Paratheatre, Active Imagination,
the Asocial Climate
Between 1977 and 2019, I have been developing a “paratheatre” medium (a term coined by Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski), combining methods of physical theatre, modern dance, vocalization, and standing Zazen to access the internal landscape of forces in the Body—the impulses, emotions, sensations, tensions, and other autonomous forces—towards their spontaneous expression in movement, vocal creations, symbolic gesture, characterization, and asocial interplay. These group ritual dynamics were explored in primarily asocial, non-performance-oriented “Labs” with occasional community outreaches in lecture-demos and experimental theatre productions, all under the umbrella of ParaTheatrical ReSearch.
Over four decades, several hundred individuals participated in this work (Berkeley CA, Boulder CO, Seattle WA, and Portland OR) with about 80% occurring behind closed doors in complete privacy, without audiences. During this four-decade era, thirteen public productions were staged: “William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience” (1977),”Coronation at Stillnight” (1978), “The Conjunction” (1979), “Bring Out the Dead” (1988), “Mass of the Iconoclasts” (1992), “Orphans of Delirium” (2004), “Requiem for a Friend” (2005), “Songs as Vehicles” (2005), “A Turbulence of Muses” (2016), “Bardoville” and “Soror Mystica” (2017), “Fallen Monsters” and “Escape from Chapel Perilous” (2018).
All public productions, lecture-demos, and private ritual labs were presented under the umbrella of “ParaTheatrical ReSearch,” and all of it ceased after Autumn Equinox, 2019. Why did I stop? After forty-two years, it felt like I had gone as far as I could go. Or maybe it was a prescient move to quit six months before the Covid pandemic hit. In a very personal way, this work never stopped. The long-term effects of so much immersion in these processes remains active in me daily. Once certain doors have been opened, they can’t really shut again. No-Form, Verticality, Sourcing…
Active Imagination, the Self, and the Asocial
In our paratheatrical research, the physical body is posited as an embodiment of the so-called Subconscious Mind. With its complex webbing of bio-systems—circulatory, skeletal, cellular, muscular, endocrine, etc.—invisible to the naked eye of the conscious ego. This Paratheatre mirrors Carl Jung’s method of “active imagination” for making the unconscious, conscious in a nonverbal, highly visceral, and physically active approach to accessing what Jung calls the centralizing archetype of The Self,representing the unified unconsciousness and consciousness of an individual with the Ego as a subservient subset of The Self.
This chiefly group-oriented process is neither social nor antisocial but asocial. Neither antisocial or social, asocial refers to a third point beyond the social/antisocial dichotomy. This Paratheatre medium is not set up to meet common social needs such as gaining emotional support from others, peer approval, courtship, friendship, and a sense of belonging in a community. Though these social needs are important to daily life situations, they can also impede and frustrate the spontaneous, creative response essential to Paratheatre work.
An asocial climate is initiated by realizing one’s non-responsibility to others in the workspace where participants also agree to accept full accountability for their own safety and creative states—individual integrity and autonomy being core values in this work. These asocial conditions support the higher levels of self-commitment critical for accessing the internal landscape of The Self. Instead of depending on external stimuli to motivate self-expression, participants turn within to the body/psyche’s innate sources and images to animate their movement.
Paratheatre work offers a window to witness the internal landscape. At some point, a door opens inviting entrance into unknown regions of the body/psyche to experience firsthand the vital forces sustaining our existence, and to give them expression in patterns of movement, vocal creations, and presence. Though the initial training process adheres to the values of solitude and internal dependence, group interaction is explored in asocial interplay, but only after participants learn to generate enough personal presence to interact with others from a state of total offering of the self, rather than from a place of want or need.
Asocial interplay differs from improvisation as commonly practiced in theatre, dance, and music, where the performer takes cues and energy from other performers in the moment and moves them forward somehow. The difference with asocial interplay is that nobody wants or takes anything from anyone else. Everyone sustains their own state of offering, as a strong force of presence that acts on others, while being acted on by the presence of others in an interaction of mutual offerings. This develops spontaneously in a kind of miraculous interaction of self-governing bodies, where a group unity of sovereign expressions emerges unlike any kind of group interaction I have experienced before or since.
Most of this book documents my personal experiences facilitating and participating in these asocial ritual Labs as written in my journals between 2000–2011. These Labs ran between two to three months each, meeting once or twice a week for three hours each time, and almost always at night. All of them took place in Berkeley California at Wildcat Studio and at Finn Hall where we explored multiple dimensions of the sacred but not always the kind of sacred that lends itself to that overly-precious halo effect. Sometimes the sacred turned profane. These allegedly opposing states occasionally interchanged, where the sacred turned profane and the profane turned sacred. This yin-yanging dynamic occurred throughout repeat immersions in our ritual polarity work where we embodied numerous contrary states—such as weak and strong, safety and danger, pleasure and pain, order and chaos—that would eventually merge in synthesis, giving expression to their underlying unity. A kind of alchemical union of opposites became an ongoing theme throughout this polarity work which was consistently present in each session of every Lab.
The Gnostic Heretic
I define “gnosis” as any concept-free zone of direct experience unfettered by preconceptions, assumptions, and theories imposed by the thinking machine. Though this flies in the face of traditional doctrines of gnosis, it expresses the overarching aim of this Paratheatre medium for restoring the capacity for a more direct experience—free of societal labels, religious dogmas, and political persuasions. Though mostly defined by organized religions, heretics are seen as rebels who oppose religious dogmas, many of whom were historically persecuted for their confrontational views and positions. A heretic can also be anyone who opposes the status quo, consensus reality, and/or any official or popular opinion. A gnostic heretic may be anyone who chooses to live in accord with their truths rooted in direct, firsthand experience as their true source of spiritual authority. Count me as a gnostic heretic.
Throughout SACRED RITES, an alternative definition of ritual bypasses the costumed spectacle of robes and wands of Western occult ceremonial magick, the archaic nature worship of pagan rites, and the somber pomp of Catholic High Mass with its tasteless wafers, cheap wine, and sermons chanted in the dead language of Latin. Though these more traditional ritual worlds continue meeting the social and spiritual needs of The Many, they fail to offer the challenges essential to my creative and artistic development. Paratheatre work has acted as an insurrection of the Poetic Imagination for arousing character and story elements in my films, experimental theatre works, and the art life.
When these ritual journals were written, there was never any idea of publishing them as a book. That idea spawned many years later in 2023 after realizing my subjective experiences on this work process might serve others in ways differing from my other books on metaphysical systems and philosophical perspectives. These journal entries never attempted to explain my experiences or pontificate about what they might mean, though I tried to at times. My aim was to simply report what I saw and felt—what I was reacting to—as honestly as I knew how. As a result, some of my entries may seem confounding, irrational, or even absurd. Much of what I experienced had no familiar labels or categories yet. Oftentimes, I had to rethink my process of thinking itself just to find the right words, and often words failed me. Since I also facilitated these Labs while also participating in them, I’ve included prompts, ritual designs, and the sources suggested to each group I was part of at the time.
SACRED RITES is a sister book to STATE OF EMERGENCE: Experiments in Group Ritual Dynamics (The Original Falcon Press; 2020) where the central Paratheatre methods, principles, and rituals are codified for immediate application. SACRED RITES mirrors the soul of this work, whereas STATE OF EMERGENCE represents its muscular rigor and skeletal structures. Working with both books together can bridge the subjective experiences of the internal landscape and the objective external techniques and actions in a more unified vision of what this Paratheatre medium is about and what it can actually do.
I also highly recommend keeping a ritual journal if you’re doing this work. If you can, write down your experiences without embellishment and simply report what happened. Don’t dwell on what it all means. If you can refrain from imposing your analysis and interpretations, the innate meaning of your experiences may have a better chance to rise to conscious awareness more organically. This style of journaling sets up a creative rapport—a dialogue—between Subconscious and the conscious minds—a body/brain loop offering fresh experiences and new ways of seeing.
The Pivotal CRUX Lab
The first offering in SACRED RITES is not a ritual journal entry, but an interview I gave on the 1999 CRUX Lab when a group of eight (including myself) met three times a week for five weeks, three to four hours each time, at the Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists in Berkeley over the summer as a “fixed cross” constellation of heavenly bodies hovered in the skies above. Here, we excavated and expressed the crux of what each of us were living for through rituals exposing our existential crucifixion, i.e., where each of us had become righteously stuck. Brutal, I know. The CRUX Lab was not based in Jesus or Christianity, but a deep dive into the mystery of resurrection through a more universal, non-sectarian crucifixion archetype made personal. This CRUX Lab marked a critical turning point that informed some of Lab themes throughout 2011 which is why it’s included here (CRUX is documented on video with other Paratheatre videos at: verticalpool.com/paratheatre.html).
The Portland Productions (2016–18)
The final offering in SACRED RITES is also not a ritual journal entry but a series of notes and reviews about the five ParaTheatrical ReSearch productions staged at PerformanceWorks NW in Portland Oregon from December 2016 through December 2018. Each production was preceded by a ten-week Lab exploring specific themes and archetypes developed into living rituals—spiritual events—disguised as or dressed up as experimental theatre, utilizing poetry, live music & song, film projections, theatre lights, and costumes. As a living ritual, none of these “shows” could be rehearsed like the stop/start process common to dance and theatre rehearsals. Each pre-production run-through had to unfold in its entirety from intensive warm-up cycles, polarity work, to whatever sources were innate to the Lab theme without interruption. This was also how each production was performed every night and why no night was alike or repeatable.
The Work Continues…
As of this writing, certain individuals I have trained have begun, or may soon begin, leading group Paratheatre Labs. Brazilian native Joao Peixoto in Rio de Janeiro and Jeffrey Fisher in Asheville, North Carolina started initiating Labs over the past several years with plans to continue. In Liverpool, England, Jessica Bockler has facilitated Paratheatre groups. Professional actor James Wagner plans to start Paratheatre Labs for trained actors in New York City. Aikido sensei Nick Walker, who trained with me for ten years in Berkeley, may run his own Labs in the San Francisco Bay Area at some point. Ed “Gensho” Welsh has already initiated several Paratheatre small-group Labs in Portland Oregon and Bryan Smith, in Corvallis OR, tells me he’s looking forward to experimenting with groups. Though not trained by me, Mariana Pinzon of Berlin has been leading several hybrid Labs there based on her work in Chaos Magick, combined with methods and rituals from my book, STATE OF EMERGENCE.
Whoever explores this work, whether solo or in groups, please know you have my blessings to attempt the impossible, as I have, with as much commitment and autonomy as you can muster. Find your own way and your own style of group facilitation. The vital sources accessed in this work already exist within the Body/Psyche; nothing needs to be made up or created. All that’s needed is your agreement to feel your body deeply in the 5-phase warm-up, to embrace an ever-deepening internal receptivity in No-Form, and the courage and self-commitment to discover a total act of offering of the self...to The Self.
No-Form→ Dream→ Form→ Dream→ No-Form…
— Antero Alli, March 1st, 2023