Phillip Zarrilli: His Intercultural and Psychophysical Actor Training

Fig 1. Phillip Zarrilli (1947 – 2020)
Photo: courtesy of the Phillip Zarrilli estate

Phillip Zarrilli was a theatre scholar, teacher, actor trainer, actor, director and dramatist with particular specialisations in intercultural performance, actor training and contemporary acting. His life-long work took many different shapes as he wrote, taught and created work extensively around the world until his final days.

Zarrilli went to India initially to research about kathakali dance-drama in 1976, and between 1976 and 1993, he lived there for a total of seven years during which he trained in yoga and kalarippayattu. Under the guidance of Gurukkal Govindankutty Nayar of the CVN kalari, Zarrilli was the first non-Indian to receive the traditional pitham representing mastery in kalarippayattu and was given the official status of gurukkal. In 2000, Zarrilli opened the Tyn-y-parc in Llanarth, Wales, the first kalari outside of India, where he held annual intensive Summer training until 2019. When he was invited to take over the Asian-Experimental Theatre Programme at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1979, Zarrilli learnt taiqiquan from his predecessor A.C. Scott. Putting together yoga, taiqiquan and kalarippayattu, Zarrilli shaped a psychophysical training for contemporary actors.

Zarrilli’s training and theatre practice was intercultural and psychophysical in nature. The rich diversity in nationalities, cultures and generations are not only inherent in the make-up of the training but also evident in the international community cultivated by his work and generosity. In this tribute, we would like to reflect on what we learnt as Zarrilli’s students and collaborators focusing on the training as we experienced it.

Fig 2. The Tyn-y-parc CVN kalari/studio: the puttara where the guardian deity of the kalari resides, incense burner, oil lamp, and pitham where past gurus sit, with the flowers as an offering freshly picked by Zarrilli from his garden. Photo by Jeungsook Yoo.

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Training to be selflessly present

by Sunhee Kim

A student sometimes connects with a teacher and what is being taught through the teacher’s honest communication about what the experience was like for them and how they felt learning as a student themselves. This is as important as providing precise and practical steps, as it opens up a channel for intersubjective experience, which can guide the student to experience the principles and philosophies underlying the practice that the teacher is transmitting – and make it their own. When I train, make work, perform and teach, I am constantly reminded of this nature of interaction and of the importance of being open and vulnerable, wanting to learn, discover and share.

As the body and mind are inter-dependent in their manifestation and development, ever emphasised in Zarrilli’s training was the practitioner’s attitude towards training, often not verbally but experientially. Precision is vital in learning the forms, and his students were constantly reminded to check the alignment of feet and placement of external focus (where the eyes land in the space) among many other “technical” aspects of the forms, throughout the training. However, equally important was opening and sustaining one’s awareness of each other and of the space. For Zarrilli, the training was never a gymnastic exercise, based solely on physical virtuosity. Though some students did reach such levels, this was never the purpose. I remember Zarrilli sharing his teacher’s remark on kalarippayattu – that the practice was 90 percent mental and only 10 percent physical.

It is rather difficult to contemplate that idea when trying to work through the muscle aches and short breaths caused by the training. However, as I continued to practice, I came to discover that it was the attentiveness and commitment to each moment of the training that allowed the forms to take shape; my experiencing of the underlying principles lay in the moment of doing. It is also through this level of attentiveness and self-discipline that one learns to accept and be patient with oneself. Zarrilli once said, “repetition can be one of the smartest things that a human can do or one of the most stupid things that a human can do.” Without knowing where one stands, one cannot begin training.

As one continues to practice, one develops a sense of a whole, of a bodymind: others and the space/the world. This whole might begin with a sense of individual presence – of my feet, my breath, my spine and how they (must) work together. However, through long-term practice, I came to realise that being grounded required the ability to open, let go of control and trust.

Just as the studio was a shared space and everyone had to move together avoiding others (or the wall!), so is the stage and theatre/performing space. A sense of presence peculiarly arose in the opening and removing of myself. The training was both individual – Zarrilli said that it was idiosyncratic and everyone’s process was different – and collective; to work on oneself meant working on ourselves in a shared space. Yoga as well as taiqiquan are often considered a moving meditation, and, viewing meditation as a way of doing rather than certain activities that are done, I would argue kalarippayattu can also be seen in the same light. The training was a meditation on self, the other, and the world, which Zarrilli sought to share in relation to acting and performance practice. I learnt that, whether in the studio or in performance, presence was an ability to offer myself fully to myself and to others (co-trainees, co-creators and the audience) for a shared experience in a shared space and time. In such joyful offering a sense of selfless presence can arise and be experienced.

In training as in rehearsals, Zarrilli was always pragmatic and practical about the ‘business.’ This was not simply a character trait, but an active negotiation between a form and a principle, self-discipline and trust, dream and reality, just as one begins with, and comes back to, the half breath and/or the angle of a foot each time one trains. As I continue to train, create work and teach in this ever-changing and fast-moving world, I am reminded more and more how fortunate I was to have the space to ask questions, to be able to take time in exploring them with the teacher so generously guiding the process. I am well aware of the difficulty in cultivating and sustaining a long-term practice and the challenge of of an ongoing process. The number of workshops, courses and creative encounters available today do not necessarily provide the necessary time and space for such way of training and working, which also questions the meaning of training today. It is in this light, among others, that Zarrilli’s work also remains meaningful to me/us.

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The Training – A Gift from Phillip Zarrilli

by Jeungsook Yoo

I feel truly grateful that I was able to take the journey of long-term training under Phillip Zarrilli since 2001. His teaching in a studio was a gift filled with profound joy in the process of learning. One distinctive source for the joy was the specific quality of his interaction in the teacher-student relationship and a state of the bodymind derived from it. It is said that a meaningful relationship takes time. Zarrilli took time with care and attention in developing a relationship with his students.

Fig 3. Phillip Zarrilli teaching a kalarippayattu short stick sequence in the 2006 summer intensive course. Photo by Jeungsook Yoo.

His training session began with the opening breathing exercise, then, yoga, taiqiquan, kalarippayattu and ended with the finishing breathing exercise. After a short break, structured improvisations and/or rehearsals would take place in which the students – me and us – were guided to apply to the given performative situation what was cultivated by the training.

For the beginners’ classes, the studio was filled with Zarrilli’s detailed instructions and explanations on each movement and demonstrations of the forms: for instance, the correct feet alignment, point of focus, movement of the spine line, location of the lower abdominal support, etc. His repetitive reminder of the correct forms and the awareness of the students’ own body helped us work safely avoiding possible injuries, and guided our way to experience what the training could offer through the appropriate movements.    

As the students became more familiar with the training through repetition, he gradually removed his verbal instructions. Eventually we practised in silence. In this way, he taught how to connect and interact with oneself and others beyond words. He facilitated rich togetherness and mindfulness in the studio. Sometimes he would say, ‘Listen … Sense each other …’ Active listening to each other was followed. The motionless action of sensing each other was executed. The students reacted not only to the literal meaning of those instructions but more to the way he delivered them. He embodied the commands with clarity. And it affected the students.

Fig 4. Vayttari written in palm leaf manuscripts in the Tyn-y-parc CVN kalari/studio. Photo by Jeungsook Yoo.

The characteristics of his instructions were more evident in the kalarippayattu training. When practising the martial arts, he did not go into silence. Instead, he introduced instructions in Malayalam as the students advanced. Especially for the kalarippayattu sequences, he used a specific set of Malayalam commands: vayttari. Vayttari is ‘the verbal instructions recited by the master as students perform body exercises or weapons practice’ (Zarrilli, 2000: p.307). What Zarrilli observed in the function of vayttari was exactly what he offered in his classes for the students – ‘When vocalized by a master with the appropriate vocal emphasis and power, the patterns of intonation and cadences should guide the student in embodying the correct form of each movement and the correct rhythm of each sequence’ (Zarrilli, 2000: p.113).

His dynamic vocal quality triggered the students’ movements. He was standing at the right or left corner of the studio when giving the verbal commands. However, there was a tangible sense that he crossed the space beyond his skin, the external boundary of his being and worked right beside us, together. His whole body or rather his whole being was actively involved in the body exercises. He filled the space with his empirical knowledge of each movement through his awareness and vocal vibrations. It paved a way in the time and space guiding the students’ performance. It was the pure generosity of him as a teacher sharing his whole bodymind and focus for the students.

It induced another type of silence – the quietude of the mind, nothing but the given task and the dynamic flow of doing. The learning process of this state of the bodymind continued through the repetitive training. Zarrilli’s training was intense. The intensity of his training was not in the rigour of the movements causing the students’ t-shirts to become drenched in sweat, their legs shaky and leaving them gasping for air. It was in the state of the bodymind experiencing the expansion of each moment and the density of human interaction. The qualities of ‘being’ discovered and cultivated through his training showed me the possible psychophysical state of an actor on stage and a way of forming a relationship with others including fellow actors and audience since my training bodymind in a studio and my acting bodymind on stage are one and the same.

In one of the on-line meetings between him and a group of his students not long before his passing, he said ‘You can continue the training, you know’ with his usual kind smile on his face. His students are continuing his training as a group and/or individually, as a teacher, performance practitioner and/or personally. His teachings will continue to resonate. 

References

Zarrilli, Phillip. 2000. When the Body Becomes All Eyes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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