Lights, Camera, Meditation

Barry Boyce talks to Parlan McGaw, who leads Meditation for Actors in New York City, about how mindfulness can help one deal with the ups and downs of an acting career.

Illustration ©

Acting. Meditation. They’re a good fit, since awareness of your body, speech, and mind, and of the surrounding space, is a key element in theater. Indeed, contemplative theater groups have existed for a long time. Many theater and dance exercises—such as body scans and spatial awareness drills—are meditative to a great degree, and many acting teachers believe the craft demands a process of self-discovery.

Parlan McGaw, who leads Meditation for Actors in New York City, has been acting since he was a child. When he started practicing meditation in 1988, he began to see how complementary the two practices were. “I had an instinctual feeling,” he told me,” that meditation and acting fed each other—that meditation could enhance acting, and any artistic pursuit for that matter.”

McGaw looked into contemplative theater but decided that he was not so interested in creating theatrical productions based on contemplative philosophy. He was more interested in continuing to pursue traditional theater and film. (When I interviewed him, he regaled me with a rendition of the opening chorus from Henry V: “O for a muse of fire…”)

For many years, McGaw allowed meditative discipline to leak into his acting. “Then, about five years ago,” he says, “I was studying with the revered acting teacher Michael Howard, and I asked Michael if he would like to teach with me. To my great delight, he revealed he had been practicing mindfulness for 25 years, and was enthusiastic about the prospect.”

Howard and McGaw led a weeklong retreat for actors two summers in a row through Tail of the Tiger, an arm of Karmê Chöling meditation center in Vermont that presents mindfulness-based programs. “In the morning,” McGaw says, “I taught meditation. In the afternoon Michael taught acting. He was my student in the morning and I was his student in the afternoon.” Howard had the actors work on monologues and McGaw found himself becoming much “freer, more spontaneous, more joyful” and he observed others transforming over the course of the week, too. For one thing, Howard was able to entice actors to pause and instead of over-preparing on the verge of a speech, “to fully take in the room, absorb the moment, and get out of their head. It sparked a flash of insight, which was very liberating and invigorating.”

When Howard, who is in his eighties, was unable to do another summer, McGaw decided to start Meditation for Actors, always pairing himself with an acting teacher in his sessions. The program includes practical applications of mindfulness—preparing for auditions and rehearsals, dealing with stage fright, and riding the ups and downs of an acting career—as well as strong emphasis on bringing meditation to the craft of acting through enhancing spontaneity, self-awareness, emotional authenticity, sensory awareness, and listening.

McGaw presents the program in half-day and daylong sessions, weekend intensives, weeklong retreats, and ongoing weekly classes. In April, he returned to Michael Howard studios to lead a weekend intensive. This summer he will conduct a five-day retreat, Being and Acting, along with Rae C. Wright at Shantigar Foundation, founded by the playwright Jean-Claude van Italie, in Rowe, Massachusetts.