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Working on the Inside

Charles Wright reviews Retta Blaney's new book of interviews with actors on the subject of spirituality and religion.

By New York City
Retta Blaney, a theater journalist whose byline is familiar to readers of the National Catholic Reporter, used to cover education, business, and politics. On those beats, she reports, she "never encountered anyone...who spoke about spiritual matters in relationship to their careers." Blaney concedes that many people she interviewed back then -- bankers, lawyers, teachers, and civil servants -- may have been religious but they weren't forthcoming about that subject. "It was as if they had compartmentalized their lives," she writes, "reserving weekdays for work and weekends for religious thoughts and practices."

In her new book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 178 pp., $17.95), Blaney describes how much more communicative performers are regarding their religious affections. "A great many actors think of their work as spiritual, especially when they are doing theater," Blaney observes. Her book is the product of a year of interviewing thespians, members of the clergy, and theologians who have a special interest in drama. During that year, Blaney concentrated on why performers are unusually open to the notion of transcendence and apt to make a priority of meditation, prayer, and worship. In partial answer to that question, she quotes one of her interview subjects -- the Rt. Rev. Catherine S. Roskam, suffragan bishop of New York -- as saying that actors' training and craft involve the same kind of introspection that is required in a spiritual odyssey. According to Roskam, "You have to find everything within yourself for an entire cast of characters of human emotions. It's like what the Desert Fathers believed -- we carry within us the seeds of all humanity."

Working on the Inside is a ruminative tour around the common ground of artistic expression and religious observance. Blaney divides the book into 10 chapters, each devoted to one of 10 topics she identifies as "elements of the universal spiritual life." These are faith, ritual, silence, prayer, self-knowledge, community, hospitality, transformation, listening, and the phenomenon of being "present" to experience or sensation -- or, in actors' jargon, being "in the moment." The author has managed to consult an impressive array of marquee names, among them Kristin Chenoweth, Dudu Fischer, Edward Herrmann, Michael McElroy, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, and Vanessa Williams. She has also interviewed interesting personalities outside the mainstream -- for instance, the founder of a performance collective; a woman whose career combines the functions of rabbi, actor, and dramatist; and an actor, Casey Groves, who has made a specialty of playing Father Damien, the Belgian missionary to the lepers of Hawaii. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the performers, trained to speak dialogue written by others, offer commentary that's less provocative on the whole than that of the interviewees formally schooled in theology and the pastoral arts.

Some of Blaney's interlocutors describe their modes of communing with the divine; others relate what they find religious about performing and what's theatrical about worship. Many explain how they remain "centered" or "grounded" in a hard-knock vocation and a frenetic society. Blaney is adept at conveying the disparate voices of her interview subjects and she lets them speak with a minimum of authorial mediation. She is not, however, an invisible journalist; from time to time, she interrupts her reporting with unattributed statements that, presumably, reflect her own views. "Our originality comes from our discovery of who we are created and called to be," her text counsels at one point. And, at another: "Silent prayer and meditation are the best ways to listen to God." In instances such as these, Blaney appears to be speaking on her own account and to be capitulating to the muse of self-help literature.

The most engaging part of Working on the Inside is Blaney's interview with Vanessa Williams. This section stands out, in part, because the details of Williams's career are dramatic but also because of the actress's indisputable charisma. Just as she grabs one's gaze on stage, Williams commands attention as an interview subject here. Hers is a saga of talent, ambition, hard work, and endurance. And, as recounted here, Williams' biography reflects enduring values: patience, concentration, serenity, a loving attitude toward family and friends. Blaney's use of Williams to embody a particular spiritual quality illustrates the way in which Working on the Inside is constructed.

Williams grew up in a predominantly white suburb of New York City. At an early age, she set her sights on Broadway but initially attained fame as a beauty queen -- the first black Miss America. Williams surrendered her crown in the maelstrom that ensued when arty photographs for which she had posed in the nude fell into the hands of the press. Her year's reign as Miss America was almost up when she resigned and she weathered the scandal to find success, while still quite young, as a pop vocalist. She finally made it to Broadway as Chita Rivera's replacement in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a decade after the Miss America debacle.

For Blaney, Williams represents the spiritual virtue of "self-knowledge": She understood from an early age what she wanted to accomplish and what her capacities would permit her to do. Blaney quotes Williams on the subject of Broadway stardom: "I never doubted it would happen. I knew I could sing, dance and act. If I wasn't talented, I don't think my parents would have encouraged me and given me the tools. I never sat down and tried to decipher why. I just knew I'd get there eventually." Blaney writes that Williams, "[l]ooking back on her journey to Broadway" during the 2002 run of Into the Woods, refers to "the irony that she, who was such a determined student of musical theater, should be first famous for being a beauty queen. 'The fact is that I'm now on Broadway doing what I wanted to do 20 years ago. It would have been quicker and I would have been taken more seriously quicker if I hadn't been Miss America. Obviously, that was my path. It all happened for a reason.'"

Entertaining as it is, Blaney's portrayal of Williams -- like her profiles of many of the other interview subjects -- yields little insight as to the psychology of religious spirituality. This is indicative of the book's weakness. Working on the Inside purports to examine objectively the spiritual lives of a broad sample of actors. More homiletic than journalistic, it offers instead a series of meditations, devotional in nature, on the 10 spiritual categories that the author establishes in her introduction. The book's title comes from an exchange that Blaney had with an actor whose professional advancement has been slow. When she inquired how he weathers the "ups and downs" of his career without becoming dispirited, the actor replied that he works on the inside. "When I asked him to explain," Blaney writes, "he said: 'I've got to breathe, pray, meditate, and focus on the day.'"

Blaney is the founder of Broadway Blessing, an annual inter-faith worship service that's conducted in midtown Manhattanto mark the commencement of each new theater season. In that capacity and in her book, she displays a keen appreciation for the value that religious groups and individuals place on community life and activity. Though a veteran journalist, she writes unabashedly from the perspective of faith. In Working on the Inside, she has compiled observations -- some intriguing, many touching, others banal -- from people firm in their religious beliefs and in the modes of their religious observance. The book is likely to enrich the devotional practice -- the "inside" work -- of readers already engaged in a quest for the numinous but it falls short of the promise in its subtitle. Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors doesn't go very far toward illumining the mysteries of spirituality for those struggling to grasp, from the outside, what religious experience is about.


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