The mix of Eastern religious practice and acting techniques is not new, but maybe it's attracting more actors than ever. I called Hughes in London and asked, "Is this approach particularly suited to the 21st century?"
"It is only fairly recently that the spiritual wisdom teachings of the Himalayas have been available on the plains of Europe and America," he emailed me after our conversation. "It is now becoming generally understood that the world/human race is reaching a crisis/turning point in evolution and the real need now is an uplift in Consciousness."
Hughes has acted in, among other plays, Mike Leigh's "Ecstasy" in the West End, and some of his approaches to creating character are similar to Leigh's. Hughes also studied with Sam Kogan, who was associated with the Moscow Institute of Theatre Arts and wrote "The Science of Acting." Although Hughes learned a lot, he found Kogan's approach, taken by itself, overly cerebral and started wondering, "What is the purpose of theater art? What's the point of me being here? What's the point of human life?"
It wasn't until he studied some of the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism and started meditating that he developed a perspective integrating a basic psychological approach to the craft with a larger, more spiritual worldview. "I never set out to create 'a spiritual psychology of acting,' " he declares. But after he'd been teaching for 10 years, he put that label on it.
What's Your Own Character?
Hughes' technique begins with the assumption that to build a character, you must first fully understand yourself as a character. Only in doing so can you begin to examine a character outside yourself, because you'll be free of the internal baggage that hampers your creativity, imagination, and empathy.
Thus his students initially embark upon a deep process of inquiring how their own "characters" have been formed—exploring the sources of the images and unconscious ideas they hold of themselves. They do this by digging up internal pictures of the events and memories that were most formative in their lives—"by the roots," Hughes says. "It's not just about cutting off the head of the daisy." Then they apply the same method to understanding a character. They now have the tools to examine the many layers of their character's psyche without their own "stuff" interfering.
Through meditation, Hughes' students prepare and sustain themselves for this type of personal investigation and ongoing work. The workshops begin with a kundalini yoga mix ("I've picked things that are good for helping an actor feel and inhabit his body," Hughes says), plus breathing exercises and a chakra meditation using a mantra. Actors also practice, among other things, "the Zen of walking"—finding their own natural walk, so that when they bring an outside character in, they are free to allow that character to modify the body's rhythms.
In ongoing classes, Hughes works with students individually on the opening lines of Shakespeare's "Henry V": "Oh, for a muse of fire…." "Whatever their baggage is," he says, "it will be evident in that exercise." Paul Blackthorne, one of his students, says Hughes is "incredibly intuitive."
A goal in the classes is to set free the imagination in order to truly inhabit a fictional character. Say you're playing someone whose son has just died. You'd create mental images of your wife's pregnancy ("Touch her tummy, get a scan, be there for the birth"), taking the child to school for the first time, wiping away his tears, seeing him get knocked over by a truck…. You set up your imagination, Hughes says, then suspend disbelief.
What the Hell Does That Have to Do With Acting?
I reached Blackthorne, an L.A.-based Englishman, in Hawaii, where he'd been shooting the ABC series "The River" for three months. He didn't have a spiritual practice before working with Hughes, which he did over the course of two years, and says learning to meditate was the hard part.
"You start by thinking, 'What the hell does that have to do with acting?' " Blackthorne says. "Then, when you start studying your own psychology, it can be pretty scary. Moving beyond egotistical shackles, that's hard." You have to be prepared to discover things about yourself that you weren't aware of, but doing so enables you to assemble another character's psychology. For Blackthorne, acting became an utterly enjoyable matter of serving the moment without attachment to results.
Los Angeles actor Bill Coelius, who recently shot an episode of "Desperate Housewives," took Hughes' workshops for three years. He sees the spiritual aspect as the foundation of Hughes' teachings but says those teachings are not New-Agey or hippie-dippy: "It's all surprisingly pragmatic and allows you to see yourself and others."
Coelius adds, "It took me a while to release the fear and the desire to be seen in a certain light. That's one of the biggest obstacles actors have: We want to be powerful, impressive, the best in the room. But when I have to play someone who actually is powerless, my own [unexamined] behavior can keep me from playing that purely. I'd be commenting on the powerlessness of the character, or protecting myself from actually feeling those feelings. John teaches us you are not those insecurities. The source is always who you really are. That's the spiritual question."
Coelius initially came to class very pessimistic and cynical, seeing spirituality as a "scary, huge thing." But the Buddhist tradition that Hughes talks about made sense to him. "It was as if I'd known this for a very long time but hadn't put it into practice," Coelius says.
New York actor Stephen Park, who was on "In Living Color" for a season, had been thinking for a while about the actor as priest when he chanced upon Hughes' workshop, which he's now taken twice. "Acting for me is ultimately a spiritual experience," he says, so finding someone who could bridge the two practices was transformative.
Park had struggled with depression for years, but in Hughes' class he was able to trace that back to a particular self-image. "Our self-image is constructed out of our thoughts," the actor says. "When you begin to dismantle that, you experience a level of freedom. Then you realize every character has a self-image, and that's your entrée into that character's life and world."
He adds, "When you're liberated spiritually, you see that you're everything. We're all expressions of this one thing. Every religion ultimately points to this. Call it God or the universe, we're all manifestations of this one essence, and there are a multitude of expressions of it."
In his work, Hughes refers to the Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu concept of "not twoness…the knowledge of the one consciousness which emanates and manifests itself as this universe," he says. "When you have an actor who's in touch with his wider self—through meditation—the audience, in viewing such a person, gets a sense of that wider world."
It is perhaps that cosmic awareness that can lead actors to understand their larger purpose in the world. In an essay on his website, Hughes asks, "Why is film and theater such an important part of human culture?" He uses the metaphor of society as "a huge body," with the town hall as the brain and theater or cinema as the heart. The heart serves to "pump out fresh ideas and inspirational energy into the community at large." How can actors contribute to this process without first raising their own level of consciousness? They cannot.
John Osborne Hughes will teach two workshops in Los Angeles: "An Introduction to the Spiritual Psychology of Acting" (Feb. 3–5, 2012) and "The 10 Steps to Analyzing a Play and Creating a Character" (Feb. 10–12, 2012).