The Story Goes Right In: MuZen’s Performance Art Applies Attention, Empathy and Play to Social Change
Beth Fairservis and Stephen Katz are the creators of MuZen Mindful Creative Theater (pronounced myoo-zen), a group working at the intersection of contemplative practice, activism, and theater art.Â Since 2016 MuZen has co-produced the Interdependence Day Celebration, a community parade featuring music, storytelling, and giant puppets. Â In March 2018 Zen Peacemakers staff Anthony Saracino spoke with Beth and Stephen about MuZen, and theater as a tool for social change.
The following writing was edited following the interview transcript.
Anthony: Â Tell me about MuZen Mindful Creative Theater?
Beth: MuZen is a philosophy as well as a theater form, in the sense that â€śMuzâ€ť is the Museâ€“ the inspiration, the Creative Feminine spirit that comes through you â€“meeting Zen, which is pure consciousness, witnessing all there is. Â
Thereâ€™s a masculine and feminine quality to these two states of being. Â Thereâ€™s this feminine unfolding thatâ€™s happening creatively, speaking from the heart, calling in the truth, bringing presence to the suffering. And thereâ€™s this sitting and witnessing that is pure consciousness, beyond judgement, bearing witness. Â So MuZen is this combination of feminine and masculine energy fields coming together.
Theatrically, there are two components weâ€™re working with in MuZen. Â One, we have a sangha and we practice council. This council practice comes from Anthony Stultz of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society, and we have transformed it to be used as a catalyst for creativityÂ [Editor’s note: readÂ ZPI’s December 2017 interview with Rev. StultzÂ here]. We take an issue, whateverâ€™s happening currently thatâ€™s feeling strong. Â We drop that in and each person gets a minute to talk about it from whatever way they wantâ€“ a metaphor, a story it reminds them of, what they think should happen. Then we write down what everybody says, and by collective vote decide on the top three images from these issues that feel strongest to us. Then, we move into improvisation. We start to move, speak, act whatever those top three images were about. Â When thatâ€™s complete, the core group will ask, was that effective? Â Did that work? Â What did we feel? Â The beauty of theater is that you get to experience it bodily. MuZen is trying to bring issues into the body, experience them in the body rather than talking. Â
Stephen: Like a Dharma Walk rather than Dharma Talk.
Beth: Â Itâ€™s like a Dharma Dance! [Laughter]. And as much as possible, a democratic experience where it’s not just one person who understands something, weâ€™re all trying to understand together. Â
The other form we use is more of a theatrical collaboration between Stephen and myself that we call MuZen Circle-ups. Â In MuZen Circle-Ups we hold councils with the audience that we draw from to perform improvisational experiences, using characters and puppets weâ€™re always developing. Â We also produce street theater and works for festivals that incorporate ideas around the Four Elements Earth, Air, Water, and Fire, and how they relate to our interdependence.
Anthony: Â You talked about bringing issues into the body rather than talking. Â How does that relate to the way you use theater as a medium of social change?
Beth: To see a mask or a puppet, Story goes right in. Â As a protesting activist you have a sign, you put it up and it has specific words and it immediately creates a split where someone is on one side and someone else is on the other. Â It emphasizes duality. Whereas theater is this thing that comes in and lives into you, and you live into it. You donâ€™t have to be on one side or the other, it doesnâ€™t necessarily cause you to decide.
Anthony: It causes you to empathizeâ€“?
Beth: To empathize, yes. Thereâ€™s so much division happening, weâ€™re so embedded in duality. Â I saw a documentary with the Dalai Lama where he said â€śWe need more festivals!â€ť We do! We need to be getting out there and celebrating our dualistic mind through archetypal theater so we can see that thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening, rather than just living it all the time. Thatâ€™s one of the cultural goals of MuZen- to create a culture thatâ€™s more embedded in play, in goofiness, in feeling and seeing things the way they really are.Â That reality is like a play unfolding on the grand stage of the universe.
Anthony: Thereâ€™s a saying, â€śIf youâ€™re not outraged, youâ€™re not paying attention.â€ť Â Thatâ€™s an attitude that insists we take a sideâ€“ the â€ścorrect sideâ€ť â€“Iâ€™ve seen it cause alienation rather than motivation. Â Also, if two sides are just outraged at each other thatâ€™s not going anywhere good. On the other hand, outrage is a natural response to injustice. Â I wonder how you handle anger in your council circles, and how that gets expressed in MuZen performances?
Stephen: The elephant in the phrase â€śIf youâ€™re not outraged, youâ€™re not paying attentionâ€ť is the act of attending. Â The magic of being human is based on this power of attention. Â What Iâ€™m fascinated with is finding ways to make exercising our attention skills a part of the ritual, the fabric, the experience of going from the beginning to the end of a MuZen event. Â
Weâ€™re working on ways to physically embody this in our parades. It could be that each person in a line coming down the street could be a point in this flock that emerges at the front edge, and that the â€ślineâ€ť of the parade will go forward by going around itself, dancelike. Â In that going around and forward, when youâ€™re at the front of the parade, your gestures take you to the front edge of the experience, and then the next person who meets the front of the parade, their role is to be that front edgeâ€¦
Beth: What Stephen is describing is a radical antidote to the isolation that causes the stress that is causing the sleep of inattention. Â The antidote is to work on structures that people are physically seeing happen on the street that are not just about walking down the street, yelling with the signs out in front, but the culture awakening to itself as a moving, interdependent unit of being that can share and find balance in relationship to itself.Â Relationship, in my opinion, is the core issue of everything weâ€™re struggling with: weâ€™re in a divisive relationship, both internallyâ€“ and from a psychotherapeutic point of view, the core of what weâ€™re trying to unravel is that people are in this fight, and doubt, and struggle inside themselves, and that causes huge amounts of suffering â€“and itâ€™s the same thing on the outside.
So, in a parade, how do we move in harmony that physically demonstrates the core message that we actually are already in unity, are one, and this belief that weâ€™re divided is the illusion thatâ€™s causing all this suffering? Â
When you talk about outrage, thatâ€™s where the Muse is outraged. When I hear that phrase, I hear the Muse saying If youâ€™re not paying attention to the level of outrage that Iâ€™m experiencing in my body right now, because of the violation, thenâ€“ youâ€™re not paying attention! Â Itâ€™s really the feminine calling on the masculine to wake up. Â Paying attention is being conscious, being aware, being there, being present. Â But, itâ€™s also a harming statement because itâ€™s dualistic, divisive. Itâ€™s saying youâ€™re not paying attentionâ€“ â€śyouâ€™re not.â€ť
How to work with that in council? If with their one minute someone says theyâ€™re outraged, itâ€™s our job as a council to be present with that in a non-judgemental way, and to utilize the energy thatâ€™s in the forcefield of outrage, which is the calling of the sensitive, fragile, unseen, unheard, victimized part of our existence. Â All of the animals, the birds, the trees, waterâ€“ everything. And the feminine: women, children, who have not been able to have a voice because it has not been available. There is a huge expression of that happening now. Â In my theater characters Iâ€™m figuring out how to embody that outrage and to clarify the level of indecency thatâ€™s happened, in terms of whatâ€™s happened to our planet, to that soft, unfolding of lifeâ€“ to life itself!
Stephen: [Kisses Beth, laughter.] Â In my personal work, some of my shining moments of selfhood are when Iâ€™ve been called out for something that has been cruel, insensitive, or unconscious. Because lookâ€“ Iâ€™m getting the gift of higher consciousness about where I already want to be going anyway! Â And thank goodness Iâ€™ve had so many moments of gratitude to you, Beth. Thank goodness my wife has the courage to call me out when I need it, when she needs it.Â As Iâ€™ve said before: I donâ€™t mean to be a jerk, Iâ€™m just not fully formed yet [laughter].
Beth: Â We all have bothâ€“ masculine and feminine qualities. To be able to have that unfolding, the gift of bearing witness to that in peace and loving kindness, thatâ€™s where the Zen Peacemakersâ€™ Not-knowing is so important, because we actually donâ€™t know! Nobody knows how or why weâ€™re here. Â Thatâ€™s the first stepping into the truth. And then Bearing Witness to that, from Not-knowing. Allowing what it is to be what it is. What Iâ€™ve found so profound about Buddhism is that, as soon as you stop making reality what you think it is, and you actually allow it to come into you, you start to become compassionate. Â Because you see that itâ€™s beautiful and itâ€™s being harmed. And then to Take Action creativelyâ€“ and this is the MuZen part â€“to respond with creativity in how you say â€śNo!â€ť
Anthony: Beautiful. Â Will you share more about the Interdependence Day event?
Beth: For the past two years weâ€™ve produced an Interdependence Day event in conjunction with Climate Action Now and Mothers Out Frontâ€“ two activist organizations working on climate change issues. Â We co-created the parade, bringing in puppets from the North, South, East and West that represent the Four Elements. Â Earth is represented by the four-legged creatures; Air, birds; Water, fish; Fire, humans. The sub-story for both years has been about how humans are responsible for Fire: weâ€™ve harnessed it, and now itâ€™s bringing about our own destruction and the destruction of all the other elements. Â Â
These events have been linked to direct actions organized by the activists. This combination of celebration and activism proved very successful as the press put us on the front page both years and we were able to get the gas companies to the table about stage-3 methane leaks in Northampton. This year the focus will be on encouraging everyone in Massachusetts to reduce their energy usage. Â Â The invitation to the public from MuZen and Climate Action Now will be for folks to march from the Four Directions in town starting at 1pm, with flowers to bring to a pop-up temple to Mother Earth.Â At the pop-up temple, MuZen will perform a play which will include group meditation and the Four Elements. Then folks will fan out into the city to connect with people and businesses about lowering our collective energy usage. This is Interdependence in action! Â Weâ€™re always looking for volunteers to help us create these parades and for people who believe in our vision to help us make it happen through donations.
Beth and Stephen hold regular Sangha meetings in the Northampton areaÂ where they practice their method of meditation, council, and improvised theater. Â The Interdependence Day Parade will take place July 7th, 2018 in Northampton, Massachusetts, USA.Â Â To participate in MuZen activities and events, and for more information, go to muzen.org.
MuZenâ€™s work is done by volunteers, with the help of donations.Â Â Visit Muzenâ€™s Patreon page to support their projects.
Beth Fairservis is a seasoned performance artist as well as a Counselor specializing in Mindful Creativity as a path to well being. She has a Master of Pastoral Counseling Degree from the Graduate Theological Foundation and is an Ordained Shuso in the Blue Mountain Lotus school.Â Learn more atÂ bethfairservis.com.
Cellist and composer Stephen Katz has performed his compositions at Carnegie Recital Hall and tours internationally. He has been featured on national radio broadcasts, is a NEA grant recipient, and is an award-winning film composer. He is also the inventor of Whirled, a mindful physical practice.Â Learn more atÂ stephenkatzmusic.com.
April 11, 2018