers, stage manager Molli Duckworth and I met in room 405 of the Theatre School at DePaul University. The theatre community in Chicago is known for its ethic of cooperation.   At 10 AM we were joined by eight brave souls of diverse age, gender and ethnicity, and the experiment began in earnest.

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ADVENTURES IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE

The Way of the Golden Triangle embraces as its cardinal principle the convergence of mind, body and spirit. It is a methodology for individuals desiring an experiential and nontraditional approach to the performing arts, with preference for visceral rather than cerebral motivation. By increasing the intuitive decision-making process, the participant develops a more personally authentic performance technique through rigorous self-discipline, vigorous physical exertion and arduous contemplation, thereby allowing the emergence of the inner athlete, who then becomes the hero of his own adventure.

Performing artists traditionally subsist on a diet of daily rejection and insecurity. There are forces in the Universe that use these conditions of self-doubt, self-loathing and self-contradiction to spiritually, emotionally and intellectually paralyze the individual into inaction. This is Deceptive Intelligence. On the other hand, once the convergence of mind, body and spirit—in equal portions—has been accomplished, the individual can then, and only then, grasp the idea that if what he is thinking does not make him feel good, he must change what he is thinking. Similarly, if what she is feeling does not bode for the better, she must change what she is feeling. Likewise, if what they are doing does not make them feel worthy, they must change what they are doing. This is Creative Intelligence.

Moreover, the Artist must perceive of himself as an Alchemist—the tool of his own transformation and the teller of his own story. Consider Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which depicts humanity as a group of individuals living as prisoners, chained to the wall of a subterranean cave. They are unable to see the outside world behind them, their only experience of reality being a silhouette of the external activity cast upon the wall by the light of a nearby fire. Upon being released from the cave, the people realize that they had been deceived by appearances, that what they had seen daily were the mere shadows of events, but not the events themselves. The shadows on the walls of the cave represent Deceptive Intelligence. It is the responsibility of the Artist/Alchemist to act as a twenty-first century Prometheus and increase the light of that fire, making sure that this condition of being fettered to illusions no longer hampers human progress. The Artist/Alchemist must transform inferior Deceptive Intelligence into superior Creative Intelligence.

That said, today’s conversation is a continuation of yesterday’s theme regarding miracles. Miracles—defined as events that appear inexplicable by the laws of nature due to the wondrous awe they inspire—can be, should be, and ought to be commonplace.  In order to access miracles one must first organize her psychic highway into a golden equilateral Penrose triangle. Why golden? Because of the metal’s light-bearing qualities and near indestructibility, gold possesses symbolic significance as a signifier of divine principle. Why triangle? Because of the countless geometric shapes to be discovered in nature, it is the triangle that is most essential to the evolution of humankind, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens. Go to the mirror. Discover and investigate the map of triangles that is you. Why equilateral? Because the triad of values that enables the adventure must have each element—rigor, vigor and ardor— in the same measure. Why Penrose? Because of its trompe l’oeil style, the Penrose triangle is believed to be a three-dimensional impossibility.

FROM CONCEPTION TO EXECUTION

triangle

 The Way of the Golden Triangle likens our daily existence to that of being perched capriciously on the precipice of an abyss, rendered catatonic by Deceptive Intelligence, when it is our deepest desire to be free of the curse of inaction. In such a predicament there is no other choice but to jump. Only one of two options can occur. Either you sprout wings and soar, or the net appears. There is no such thing as the bottomless pit. The fear we experience in contentious situations is the absence of knowledge of our authentic alchemical selves. Know your self; be your self.  There is absolutely no power in not knowing who you are.

Begin by shutting down the chattering magpie in your head that constantly badgers you with insults: who do you think you are? You don’t deserve. You’re too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too black, too blond, too . . . fill in the blank. The ego is all bluster; it has no muscle. So, in order to shut it down, get out of your head, and into your gut. Exercise. Breathe. Sweat. Awaken your inner athlete. Just as NASA explores interstellar space, it is the performer’s adventure to explore interior stellar space. In other words, jump.

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It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the theatre, it is an action that is worth a thousand words. Mindful of that epigram, we began each morning session with an activity that for each of us required identical preparation, but resulted in unique experiences. Each participant was asked to stand in the doorway of the studio, while pressing the backs of both forearms from elbow to fingertips against the doorjambs for 15 seconds. Then step from the doorway into the room. What is the point of this exercise?

When standing in the doorway, the isometric pressure mirrors our daily existence, a constant effort to push beyond the boundaries of everyday life. When stepping from the doorway, all pressure is released, and the resulting sensation is a sense of wonder, as both arms involuntarily rise, and float effortless into the air. Every performer desires to fly as to the sun as possible without singeing his wings. This is the miracle of kinetic isometrics. Find the nearest doorway, and try it. There is nothing to lose except spiritual paralysis. And once you have leapt from the precipice of the abyss, there is nothing you can do to prevent your wings from growing. A demonstration follows.

Should your wings not grow true

Remember

The safety net is just below you

With your next attempt, put on the full armor of the Artist/Alchemist by investigating the alchemical DNA (the meaning) of your birth name. And with that powerful tool in hand jump again. It is often true that an individual’s name reveals his destiny. The following photograph depicts the participants solely by their alchemical DNA.

group 1

Just prior to the break, I demonstrated an a cappella version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess. By singing this song, I hoped to illustrate the alchemical essence it shares with The Way of the Golden Triangle. Once deconstructed the song can effectively serve as an Actor’s Creed.

The song’s initial refrain of “it ain’t necessarily so” is an appeal, that a healthy dose of skepticism must be applied to all dogma, including that which is imparted in this Master Class. The first chorus tells the story of David and Goliath, an extremely succinct allegory whose moral teaches that when faced with seemingly insurmountable problems, avoidance—which allows the problem to appear real and intimidating—is to be eschewed in favor of engagement. Approach the problem, and watch it dissipate. The second chorus treats Jonah and the whale, a tale of transformation. Jonah is banished to the dark abyss of the whale’s belly for having shirked his duty of obedience. Once he fulfills his responsibility, he is released. The abyss represents the depth in ourselves we must go in order to achieve authenticity. The third chorus involving Moses also deals with the transformative nature of being born of water, (the alchemical connotation of the name) and how one’s lot in life changes according to self-knowledge. The second refrain of “it ain’t necessarily so” boldly asks that we hold up the concept of “evil” to the proofing mirror of life; it’s reflection is “live.” Now, there is the bridge with its proverbial “grain of salt” reference. This section is a reiteration of the message of the several refrains: that truth—in order to be received—may require mitigation. The fourth and final chorus introduces Methuselah, renowned for having lived 969 years, recalling the discipline of spirit and the spirit of discipline so essential to longevity and sustainability.

The afternoon session, or field trip, was attendance at the matinée performance of VG’s second play of its 2013/14 Season—Appropriate, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and directed by Gary Griffin.
GT with Branden Jacobs JenkinsUPDATE2

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On Saturday, November 16, the week culminated with Conversations With the Divine, a marathon performance of plays, one written by each of the 8 participants, who parlayed their 7 days of interaction into claiming authorship of their own stories. By way of a lottery, directors from within the workshop were assigned to each production. And so, before an audience of 30 VG staff members and invited friends, The Way of the Golden Triangle came to a fork in the road. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” –Yogi Berra

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I believe the Way of the Golden Triangle to be a decidedly practical and feasible approach to achieving one’s personal best, expressed in terms of self-fulfillment, self-belief and self–realization. In the Cosmos of the Artist/Alchemist there is only genius—brilliant, bright, bodacious and burning—intending, intriguing, inventing the road that leads to his creative home.

Rejoice in the creative continuum that is your life. Regard it with amazement, and stand ready to take on its many twists and turns. Remain confident that you are on the road to the city of your dreams. And carry a torch, lit by the light of the star that you wished upon as a child full of curious wonder. And as you continue on your path towards horizons yet unknown, make a covenant that before the torch burns even an iota less brightly, you will hand it to another dreamer, in need of just a little more light to discover her genius. This is The Way of the Golden Triangle.

Those, whom I attempt to teach, teach me.  And for that I am in their debt, and wish for them success without boundaries.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3

 

For other images, please visit www.liachangphotography.com, and greater discussion of The Way of the Golden Triangle, please visit www.andredeshields.com


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In a career spanning more than forty years, André (meaning “the first chosen”) De Shields has distinguished himself as an unparalleled actor, director and educator. Theatre as a way of life is finite and only partly satisfying; while theatre, as a way to life, is infinite and wholly fulfilling. Namaste!