An Interview with Alan Arkin
Alan Arkin has been a major star of stage, screen, and television for nearly fifty years. Best known for his roles in such films as Wait Until Dark, Catch-22, Edward Scissorhands, and Little Miss Sunshine (an Oscar-winning role), Arkin is also a master teacher. Along with his ongoing work as an actor/director/writer, he has taught retreats at The Omega Institute, Bennington College, and Columbia College. I found Alan and his wife, Suzanne, to be warm and engaging, and our conversations were sheer delight.
Alan, I know in your work with improvisation there seem to be many different dimensions of people coming together, making mutual discoveries, and having one’s work with each other spark ones’ own discoveries. How does that take place?
Alan Arkin: Something happens in the workshops that is transforming for people. It’s what I had hoped for, but it’s happening in a broader way than I ever envisioned. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized why I don’t want to teach acting and why doing the improvisational workshops is so exciting. If I taught acting for fifty years, I’d be lucky if out of the hundreds of people I worked with, two or three people would learn how to fly, to get out of their own way. But at the end of a two-day improvisational workshop, we have, out of a group of twenty, eighteen or nineteen people that are soaring and it’s miraculous.
DU: How do they come to that ability to soar?
AA: It’s a combination of things that I am only a part of. This is not my own design, but the feedback we are getting from a lot of people says that Suzanne and I bring to the workshop a completely accepting attitude, that we don’t have the need for them to be good or bad or to get anything out of it. I think people respond to the fact that we don’t have a specific need except for them to have a good time.
DU: So you’re nurturing and creating an environment where people can come together, and in that coming together there is a power in the group dynamics that brings something to life.
AA: That seems to be what’s happening, The design of the workshop itself has people fly. If I have an agenda. it’s wanting to see people get out of their own way and have an experience where they’re going places that they didn’t know existed—to what athletes call the zone. But that is an individual experience. The sense of the group dynamic, which I think even takes precedence over the strictly individual experience, has become kind of awesome. By the end of a weekend, we have twenty people that are bonded for years.
There is nothing that we can say, no amount of words can describe the kind of atmosphere that gets set up in the workshops. It’s the atmosphere, which is a wordless matrix, that somehow is responsible for this event and I don’t know how it happens. Yet as I look back on the way the workshop was set up, the entire first third of it is a series of exercises that force people to depend on each other, so that a sense of interdependence is built into everything that comes afterwards.
DU: In what way does this take place?
AA: My first exercise is to get twenty people in a ring. They don’t know each other and they’re all terrified. I tell them the rules for this exercise: I don’t want to see anything interesting and I don’t want to see anything creative. And immediately twenty people’s shoulders go down and they breathe a sigh of relief. They say to themselves: “Well thank God I don’t have to do what I came here for. I don’t have to be the thing that I wanted this workshop to accomplish for me.” Then what we do is just play imaginary ball for about ten minutes, and we keep changing the nature of the ball. The ball will become a bowl, it will become a piece of rope, it will become a small suitcase, and at the end of five or six minutes everybody’s laughing, having a good time, and being enormously creative. At the end of the exercise I ask: “What happened, what were the instructions for this?”
I tell them: “You failed! The instruction was not to be creative, not to be interesting.” I then ask, “Why were you creative?” And every once in a while someone realizes the answer: that it’s our nature to be creative, and that not being creative is the aberration. When we leave ourselves alone, when we’re flowing like we’re supposed to flow, we automatically go into a creative mode.
One of the other things I say is to keep it going, keep the object moving, no time to think—I don’t want to see thinking in this exercise.
I have an almost infallible guide that tells me when somebody’s being truthful or whether they are showing off—and that’s my rear end. If I find myself sitting forward in my seat, something is really happening, and it’s interesting because it’s out of ego-control. If it’s smart-ass stuff, then I find myself sitting back on the chair and saying, ooohh he’s clever, but he’s not engaging in the event. It’s a gauge that I have, that I feel I’m good at because I pay attention to it.
DU: That’s a very important role because you’re being honest with your own responses, and by being honest you’re helping each individual become more authentic within themselves.
How can we get from a strictly group dynamic to accessing this larger wisdom that both lies within us and surrounds us?
SA: It’s about intense devotion.
AA: Yes, I think that’s the key. And it can be devotion to anything. The way that I talk about it is that one of the signs of being connected is being in the zone. That is a huge step, but I don’t know how you go between the normal state of walking around and what I call the zone, where things are flowing and effortless. In my experience with people who have been in that zone, it can occur in any walk of life, but it has to be accompanied by an intense devotion to whatever mode that zone appears in.
The next step from that—and it’s another huge leap—is for people to realize, wow, if I experienced this extraordinary and exalted state in this little area, maybe if I extended my devotion, if I broadened the arc of my devotion, maybe I can experience it in other walks of life, in other places of my life.
DU: “Broadening the arc of your devotion.” That’s a beautiful concept.
When you broaden the scope of your devotion, does that energy extend to your workshops? Also, as the individuals in the workshop begin to broaden the devotion they bring to the task, does that help the other person they’re working with? What are the steps in the workshop to bring people to that place together?
SA: Some of them are very simple techniques, like intention. We ask the participants to not go into the playing area unless they have an intention. I think it’s also by listening. By listening I mean when someone can really hear what’s being said, or what’s being transferred, I mean, not just in terms of words, but in terms of an energetic level as well. I think that gets you into another realm—through attention.
DU: Your mutual participation in the workshop seems important. You seem to help each other, and your connection with each other seems profound, in terms of helping to encourage a flow of energy. There’s a tone that comes through in your relationship. It sparks feeling, and I’m sure that the students feel it also.
AA: It’s not something we do consciously, but we’ve gotten at least fifteen or twenty letters over the past few years acknowledging that. We don’t feel like it’s profound, we just know we love each other and try and stay open. We have our own perspective on what a relationship can be like, and we don’t have any sense of doing anything.
SA: I know this sounds so romantic, but we have a deep connection, a very deep love for one another, and I think people pick that up. And they also tell us that they feel loved in the workshop. They have said that to me often, and I feel that we do love them in this process, that we’re somehow nurturing.
DU: Is it an impersonal kind of love?
AA: I wouldn’t say it’s emotionally charged. But every once in a while it gets like that when somebody does work that’s incredibly deep and very revealing. It will engender some kind of a more personal light for a little while.
There’s a great statement that I heard on national public radio when they were interviewing a Greek Orthodox monk. There was a question to him that I thought was fascinating: “Do you find that you’ve changed, can you track the changes that have taken place in you in the twenty-five years that you’ve been a monk?” And he said: “Oh yes, I can. I feel enormously different from the person who I was when I started out. Twenty-five years ago I was a very passionate person. Now I don’t see myself as a highly charged emotional person anymore, but I think of myself as a person of much finer feeling, and that I’m a much more feeling person.” I said, God, what a great and fascinating distinction between a highly emotional person to a person with deeper feeling. I spent a lot of time thinking about that and I even looked into the roots of the word “passionate.”
“Passionate” is related to the idea of torment and suffering, and a genuinely feeling person is somebody who has their feelings accessible to them, which you don’t have when you’re in a state of passion. You may have one single feeling accessible to you, but the panorama of them will not be accessible.
DU: Gertrude Stein once characterized American writers as having passions, but not true passion. Is there something about this difference in passion and feeling where we tune ourselves, if you will, to a higher vibration? What is the role of feeling in opening to the wisdom that lies within us and surrounds us?
AA: I think it happens, I don’t think it’s something you decide. I think if you take care of the early stages, which is being attentive to your feeling states, then that’s kind of a natural byproduct of it.
SA: I think it’s also a form of grace. When we’re in the workshops, it’s not that I’m saying to myself, okay now I’m going to do this in order to get to that higher place. What happens is that somehow we’re able to open ourselves enough to be used in some way as an instrument of grace.
In terms of what someone may believe in, whether it’s a spirit or god or Buddha, perhaps when we find our way of helping or serving, we open at those moments to that force and have it flow through us to help heal or help teach or help change. I have to honestly say—and not out of any kind of humility—that it really never feels like I have anything to do with it. It feels as good for me and as healing for me as it feels for participants because of this thing that’s flowing.
AA: I think that the need an artist has to manipulate the world indicates some kind of aberration. What do you need to manipulate it for, it’s fine the way it is. The work will do itself, the thing will do itself. There’s a level of trust here.
DU: I keep coming back to this question about trust, that we trust the creative process to proceed on its own, with our participation to be sure, but that we allow it to move in a certain direction. Does something else take over, do invisible energies contribute to that process? Do you find that there is a greater intelligence available?
AA: My God, it’s everything.
SA: Yes, and in the workshops you have to establish some form. So we start with throwing the ball in a circle, and then after a while the exercises almost disappear. Something else is happening. We’re doing it, but something else does take over.
AA: How do we broaden the arc of that devotion? One of the questions we’ve been getting more and more lately is terribly sad. People say at the end of the workshop: Okay, this is all very well and good, but what do we do in the real world? This question makes me laugh. The workshops are very much the real world, but if someone feels a deeper sense of freedom and safety there, it becomes their responsibility to carry this with them and insist that it become part of the rest of their life—which is a pretty big order, I know. And not a lot of people are going to be able to do it right away.
DU: It gives people a taste of something. And then they do have to do the work in order to bring it into their lives. But it shows them it’s possible doesn’t it?
AA: My teacher, and a lot of Eastern thought, says that you don’t need ?to be taught anything. You need to remember, you need to shed skin after skin after skin until the truth, which is within you already, just starts revealing itself to you. With some help along the way, like prods—a mentor here or a mentor there.
I use the metaphor frequently in the workshop of learning how to use one’s voice, how to become a singer. I studied voice for a couple of years, and my teacher drove me nuts because for a couple of years nothing he said made any sense to me. It ultimately came down to either yes or no. Then one day, after about a year and nine months, I sang from the right place and everything he said finally made sense. You can talk and talk and talk, but until you have the experience of letting go, all you can do is believe that this guy doesn’t sound like he’s lying. Get out of the frontal lobe, get shoved down to the rest of your system. You have to have the experience of letting go in order for anything to really sing for you.
In the workshops, I’m happier being a wild man, I’m happier being God’s fool. I have to keep myself from saying outlandish things all the time to people—or the opposite, saying them too rigidly. So I want to be God’s idiot, and I’m working on that.
Published in Parabola Magazine, Alone and Together, Summer 2012. For the full text of the interview, please visit the Parabola web site.