A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF’s “Alice in Wonderland”

A Panel Discussion of Dreams and OSF's "Alice in Wonderland" by Kelly BulkeleyBefore going to bed each night after a long day of rehearsals, the director of “Alice in Wonderland” wrote a letter, sealed it, and put it under her pillow. The letter was addressed to her theatrical hero, Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), a revolutionary figure on the American stage whose adaptation of the Alice stories was first presented in the early 1930’s at the Civic Repertory Theater in New York City, which she founded with the mission of providing the highest-quality dramatic artistry for the widest possible audience.

The director, Sara Bruner, has for many years been one of the brightest creative lights at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a variety of acting roles.  The Le Gallienne adaptation of “Alice” is her first major directing opportunity at OSF, and she devised this pre-sleep practice of writing pillow missives as a way to gently soothe and channel her anxieties before sleep.  She would write to Le Gallienne about the challenges of the day, the unique demands of the production, and her creative hopes for the future.

This was one of the many intriguing insights to emerge from the panel discussion held at the recent regional meeting of the International Association for the Study of Dreams in Ashland, Oregon, May 31 to June 2. The panel was on Sunday morning and feature an ideal line-up: Sara, the director; Emily Ota, the actor who performs as Alice; and Amrita Ramanan, the director of literary development and dramaturgy at OSF who helps Sara and the cast with the broader story-telling context of the “Alice” tales. Several people were curious about the role of the dramaturg in a theatrical production, and it was fascinating to hear Amrita describe the many ways in which she enhances the whole creative enterprise. It made me think of a dream studies analogy: at some level, a dramaturg enables what Jung called the process of amplification, helping the dreamer (or cast) recognize the concentric circles of biographical, cultural, historical, and mythological meanings surrounding the dream (or play), all as a way of enhancing its unique significance right now.

We did not record the session, alas, because we wanted to allow for more spontaneity in the discussion. (Passing microphones around in a small room is awkward, especially with professionals who are trained to project their natural voices.) But the panel certainly made it clear that the intersection of dreams and theater is a lively space for deep discussions about the nature of creativity, imagination, and the lived experience of an artistic life.

The panel was enhanced by Bernard Welt, a long-time IASD member and emeritus professor of Film and Humanities, who co-facilitated with me. Angel Morgan, the local host of the weekend gathering, also helped by asking great questions, as did Isaac Taitz, Stanley Krippner, and David Gordon.

In response to one of Isaac’s questions, everyone on the panel said they experience anxiety dreams about their work in the theater.  Emily even said she has found the appearance of such dreams to be an expected part of learning a new role: once she starts having nerve-wracking dreams about it, she knows the role has begun to sink in.

The panel also discussed at some length the stagecraft used to generate a sense of magical dreaminess in “Alice.” Without revealing any spoilers, I would say that Sara’s approach is deceptively brilliant, like a master class in the cognitive psychology of perception: it uses the simplest objects, shapes, and gestures to elicit in the audience a maximal response in their imaginations, prompting them to creatively join with the performers in (re-)telling a classic yet eternally new story.

This will not be the last such gathering to discuss dreams and theater with OSF artists. The annual conference of the IASD is scheduled for Ashland in 2021 (June 13-17), and there will likely be additional regional gatherings between now and then.  Think about coming to join us….

New Dream Research in 2019

New Dream Research in 2019 by Kelly BulkeleyDreaming, play, theater, science, religion, social and political crisis.

Jung, Freud, Shakespeare, a troupe of immigrant artists, Alice in Wonderland, Lucrecia de Leon, the US President.

These are the topics and the people I will be discussing most frequently in a series of presentations lining up for 2019.  Each presentation will speak directly to the interests of a particular audience, and each one will also connect to the other talks I’m giving in ways that I hope will lead to a greater interwoven whole.

(All of these conferences and gatherings are still in the planning stages, so details may change.)

 

Society for Psychological Anthropology

Biennial Meeting, Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

April 4-7

This will be part of a panel on “New Directions in the Anthropology and Psychology of Dreaming” organized by Robin Sheriff and Jeannette Mageo.

“Dreaming, Play, and Social Change”

This presentation offers a novel theory of dreaming—as a highly evolved form of play—and discusses its implications for new research in psychology and anthropology. The theory integrates findings from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, religious studies, and developmental psychology (especially D.W. Winnicott). This approach moves beyond the fruitless debates over the “bizarreness” of dreaming. From the play perspective, bizarreness in dreaming is a feature, not a bug. In dreams the mind is free to play, to explore, imagine, and envision new possibilities beyond the limits of conventional reality. Of special interest to anthropologists, the content of dreams, i.e., what people playfully dream about, mostly revolves around social life. Many of the cognitive abilities vital to waking sociality are also present in dreaming, which correlates with research showing that dream content accurately mirrors people’s most important waking relationships. In some instances, dreaming goes beyond mirroring the social world to actively striving to transform it; the playfulness intensifies, and the dreaming imagination labors to create something new, to go beyond what is to imagine what might be. This visionary potential is often activated during times of social conflict and crisis. Three brief examples will illustrate the playful dynamics of dreaming in relation to a crisis in the dreamer’s community: 1) the prophecies of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Spain; 2) the creatively inspiring “big dreams” of a group of immigrant artists; and 3) the politically-themed dreams of present-day Americans about their current President.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Regional Conference, Ashland, Oregon

May 31 to June 2

This is the general description of the event, which I am helping to host with Angel Morgan. On Saturday morning I will give a talk on the role of dreams in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” both of which will be performed that weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“Theater, Dreams, and Art”

Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage” and Carl Jung wrote that a dream is theater in which the dreamer is the scene, player, prompter, producer, author, public, and critic. The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable. They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world. Many talented artists, as well as everyday creative people, have said they feel the same kind of freedom to explore their emotions in dreams that they do when they have an encounter with the artistic process. Many often connect the two by first logging their dreams, then drawing on the raw emotional content and imagery from their dream experiences to feed their art. That said, bridging dreams with theater and art tends to offer a wide variety of fascinating approaches. In this conference we hope to inform and inspire dreamers of all ages and backgrounds, as well as those who use theater, dreams, or art in their work, such as: parents, psychologists, therapists, counselors, writers, actors, directors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians.

For more information, click here.

 

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Annual Conference, Kerkrade, the Netherlands

June 20-26

This is part of a panel I am organizing with Svitlana Kobets and Bernard Welt on “Visionary Dreams in Art, Religion, and History.”

“Vision and Prophecy in the Dreams of Lucrecia de Leon”

This presentation explores the visual imagery, religious symbolism, and prophetic warnings contained in the dreams of Lucrecia de Leon, a young woman from 16th century Madrid who was persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition as a traitor and heretic, despite the fact that many of her dream warnings came true.

This is part of a panel Jayne Gackenbach is organizing on the interplay of artistic practice and scientific inquiry.

“Dreaming Is Play: A Bridge Between Art and Science”

This presentation offers a theory that dreaming is a kind of play, the imaginative play of the mind during sleep.  This theory has directly inspired me in new activities with art and artists: supporting regional theater, collaborating with the Dream Mapping Troupe, and cultivating a forested dream library.

For more information, click here.

 

American Academy of Religion

Annual Conference, San Diego, California

November 23-26

This is a “call for papers” topic that will soon be posted by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) group of the American Academy of Religion, and open for submissions from all AAR members. If the CSR steering committee receives enough good proposals on this topic, there will be a panel session at the conference in San Diego with three or four presentations.

“Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) Approaches to Dreaming”

The rise of psychology of religion in the early 20th century was driven in part by Freud’s and Jung’s efforts to understand the nature of dreams. What would a new 21st century approach to dreams look like, using the resources of CSR? Specifically, to what extent do cognitive functions known to operate in religious contexts (e.g., memory, imagination, metaphor, teleological reasoning, social intelligence, agency detection, dual-systems cognition) also operate in dreaming? To what extent does this shed new light on the various roles that dreams have played in the history of religions (e.g., theophany, healing, prophecy, moral guidance, visions of the afterlife)? Proposals are welcome that draw together detailed accounts of religiously significant dreaming with specific CSR concepts and theories.

For more information, click here.

 

 

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly BulkeleyIn August of 1991 I joined a group of dream researchers from the U.S. and Western Europe on a journey to Golitsyno, a conference center just outside Moscow in the former Soviet Union, where we planned to meet several Soviet researchers for a gathering organized by Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak.  Just hours after our plane landed in Moscow on August 19, the airport was suddenly shut down by the Red Army; a military coup against the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, had begun.  All communications with the outside world were cut off.  Our only source of information was the state television, which offered nothing of substance and simply told everyone to stay calm. Alas, we didn’t.  As heavy tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets, our jet-lagged brains struggled to process a surreal mix of fear, disorientation, and uncertainty about where this violent rebellion might lead.

But we had come to Golitsyno to talk about dreams, so that’s what we did, as reality itself took on a strangely dream-like quality.  Amid the various lectures and panel discussions, the most memorable session by far was a workshop on dream theater.  One person shared a dream, the rest of us chose a role to play based on an element from the dream–e.g., a character, object, setting, or emotion–and then we all performed the dream as a group, with the dreamer as the audience.  The process brought out incredible moments of insight, collaboration, creativity, and much-needed comic relief.  We were connecting with each other in a way none of the other conference sessions had allowed.  The attendees spoke a dozen different languages, so every verbal exchange involved a slow and laborious system of translation.  But here in the dream theater, we could act and react to each other immediately, spontaneously, right in the moment.  We found the best way to make sense of a world teetering on the brink of chaos was to play with each other’s dreams.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Among the many vivid impressions from Golitsyno, this workshop gave me a deep and lasting curiosity about the oneiric dimensions of live dramatic performance.  Plays are collective dreams. That has been my hypothesis ever since.  A live theatrical show provides a magical space where people can dream together, where shared imaginal experiences can be created, enjoyed, explored, and amplified.  

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

It turns out this hypothesis has a long history in the psychology of dreaming.  When Carl Jung (1875-1961) taught classes on dream analysis to graduate students at the University of Zurich in the late 1930’s, he told them to start the interpretation of a dream by treating it as the personal theater of the dreamer.  Many dreams have a “dramatic structure” that directly parallels the structure of a theatrical play.  Jung showed his students how to identify four elements commonly found in stage dramas: 1) the locale, where the dream is set and who is present as a character; 2) the exposition, what kind of problem motivates the characters and launches the plot; 3) the peripeteia, how the plot unfolds and changes over time; and 4) the lysis, how the plot ends, with or without a clear resolution.  Analyzing a dream in these terms does not automatically produce a definitive, unambiguous answer.  That was never Jung’s goal.  Rather, his theatrically inspired approach was aimed at opening up new vistas for interpretative inquiry, highlighting potentials for creative growth while making sure the meanings stay grounded in the dreamer’s lived experience.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

The Gestalt psychologist Frederick Perls (1893-1970) took Jung’s approach a step further.  In his workshops and seminars Perls taught his students to reimagine dreaming as a theater of their own minds: “Every part, every situation in a dream is a creation of the dreamer… Every aspect of it is a part of the dreamer, but a part that to some extent is disowned and projected onto other objects.”  Perls emphasized the value of dreams in helping us become more aware of the alienated parts of our psyche, with the goal of eventually embracing those detached elements in a greater whole: “Dreamwork is the royal road to integration.”  By “dreamwork,” Perls meant a process of live psychodrama very similar to what we practiced in Golitsyno.  He asked for the dreamer to narrate his or her experience in the present tense, like a story happening right now, because “we want to bring the dream back to life.”  He gave the dreamer the title of “stage director” for an impromptu dramatic recreation of the dream, with various members of the group serving as characters, settings, and props.  Perls encouraged the performers to engage in spontaneous dialogues, the better to highlight unconscious projections and alienated parts of the psyche.

The dream theater method my colleagues and I learned in Golitsyno was not as directive and goal-driven as Perls’ approach, which focused on the therapeutic effects of provoking confrontations and reconciliations among the various elements of the dream.  Our practice was more open-ended, exploratory, and self-guided; it was not therapy, although it felt deeply therapeutic for many of us.

In his 1984 book Film and the Dream Screen, the literary critic Robert Eberwein used psychoanalytic language to account for the dream-like qualities of watching a movie.  Drawing on Freud’s theory that dreams reveal our earliest childhood memories of total fusion with reality, before there were boundaries between self and other, Eberwein claimed:

“Our experience of film permits us to return to the state of perceptual unity that we first participated in as infants and that we can know as dreamers. The ‘sleep’ in our experience of film, that is, will be seen to return us to the primal sense of unity with our dreams. As a result, we are able to watch and feel a sense of involvement in the images on the screen, the distinction between res cogitans (the mind) and res extensa (external reality) having dissolved as we enter into the oneiric world of film.”   

I don’t entirely agree with his views of early child development (humans are relational beings from the start), but I do believe Eberwein’s approach is helpful in highlighting a powerful dimension of dreaming energy that becomes activated when watching a movie.  Indeed, I believe this argument can be made even more strongly in relation to attending a live theatrical performance, where the visceral immediacy of the drama comes closer than any other art form to invoking the startling beauty and electric intensity of an actual dream.  In a play, the audience and actors share an imaginal space they create and hold together.  Within this space, a story emerges that grows and takes a unique shape according to their dynamic interactions during the performance–the live presence of the actors intensifying the emotional responses of the audience, and the live presence of the audience stimulating the creative talents of the actors.  The best plays are like the best dreams: surprising, decentering, mind-expanding, awe-inspiring, emotionally exhausting, and acutely memorable.  They are unreal, yet realer than real; retreats into fantasy that catapult us into fresh engagement with the world.

Dreaming and Theater: A Dynamic Connection by Kelly Bulkeley

Last year I joined the board of directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, where some of the greatest theater on the planet is being created and performed.  From February to November, eleven plays (usually 4-5 by Shakespeare, one big musical, and the rest original commissions for OSF) are presented in three interconnected theaters.  The 2017 season performances began a few weeks ago, and just recently the 2018 season was announced, with favorable attention to OSF’s passionate commitment to presenting plays, both classic and new, that reflect the full range and diversity of the world in which we live today.  I’m very excited to do what I can to support the members of this amazing artistic community as they weave dreams and cast dramaturgical spells that transport audiences into imaginative spheres of beauty, wonder, and fiercely relevant insight.

 

Notes:

I wrote more about the Golitsyno experiences in a chapter titled “Dreaming in Russia, August 1991,” in my 1999 book Visions of the Night (SUNY Press).  My roommate at the conference center, Michael Dupre, wrote about his experiences in a 1992 article titled “Russia. Dreaming. Liberation.” (Dreaming 2(2): 123-134).

The Jung quotes come from the 2010 book Children’s Dreams (Princeton University Press).

The Perls quotes come from the 1970 book Gestalt Therapy Now (Harper).

In a future post I will write in more detail about the work of Robert Bosnak, who organized the “Dreaming in Russia” conference and who has done extensive work connecting dreams and theater, and Janet Sonenberg, who wrote the 2003 book Dreamwork for Actors and who has worked with Bosnak in theatrical contexts.

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on April 4, 2017, and has been slightly revised.