Oscar special: The glee inside me

New York theatre critic Retta Blaney discovered the spirituality of film stars when she interviewed Vanessa Williams, Liam Neeson and Kristen Chenoweth (Hey, she was on Glee!)

workingGUEST COLUMN: RETTA BLANEY —  As I researched and wrote my book, Working On The Inside: The Spiritual Life Through The Eyes Of Actors, I found that my personal faith was greatly influenced.  The wisdom of the actors I interviewed brought me a great deal of growth, healing and transformation —  and I pray it will do so for others who want to work on the “inside.”

The idea for the book came from my many years of interviewing stage actors like Kristen Chenoweth.  Time and again they brought up the need for a spiritual life.  I have covered many beats in my life — politics, education and business to name three — but I never encountered anyone in those fields who spoke about spiritual matters in relationship to their careers.

If they had spiritual lives, which I’m sure plenty of them did, they didn’t speak about them.  It was as if they had compartmentalized their lives, reserving weekdays for work, and weekends for religious thoughts and practices.

I found something quite different from covering the performing arts.  A great many actors think of their work as spiritual, especially when they are doing theatre.  As Edward Herrmann said, “If you’re lucky enough to have the arts as your work, you become part of the spiritual life.”

liam_neeson1My interviews with Chenoweth, Dudu Fisher, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and many others, revealed the deep spirituality that keeps them going in a field as uncertain as the performing arts.

I asked them about ten key elements of the universal spiritual life — Faith, Being Present (In the Moment), Listening, Silence, Prayer, Self-Knowledge, Community, Hospitality, Ritual and Transformation.

Actors are the perfect people to learn from because it is their job to tap into the essence of life, to tell stories and reveal life’s truths.  As Liam Neeson said, “There’s an erosion of faith.  People don’t know what to believe anymore. Actors can give a focus. They can show another facet of life.”

One of the major lessons I learned — or had reinforced — is to trust God.  Actors live such precarious lives that they need to find a way to stay grounded.  “To be a performing artist is to stand with one foot over the cliff at all times,” Bertilla Baker said.

The actors believe that because God has given them their gifts, God will provide a way for them to be used.  As a freelance writer I need to keep reminding myself of this.

vanessawilliamsVanessa Williams said she never prays for a specific part; she prays for guidance and trusts it will be given.  Kristin Chenoweth put it well when she said, “Like most actors, I have my insecurities.  My prayer with the Lord every day is to not to take things personally.  I say, ‘Okay, you gave me this gift.  Help me not to doubt it.’”

Actors also have taught me about the importance of believing in yourself.  They face so much rejection — they’re either too tall or too short, too young or old, fat, thin, etc. — that they have to work hard to feel good about themselves.

As Richard Costa said, “I have to home in on the fact that I’m good.  That’s what got me here.  It’s a hard thing to learn, to let everything else go away and not second-guess yourself.  I can find myself editing myself in an audition and that’s wrong.  You’ve got to go in and be yourself.  If that’s what the part calls for, it will open doors.  Once you let your doubts go, the creative juices flow.”

This involves learning to trust your inner voice.  Kristin Chenoweth shared a story about being offered parts in two different Broadway shows.  Everybody told her to take one because it was sure to be a hit.  The other, they said, was risky.  She spent time praying and listening to her instincts and went with the risky part.  It turned out everyone else was right.  The one show was a big hit and hers closed in a short time.

But she also was right.  Critics singled her out, she won a Tony Award and a flood of offers followed.  It proved to be her breakout role, and she never would have had that if she hadn’t listened to — and trusted — her inner voice.  As the prophet Sirach said, “If you are willing to listen, you will learn; if you give heed, you will be wise.”

Ed Herrmann put it nicely when he said, “All of life is 99 percent non-rational.  Reason is nothing compared to God’s love.  That’s what makes us who we are.  Reason is the first thing that should be dropped when you start exploring the spirit.  You can bring reason to bear on what you find, but truth simply doesn’t happen that way.”

Silence is a way to tap into this.  Phylicia Rashad practices silence daily.  “The goal is to establish oneself in this state,” she says.  “It’s not something you return to — it’s something you never leave.“  But it’s not an escape from reality, she emphasizes.  “It’s being in the world more fully present.  You’re not out of the world.  You move to a source inside.  We’re in the world for a reason.  Let’s really be in it.  Let’s find out what it really means to be in it.”

rettaRetta Blaney is an award-winning theatre and religion writer based in New York City.  She is founder and producer of Broadway Blessing, the interfaith service of song, dance and story that brings the theatre community together every September to ask God’s blessing on the new season.

Visit her blog: Life Upon the Sacred Stage.

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5 Responses to “Oscar special: The glee inside me”

  1. Very cool essay. In the first instance, we don’t think of spirituality and celebrity as going together. But what you write illuminates this dynamic brilliantly: unlike, say, visual artists, actors have to reach into the essence of presence to manifest a character in a scene as if it is occurring in real life, authentically.

    Thank you for sharing these practices of the masters you have met.

  2. LOVE this fantabulously writ piece! A BEautiFull glimpse into a book,
    sure to inspire all those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear
    whilst stimulating those whom have yet to manifest these :)

    ‘Tis VERY TRUE, as YOU said Angel Retta, BEing a Literary Artist
    YOUr SELF, that one whom has CHOSEn by profession, to BE TRUE to SELF
    is ONE with whom shall we find a more deeply aware connection to
    TRUTH – or as has BEen described herein, “GOD”~ or as some call,
    “Source” or as I personally see it/feel it/KNOW it, LOVE :)

    To CHOOSE to devote, dedicate, commit one’s entire life to “walk
    the path less traveled” and follow one’s TRUTH, “true calling”,
    one’s “PERSONAL LEGEND” as I call it, or ‘raison d’etre’ is in
    and of itSELF a HUGE undertaking of SELF LOVE which in a world
    that is conditioned to BEleive and think in exactly the opposite
    direction, requires GREAT Insight and Connection to that which
    one may term “spiritual” or as YOU so aptly put it, ‘working from the
    inside’ ~ LOVE that btw!!!

    Deep Bows of Gratitude & Big Hugs of LOVE’s Light to YOU Earth Angel Retta for bringing forth the courage, dedication, commitment and infinite possibilities that exist for each of WE if only we CHOOSE to let go of FEAR ~the worries, stress and strains and TRUST in SELF, LOVE SELF and CHOOSE to BE our TRUTH
    for the BEnefit of ALL :) CHOOSE LOVE

  3. What a fantastic story!

  4. Retta is a terrific interviewer and writer. I reviewed “Working on the Inside” and was impressed with how she drew the material out of the folks she included in the book.

  5. We can learn from celebrities, just as we can learn from every human being and every animal on the planet. We can learn from nature, and by god (or whomever) can even learn from Paris Hilton. Not quite sure yet what I can learn from her, but I’m sure it will come to me.