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.
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?
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.
Below I have posted a letter from Kaite O’Reilly regarding the recent passing of Phillip Zarrilli. While this may not be news to some of you, I wanted to pay tribute to Phillip on this platform in the most fitting way. In the coming months, we will be posting reflections on Phillip’s work from some of his alumni, and if you would like to contribute, please feel free to comment on this post or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to write a stand-alone post from your own perspective. Rest in peace Phillip.
On 9th March 2020 when Phillip received the news from his oncologist that the cancer he had been living with for fourteen years had begun to ‘seriously party’ (his words) he said to me ‘this is our last adventure together.’
I have been so fortunate, having this great mind, this gentle and generous man as my companion in so many ways – loving, working, living, travelling, thinking, writing and making performance alongside him for twenty one years, with and without The Llanarth Group. The journey may continue, but now it is in parallel, perhaps, not our accustomed hip-to-hip together.
Phillip died on 28th April 2020 at 13.52 UK time. 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.
Inspired by Jerzy Grotowski but seeking his own pathway as a young theatre director working in Minneapolis, over forty years ago Phillip Zarrilli began a life-long project of exploring an alternative approach to the pre-performative training and preparation of the actor/performer using the techniques and underlying principles of Asian martial arts (taiqiquan/kalarippayattu) and yoga which would move actor training beyond Stanislavsky.
Over the years, Zarrilli developed a rigorous, in-depth, immersive process of training and preparing the actor’s bodymind for performance through the in-depth use of these traditional exercises—applied specifically to acting/performance problems. Continue reading →