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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Reflections on Psychophysical Actor Training

Drop in.

On the inhalation, we’ll begin…

I know the sequence of movements. I no longer have to think about them as I once did. Instead my body simply remembers. It knows what to do.

Yet, this training is still as fresh, as new and undiscovered now as it was then. As my body has learnt the movements, I have become free to begin to explore the practice itself. Each breath sharpens my focus. Rather than pre-empting what is to come next, I allow myself to exist in the present. To explore the nuance of each movement.

How I perform it today is different to how I performed it yesterday. My connection to dantian, my awareness… all of these elements are reset each time I train. I start each session from a point of curiosity. What will I discover this time? What will I begin to understand today that I didn’t understand yesterday?

Exhalation. Sustain, sustain, sustain…. Inhalation.

Location. Location of the breath in the body. Location of your focus as you execute each movement. Location of the training itself.

In Exeter, we had the large Studio in which to train. Ample space in which to fully perform each action. A shared space with others, creating a shared experience, connection and understanding. All the while, we were led and mentored by Phillip’s calming presence. His watchful gaze, noticing the tiniest of details.

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