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Theatre - Deeper Dimensions

Having & Being - the ‘Character’ & the ‘Actor’

Thirty-five years ago, I resigned from the Army where I had been a Captain in the Regiment of Artillery, to go into a full-time theatre and writing career.  Before I left Sikkim where I had been stationed for over 3 years as an Observation Post Officer in the Himalayan pickets along the Indo-China border, I went around saying my goodbyes. 

One of the people that I was really sorry saying good-bye to, was Mr. Madhusudan Singh. Mr. Singh had studied theatre in England, and taught English and Theatre there before moving to India. He was then the Principal of the Tashi Namgyal Academy in Gangtok.  TNA had been the Chogyal's (the ruler of Sikkim before it became part of India) personal school and one of the top rated schools in that part of the country.  Besides being the head of this academy, Mr. Singh was also a reputed Zen scholar, artist, and a brilliant theatre director who had directed me in some well received plays.  His beautiful hill-side quarters on the school campus, littered with books, paintings, play scripts, and school material, was one of the significant stops for students of Zen and Buddhism who travelled to India.

As he hugged me, he said,

"Be.  Just be."

That was all.  No blessings or speeches.

I was barely 25 years old at that time, and the parting words did not impress me greatly.  However, years and decades later when I had done many more plays, performing across the country, done a lot of reading on non-religious spirituality including Zen and Hinduism, and experienced a good deal of meditation, and also developed theatre as a well received corporate learning and transformational tool, I realised the significance of those powerful parting words.  "Just be".

Putting the insights into a theatre metaphor, I realised that this was the difference between the 'character' and the 'actor'.

The character has many attributes - memories, baggage, set ways of moving, reacting, costume, props.  In fact these are the elements that define the character.  Whereas the actor is totally empty, just open, alert, awareness. The more empty the actor is, the more vivid and powerful is the character.  An actor who is not empty, distorts the character.

The character can be happy. The actor is not.  The character can be miserable.  The actor is not.  The character can be a murderer or a saint, the actor is neither.  No matter what the character does or experiences, the actor is in a state of objective, neutral, alert awareness, fine-tuning the performance according to the need of the moment, the need of the play, the need of the audience, the need of the fellow-actors.  The character 'reacts'. The actor 'responds'.\

As we go through life, personally and professionally, we play many different characters.  At work, we are boss to someone, subordinate to someone, peer to someone else, mentor to one, mentee to another.  At home, we play the roles of son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse, parent, grandparent. However, the actor who plays these roles is the same.  The more detached the actor is from the various characters that he or she plays, the more the power, the purity, and the integrity of the characters.  In this state of 'just being', what one is, is far more relevant and impactful than what one has.

In recent months we have come across several incidents where people who had it all, on the national and even the multinational stage - name, fame, wealth, status, were not content with what they had. They wanted even more and ended up losing all that they had in the first place.  What had been built up over decades of dedicated, highly competent effort, destroyed by one mistake stemming from the desire to have even more. 

We have also seen inspiring examples of people who have discarded wealth and position, like an actor casts away the costume and make-up after the play, and gone back into their fundamental state of being.  And seekers of peace and wisdom travel thousands of miles to get one glimpse of their radiance, one glance from their eyes, a single 'darshan'. And you realise that the bliss and the radiance of being is far more alluring, and eternal, as compared to the ephemeral glamour of having.

That was a powerful parting gift - truly loving, and purely Zen - "Be.  Just Be".

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