19 September, 2020

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The Last Prāna Of Zarrilli: A Tribute To Phillip B. Zarrilli (1942-2020)

By Saumya Liyanage

Prof. Saumya Liyanage

‘He rode out on a breath – 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’ (Kate O’Reilly, 2020)

This is what playwright Kaite O’Reilly, recently wrote to his friends on Zarrilli’s departure. On the 28th of April 2020, Emeritus Professor Phillip B. Zarrilli, theatre scholar, actor, director, and writer passed away after battling cancer for nearly fifteen years. The news of Zarrilli’s demise was devastating to his friends, theatre colleagues, and especially those who have been his students close by and far away in the UK, India, South Asia, and elsewhere. Undoubtedly I fall into a category of friend and mentee who has been living far away from his home but been very much close to his thoughts, writings, and his teaching of actor training. He was a great teacher and a performance philosopher whose contribution to uplift Asian tradition of actor training was immense and immeasurable. I received this sad news of Zarrilli’s demise in the first week of May while we all were locked down with fear and anger amidst the corona outbreak.

It is very difficult for someone to write something about a man who has expanded his career in theatre for nearly four decades and comment on a vast array of writing on intercultural theatre and performance practice he has envisioned. Zarrilli has worked as an author, dramaturge, actor, performer trainer, teacher, and inspiring guru for many students, emerging academics, and actors all over the world. Many theatre scholars undoubtedly have been influenced or at least been inspired from what he has written on theatre, Asian theatre or body-mind philosophies in acting. Zarrilli was a master teacher in Kalaripayattu martial art in Kerala, India and he was one of the pioneering pedagogues who has adapted thousand years old Martial art form into an actor training methodology where actors could be trained to perform contemporary theatre.

I first got to know about Zarrilli’s work when I started reading my Master’s degree at Flinders University, South Australia with Professor, Julie Holledge’. That was in early 2001. I started reading literature related to actor training and Julie directed me to Zarrilli’s ground breaking book Acting (Re) Considered (1995) which was an eye-opener for me to learn about my own inheritance of various performance cultures and their philosophical underpinnings that have not been exposed to me as an apprentice. I was mesmerized and also fascinated by how an author could write so intelligently about ‘performance’ which was not a major discipline in the larger context of humanities and social sciences at the time. Zarrilli’s insightful discussion about mind, body and Asian somaesthetics continued to fascinate me. Reading his papers on Asian actor training further opened up many avenues for me to explore various theatre traditions and theories related to body and performance. 

Zarrilli first came to India under a fellowship to study Asian corporeal arts a few decades back. For less than half a century, he had mastered and taught Kalaripayattu Martial arts in Kerala and also developed an actor training methodology through martial Arts to teach actors who performed in contemporary theatres. Zarrilli’s intervention in Asian martial arts and other performance practices such as Kathakali dance dramas are well documented and articulated in research papers and in some of the books that he has written over the years. His books such as Kathakali Complex (1984), Kathakali Dance Drama: where Demons come to play (1999), and Acing (Re) Considered (2002) encapsulate wealth of knowledge and research insights that Zarrilli has produced through his firsthand experience and field research in India.

Zarrilli was a regular faculty fellow at the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi. In 2010, he again visited the NSD where he was supposed to conduct a week-long actor training workshop for students. This workshop was conducted as a part of the Bharath Rang Mahothsau, International Theatre Festival. During that time, I had a chance to witness his actor training sessions with Indian students. Furthermore, I did a lengthy interview with Zarrilli on Asian actor training methodologies and this interview was later transcribed and published in my book Meditations on Acting: Essays on Theory Practice and Performance in 2016. Zarrilli’s deeper understanding of Asian corporeal arts and somatic culture was compelling. His meticulous studies on Indian theatre, somatic culture of India, and their adaptations for contemporary practice of actor training came through his firsthand experience with Indian masters and his assiduous practice and embodiment of kalaripayattu martial art in Kerala. 

During my interview at NSD, New Delhi, the most compelling key term he used to describe the craft of acting was breath. He continually explained about the etymology of the term breath and described the Sanskrit meaning of ‘prāna’. Zarrilli understood that prāna relates to the idea of life and actor’s emotional engagement. Further, he argued that the best way to describe the actor’s task is ‘being surprised.’ As Zarrilli further explained, ‘being surprised’ is the ultimate ontological stance that an actor could achieve. It is all about becoming and transcending daily behavior to non-daily behavior. When the actor transcends herself to ‘being surprised’, then the audience member becomes ‘being surprised’. This is the autopoiesis formula that thrives the theatre for thousands of years; it is the co-presence that engages the actor and audience together.

In 2008, Zarrilli published his award-winning book ‘Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski’. In this work, Zarrilli weaves a tapestry between Stanislavskian actor training to body-mind practices and also his own exploration of kalaripayattu martial art as a psychophysical training tool. In America, the actor’s work was heavily influenced by the psychological approaches when Zarrilli started working as a graduate student. But Zarrilli’s intervention in Asian martial arts and kalaripayattu training as a contemporary actor training method has later challenged the domination of psycho-centric actor training in America and other parts of the world. Zarrilli published his final and most composite and philosophical grounded book, (toward) a Phenomenology of Acting in 2019. Throughout his teaching and performer training career, he has always referred his connection to phenomenological philosophy, particularly Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. In his book Acting (Re) Considered, I first encountered his affinity to phenomenology and its applications in understanding the actor’s art. Referring to Sonia Moor’s book, Training an Actor: The Stanislavski’s System in Class (1979), Zarrilli questions the problematic nature of psychological realism and its impact upon the acting theory in the West. Reading Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical text, Phenomenology of Perception, Zarrilli discusses the importance of reaffirming the role of the body and its prominence in performance. Zarrilli further explores how the actor’s body plays a key role in the experiential world of the actor and how the mind incarnates in the body.

I am still ‘being surprised’ by the sad news that Zarrilli has passed away. This news is still haunting in my psychophysicality when I recall that Zarrilli is not with us anymore. Zarrilli has left a wealth of writing and his life-long accumulation of Asian theatre practices. His writings, his teachings, and his metaphysical being will be with all the actors, theatre lovers, and scholars who are genuinely involved with theatre and actor training in Asia and elsewhere. Today, an unknown apocalyptic plague has taken many lives in the world; theatres and performance spaces have temporary been closed. The darkness has dominated the proscenium. Yet, one-day when theatre begins to unfold again each night, Zarrilli will come as a breath and enliven our lives on stage unnoticed, as invisible prāna. 

*Saumya Liyanage is a professor in theatre and Drama and currently working as the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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    This paper, starting with a quote from Kate O’Reilly, 2020, (whom I assume many of the readership has not heard of), and detailing the work of Professor Phillip B. Zarrilli (xx to 2020) cateres to a very specific readership of this journalistic website, thus cannot be appreciated or opined by many with me definitely in that group.

    Whilst the intellectualism of Prof. Saumya Liyanage is highly regarded by all and sundry, it would equally be alien for many of the regular readership to comprehend the contents of this paper.

    I am posing this as my observation and my take, and I’m sure there would be by many facets of opinion.

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      Dharshana,
      I agree with you that perhaps 99% of CT readers would find this as difficult as a treatise on quantum mechanics.
      But probably the 1% would have found it fascinating. CT has to cater to that 1% ( once in 2 years? ).

  • 1
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    This article is a breath of fresh air. It’s always nice to read an informative and thoughtfully written piece on CT (for a change). Thank you prof. Saumya Liyanage.

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