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Whatever I’m doing, I start counting my breaths, get into that frame of mind which is that calmness, that focus on breath and complete awareness of exactly where I am.
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST SUSAN BLOOD
Website Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Dan Lombardo recently directed Opus by Michael Hollinger at American Stage Theatre, and Born Yesterday at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where he is currently rehearsing Boeing Boeing. Directing credits include Blithe Spirit at American Stage Theatre, Total Expression for the Boston Theater Marathon, and Zeta by Ilan Stavans and Carlos Morton.
Dan is the Director of the WHAT Lab, a new play development program at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where he has been Dramaturg and Literary Manager since 2005. He is also a research consultant for film, radio, and TV, including such projects as The Irish (a PBS series), The Belle of Amherst (with Claire Bloom, ITV, England), Voices and Visions (13-part PBS series), Malice (Castle Rock Films) and Prairie Home Companion.
The author of 10 books, his latest, Cape Cod National Seashore: The First Fifty Years, has just been published.
Susan Blood (sets up recorder)
Dan Lombardo (mimes that he is going to mime the interview)
Susan B You’re a jerk.
It’s not every day you get to tell the director of a play that he’s a jerk. Nor is it every day you get to call a Buddhist a jerk. Today was my lucky day.
Meet my colleague Dan Lombardo, a Buddhist director – which I think is an oxymoron.
I like Dan because he is one of the funniest people I know. He is also a port in the storm. When everyone is running around with their hair on fire, Dan is a perfect picture of peace. One day I asked him for some of whatever he was on, and discovered it is his practice that keeps him so grounded.
This is what he had to say about the balance of directing and being.
Three little words: ego, ego, ego
Dan Lombardo Being in theater at all as a Buddhist is an amazing practice. Directing as a Buddhist is probably one of the hardest things to do in a way because there’s so much ego involved in theater and you’re playing with ego all the time. Ego is so dramatic. Without the ego, most of life’s drama dissipates. Without ego there wouldn’t be devastating wars and horrible malnutrition because without ego people would be so much more generous and caring. So why have war and why have poverty?
In theater, in order to tell stories the stories always involve ego. And when you have actors – to become an actor you have to have a certain amount ego – they have to be very aware of their ego. When an actor isn’t aware of ego, then their personal life and personal ego is very apparent during rehearsal and can be destructive. Instead of working with the ego so you can really portray ego in your character, that ego can in a sense destroy your character and make other actors very uncomfortable.
So as a director I have to not only be aware of the actors and what they’re going through but to be aware of my own ego. It becomes a battle, as anything in theater can become a battle. But as a director, where I really notice it is when we’ll be working on a scene and an actor will get upset and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” for example.
If my ego is near the surface, I think immediately what he’s saying is that I’m not telling him, I’m not preparing him, I’m not communicating well what he should be doing. Or that what I just asked him to do is so idiotic and so inappropriate for that scene. I can start feeling really foolish, and feel that I’m impersonating a director rather than being a director.
Ever feel like you’re pretending to be you?
In all of our roles, there are times when we feel we’re just impersonating the role we have in life, rather than just being our selves. Being a being and not taking on the label that either we or society gives us.
So instead of being in a rehearsal and thinking “I’m the director,” I try to use my Buddhist awareness and not think “I.” When an actor says something like “I don’t know what I’m doing,“ instead of letting my own ego burst out of my skin, what I try to do is think of the 1st Buddhist vow: Sentient Beings are numberless. I vow to save them.
Whenever I recite that to myself, my attention immediately goes to the other person. And if my practice is going well I can do that immediately, get out of my ego, and think, “How can I help this person?”
What I love about the Buddhist vows is to me they’re impossible.
They’re absurd. They ask you to vow what no human being can possibly do. But in reciting those vows and really attempting to put your mind into making them real, magic things happen. Beautiful things happen.
So if I recite that vow, Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them, suddenly I’m thinking what is that actor saying? Is that actor saying “I don’t understand, help me?” Is that actor hurting in some way? Every time this happens I become a better director. I think less of “I” and think more of if not saving another sentient being, at least helping them. At least thinking in terms of what they need and what their desire is at that point.
Practice keeps me calm when others aren’t
Susan B The first thing I noticed about you was that you were always the peaceful one in the room. How do you manage that?
Dan It’s part of the practice that keeps me calm when others are falling off the edge. One part of Buddhism that helps me is this constant awareness of change. The constant awareness that everything is mutable.
No matter what people are really upset about today, that is going to pass. It’s not as bad as we usually think those moments are. It will pass because of time or it will pass because of distance. Once you get out of the building, down the road, it will all look different.
Having had losses in my own life, and knowing the clarity that comes with loss, I think that helps me have compassion for people who are upset even when they are upset with me. Compassion when, as I witnessed today, someone was critical of someone else in kind of a hurtful way.
I tried to have compassion for both people. That kept me from jumping in where maybe I didn’t belong in a sense. Jumping in and taking sides… It’s always very tempting to do that. To give opinions.
Less judgment, more understanding, a sense of humor
That’s another part of being calm in a business that’s fraught with anxiety and judgment. Is this good, is this bad… Less judgment and more understanding. In the arts, so much of it is about making things better. Once you start using words like “better,” you’re judging.
People, through compassion, are less judgmental of each other, more accepting of input from other people and less threatened by other people, so everybody can feel free to make suggestions and have everyone know it’s just a suggestion. It’s not a criticism.
I can’t be a Buddhist that is a monk and focusing on infinity. I have to be a Buddhist in the real world, and one way to do that is through humor.
Humor is one of the most joyous, healing things about being a human. Whether it’s laughing at other people’s humor – it does something to our bodies and our souls. Making other people laugh does something else. Doing it in a way that is joyous and doesn’t hurt other people is part of my practice because I can tend to be sarcastic and I’ve hurt people. You can easily hurt people through humor without even realizing it.
By keeping the Buddhist vows in mind, it’s taken some of the sting out of my own sense of humor.
Staying focused, staying honest
All four of the vows I use all the time.
The second one, Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them. Theater is so much about desire. Classic American theater is about desire.
One of the things we do to break down a scene is say to an actor, “What is it your character wants in this scene?” It’s desire. Passion. All of those things. As an artist we want that passion. We want to create passion and desire.
In order to do that in the best way – and to do it as a Buddhist – is to keep personal desire out of it and work with artistic desire.
There are days when – this happened the end of last week – I was physically exhausted. Directing takes an enormous amount of focus. The actors were turning to me and asking “where do you want us to go back and run the scene. Where was I standing?”
If I can’t keep my focus, I start feeling horrible about myself.
I think, okay, desires are inexhaustible. Why do I feel horrible about myself and what is it I’m desiring that is not being met? Often it’s that I don’t want people to think I’m not doing a good job. I don’t want people to think I’m not as smart as I want to be. It’s all those desires. I want to be smart, I want to be the one people turn to and get the answer from.
When I recite that second vow, I realize that because those desires in the moment are not being met, that’s what’s making me miserable. Am I desiring the wrong thing? Yes, I am. I’m desiring that my ego be fulfilled in some small way.
Faith in the work
Susan B How do you keep your practice strong?
Dan I think, like everybody, it’s very difficult. Working in theater, schedules are crazy. There’s so much work, so much detail, so much passion and excitement and fear and dread and all of that – it’s very difficult to have that calmness and inner peace. For me it’s been difficult to go to a zendo every week, to really practice and to keep that third jewel there – being part of a zendo. Because I travel a lot, that’s also difficult.
So the way I keep my practice is by trying to practice all the time, which is the ideal way. Which means whatever I’m doing, whenever I can, I start counting my breaths, get into that frame of mind which is that calmness, that focus on breath and complete awareness of exactly where I am and exactly what’s around me.
That pulls me back. That always helps keep my practice going.
My practice is not nearly as deep as it could be or as deep as I want it to be, but in trying to practice at all times – that even means making the work we do in theater as focused and valuable in itself, without judgment on the outside – as possible.
This is one of the hardest things for me as a director, having faith in the work I’m doing and not thinking in terms of “What is this or that reviewer going to say about this? What is anybody else in the company going to think?” That always gets in the way of doing really good work.
When I think of doing work for the sake of the work itself, that’s when I can relax more, get less focused on my own ego, and simply work in the room with the actors. The way for me to get back to having the Buddha within is, whenever I’m alone – driving, walking – is to practice. We’re fortunate to have beaches here. I try every morning to get on the beach and walk, be on a bicycle, anything. I have a hard time sitting alone. I need a zendo.
That’s a long way of saying it’s practice. It’s always practice. It’s never “getting there.” And that’s okay. That’s part of it. It’s part of being human. The urgency of always trying.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.