Tribute: Phillip Zarrilli (1947-2020) — The mindful thespian

He came to India at 29 to learn Kathakali but discovered kalaripayattu, and went on to make the integration of mind and body the core of his practice

Published - May 22, 2020 02:07 pm IST

Phillip Zarrilli.

Phillip Zarrilli.

American-born director, writer, actor-trainer, and professor of performance practice, Phillip Zarrilli, died in the U.K. on April 28 this year. “He rode out on a breath,” wrote dramaturg and Zarrilli’s long-time partner, Kaite O’Reilly, in a moving tribute. “... like so many times in his teaching he spoke of riding the breath to that moment of completion at the end of exhalation — the space in-between at the end of one cycle before the impulse of the next inhalation begins. This time came no inhalation.”

Breath was always vital to Zarrilli’s training. By breath, he meant not just the act of breathing but also an attentiveness to breath as a carrier of energy or qi/ chi; breath which proceeds from the root of the navel/ nabhi mula/ dan t’ien. Zarrilli’s focus on the active exploration of breath in his actor-training process came from his intensive and rigorous training and practice of Asian disciplines such as kalaripayattu, yoga and taiji quan/ tai chi.

Fusing mind and body

As I began to write this tribute, I searched for information. And found a strange thing. There is a near total absence of personal information about Zarrilli. You can read about his work, his experiences with Asian forms of dance and theatre, but searching for the “person” Phillip Zarrilli is like looking for someone who didn’t exist. After some time, I began to realise that perhaps the unity Zarrilli sought to impart through his psycho-physical training was a unity he probably managed to achieve in his own life. The work was the person and the person the work.

A Fulbright fellowship in 1976-77 brought Zarrilli, then 29, to Kerala to study Kathakali. His inspiration was the Polish pioneer of physical theatre, Jerzy Grotowski, who had preceded him to Kerala, in 1970, to observe and learn Kathakali and Koodiyattam. On realising that kalaripayattu was the source of Kathakali’s body exercises and massage practices, he began to learn the former.

At CVN Kalari in Thiruvananthapuram, under the guidance of Govindankutty Nair, Zarrilli recognised in kalaripayattu a physical technique that was a “highly integrated fusion of mental/ visual concentration.” He referred to it as,“[p]sycho-physical integration… the coordination of concentration, energy flow, and physical technique.” This integration of mind and body, which Zarrilli refers to as ‘psychophysical,’ formed the core of his actor training.

Phillip Zarrilli performing in ‘Told by the Wind’, co-created with his long-time partner, Kaite O’Reilly, and Jo Shapland for his company, The Llanarth Group.

Phillip Zarrilli performing in ‘Told by the Wind’, co-created with his long-time partner, Kaite O’Reilly, and Jo Shapland for his company, The Llanarth Group.

Over the next 15 years, he spent a total of seven years in Kerala, training in, practising, and researching kalaripayattu, yoga, and Kathakali. His immersive training and practice in these forms along with tai chi which he learnt from his mentor, A.C. Scott, went into the fashioning of an actor-training process/ method that Edwin Creely, academic and faculty at Monash University, who researched Zarrilli’s training method and praxis, refers to as a “transcultural training regime”.

Danced by the dance

Zarrilli, like the mentors he acknowledges, attempted to bring to dualist Western performance pedagogy a unity that had been sacrificed at the altar of an uncritical modernity. The ‘bodymind,’ a term he used to refer to the psychophysical, seemingly reconciled the idea of ‘learning through doing’ of American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey with the idea of developing experiential consciousness as proposed by 20th century philosophers like Edmund Husserl or Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Zarrilli was convinced that by ‘doing the exercise’ rather than only intellectualising or theorising about it, an actor could make an individual journey of emancipation and empowerment.

His method, with its attention to breath, structure, and focus, was intended to guide actors to open up and clear the pathways between interiority and exteriority. Attentiveness to one thing is at the same instant also an awareness of everything else. It is the actor’s ‘body becoming all eyes’. With it, the actor becomes free, flexible, open and ready; is ever present in the moment; is aware of acting and being acted upon — is at once the actor and the spectator/ audience; in Zarrilli’s words, the “dancer dances but is also danced by the dance”.

Viscerally experiential

Zarrilli’s frequent visits to India began in the midst of the Emergency and continued till the early 90s. That decade-and-a-half witnessed political authoritarianism, student unrest, assassinations, rising right-wing nationalism, identity politics and economic liberalisation. Theatre and performance too attempted to respond to these events and there was a burgeoning of intra-cultural experiments and intercultural collaborations.

Modern urban Indian theatre practitioners used themes, tales, myths and forms from the past or from rural milieux; Western practitioners and academics visited India to add to the corpus of theatre and performance knowledge, practices and theories. Some attempted collaborations such as a Kathakali version of King Lear or the marathon The Mahabharata by Peter Brook with a multicultural cast. All this led to fierce debates about interculturalism and the ethics of cultural appropriation.

Phillip Zarrilli attempted to bring to dualist Western performance pedagogy a unity that had been sacrificed at the altar of an uncritical modernity.

Phillip Zarrilli attempted to bring to dualist Western performance pedagogy a unity that had been sacrificed at the altar of an uncritical modernity.

Zarrilli saw interculturalism as a way of seeing the world, a way of being open to real, face-to-face encounters with others, as an attentiveness that responds to the ‘other’ with care and respect. His view appears close to what American theatre scholar and founder-editor of The Drama Review Richard Schechner describes: “[t]o perform someone else’s culture… takes a knowledge, a ‘translation,’ that is different, more viscerally experiential... Most essentially, intercultural exchange takes a teacher: someone who knows the body of performance of the culture being translated. The translator of culture is not a mere agent... but an actual culture-bearer. This is why performing other cultures becomes so important. Not just reading them, not just visiting them, or importing them, but actually doing them. So that ‘them’ and ‘us’ is elided, or laid experientially side-by-side.”

Zarrilli was convinced that attention to the self is awareness of the other; and such attention can never be self-absorption but only ‘a being in relation to’. This interconnectedness is what makes one human.

Zarrilli’s last visit to India was in January this year when The Llanarth Group presented Told by the Wind at the 12th International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) in Thrissur.

Zarrilli came to India to study Kathakali and discovered kalaripayattu. What he did with what he learnt, whether it was yoga, kalaripayattu, Kathakali or tai chi, was a ‘metabolising’. He did not borrow techniques from one source and mindlessly graft them on to another. As actor Mohan Agashe said years ago of intercultural exchanges, “the work to be taken from has to be ingested and digested, truly metabolised and made part of the performer’s body (and soul) before being re-expressed in possibly a totally new and unrecognisable way.” And this was evident both in Zarrilli’s theatre and his pedagogy.

The writer is a doctoral scholar at the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.

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