This Burning Heart by Gwynne Warner
Burning. Blazing. Ablaze. Aflame. Afire. Fiery. Flaming.
I believe in the One, Silent Radiance which burns through all things and like Joseph Campbell, I hold dear that "the function of art is to reveal this radiance." Cecil Collins, a mystic painter, once wrote: "The artist does not forget. He remembers there was a time when he was employed to create and set up altars to the mysterious gods of life within their temples. We artists have never forgotten the service we once rendered in giving humanity the deepest experiences of reality." Like international director Peter Brook, I believe that all theatre comes from, and returns to, silence. He said: "That silence has such an intensity that a single word or gesture carries with it both the full richness of its meaning and also the overtones of the unknown . . . the constant human need to recapture the experience of being."
I am an actor whose passion has long been the universal works of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. My love of classical theatre brought me to London, where I lived for five and a half years during which time I steeped in some of the world's most extraordinary and exhilarating theatre. It was also there that the longing for teachings of the world's great mystics was born in me. So my great loves, of theatre and of God, found companionship in one another.
There came a time when my desire for a brilliant career in London theatre diminished-although my love of Shakespeare and Greek plays remains untouched-and in recent years I have felt moved to create a piece of theatre that manifests out of my own inner landscape, prayers and questions.
I have a passion to create sacred theatre, whose very roots are embedded in adoration, "prasad" for the Gods, if you will. Sacred theatre invites the "invisible" to be made manifest in the visible human on stage. In this, the actor bows before the great Mystery of the present moment. This is the essence of theatre as well as life. The actor is continually renewed and resurrected by a sense of awe before life and its mystery. And then the actor must ask, "Who is acting?" "Who acts me?" "And how still and quiet and transparent can I be for this mystery?"
Burning Questions We live in an age of great apathy, complacency, and desensitization, where feelings themselves are in danger of becoming extinct. Genocide and poverty are so commonplace they cease to shock. How can THEATRE serve in such a world?
The answer is clear. Theatre serves when, like the pure essence of the world's great mystics, it adores The Divine-in God, in nature and in all humanity. Theatre serves by showing us live beings on the stage who know that humanity is not yet lost; who sound the deepest notes of human possibility; who exalt the freedom, dignity, breadth, beauty and triumph of the human spirit. Theatre also serves by offering up truth. It is not by accident that artists are often the first silenced and suppressed when a dictatorship seizes power. But most significantly, theatre serves by inviting our awareness to that which is untouched by the heartbreak of our world-the loss, impermanance, terror and suffering-and leads us back to the streaming, shining godhead.
For myself, I wanted to create a piece of art as "puja," an offering to The Divine Mother, an attempt to reflect her own face of Creation and Destruction, a journey of Her mysteries and Her beauty, compassion, peace and justice embodied in movement and sound imagery. So this play is dedicated to She Who Hears the Cries of the World, the Mother Womb, the Eternal Silence, the Lady of the Largest Heart, the Tree of Life.
A Theatre of Dreams The creation of my theatre piece began with a recurring dream. Sleeping safely next to my lover, I would have a nightmare in which I was awakened in the middle of the night by fists pounding on the door. Masked military men would burst into the room, my love would be forcibly taken to torture, and I would be raped. Awakening from this dream in anguish, I knew that some woman, anywhere, in Guatemala, or Bosnia, or Los Angeles, was sleeping safely next to her beloved one only to be awakened in real time by fists pounding on her door and the real horror that followed . . .
. . . I began to wonder if I could create a piece of theatre, a Dove of Peace that could fly from my belly . . .
Not long after these dreams began, I heard a very moving story about His Holiness the Dalai Lama. While giving teachings on compassion in India, a monk rushed in to whisper something to him. He listened intently, then hung his head and wept. "Last night the Chinese tortured 100 monks and nuns. Now...let us pray for the Chinese."
And then I came across this ancient text: "I am a voice speaking softly…I dwell within the Silence…I descended to the midst of the underworld and I shone down upon the darkness. It is I who poured forth the Water. I am the one hidden within the Radiant Waters. I am the one who gradually dawns on the All…I am the image of the Invisible Spirit. I am the Womb that gives shape to the All. By giving birth to the Light that shines in splendor."-Trimorphic Protennoia
Again and again I returned to my own heart's struggle with suffering and compassion and separation and union; the beautiful ache and poignancy of impermanance; my desire to feel freedom inside of me no matter what my life's circumstances were; and my love of Silence and the Divine Mother. But mostly, what arose was the willingness and resistance for my heart to break open and burn.
"The choice: memory or oppression," said Milan Kundera. The poet Rilke urged, "You must give birth to your images. They are the future waiting to be born." In the spirit of these admonitions, I gathered the images of my heart and imagination and began to weave them together, marrying them with text and music and movement. How to find the metaphors to express the questions, longings and revelations of things so true yet 'invisible' was the work of many, many months in the studio. So much inspired my trembling heart as this piece began to find its own life-blood.
It is said it was in this very garden that Mary received the breath of the angel and a dove winged into her womb.
It is said that here Kuan Yin gathered nectar from the spring to fill her vase for benediction.
It was here, they say, that Kali Ma danced barefoot, trampling fear and illusion into ash.
And here, too, Isis found her dead beloved hidden in the trunks of trees. And everything in this garden was touched by the eternal silence-deep and vast and shimmering.
Barbed Wire and Bones After a series of many night dreams, I devoured books and films about genocide and made an expedition to the United Nations and Amnesty International in New York City. There I poured over photographs and case studies and documents, gazing through the bullet-proof glass, trying to understand the torturing, the tortured and the torturer. A woman explained to me that many who torture do so because of the very real fear that they or their families would be victims if they were not perpetrators. Children have been forced to torture their own parents, fathers to rape their own daughters. I came away utterly shattered by what I saw, lost my innocence and have never been the same.
Back into the light of the street to catch a bus to the West Village, I lacked the correct change and a Hispanic woman handed me money-I wept with this unexpected and gentle kindness. I left New York with two books: A Glimpse of Hell and Voices for Freedom, but I can only read little bits at a time. I make heart-felt promises to myself: to be fully present to what I am reading and to not avert my eyes from the suffering; to tithe a percentage of profits from performances to Amnesty; to allow these images to inspire creative, active and hopeful responses to the suffering rather than soul deadening feelings of overwhelm and despair-I am speaking here as both a human being and an artist. I continue to hear stories from refugees from Bosnia, Tibet and Iraq, and their absolute dignity and still-present capacity for joy profoundly moves me.
Creation, Destruction, Resurrection The container of text, tableaux, song, and movement processions is all for the hopeful language of the human heart. I work with contradictions and juxtapositions, as in life, with longing and love and fear and hate and brutality and compassion, all co-existing side by side.
The creation of source material from research, dreams, and images is one of giving birth to material, then cutting away what is unnecessary or extraneous, and praying for resurrection out of the ashes. The thousands of hours of improvising with the material-text, music, dances, images, actions-become distilled into one hour and fifteen minutes of juxtaposed material in a dramaturgical journey.
The creation of the scenic design is much the same-I begin with many, many props and ideas for the setting-and then much is stripped away. The idea for the design began on a Mary pilgrimage in Ireland where it was not uncommon for her shrines and holy wells to be surrounded by barbed wire and signs warning: "Keep Out," "Do Not Enter," and "Don't Touch." It was shocking to view the lonely figure of Mary, her hands open in beneficence, inviting us to a place that none could enter save, of course, in my own heart.
For the costume of Everywoman, I use my black scarf, worn by my friend as we washed her dead lover's body in the morgue. I wear my black dress, worn in Los Angeles during the days I received teachings on compassion and the Bodhisattva vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was during those same days that I cried tears of grief as the man I adored was leaving me.
There were countless calls trying to find realistic looking bones and skulls to use for props; then a man in New York explained in a hushed voice that he could get me some real ones-for a price-smuggled in from the killing fields of Cambodia. I was stunned.
It Begins in Silence Darkness. Silence. Then the sound of breath. The ocean. The voice of The Mother who dwells within the Silence. The Mother of the World enters in the darkness bringing with her the Tree of Life, Light in a burning lantern, and Sound in a ringing bell. She is pregnant and she sings and dances exultantly in creation and destruction and resurrection, as she births the River Of Life-the river which is Everything at once: joy, grief, loss, beauty, terror, suffering, longing, compassion . . . the river of water, light, tears, blood, fire, moonlight, sewage, birth, death. She blows on the river and it takes life from her breath-images and sounds of humanity emerge-a child being born, the first requiem, the Burning Bush, the one in the garden, the first breaking of a heart, making love…
The scenario moves to twilight in a desecrated temple. It could be anywhere in the world in a time of war. There is a Live Tree, a Dead Tree, a River, a Spring, and a Stone Altar. Barbed wire. A broken statue of the Mother. The sounds of warplanes and sirens. Searchlights. And there are ancestors' voices praying in the wind. A woman runs in, breathless, seeking refuge. She is dressed in black-a black dress and headscarf, boots and coat-like any woman. Like Everywoman.
Thus begins the woman's journey from twilight, through midnight, and on to the first light of dawn. Everywoman asks herself, "What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?" Her inner and outer journey requires that she bring everything, offer EVERYTHING to the Dead Tree in the garden-the water from the spring, the rose petals from the garden, the bones of her dead husband, the ash of nuclear devastation, the tears of her broken heart, her prayers, the lily of Annunciation, her passion, her joy, her dance . . . everything, everything, everything-the objects are all metaphors for her own heart's offerings.
Within this garden and temple she meets others. There is The Seer who gathers the bones of the dead ones and sings their prayers like an oracle. There is a Spirit of Hiroshima. There is Isis resur-recting her lover's bones with her tears. She proffers her breast to a Wounded Angel. A weeping Lament counts her endless rosary of pearls of grief.
Everywoman's own epiphany comes in meeting Mary in her moment of Annun-ciation where she leaps out of herself and her story into the divine presence. She speaks the words of Mary Oliver, "When death comes, I don't want to end up simply having visited this world. When it's over I want to say: All my life I was the bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms."
Toward the play's ending, Everywoman must make the journey down the river to the Dead Tree carrying on her back every grief and loss, every love and joy. She carries a single lit taper and must reach the tree in the wind without the candle blowing out. It extinguishes. She must go back. Again. Again. And yet again. And she moves toward her tree with her memories of Pure Being . . .
Light shimmering on water.
The wind through the pines. Grace before supper. Making love beneath the cold night stars. My loved one asleep next to me. Dancing naked in the sea. Wonder. Awe. The passing of the meteor. The moon in the river. The red of the maple. The invisible hand stroking my forehead. Silence. The kindness of a stranger. Now…Now…Now…
At last, she lays down beneath the lit taper on the tree and rests. Just Being. She sleeps, then awakens with the glimmer of new dawn. She watches the light fill the world and she speaks, "The world appears before my eyes and fills my heart. At last the human eye gazes to Heaven no more, for Heaven is now here below. I place this moment here."
She dances the dance of a heart endlessly opened, so open that the Beloved dances in this naked, burning heart speaking these words of Rumi: "This we have now is not imagination. This is not grief or joy. Not an elation or sadness. Those come and go. This is the presence that doesn't." She dances in abandon, as a river becoming the sea, as the sea becoming her heart on fire, her burning heart-broken open with the suffering and joy and compassion and adoration, with the "transforming mercy of accepted heartbreak," as Andrew Harvey suggests.
Everywoman leaves the temple, her own heart lighting a way in the dark as she speaks the words of Kathleen Raine: "Because I love there is a river flowing all night long. Because I love all night the river flows into my sleep. 10,000 living things are sleeping in my arms, and sleeping wake, and flowing are at rest. And again, out of darkness and silence and breath, The Mother returns, resting with us before this Blazing Tree and these Burning Hearts. Shall we go by the way of our hearts? By the light of our burning, blazing love?"
Gwynne Allyn Warner is the founder and Program Director for ACTS OF COMPASSION (a non-profit which facilitates teachers, activists, performing artists, writers and humanitarians in creating projects devoted to love-in-action) and the Artistic Director of THEATRE OF THE INVISIBLE (a collective of artists who seek to create uncompromising, epic and ecstatic theatre of the highest caliber). Both of these projects affirm the freedom, dignity, breadth, and triumph of the human spirit. She also offers actor training in Shakespeare, Greek Tragedy, Sacred Theatre and Mask Work; as well as Wild Prayer, Evenings of Rumi and Hafiz, and Rituals of Compassion at The Sanctuary in Portland. For more information about these activities as well as performances of BURNING HEART, please contact Gwynne at 7510 SW Miles Place, Portland, OR 97219 or: