Posted by: justblade | March 16, 2009

Book Review – The Way of the Actor by Brian Bates

The Way of the Actor: a path to knowledge and power by Brian Bates, Boston: Shambhala Press, 1988

Did you know that when Alec Guinness met James Dean, he predicted that Dean would die within the week? How many actors do you know who have spoken of psychic, telepathic or ‘out of body’ experiences, or even casually mentioned the theatre ghost like it is the most normal thing in the world? What is that strange aura around people who can transform themselves apparently by strength of will to look different even without make up?

Brian Bates is better known for his work on Anglo-Saxon Druidry and shamanism, however he also hold a professorship in psychology at the University of Brighton, University of Sussex and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. The Way of the Actor is a record of the work he has done as a psychologist on the teaching faculty of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art interpolated with insights from interviews with established actors such as Charleton Heston, Liv Ullmann and Marlon Brando.

Bates explores the liminal nature of acting as an experience and as a profession. He delves into the historical love-hate relationship that exists in Western cultures for acting and situates this ambivalence with traditional acting’s connection with the spirit world and traditional shamanic practice. Bates suggests this is due to acting evoking* the spirit or character of another through the actor’s work – in an important way, the actor brings another person present through their performance regardless of whether the intent is ritual, magical or entertainment. Bates identifies this as shamanic due to the connection of such activity with the evocation performed by traditional/shamanic actors, practices which have not been lost to some cultures. Actors, whether they are character or ‘personality’ actors, share themselves with another presence during performance. This is where the liminality comes in.

A significant aspect of the way of the actor, identified as consistent between the personal narratives of many actors and a traditional society’s identification and setting apart of a ‘shaman’**, is that of being different, having an unusual life event or even experienced by others as fey/an outsider, which gives the actor access to other places, the spirit world, or other modes of being (whatever you want to call it).

“We have all felt ourselves to be outsiders at some time, somewhere in our lives. But perhaps this is a more important dimension of the actor’s experience. For, in traditional societies, being an outsider was not only a commin experience for the future actor. It was obligatory … The ‘otherness’, or outsider status, was considered to be the necessary prerequisite which opened the way for the young person to be connected with the spirit-world.” [p. 51]

Actors have a quality of unreality and historically been treated with suspicion because of this connection and their capacity to give so convincing a performance that they are able to deceive the audience as to what is the actor themselves and what is the ‘other’ speaking through them. This has lead to persecution of actors and banning of acting in various eras in christian church history, not only because of the connection with a previous religious tradition.

Bates also gives considerable time to the suspicion of actors and madness. Acting presents, in that traditional setting, the power to heal the rupture that gave rise to the actor’s otherness, that in creating a positive balance to overcome the breach, they heal themselves and become able to “achieve reintegration with the audience” [ibid]. Bates explores the various perceptions of actors as ego-centric, narcissistic and neurotic, utilising comments from actors themselves to dig into the practices that are required to produce good performances which give rise to the notion that actors are crazy. Perhaps the most significant of these is that actors show for all the world to see what most of us know within ourselves, that to some extent “sanity” is a performance we all do. Bates does however also make the important point that the actor (both modern and traditional/shaman) must walk the edge and stay on this side of madness, because the actor is required to be in control and exert balance on the performance.

Arranged through a series of concepts usually identified with that liminal activity of the traditional healer/priest/shaman, Bates presents a convincing picture of the way that actors continue to live this experience, even in the secular Western cultures most of us now inhabit. He sets out how modern actors are experientially connected with those he calls ‘primitive actors’ – presumably to get away in part from the accretions on the word ‘shaman’, but also to specifically identify it as a specific social and ritual role identifiable in shamanic activity but also in traditional theatres such as Noh. He explores such themes as charisma, transformation, seeing, dream, death, rebirth and mystery.

Liminality is not a concept Bates mentions specifically, but it would be a useful one to bring together the experiential and social aspects he explores in the way of the actor. Many of the actors interviewed talk about living on the edge in relation to their performances, and the psychological as well as physical dangers involved in their craft. Bates acknowledges himself as a scientist and the value in the scientific approach to knowledge. Actors, he goes on to suggest, “are more than just cultural luxuries, aesthetic appendages or upmarket entertainers. On the contrary, actors are essential for maintaining vital links with the imaginal world”. [p.204]

The Way of the Actor presents a fascinating study into a different way to connect with non-material/non-local reality in an accessible and ‘non fluffy’ form. It is unlikely to convert the stolidly secular Western skeptic to a mystical worldview, but may consider it an engaging insight into the psychosocial world of the actor.

* evoke – to bring here, in contrast with invoking ‘to call upon’
** I put in inverted commas because I feel the word is overused and has developed connotations in some new-age and pagan circles beyond the role identified in traditional societies.



  1. Another great post! I haven’t read this book but I’ve read Bates’ book The Real Middle Earth and to me it is an essential and foundational heathen text. I have to get The WAy Of The Actor too, I see.

    Reading this review makes me think about my various possession experiences – sometimes when the possession comes on I DO NOT KNOW who I am and I have to sort through the competing modes of sensory experience and crawl towards an identity, be it my usual one or that of the possessing god. In those chasms of identity a whole other experience of reality opens up – I wonder if I could keep myself in that liminal place between selves and see what then happens when I engage with the world around me? Talk about about one foot in MIdgard and one in the Otherworld!

    As always your writing is just awesome.


    • Hey Henry, and thanks 🙂

      I have had a go at The Way of Wyrd and The Wisdom of the Wyrd, and didn’t really get into them. This work, however, I found really engaging. It spoke to a lot of mystic-ish wonderings I had at a time I was involved in an amateur theatre group on top of spiritual experiences I have had while dancing. I’ve always had an interest in ritual drama and he suggests some fascinating openings that are just begging to be accessed and used in a philosophy of Heathen ritual … I think anyway. That’ll be another section of my PhD thesis when I get around to writing it and finding somewhere that’ll accept my proposal!

  2. Hi justblade, many thanks for your thoughtful post and great site. I’m the author of the book you have reviewed. I’m web-browsing in England late at night, and someone had seen your blog and mentioned to me your review of The Way of the Actor. It is unusual to see a review of this book from a Heathen-aware perspective and gives me some really useful feedback. I’ve just started some ‘shamanic acting’ workshops in London (called from Shaman to Actor) with Rachel Karafistan, who wrote a PhD on the subject and now runs a theatre company in Berlin called Cosmino, and we are trying to explore some of the liminal connections between shamanism and performance. I agree with your point about liminality being central to the way of the actor (both activity and the book) and wish I’d done a chapter on it! Thanks again for your thoughtful comments, and also to Henry for his response.

  3. Hi. I found your website looking for info on the author as I’m rereading the book. which I have found insightful and very affirming even though I am not an actor, just someone fascinated by the craft rather than the celebrity. I appreciated your literate review for what could be considered by some a provocative book.

    Are you still updating this blog … I hope so … let me know. Lee from Nova Scotia, Canada

    • Hi Lee and thank you! Much of my writing time has been hijacked by work-related study this year. I aim to get writing more for this blog as the dust settles from that interlude very soon. Cheers, Blade

  4. […] If you’d like to read a review of Bate’s Way of the Actor, you can begin by reading this review by An Opinionated Heathen. […]

  5. Acting can be of (at least) two forms. First, there is an Apollonian form, in the Nietzschean sense. This form requires discipline, both in the sense of control over oneself, such as coordinated fine muscle control, and in the sense of regimented practice and effort. Second, there is a Dionysian form. This form requires imagination and the ability to “let go”–almost such that a possession overcomes you.

    In both forms, however, the actor’s conduct is symbolic. The actor represents, outwardly-focused in the former case and inwardly-focused in the latter, something with his or her body. Indeed, the actor becomes a living symbol.

    In ancient Egyptian religion, physical symbols of gods could become possessed by a god or become the god itself. Some symbols included hieroglyphics written on a wall, anatomical features of a mummy, and temple initiates and even the pharoah himself, This idea of symbol possession influenced later Greek and Syrian Neoplatonic philosophy and theurgy, in which telestike (animation of inanimate statues) replaced logographs and cadavers.

    The Greek term sumbolon, from the verb sumballein (meaning to join or unite), initially denoted half of a whole object. Algis Uzdavinyz compared this to a “tessera hospitalis, which could be joined with the other half in order that two contracting parties… might have proof of their identity.” When the corresponding halves are joined, the symbol changes from halves to a whole–the individual parts are dissolved and a new entity emerges.

    When a person acts, the person performs as one half of the tessera hospitalis; the other is the object of the actor’s focus. (Technically, this may only hold for the Dionysian sense–the verb eikon, not sumballein, would be more appropriate for Apollonian imitation, but the resulting metaphor is the same.) In acting as a half, the actor invites the whole to form.

    The whole that is formed is a matter of correspondence. The idea of sympathy (as in “sympathetic magic”) is ancient and reflects an animistic perspective that we can hardly comprehend. Nonetheless, anyone who has felt the feeling of becoming one with the symbol (or becoming the symbol) will know that, even if it is beyond conventional description, it does occur.

    Thanks for the review.

    AND SHOUT OUT TO GEORGE HANSEN (@paratrickster)! 😀 That’s how I found your review and Mr. Bates’ book.

  6. Parting addition. I found this post while browsing. Actors, consider yourself fleshy statues! 😉

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