“As we well know, it's the simple that complicates.”
Herbert Blau, Take Up the Bodies
“He really was a once in a million man” said theatre director and teacher Stuart Lynch (Head of Københavns Film & Teaterskole / Copenhagen Film & Theatre School) to me in a message about the sad news of the passing of Phillip Zarrilli.
It isn’t easy to write when the loss of a great theatre teacher and person leaves a big space, an inner space, an indeterminable space…
That I’d the good fortune of working with him many years ago is something I’ll never forget.
Phillip Zarrilli was unique because he wove together key metaphors from a wide range of theatrical sources. Included in that loving embrace were Asian theatre and dance forms such as Noh, Kathakali, Bharatanatyam, and Kutiyattam - all held in a way few directors have done so respectfully, extensively and intensively.
For thousands of students and actors, including me, they can now approach their craft with a new set of standards to enrich their work;
With this feel for non-Western art, Zarrilli introduced many audiences to work like “The Water Station” —a highly poetic non-verbal score by Japanese playwright-director Ota Shogo - which Zarrilli directed several times (Singapore in 2004, and Norway 2015), and that I was lucky enough to witness in Madison University in the late nineties.
Actors who have worked with Zarrilli can approach their work with a consideration of “body-mind”, “embodiment” and the “psychophysical” - knowing that their life’s work is to bring to their art a body and physicality that is highly trained and a mind that’s attuned.
In this approach Zarrilli was picking up the gauntlet tossed by theatre guru Antonin Artaud. who in turn mystically intrigued directors like Jerzy Grotowski, and it was in fact while in India to research Kathakali theatre which Grotowski had mentioned that Zarrilli discovered the martial art, Kalaripayattu on which the physicality of the Indian theatre form was rooted, and that was the movement form which Zarrilli spent his life deeply mastering.
Studying with Zarrilli meant students undergoing intensive daily training in martial and related arts; taking on a practice of daily psycho-physiological exercises that focus on breath and "internal action.
Especial attention is made to the sense of the inspiration and respiration within the body, which creates a perfect ground for the “letting go” of conclusions and psychology that weighs down in more traditional forms of actor training.
Without this burden actors could reach towards this sense of "at the nerve ends" - a phrase from American director and theoretician of performance, Herbert Blau who influenced Zarrilli’s early work.
Blau is famous for introducing American audiences to avantgarde drama in some of the country's first productions of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter including the 1957 performance of Beckett's Waiting for Godot at California's San Quentin State Prison.
The actors of Blau also studied T'ai Chi Ch'uan, as did A.C. Scott, the founder of the Asian / Experimental Program at Madison University where Zarrilli continued as Professor of Theatre and Drama, South Asian Studies, and Folklore, and Director of the Asian-Experimental Theatre Program until moving to the UK to continue his academic career at the University of Surrey and the University of Exeter.
With this sensibility and flare, Zarrilli is probably, I would hazard a guess the director who has most worked with (or you could say “ through” and “within”) the texts of Samuel Beckett, without changing a beat.
Beckett is known for fierce copyright restrictions so that not so much as a comma can be changed, and in this spirit, his plays never found safer hands that those of Zarrilli.
In a project set up by the ever inventive Centre for Performance Research in Wales, Zarrilli directed “Act Without Words I” - essentially a list of actions - in which with fellow actors Ian Morgan (Theatre Practitioner & course leader RADA’s MA Theatre Lab) and Tray Wilson (Senior Lecturer in Performance - University Campus Oldham) with Adam Hayward (Artistic Director at Hyde Productions) as directors assistant, I was lucky to be a performer where we also tackled “Play” in which at lightening speed a fragmented text falls out of the actors’ mouths, eluding to some past relationship, and all the while immobilised up to the neck in three pots.
Meantime the fantastic actor Patricia Boyette (Univeristy of Madison) was performing “Not I” in a terrifying vacuum of words without body, mouthed, and launched into being one syllable at a time. This epic performative journey was no doubt informed by the year-long project (1994-95) where Zarrilli had the verve to host at Madison University a month-long residency by noted Billie Whitelaw who was Beckett’s muse.
More humbled and grateful I am that my solo “Illumiata” which was conceived and performed alongside the solo “Walking Naked” of dancer Gitanjalii Kolanad, was directed by Zarrilli. The two pieces went together as consideration of two female historical figures who had explored the divine; Karnataka poet-saint Mahadeviyakka and Hildegard de Bingen. As a double programme we performed together at the University of Baroda thanks to Parul Shah, and the Museum Theatre, Madras.
Before working with him creatively, Kolanad already knew Zarrilli from his book The Kathakali Complex (1990) - a book that by coincidence I’d also received at university in Exeter as a photocopy though was something I only remembered after having met Zarrilli for the first time whilst volunteering for the Centre for Performance Research in Aberystwyth.
Kolanad’s piece enigmatically dealt with the life and poetry of the 12th Century Karnataka poet-saint Mahadeviyakka. Mahadevi, a poet who was said to have run away from her arranged marriage in order to remain a devotee of Siva. Discovered "walking naked" by a community of Siva devotees, the story went that on her wedding night when her husband grabbed hold of her sari she kept walking, leaving it unwind as she walked.
This unfathomable life met equally inspired staging due to an idea by Zarrilli to use three different puppets each of which had a transformational journey enacted by Kolanad.
In turn my piece was a mix of reflections on the human need to be part of something, bigger than ourselves and how that leads to searches internally and externally, from finding spiritually within to searching for it in drug use.
Songs and texts of Hildegard de Bingen were mixed with reflections on the science behind the study of light; and personal accounts of users of ecstasy.
Using plays of shadows, reflections, and back projections it became a meditation on spirituality and the search for enlightenment.
The striking part of this process was the precision and intricacy that Zarrilli develops as a director. A huge amount of research and reading that I did was accompanied by Zarrilli’s own reading so that a rich tapestry was woven from books like “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi “Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind” by Arthur Zajonc.
Zajonc is Professor of Physics at Amherst College and Visiting Professor at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, and his book is fascinating as a homage to light and its elusive definitions as well as so many strange phenomena such as when the sight is restored to a child who previously had no sight, that the act of “seeing” needs to be taught as seeing and perception are not the same.
This perplexing, fascinating and captivating subject was breath by breath boiled down into a dance of objects, cloth, text, images and song.
This ability to really see through to the ends of a choice - to the edges. This interlacing of research both physical and intellectual so that every fragment and every millimetre were underpinned, was Zarrilli’s gift.
Prolific as a scholar as well as a director Zarrilli will be deeply missed.
My thoughts are with many of his friends and colleagues whose lives have crossed with mine such as Laurie Beth Clark and Michael Peterson (Artists, Co - founders of Spatula and Barcode, Faculty in the Department of Art, University of Wisconsin), Klaus Seewald (Actor, Co-Artistic Director at Theater Feuerblau), Jo Shapland (Performer / Artist), Dustin Schell (Actor / Writer), and his family in the States.
From the commentaries in social media each one is processing their own memories and grief as best they can.
There are so many shared histories that I only bring this as a small way to add the remarkable artistic journey of Phillip Zarrilli and as an attempt to exorcise the emptiness that his passing has left for so many around the world.
I can only hope that these stories and this legacy will be of some small comfort in sincere condolences to Kaite O’Reilly who as a life companion, and with her writing and sensitivity for many identity questions, wove a beautiful pathway with Zarrilli of countless inspired projects.
No life can be rounded off especially someone like Phillip Zarrilli who lived it so passionately.
One lasting memory is from the day of the “get in” at the Museum Theatre in Madras, We discovered a building rather abandoned and it took some efforts to make it feel a place where the theatre muses could enter. I was really nervous, and so I’m not sure if it was the moment that Zarrilli had a brush in hand or when he was explaining the lights to a technician on a wobbly ladder tying lights to a rig with rope, but one of men running the theatre, impressed by Zarrilli’s willingness to do what ever it took to get the work done, including stepping out of any privileged reading of the title “director”, declared with much emotion, “he is a true man of the theatre.”
This brings to mind for me, the terrifying admonishment of Grotowski that actors should not be tourists.
As any brief look at intercultural arts can show us, “tourism” or at it’s worst “appropriation” are serious dangers, but not for Zarrilli who had the gift of bravery to go deep and to face the minutia of what needed to be journeyed through to get there.
He was a man of the theatre.
Perhaps there's no real end and it is to that that which Beckett hints,
"The man is flung backwards on stage from right wing. He falls, gets up immediately, dusts himself, turns aside, reflects . . ."
Act Without Words I
With gratitude and sadness,
Phillip Zarrilli 1947-2020 | A Tribute
Kaite O’Reilly Wales Arts Review
Phillip Zarrilli (1947-2020) — The Mindful Thespian
Remembering Phillip Zarrilli: A Generous & Humble Actor, Director & Teacher
Jon Gower, Nation Cymru
Zarrilli’s Work Embodied Silence
Narvirsinh Zala, Newsizz
When Body Becomes All Eyes: A tribute to Theatre Stalwart Phillip Zarrilli
Anjana George, Times of India
Acting "at the nerve ends": Beckett, Blau, and the Necessary (1997)