Theater director, Steven Kent, and I had not expected to be working together again on a creative project related to dreams at this time in our lives. In advance of producing Dreams Against the State in 1981, he and I had recreated the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece in 1980 for the first time in 1500 years. I had written the play and Steve was the dramaturge and director. The first production of the play was performed in fifty different venues: private homes, community centers, churches, etc. This deliberate variation on performance space was designed to emphasize the real life danger to dreams and dreaming in our culture and the need for individuals and communities to provide sanctuary for dreams.
Thirty-two years later, in January 2014, we were co-teaching a class on How to Start a Dream Theater at La Verne University where Steven is a faculty member of the Theater Arts Department. This project is, perhaps, the closed parenthesis of a creative partnership devoted to theater, ritual, transformation and the inner life.
The creative premise of the class was that the students comprise a theater troupe that visits communities to perform their dreams, and at the same time, are themselves a community whose dreams are explored and reflected upon, theatrically, by the theater troupe. We were imaging being called into a community to enact the dreams in order to help resolve conflicts or disagreements in creative ways.
Because this class, as conceived, is a unique exploration and a first for Steven and myself, we have been surprised and gratified by the unanticipated directions it has taken. During our first meeting, I was startled to realize what fifty years of working with dreams had not revealed before: the essential connection between dream and theater. Dreams come to us as complete theater events, remarkably scripted, directed, enacted and staged. However, in recalling and communicating our dreams, though we may access meaning, we rarely, if ever, can transmit the quality and intensity of the dream experience itself. Enter theater.
How to Start a Dream Theater met four times a week for four hours during the January Interterm at La Verne University, La Verne California. Ancient Greek Aesclepian medicine considered the union of dreaming and theater as essential to the healing process. Steven and I have visited the ruins of the Aesclepian healing sanctuaries in Greece, but the living theater is long gone; and though the transformational aspect of the Mysteries was preserved in our work, we did not recreate our dreams theatrically when relating them to each other every day. So, in this class we found ourselves exploring a new form with remarkably ancient antecedents.
Surprisingly, the limitations of working in a classroom with essentially inexperienced students created the impetus for discovery. We had to begin at the beginning regarding dreams, theater and healing. I had expected to be teaching Theater Department seniors but only some of the students in the class were theater majors; the rest were liberal arts majors fulfilling their humanities requirement. The students ranged from freshman to seniors and came from many different multi-cultural backgrounds.
As Steven Kent does with every class he teaches at the University, we opened each session with a check-in, where we often asked the students to share a dream image. We ended with a check-out that consisted of a question or a statement about dreaming or the content of the class. With this simple device we came to know each other intimately, which is rare in a college classroom. Steven’s theater games further relaxed everyone and released energy and tension, thus reinforcing the possibility of bonding. Dream telling each day involved us deeply in the exploration of our inner lives.
Early on, we made a strategic decision in the interest of efficiency that was critical to the success of the class. We divided the fifteen students into three troupes. Though we heard many of the students’ dreams in the full circle, the troupes worked on their own dreams together when bringing them into form. Because the students now belonged to the dreamers and to the theater troupe, they bonded as a community despite the university setting that generally results in isolation and competitiveness. The students quickly realized they had to be respectful of each other’s inner lives and the necessity of being trustworthy.
Community work happens to be one of Steve’s areas of engagement and expertise, and we were privileged to hear some of his stories about working with gay people in a radical anti-gay state, also with small farmers, with women with AIDs and with other groups in the development of performance pieces. His theater experience with communities, and my experience with individual and community dreaming, together with our life long involvement in the creative process, and more years of teaching between us than either of us wish to tally, were the basis of what we brought to the class.
When considering the actual creation of a performing dream theater group, we both understood that the performance of the dreams would be the ultimate means through which the community could reflect on itself, provide social cohesion and lessen conflict. However, I didn’t realize that the very act of soliciting the dreams in a collective setting would begin the process through which the conflict might resolve. That meant that if the troupe were also willing to present their own dreams in the process of soliciting dreams from the community, the artificial barrier between troupe and community would dissolve. Finally, enactment could take the community members to yet another level of healing of the original discord.
The most significant understanding came to us when all three troupes independently decided to disregard advice I had given them about enactment. Each troupe met to listen to one another’s dreams and select images/events that reverberated for all of them, which would then be developed theatrically and enacted for the group as a whole. I advised them to avoid “being fair.” Rather than including something from everyone’s dreams, I suggested they focus on one or two images/events they found compelling and performable. However, before beginning the work of scripting and developing, each group chose instead to consider each one’s dreams in order to find a common theme. The for Ruin and Beaurty initial themes were loneliness and separation, explosive emotions, and unacknowledged fear.
At the end of the third week, the three troupes sat in individual story circles, outdoors on the college lawn, imagining darkness and a fire at their center, and spoke of the ways they had experienced these themes in their lives. Though each group exercised confidentiality regarding the details of the stories, when they reported back to the larger group, it was apparent that they had entered the process deeply. They had embraced the experience of loneliness or fear in ‘the other’ as their own, yet recognizing differences as well as commonalities in the origin of such emotions. They had acquired the essential means to understanding and relating back to each other the meaning and implication of their dreams – Empathy.
One student commented that the class had become a group of distinct individuals whom she felt she knew well. Building community had not been one of our stated goals for the class but it became our finest one.
We had found a way, even in a classroom, for the students to experience the exactness and profundity of dream communication. This allowed them to recognize what mattered to them as a community, to refine their intent to communicate this to an audience, to develop language and image to hold their experience, then to embody the experience and finally to perform it for the larger group. The result was that they could bring the dreams back to their original vivid life. Each step in the process eliminated the formal differences between dreamer and actor, between one person and another. Without setting such a heady intention, we were entering into an exquisite balance between our unique experiences, dream language, and the particularity of the dreams themselves, and the trusting and supportive community forming in this setting.
We were working in a multi-cultural setting and outside of conventional psychological dream analysis. The work is predicated on indigenous wisdom dreaming traditions that assume that dreams are a dialogue between the spirit world and the particular tribe, culture or in this case, troupe and university class. This focus allowed for a creative dynamic between particularity and unity and was of great value and solace to the individual class members. No one was left out of the exchange. Everyone was seen as valuable. The class became a sanctuary for the essential beauty and intelligence of each individual within the safety of the circle formed by the participation of each equally. Which is not to say that there were no difficult moments among us. There were. But as far as I know, these issues were acknowledged and resolved. Increasingly, day by day, the value of the group, the bond between the students was recognized.
The class process was informed by the presence of Ayelet Berman Cohen, a contemporary dreamer in the old ways. She could not have predicted when she was a prominent photographer in Israel that dreams would become her life. Each night, for twenty years, profound theme-based dreams, as precise and lyrical as any theater or work of literature, have been landing on her, followed by teachings from the ancestors. For many years, she has been dreaming about war, often but not always referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and easily translated into any contemporary struggle between peoples. Many of her war dreams are succeeded by healing dreams, or dreams that ßthe antidote to war. In one of the sessions, she spoke of how theater allowed the war to be viewed and understood within the very magic of theater itself. The wound and the medicine together in one venue.
She gifted us with a packet of six dreams that gave the students original dream images to work with. Independently, the troupes each chose one or two of the same images to dramatize and explore, so we understood that the conflict between victim and victimizer spoke deeply to them. This initial work with her dreams, which were so fully formed and precise in their theatrical intelligence, prepared the students to look at their own dreams and excerpt the wisdom from them.
Three student dreams at the threshold of the project set the tone for the work to come. One student told a recurring dream that began when she and her family were immigrating to the United States, having already fled civil violence in their native country. In the dream that first came when she was a child, she observed the on-going tension between freedom and imprisonment. The dream had revealed, even to the young child, the fundamental torment that her family and culture were experiencing.
In relating a dream to his father, another student discovered that the family had psychic gifts that had not been spoken about but were passed on through the patriarchal line.
Aware of a repeating image in her recent dreams, a young woman decided to call her indigenous grandmother, only to discover that the dreams were warnings that her proposed very generous action would violate her people’s tradition and she would have to wait for the right ritual moment to perform it.
The final days of How to Start a Dream Theater were spent developing the small theatrical presentations. Within a remarkably short time, each troupe went from acting out various dream episodes to identifying the common emotional elements, finding dream sequences to hold them, and then discarding these images and events for more vital and appropriate images that communicated the fullness of the conditions and emotions to the observers. Informed by Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, the students were then able to revise their pieces once again, bringing each to a new level of reflection and communication, perhaps even more powerful than might arise in a class on improvisation because the images developed from the deep personal dream life of each student.
The students had not known that dreaming had already and would continue to affect and influence their lives. Repeatedly in the check-ins or check-outs, the students expressed their surprise and gratitude for these ways of knowing that they had previously thought entirely unimportant.
Elenna Rubin Goodman, a community builder, had come to the class from Oakland California. The class served her deep desire “ tobring together community, sacred space and the ritual embodiment of dreams/dream theater.” And we were grateful that we could serve both the students and others seeking new ways of serving community that include validating inner life experience.
Three texts informed the class: Black Elk Speaks, by John Neihardt, Healing Dreams: Exploring the Dreams That Can Transform Your Life by Marc Ian Barasch, and The Practice of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern Medicine by Edward Tick and Stephen Larsen. Each text speaks to the ways dream inform and heal culture as well as bringing wisdom and insight to individuals for their lives. So many of the dreams that the students brought into our circle were unexpectedly revealed to be vehicles for connection, community and cultural restoration. Entering and living within a dreaming culture is an essential antidote to totalitarian and fundamentalist thought. This is iterated by Paco Mitchell in the Winter Solstice 2013 issue of Dream Network Journal, an essay that we shared in class: “…dreams are such bastions of freedom.”
The class was not about creating a dream theater; rather, our intention was to facsimilate the experience of dream theater troupes and dreaming communities. We had started out suggesting that the students imagine that they were a dream troupe or a dreaming community; within days the imagined manifested. We learned swiftly that understanding self through exploring and performing dreams is also a means to establishing communal identity while emphasizing the wild freedom and uniqueness at the core of the creative process. Some of the students may go on to use dreams in their creative work. All of them, I am certain—whether as physicians or private-eyes, (two examples of the students’ present vocational goals)—will use dreams as part of their future work in the world.
Considering in retrospect my unheeded advice to the dream troupes and their intelligent insistence on following their own wisdom, I am grateful to have been reminded of the sensitivity necessary in approaching another community — in this case, the community of students. We must always fully respect the other culture and what the community itself knows. Fortunately, I didn’t insist, didn’t impose my own understanding. Fortunately, they chose to discern and honor common themes and experience, and to create communities of respect and relationship among themselves. Fortunately, we all honored the dream.
Each student presented a seven-minute excerpt from the journal they kept for the duration of the class that included dreams, the new understanding of their power and importance, reflections on the class process, and selected passages from the assigned texts. Most spoke their deepest truths to each other, though we had been strangers to each other only a month before. Everyone now understood that he or she has an inner life and all were excited about tending it for the rest of their lives. No one doubted the value, meaning, experience or and beauty of dreaming. The possibility of an on-going dream group was gratefully received.
The final gift from Ayelet Berman Cohen was a dream, which summarized her dream spirits’ understanding of the process that was destined to engage us all.
January 23, 2014
(dedicated to the students of the Dream Theater Workshop)
A group of students
meet on behalf of their inner lives.
They speak to each other,
and to their astonishment,
discover that the night before,
they all have had the exact same dream.
In their dream
a python lives underneath their house.
There is a group of people shackled to a tree.
And there is another side to the tree.
A woman who lost her mother is there.
And a shark who looks deeply into the eyes of a boy.
There is fear, laughter, movement and confusion,
each image and emotion
matches perfectly in all of their dreams.
The student body has had one common dream.
In their dream they see
a woman carrying a suitcase.
She says it is filled with dreams.
She tells them how the Spirits come to her every night
and dictate to her a dream.
The woman says she has been touched.
When the students wake up
they know that their inner lives
are no longer the same.
Did the Spirits come to them too?
How do the Spirits move?
Who are the Spirits?
Have they been touched?
The silence had been broken.