The dharma of theater - BlueStone Press
May 6, 2021

The dharma of theater

Local theater luminary Joanna Rotté talks theater, meditation and diving into the story of 8th-century yogini, Yeshe Tsogyal

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Theater. Coming out of the pandemic, the world feels almost clandestine. Among all the artistic mediums hit hardest of the year, live theater has the dubious honor of being at or near the top of the list. At the very heart of theater is the communal experience of being in one room and the energetic exchange between actors and audience that takes place as they journey through a singular event. However, theater is no stranger to change. Always nimble, theater has found a way to survive and thrive through political revolutions and suppression, sky-high theater row rents, streaming video services, and now, a pandemic. While there are certainly challenges to bringing live theater to the virtual world of Zoom, it has also afforded unparalleled access to performance art for artist and audience members alike. As part of Sky Lake’s online “Dharma: Art & The Artist” series, veteran actor, director, writer and teacher Joanna Rotté will be holding a session entitled “Portraying The Tantric Queen” and will be performing an excerpt from her show “ALL VICTORIOUS OCEAN: The Noble Life of Yeshe Tsogyal, Tantric Yogini.” Facilitated by local poet and conversational guru Eric Archer, the evening promises to be one that uplifts, connects and inspires.  

Rotté was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, into the household of natural born storytellers. Her father, who loved to sing and sang in clubs, encouraged Rotté at a young age to pursue a career that would amplify her voice. “My father encouraged me to do something professionally that used speech and language and voice,” says Rotté. “That was a kind of deviation from what women were supposed to be doing at that time; teaching or nursing.” It was before high school that Rotté truly discovered theater when she performed the lead in a play through the Girl Scouts. In high school Rotté discovered Shakespeare when she auditioned for one of the female roles at the Queen’s Men theatre club at the all-boys school and got the role. Helming the program was Father Clarence Joseph Rivers – who is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of African American musical liturgy. “He was a musician who fell in love with Shakespearean language,” explains Rotté. Rivers became Rotté’s first mentor and would spend her high school years performing two shows a year under his direction – a Shakespeare production in the fall and an American comedy in the spring. “It was this experience that convinced me that theater was something that could speak to a society and I could have a part in it,” says Rotté.

After high school Rotté studied communications arts and graduated with her bachelor’s degree from Dayton University. Fully focused on theater, Rotté pursued her graduate degree at Catholic University and accepted a fellowship in Boulder, Colorado. But she says her real education as an actor began when she moved in New York City, where she met the theater critic – and second husband to the legendary teacher Stella Adler – Harold Clurman.

“In his role as theater critic for The Nation, gallant and young at age 64, Harold Clurman took me to opening nights on and off Broadway for the best part of two years,” says Rotté. It was through Clurman that Rotté was introduced to Adler, with whom she instantly connected, leading to her enrolling in The Stella Adler Studio of Acting, where should would spend the next three years learning the craft of acting. 

It was when Rotté accepted the job of theater teacher and stage director at Baruch College that dharma first started to intersect her life. A student of yoga, she had brushed with it while in New York but found that she did not connect with the chanting and mantras. While at Baruch, Rotté developed a profound appreciation for Japanese theater and found herself deeply enjoying reading Zen stories. She headed to Japan to learn, as Rotté says, “the Japanese way of doing yoga.” It was while in Japan that Rotté finally began to dance with the practice of meditation.

“I was afraid of meditation for a long time,” confesses Rotté. “I was afraid to sit down and be quiet – I thought I might explode! It took a while, until I had the courage to be quietly alone with my own noisy mind. When I went to Japan I ended up staying there for two years, and in the course of that training and study I was put into situations where there was meditation going on. I found and discovered that I didn’t die, I didn’t explode. I realized, it was possible.”

Returning from Japan, Rotté joined the theater faculty of Villanova University in Pennsylvania, where she stayed for 60 semesters, and sought out a Japanese Zen meditation center in Philadelphia. Unable to find one, she stumbled upon a Shambhala Center and found that the meditation styles were deeply compatible. As a teacher Rotté wove in her spiritual and meditation practice. “I included yoga and contemplation exercises as well as meditation in my actor-training classes from the get-go, which was an eon before such disciplines enjoyed mainstream acceptance,” says Rotté. “I heard graduate students liking to call my MA-level Voice and Movement class ‘church.’ That was funny – I don’t attend church – but I understood they were acknowledging their, let’s say, transcendental experiences in the class.” Just before 9/11, Rotté first joined her dharma practice and theater together onstage intentionally.
“I wanted to learn if my work could reflect a kind of upliftedness for the human situation. Theatrically, I’ve always drawn to people and playwrights who were working in bigger themes, artists with a deeply ethical, psycho-spiritual core that examine the human condition with the highest values in mind.” Rotté says that the yoking of dharma and theater is not as disparate as it might appear at first glance. “By its very nature theater is the first dharmic value, which is impermanence,” says Rotté. She undertook the adaptation and directing of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s play “Prajna.” It was met with critical success, which helped give Rotté the confidence to work with dharmic materiel, materiel that, says Rotté, “directly points to the nature of existence, such as, the truth of impermanence, which is, by the way, the very face of theatre: impermanent.”

In 2015 Rotté had had enough of the “wonders of faculty meetings,” and she retired, knowing that she wanted to head somewhere rural, without the noise of a big city. Throughout the years, Rotté had traveled to Ulster County. She explains, “I used to travel to Sky Lake for meditation retreats. Coming from an urban center with buildings made of brick, I liked how the landscape felt untamed … and still does. It was a good place to drop my everyday ways of thinking and be in stillness in a rambling wooden building among a forest of trees and water with goldfish.” The area also had proximity to New York City, the heart of her artistic origin as well the home of her son. So, in 2016, Rotté moved to Stone Ridge and has continued to deepen the connection for dharma and art.

On Tuesday, April 20, Rotté will be once again bringing the worlds of dharma and theater together as part of Sky Lake’s “Dharma: Art & The Artist” series. For the evening, Rotté will be performing an excerpt from her self-authored play ALL VICTORIOUS OCEAN: The Noble Life of Yeshe Tsogyal, Tantric Yogini” and discussing how a theater event featuring this iconic practitioner came to be written, produced and performed. Based on three biographies, the play is about Yeshe Tsogyal, an 8th-century female dharma and meditation practitioner in Tibetan Buddhism. Yeshe Tsogyal’s life began as a princess, disciple and consort however she evolved into a poet, teacher and tantric queen. Says Rotté, “Her story, teaching us how to practice to the highest degree, drew me to her, in particular her survival of rape – gang rape – with unparalleled magnanimity. With astonishing fortitude, she mastered the eight great austerities of Buddhist practice, including the accomplishment of all-victorious compassion. Before leaving her body at the age of 211 years, she achieved full realization of the nature of mind, becoming enlightened in a single lifetime.”

While Rotté says that nothing can quite compare to a live, in-person event, she is hopeful that this new format will offer opportunity to experience the unique space of communal discovery, transformation and collective and uplifting experience that a theatrical event can represent. “I would like attendees to feel moved, indeed changed, by the remarkable life of Yeshe Tsogyal. Men may awaken to a woman’s profound potential for wisdom. Women may be inspired to recognize their own brilliant capacity for independence.”

For more information about the upcoming “Dharma: Art and The Artist” series at Sky Lake and Joanna Rotté’s session, “Portraying The Tantric Queen,” visit https://skylake.shambhala.org/programs-listing/

Each session is by donation, however all donations are deeply appreciated as they go toward continuing to provide Sky Lake as a communitywide resource.

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