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Matt Mitler, USA, interviewed by Guy Hoffman
Dzieci Choir St. Johns 2004
GH: Matt, It’s wonderful to be here with you. Looking over your history, you’ve trained in Humanistic and Existential Psychology, studying with R.D. Laing and Carl Rogers. You also have had theatrical experience with Jerzy Grotowsky and the Polish Theatre Laboratory. You have directed more than 50 theatrical productions, traveled extensively throughout Europe and the U.S., and now have your own theatre company, DZIECI (the Polish word for children), but there is no mention of Gurdjieff.
MM: Well, there is a sort of undeclared rule of thumb in the Gurdjieff Work, which is not to proselytize. There is then an opening for a search, for one to come to the Work on one’s own. Or not.
GH: Then let’s start from the beginning. Where were you born?
MM: I was born in Newport, Rhode Island. I lived there for ten years.
GH: Was there anything in those first ten years that left an impression with you on what you wanted to do with your life?
MM: There was a couple of influences. One: my father owned a radio station with a live morning show that operated out of our kitchen. My mother had been an entertainer. So from the time I could speak until I was six years old I was playing straight man to my mother’s Lenny Bruce.
I was very much a loner as a child, lost in my imagination, and did a lot of drawing and creative things. At a very early age my parents put me into the Rhode Island Art Institute. I was the youngest kid there.
And also, we were members of the oldest synagogue in the country. Touro Synagogue. Even though I didn’t have any specific religious feelings, I was struck by the ritual that was presented there and the carriage of the rabbi; his level of being, that I sensed at that age. He was the only Irish rabbi in America.
MM: He was a gracious, stoic man. Rabbi Theodore Lewis.
GH: When did you decide what you wanted to study?
MM: Well, in High School I stayed with Fine Arts although I was interested in creative writing and I appreciated theatre as a spectator. (This was now in Virginia). Some friends said, “Come and do Theatre!” Part of me was quite fascinated with the theatre community and I liked the communal aspect, but part of me was terrified—of remembering lines, standing in front of an audience, not living up to my own expectations, and possible ridicule in the audition process.
During this time, I was pretty unhappy and there was a psychologist at this High School who had a group therapy program for students who were troubled. And not only was I troubled, but I got to skip Spanish class to go to this group.
It was sort of an eye opener and I became extremely interested in psychotherapy. So later, when I went to college briefly, I wanted to study psychology mainly and I was still taking some fine art courses and making films. I chose as my thesis, “Sanity, Madness and Creativity”. As a kid, I was fascinated with Vincent Van Gogh, as he was this artist who was considered both brilliant and mad, and it raised a huge and ongoing question for me. I was also working with handicapped people and seeing the value of art in relation to that.
GH: So, is this what you majored in?
MM: Yes. But I ran into conflicts in the program, which was Interdisciplinary Psych, but leaning heavily on Behaviorism. That was not the psychology I was interested in. I wanted to study the radical psychiatrists, like R. D. Laing, and the Humanist movement; Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers.
During my one year at the University, I saw a notice about a group forming, interested in theatre as a transformative art based upon Gestalt principles. And I was so intrigued with the idea that psychology and theatre could come together.
I was invited to join the group, the Holy Theatre Company, and was pretty much intimidated by everything. I was facing my own incredible tensions and blocks and I knew it was the right thing for me to do. It was very dynamic and confrontational and I sensed it was a certain salvation for me. Up unto this point I was becoming more and more dissatisfied with fine art because I saw it was separating me from other people. And even if I was to be considered a “popular” artist and people would look at my work, it had nothing to do with me. So I sensed that theatre was an art form that was interactive, working with other people, and that it could be, mentally, a healthy thing, and that it was necessary for my development and was something more dynamic than any other therapy and studies I was doing at the University. So, I left.
GH: So, you were there for only one year?
GH: What did you do next?
MM: I joined a professional theatre company, Archaesus Productions, that did original performances but also worked in hospitals. It wasn’t experimental theatre but it provided the therapeutic healing aspects I was interested in.
GH: How did you find your way to Jerzy Grotowski?
MM: I first heard of Grotowski from reading The Empty Space by Peter Brook. And there was, at the same time, a theatre in Washington, D.C. called the Washington Theatre Laboratory. The director had been a student of Grotowski at the Polish Theatre Laboratory. The more I heard about Grotowski and read about Grotowski, I said to myself, “I have to go to the source”. I wanted to study with his lead actor, Ryszard Cieslak. I applied for a grant to study theatre in Poland from the Kosciusko Foundation and got accepted. When I got to the Theatre Lab, there was this training session and a number of people were chosen to go with Cieslak to a castle that Grotowski’s company had in the mountains. Not some posh castle with rugs and chandeliers. There were holes in the floors and holes in the ceiling, walls missing. Grotowski was there part of the time. He was very humble and a sweet person in that context. When we slept on the floor, he slept on the floor next to us.
Once, when we were sitting down at a meal, he was sitting across from me and he looked at me for a long time and he smiled and he took this piece of bread and reached over and put it in my mouth. Which I attached a symbolic meaning to whether it was true or not.
GH: What was that symbolic meaning?
MM: Direct transmission of sorts, as in Tibetan practice—a blessing. Some years later, I was invited to join his company but by that time I was experimenting on my own and studying with other people and it didn’t seem right for various reasons. I felt that what I was looking for really didn’t exist or I hadn’t found it yet.
I took an intensive workshop with Carl Rogers in Europe. And that sort of put the final building blocks in place for me. With Grotowski, there were a lot of personal issues that were involved. It was also very dynamic in making things happen—pushing, pushing. Now, Rogers did nothing. He sat—a silent lesson. Here I am with three hundred professional therapists at what was called an International Group Encounter, I mean, and someone would say, “When is lunch?” and Rogers would say, “When do you want to have lunch?” And there would be a two hour argument when to have lunch.
GH: What was the value, the stepping-stone here in your evolution?
MM: The thing with Rogers was that it all came from me. And if I wanted something from him, I had to ask. No one was going to do anything for you. This was the way.
And it was grueling. The level of tension was so high that six people, professional people, had psychotic breakdowns and had to be taken away in ambulances. You could say that the people who broke down needed to break down, but even within this intense environment of struggle, there was always an amazing sense of nurturing from Rogers. But all action was self-initiated. And the group had to find its own way.
These psychotic breakdowns intrigued me. My theory about institutions was that reform was necessary. I was strongly identified with R.D. Laing’s work with schizophrenics. I believed, even from my early thesis at the University on “Science, Madness and Creativity” that madness sprung from an organic need for personal transformation; a revolutionary transformation. I believed if genuine madness was supported and nourished in a certain way it could be a passage through this sort of dark inner struggle, opening into something light.
If you have a splinter and you let the splinter stay in, and you put a band-aid over it, eventually it will start to fester and you will end up with an infection. I believe that the splinter should come out. I believe that what most therapeutic and, so called, medical facilities, especially those dealing with radical cases—psychosis and schizophrenia, and even what a lot of handicap facilities were doing, is putting a band-aid over a festering sore and not dealing with the real problem.
So all my energy began to go into institutional reform and I began to work with psychotherapists. I was doing staff retraining at different psychiatric hospitals. I would come in—this arrogant kid—and take professional therapists and put them through non-verbal training in creativity and self-expression. In the end, I felt I was almost doing nothing, except for hitting my head against the wall. I still had form and structure and habit against me. I became more and more disillusioned with the way institutions were run.
GH: Where did you go from there?
MM: I went on to teaching and leading my own workshops, mostly in Amsterdam and Germany, where I became much more client centered; which is taking it from the person’s own measure, a Rogerian approach. Large numbers of people were traveling from many different countries to study with me.
GH: When you were in these foreign countries, did you speak the language?
MM: Let’s back up. When I was this theatre company in Washington we did work in hospitals. I would go to a facility and design a program. And this was from anything like a maximum-security psych hospital for the criminally insane to spina bifida babies, to the deaf and blind. So when I went to Europe, I had already seen the therapeutic value in mime. To me it was silent communication. I was beginning to have an interest—is there a commonality, in the therapeutic sense, that could be created for the schizophrenic, the blind, the deaf, a normal audience, children and adults? Is there something common?
So the performance I created was a loosely structured, improvisational piece that could work with all those different audiences. My workshops were all non-verbal.
GH: So how did you find the Gurdjieff Work?
MM: Okay. Now I have a belief in art as a kind of a vehicle; I know that I have to work on myself. What I kept seeing in the Holy Theatre Company and in my work with Grotowski and Rogers was—I kept seeing my own barriers. So here it is—what do I do, where do I seek help?
I was looking for something more specific in the Spiritual World. And my interest was in ritual. I’d been finding rituals and creating rituals on my own. My performances and workshops were ritualistic. And I was very interested in Native-American Shamanic traditions, and there was a woman who was in a theatre ensemble I had in Amsterdam, who talked about living in New Mexico and being the only woman invited into a Kiva and having a special relationship with the Peyote Chief there. And I said I would love to go. She brought me a plastic tube and said, “These are sacred feathers, bring them to the Peyote Chief in Taos”.
GH: Wait a minute. She gave you feathers to take to New Mexico?
MM: Yes. And here I am in Amsterdam.
GH: Right. (Laughing).
MM: Yes. I said, “YES!” So I went back to the East Coast and was doing theatrical work in Washington and I said, okay, I’m going to hitch hike to New Mexico. And of course there’s no straight line in hitch hiking. I got on a train at one point and ended up in Santa Fe. I left the feathers at the train station and went back to get them—they were still there.
I met someone through someone from Boston when I was teaching workshops there who said, come visit my friend. I got there and there was this couple living in, uh, you know, a nudist house. Then I was hitch hiking and found someone not going to Taos, but going in the opposite direction to a multi-cultural anti-nuclear demonstration. I said, “Well, I’ve got to go to that”.
GH: (more laughter)
MM: So I went to that and spent three or four days eating only apples and getting completely, you know, tranced out on apples and everything else. The guy who gave me the ride there was studying Eastern medicine and healing and he was living in some spiritual retreat in the mountains, and he said, “Come visit me sometime”. I said, “I’ve got to deliver these feathers”.
GH: These feathers were supposed to go to ….?
MM: Henry Gomez. So I make it to Taos Pueblo. When I would ask where Henry Gomez was, no one would answer. It was like saying he was a leper or that he eats human flesh. Finally someone said, “He’s over there”.
There’s a little house and there’s couple of kids, like twelve years old or something, shooting 22s at tin cans on a ledge. I say I’m looking for Henry Gomez. And he’s their father—“He’ll be here at the end of the day.” So I hang out. So they said, “Do you want to shoot?” I say, “Yeah, okay”. So I’m shooting up tin cans and hanging out, and hanging out, and hanging out. Finally, Henry Gomez comes in. I mean he’s rough; he’s got hands like a gorilla; these big hands with calluses on them. He shakes my hand and I give him the feathers. He opens them up and says, “Eh”, and walks away.
MM: My God, where’s the invitation, where’s the gold star, don’t I get something? At least, “I’ll tell you everything you wish to know, my son”. So, at a certain point his brother comes in. It turns out that they’re all going to a Peyote Lodge somewhere in Colorado for someone who has died. He walks up to me and says, “I know what you’re here for. You’re here to find out about Peyote Lodge”. I say, “YES!” He says, “We’re going to one tomorrow, but you can’t come with us”.
GH: (more laughter)
MM: “You will find it”.
GH: (laughing) I love this story.
MM: Here I come half way across the country; I’ve had all those adventures and I’m just stupefied. In Taos I had met a young girl who said, if I needed a place to stay, she had a tepee in her backyard for me to sleep in. I took her up on it. She said, “I’m going to a party tonight, do you want to go?” So I go to this party and meet this guy, and he’s from my High School area in Virginia, and we talk about why I’m there, and he says, “I’m going to a Peyote Lodge tomorrow, do you want to come?”
Three elders from another tribe came, in the middle of the night, to bless our lodge. I don’t want to go into detail about the ceremony of the lodge, but it spun my head around a hundred and eighty degrees in much the same way as the work with Grotowski did. So my search continued, intensified.
I ended up in New York and was seeing a girl who was troubled in many ways and was meeting with this man once a week. Over the course of time I could see a change in her. She became more grounded. She wasn’t as fidgety; she could communicate more clearly; she seemed to be happier. And I started asking questions about this man she was meeting with. She said, “If you’re interested, I could see if he would meet with you”. So I met with this man and it was somebody who was a Group Leader in the Gurdjieff Foundation.
GH: Once you got into the Foundation, what was it about the Gurdjieff Work that you felt was what you were searching for?
MM: It seemed to have elements that I believed in already—that I had found in other paths. The formalness of it I actually appreciated after a certain sort of anarchistic way with some of the shamanic leaders I had studied with in N.Y. There seemed to be sort of checks and balances on the process. I liked the sense that I was in a “school”. And, of course, I thought I could do everything in the beginning but soon found that I couldn’t. After a certain period of time I began to see imbalances in myself that I had not taken care of. Seeing the development that I thought I had undertaken was only in certain centers but not harmonious development. I wished to be more. The Work provided me with a concrete system for, what I believe is our essential aim: to become human. I’ve been through many changes and attitudes about the Work over the past sixteen years, but it has remained my active practice and has always been of great value to me.
There are two articles by Matt at GIG called Fools Mass and The Devils of Loudun and
The Word Made Flesh.
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