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!)
GUEST 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.”
My 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.
Vanessa 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.”
Retta 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.