The Work of Sacred Theater

An Interview with Peggy Nash Rubin

by Stephen Williamson


  Peggy Nash Rubin is Director of the Center for Sacred Theater in Ashland, Oregon. Her professional theater career includes working in New York and Los Angeles and 14 years as staff member, actor and education and public relations director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Since 1986 she has participated in Jean Houston's world-wide multicultural workshops as her principal associate as well as her U.S. based workshops such as Mystery School and the Human Capacities Program.

Among her awards, Peggy says she remembers as most exciting having been chosen one of three float judges for the 1977 Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena.

She holds a BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Theater.

For information: Center for Sacred Theatre, 323 Oak Street, Ashland OR 97520, or contact Trish Broersma (541) 482-6210


S.W.: You've said that although you love the theater, you felt that your work with sacred theater engages the individuals involved more deeply than theater usually does.

Rubin: Yes. It's become more clear to me how a work of expression changes your life -- even if it changes no one else's. Getting people to express who they are and what they are, what they are working on right now, does. It changes the area they are working on...absolutely.


S.W.: Something happens when they express themselves then?

Rubin: Right. When they express themselves in front of a caring audience. Yes, when there is someone there to receive it as an "offering" rather than a performance. And if it's done with some thought to the art of it. That's what begins to be transformational. The life transformed into a work of art -- that's the ideal we're all striving for in sacred theater.

One of the strongest experiences I've had was with a group of homeless women at the Women's Wisdom project in Sacramento. They presented their stories as dramatic art. There was sacred music -- a celebration no matter how terrible their lives. At the end of it, Laura Ann Walton, director of the project, said that the world was lighter because these things had been said. And because I've studied birth refacilitation with William Emerson I know that the generations are lighter if you can say the stuff about your own family...that you can lighten it for the generations. You take the weight off your whole family, off the generations, off the past and the future.


S.W.: Otherwise....

Rubin: Well, you just go along. I think we're muddier, cloudier, heavier, sadder. We're not looking at ourselves, we're not willing to confront, to play with it and move up our pain. We just stuff it or hide it. This way it shifts. It's not intended in any way to be a thing where people become performers.


S.W.: In the theater one is presenting something to people, using imagination and performance to engage them. But you go to the next step in what you call sacred theater, and ask people to perform. It goes from actors doing a process, to each individual doing a process.

Rubin: Yes. Four or five years after I had been working with Jean Houston, I went back and taught a class at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I nearly died of it because the purpose of the class -- just attending the plays -- is not strong enough for me. This has been a kind of impetus for sacred theater. A play ought to change your life. If the play is not going to change your life in a way you can consciously agree to and notice, if you are not going to hold that mythic dimension, why bother? Why just learn what the playwright was intending at this particular moment?

I watch the Festival's wonderful Elizabethan dancers, and I think about the people I've seen doing dances in a pub in England. They are in the myth, while the people in Ashland are doing a show.


S.W.: You say it's not intended that people in your sacred theater workshops become performers. Yet, I can see improved performances apparently from going to the workshops.

Rubin: We do have training in posture and breathing...the different kinds of things that posture can do. We just work with the different things that happen when your posture is changing. We do some formal theater stuff. We use the techniques of the theater, some of the techniques I love about the theater, to shift the actual human things, things in individual human lives. So there is an edge of sacred theater where one's presentational skills are improved.


S.W.: What the difference between the workshops you and Jean Houston give together, such as the one you call Mystery School and the way you are working with sacred theater?

Rubin: The archetypal energy is different, because we're working with the sacred powers of the theater and what the theater calls for. There is the expression of passion or emotion -- through active work. In theater, everything that is happening is happening now, so a lot of the work is singular. A primary thing is that the group is just so much smaller.


S.W.: How large is the group on average?

Rubin: Between forty and fifty, one group was sixty -- that's about as big as I can handle. I'd like ideally to limit it to 45. In Ashland it's fifteen or twenty.


S.W.: Are participants doing Shakespeare? Are they writing their own material?

Rubin: Usually there is a theme for the whole year or for the particular workshop. A lot of it is allied to the theater we are going to be seeing. We attend a lot of theater together, particularly at the workshops in Ashland. It's usually something that calls me to work with it.


S.W.: What was the theme in '96?

Rubin: Venus, the heart of Venus. I had this inner knowing that I had to work with Inanna (Sumerian goddess) all year. And I thought, I can't.... Then I read this article in Discover magazine that said that Venus in is brighter this year than it's been in eight years. Then there was all this stuff about the five to eight year cycle of brightness. Then there is a beautiful book by Anthony Aveni called Conversing with the Planets in which he talks about all the stories about them.


S.W.: And in 97?

Rubin: We're doing the great Sanskrit epic of India,the Mahabharata which contains the Bhagavad-Gita. The people are most familiar with Peter Brook's production.


S.W : So someone goes to a sacred theater workshop in Ashland. There are twenty people there, and they go to the theater on a theme....

Rubin: We also usually read a script. We usually read it in chorus. It's easier if we read it in chorus than to read it individually, especially when we are doing something heavy duty, like the Greeks. So we use several theater techniques.


S.W.: But the focus is still on the individual, on what the individual is going to do as an individual, not as the performer of, say, a Greek play?

Rubin: What I've said for the last five years is that I'd like everyone to work on a one-person show about their lives. My idea, my image of it is Thirty Short Films about Glen Gould. The honing is fascinating to me as a process. And what is important in a way is looking at a life, at a part of it, and being willing to show what it was in a formal way through performance.


S.W.: So the art and performance are there, but it's the individuals coming to their own material?

Rubin: A couple of years ago a woman was battling breast cancer and we went to a performance of Hamlet. The exercise was to write your version of "to be or not to be." We were working with a lot of stuff about her father and she rewrote the speech. Her version was just breathtaking. People have worked in mime.

We did Hercules a couple of years ago. When we used the speech by Hercules' daughter at the end of Euripides' Children of Hercules. (Hercules' daughter volunteers to be sacrificed when Athenians, willing to defend Hercules' children, are unwilling to sacrifice one their own daughters as an oracle has told them is necessary to assure victory. ed.)

A woman wrote Hercules' daughter's "this is the rock I stand on" speech about her life. She was inspired by that speech, but she said it for herself, wrote it herself, for herself. There is a different basis: she is not going to be a sacrifice like the daughter in the play. If we play off a lot of stuff, something will strike a spark. We use a lot of material to fire a project.


S.W.: Actors are constantly practicing scenes together when they train? Do participants work together?

Rubin: People sometimes work together in duos or trios. One I can remember is the scene at the end of Helen by Euripides where Helen recognizes that Menelaus is Menelaus. As they were working together, he was suddenly just there. (Euripides' Helen, unlike Homer's, is a loyal wife, it's a double who is taken to Troy. ed.) She is shocked. He was every man that she had lost in her whole life. This woman did an incredible dance. It was very powerful. A key is what they do in the theater -- suspend, suspend -- hold on, hold on -- don't come together yet, until you can't stop it. We do that kind of impromptu work.


S.W.: You use your knowledge of the theater to weave it all together. And you know the material from playing as well as reading it, Shakespeare to Greeks.

RUBIN : Yes exactly, although when we're doing the Aphrodite material, I look at the play and read it for the Aphrodite or Venus material that's there. I say to myself, where is Aphrodite in this play? Where are the Venus and Aphrodite stories around the world that are reflected in this play? And we'll play with just one scene or we'll work with one aspect, such as jealousy. Or I don't know yet until I see it again.

Last year we did the Sophia so we spent a lot of time in classes talking about the traditions, the stories from that perspective and then seeing the plays from that point of view, even when the play does it wrong. We look for where the wisdom figure is moving,


S.W.: You seem to trust the power of theater in the way some people believe in poetry, not as literary exercise, but as a way of being human.

Rubin: Yes, trying roles and playing them with all your heart, and putting all your energy, all your power into the stuff of acting. Yes Venus, she is so hard for me.


S.W.: It is an aspect that's been lost to Western religion. I think many of the men who have explored this, believe what's called the Venus-Aphrodite archetype is the hardest one to access.

Rubin: I think for women too. A friend sent me an article by James Hillman that says Venus is so mad at us. Have you seen it?


S.W.: My impression is that Hillman feels no one has addressed that archetype in a serious way in a very long time.

Rubin: She got shut up in a porno shop and in advertising -- you can't buy a car without buying sex -- so she has been so dishonored that what we've got of her is Penthouse in its hardest edges. It's a difficult topic. Between men and women it's a difficult topic. It was hard, one weekend at Mystery School to watch men and women trying to be clear about sex, life, love. What it Is. Venus is very hard for me with my background, coming from people who really didn't believe in her.


S.W.: Which brings me to your background.

Rubin: I was born in San Antonio. We moved to the family farm when I was three months old, and I grew up on a farm in southwest Texas.


S.W.: Your family were Presbyterian?

Rubin: Methodist. The primary thing my mother's father wrote in his life was about the beliefs of a fundamentalist.


S.W.: Well they do allow some music, but they don't do theater right? And they certainly don't allow Aphrodite or Venus, images of the erotic and procreative force of nature, into religion.

Rubin: (Laughs.) No. Certainly not that I know of. I really never had enough nerve to look at the issue. I wouldn't even have known she had existed or how she existed. I believed that was something that existed of old that we didn't do any more. That we lived in more enlightened times.


S.W.: Your other background is theater.

Rubin: Well, I was working in the theater in a major way, absolutely all my life. Everything I did was centered around the Oregon Shakespeare festival. I'd been there for fourteen years. I was responsible for all the publications, plus the education work, which included seminars for teachers and students. We had a huge program to take actors into the schools to introduce young people to Shakespeare through performance. I was also an actor. And I was in charge of public relations. Despite being in the theater all my life, I didn't know about the mythic realm. And well, I was tired and I was bored.


S.W.: Were you interested in workshops exploring myth, the sort thing you and Jean Houston give now ?

Rubin: Not that I knew of. I was interested in science, partly because my husband, Ben, had gotten me interested in it. I did have the biggest supply of self-help books in the history of the world. But I read about a third of them usually.


S.W.: How did you come to be in Ashland?

Rubin: We all knew about Ashland, it was our dream to go there and work. So for three summers in the late fifties we went there and worked.

Then I was gone a long time. Married somebody else, and we moved away to Los Angeles. The year after he died, a friend came through and he was going to Ashland to direct. Later he called me and said, "There is a job up here that I think you might like to apply for as educational director of the festival." By that time I was a vice-president of a bank, but I was also a widow in agony. I said, "Go back to Ashland?" And he said, "Well, why not?"

It pulled me right out of the bank, out of everything. I worked really hard. In the theater you are up against deadlines, and it's a closed system in a way. That's a problem with it. While the audiences are new all the time, the production company is a tight community. There is this deadline, and then this deadline. And you get this show up, then you get that show up. We opened four or five plays at a time, twice a year. The year whipped by in great galumps.


S.W.: And then you moved into doing workshop with Jean Houston and then your own sacred theater workshops, it's a situation that shifts and changes all the time.

Rubin: Absolutely. In the process of making theater, you make, create your own work, but you also work with a playwright's words and a director's ideas, so the person on stage is not you. But with this work, it's not a character someone has written; it's you.


S.W.: You do several Sacred Theater workshops a year.

Rubin: I do a three or four different seminars in Ashland and a couple elsewhere. I just don't have very many free weekends.


S.W.: In doing sacred theater you're using theater to help people to work with their own lives. Did this develop from your work with Jean Houston or...?

Rubin: My work with Jean started me thinking, and that's where I got what I call the powers of sacred theater.


S.W.: What are these powers as you see them?

Rubin: The power of place says you need a board to stand on. You need to stand in a place that you know to be safe and sacred -- that the place is part of the story.

The second is that everything is now... the power of nowness. Even if you are telling a story that's a hundred years old, it's happening now. So there is a that kind of radical awareness of what's going on this minute, and you tell everything in the present tense. That's the ideal.

The power of incarnation. In theater we talk about character study, how you became this character, or what the character is, or the characteristics of the character, or the overall theme. It's all of that. How does this person express? You study yourself, your own incarnation as if you were a character in a play. And you look at other people from that point of view too, as if you were playing in a play together.

The power of the expression of emotion primarily through the voice and primarily through active verbs, at least the subtext is active verbs.

The power of the audience, an important one, which I hit on a lot -- that an audience in a theater is a scared presence, and in sacred theater the audience is generally unseen. The question is who are you playing this for, who are you honoring with it, with your life. Who are you dedicating this to. And that can change.

The power of point of view is interesting. We did a kind of version of the wheel using the powers one evening in Minneapolis. Point of view everybody liked the best. It's not exactly character or incarnation. It's the way, the lens this particular person sees the world through, and in theory you need to hold to that. Because a lot of times in theater the action is to get "this one to do this." That's the hidden action of a theater piece -- to get somebody to change a point of view. And the drama is in their not changing.


S.W.: You have to have a point of view very clearly held, to change or shift a point of view? The more you feel the point the more the conflict drama has?

Rubin: And the harder you play it, if your job is to play it, and you play it with energy, not just. "This is what I am." It's a lot of fun and people have fun with it because it helps with the sense people have of transforming your life.

There is a power of conflict...without it there is no play. So instead of blaming all conflicted places, you sacralize them and see what they did for you. A lot of this is from Jean's work and her pushing me in certain directions.

After you have done all that, you have the power of celebration. You need to say yes to all of it


S.W.: That's the most difficult one, to deeply affirm life as a process.

Rubin: You bet.


S.W.: It strikes me that you are able to come to your work with a very broad knowledge and deep experience of theater. I've watched your performances, and sometimes it strikes me that you don't know what going to emerge next, that it's a bit of surprise to you.

Rubin: Here in my workshops with Jean I don't, and in sacred theater I don't. Sometimes I'll go in with a play and something will shift it. Jean will issue one of her famous challenges, or at sacred theater workshops, something will just come up. Someone did something terrible with her knee. So that became a kind of sub-focus for me. We explored that and did a kind of ritual about this knee to see what that was about. But I didn't know that going in.

And sometimes it comes and sometimes not. Here is something interesting, a number of people have said to me over the years, you're an actor, you are just acting. One of the things I've tried to be clear about here when I'm doing one of the exercises, is that I don't act here. They think I'm faking, so one of my spiritual practices has been to hone it so it's real -- or not real, but true.


S.W.: It's always appeared to me that you do material that is clearly difficult for you.

Rubin: Well, that's my job, that's what I'm here to do.



[Bullet] Sacred Theater: Playing for Gold
      Cris Anderson's account of participating in a weekend Sacred Theater workshop.

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