But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
I live in Seattle, where one day, a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see a flyer for a play that included the name and photo of my friend Jim Fletcher, a New York City actor. Staring at the announcement through the credit union window, I called him. Immediately, he asked me to play music for the performance (I am a cellist) and I said yes.
His/our collaborator was Katiana Rangel, a Brazilian actor, director, and playwright. The fourteenth-century Japanese Noh play I became part of, Ama (The Pearl Diver), is, for me, literally magical. Working on it was the beginning of my relationships with Rangel and Nalanda West, the Buddhist center Rangel was managing at the time, which was the venue for our performance.
We recorded this conversation via Zoom earlier this year.
Lori Goldston It’s great to see you.
Katiana Rangel It’s been a while.
LG I’m a little sleepy, the cat woke me up early to go outside.
KR I woke up early too, to facilitate this introduction to Buddhism class in Brazil. It’s fun because I have to translate the text from English into Portuguese.
LG So you’re in two time zones now.
KR Yeah. The class starts at 6:30 AM my time here in New York, and it’s 8:30 there.
LG Since we know each other from our collaboration on a play at Nalanda West, I’d love to talk about your discovery of Buddhism, and the intersection of your theater and Buddhist practices.
KR They are very connected. I came to Buddhism through my friend Bob Feldman. Did you know Bob?
LG No, I don’t think so.
KR Bob was a saxophone player. He played with Charles Mingus and many other amazing people. We met in Argentina when I was visiting a friend, and Bob was there with New York City Players, whom I had met a few years earlier in Brazil. Rich [Maxwell], Jim [Fletcher], Nicholas [Elliott], and Bob were doing a show in Buenos Aires, and I went to see them. Fast forward to October 2012, and I end up in New York. I’d come to visit, got a gig, stayed, and Bob and I became close friends. We were always talking about art and our motivations to create. About how vital it was that we just did that. And often, he would have an expression that we were on the same page about something. But he wouldn’t tell me much more about it.
LG He recognized something in you that was compatible.
KR Bob played music regardless of the audience, but also for the audience. But he also played in his living room, to the insects or whatever. We spoke a lot about suffering and how everything in the world was so difficult and painful and about how to deal with that and not fall into a mode of creating where suffering is feeding you. He gave me Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart for my birthday, and that book changed a lot for me. He also invited me to a meditation instruction retreat. It was amazing to meditate for the first time and to observe my mind. I had an image of myself as being very somber and really intense but then, when I was looking at my mind, I thought I was very funny. I was silently laughing a lot about what was happening inside my mind. That was a big insight. From then on, I got deeper involved. Bob invited me to a talk by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, who is the founder of Nalanda West where I eventually worked, and where you and I met and performed.
Bob and I had all these conversations about mind, how mind works, how we perceive things, and how we hear something from a teacher and why it’s so different than hearing it from someone else. Bob passed away a few years ago, and I deeply miss him. But in a way, I don’t, because everything I do with my life has him in it.
LG Your Buddhist practice is also connected to how you approach your theater work and what you’re after in your work.
KR Buddhism talks about emptiness, right? I’m not going to attempt to define emptiness because it is not in the realm of the nominal; it’s beyond that. In the beginning I heard descriptions by teachers without having a context for it. Now the term is more familiar after all the studies I’ve been doing over the last few years. I heard teachings from amazing teachers like Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche where they spoke about this direct experience with something, that occurs in a tiny space or moment of time but is infinite because it can’t be measured in the way we measure time. It’s not possible to put it into words.
LG Is that something you have experienced in your performance work?
KR Yes. I’ve had these strong experiences with visual art, music, and theater, both as an audience member and on stage. A profound connection to why I’m doing this, from a place that is love. It’s a direct experience. It’s like a portal. You’re in that other space and time, and it’s just happening. Again, that’s trying to put into words something that can’t be described. There are teachings like the Flower Sermon, in which the Buddha shows a beautiful flower to his students, and everyone is waiting, Okay, what’s the explanation? And then one of his students just laughs. And the Buddha is like, You got it. That’s it.
Bob and I often spoke about how there are certain things you just look at, and at the most you use language to communicate without words. It’s phatic function, things like “Yeah,” or “Isn’t it?” We look in each other’s eyes and we get it, without having to say what we got. When we try verbalizing it, it’s so much less than the actual experience of getting it. I always wanted to find that sweet spot in art. Live music or theater are these ephemeral things that don’t occur twice in the same way. It’s not like projecting a video. Performance depends on all the live conditions to go a certain way. I wanted to find that space where it just happens. You’re prepared, you’ve rehearsed, you’ve thought about it, and then you let all that go and you’re just present.
LG I can definitely relate to that as a musician.
KR My experience in theater is very similar to what happens in meditation. Sometimes I leave the stage and I’m like, “Did I even say my lines?” And then someone says, “Yes, you did.” The memory is not registering because I was directly present. At least that is the impression I have.
LG Does your work in theater involve much improvisation or is it mostly scripted and coming from a pretty set form?
KR In Brazil, and here in the US too, I’ve worked with scripted things but with a lot of improvisation in creating until you get to a certain form. I still have the same process with my current works. For example, if we’re working in a group, we prepare individual scenes to present to each other. And we give ourselves the option to experiment with something different, here and now. There can be a set form but it’s not frozen. There is still room for improvising and for that radical presence.
LG In music, it’s like points you’re aiming for, but you can get to them in different ways. And you can do that with other people or by yourself.
There’s a lot of ceremony and ritual but also a lot of solitary work in Buddhist practice. What are your thoughts on the general balance between—and the necessity for—individual and collective work in art and spiritual practice?
KR I think there are a lot of common areas.
LG I’m not really a devoted group practitioner but there’s something powerful about the ceremonial practices and about meditating with other people. It’s serious, obviously, and solemn, but the rituals also connect to our playful side—we all do these things together, and it’s been done this way for hundreds, even thousands, of years. I think of music pedagogy the same way: it’s a ritualized practice. There’s a certain pattern, a system. Same thing with theater work. There’s a human desire and need to do those things. Buddhism addresses that in such a nice way—we’re each doing our rituals and practice individually and we also come together to do them collectively.
KR Several years ago I lived at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra (KTD) for some months. KTD is a large monastery in Woodstock, up in the mountains. I was a volunteer shrine keeper and did a lot of the ritual things and I loved them. I didn’t understand anything, I just did what they told me to do. For example, you fill the water bowls, which are offerings, from left to right and you empty them right to left. There are all those rules about how you do things and where you put things.
At the beginning, I just wanted to do everything correctly and respect the space I was in, but then I started asking more questions and learned more of what’s behind the actions—what this is for and who that is for. Much later on I realized how close it is to, say, a Bach composition, in my view at least. It’s sacred. And it’s really about the offering and not about yourself. That’s what comes to mind for me in terms of rituals. When I see or do these things, there’s less of a doer. They are skillful means, they say.
When I’m doing this or singing this and make a mistake, I keep going. The whole point is to go beyond your own ego, and to access things that you can’t access through intellectual knowledge, so you go in more intuitive ways.
Watching the teachers, I saw how serious and beautiful these rituals were, but in a selfless and extremely kind way. The older and wiser the teacher was, the more kind and flexible they were with people making mistakes, like bowing at the wrong moment, or spilling tea. When you live in a monastic environment like KTD, where almost all the teachers are Tibetan, you witness their conduct and how they deal with things. Some of them are completely undisturbed by whatever’s happening, and their responses are always loving and fully attentive. It’s very beautiful.
Buddhist practice challenges a lot of what we Westerners are taught by society: to succeed, to be the first, to be the best, to defeat others, to gain for ourselves only, to avoid shame, to get praise… There are mind trainings to do the exact opposite: to give the goodness, to take the difficulty, and to realize that there’s no doer, no act of doing, and no recipient of the action. All the practices are a means to that.
Since it’s so difficult to live in this world and have this practice, if you’re alone, you get to a point where you think you’re going crazy. What if I’m doing this, but everyone else is not, and I’m being taken advantage of in my work and my daily life? That was the first question I asked Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. What’s the difference between compassion and being taken advantage of? I couldn’t reconcile that. But then you see their ways and you’re supported in continuing this path. You witness the fruition of the practice in some of them and you start trusting, you start longing for that calmness. It’s not that you don’t have any emotions, you have them all, but you find yourself acting in a more compassionate way, without being disturbed by small things—or even big things, in some cases. I think the collective brings that. But your meditation—facing your mind on the cushion—is solitary. Even within the supportive surroundings, the work takes place in your mind, in your experience. And the goal is to bring that awareness you learn in your practice to post-meditation, which is your life.
LG Yeah, the whole rest of life.
KR And to your conduct, to what you do. In my theater practice, I like to direct in collaboration, instead of directing alone. I’ve only directed alone once, when I was hired in Brazil, and it wasn’t a good experience. I like to bounce ideas back and forth and to present something to a group or another person. Because I both perform and direct, it’s good to have someone else there to exchange notes and ideas. It keeps you honest and everyone has the same power.
LG Can you describe an example of collaborative directing?
KR I codirected Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis and performed it. It was a solo performance with three directors, and I was one of them. João Paulo Nascimento, a great musician was also a director, and Rodrigo Pavon, an experienced actor, was the third director as well as the light designer. You get to a point where it’s like, No, this is the idea and I want this to happen. And you start getting your individual agenda and your ego in the way of the play. We each had 33.333 … % of the power and we tried our best to get unanimously approved decisions. So we had to debate, not in a competitive way; we had to discuss each person’s arguments. While I really want something particular to come through, and it’s my idea, how can I remain on this path of, Okay, I can let this go, or Okay, I can share this? I think the collective really helps you with this conduct of watching your mind in every moment, and not just making everything yourself—but again, the creation is still solitary. When you come up with an idea, when you create something, or when you appreciate a work, it’s individual and solitary.
LG Performance can be very solitary, too.
KR Absolutely. With Buddhism more and more present in my life, I’m learning to just be in it, to communicate from the heart, and to experiment without the need for approval.
I studied dance from an early age, but I don’t consider myself a dancer exactly, more of a movement-based performer, someone who creates work with the body. One time at the KTD monastery, I was by myself where they make the offerings, having just returned from a run outside. I was listening to a recording of Tibetan monks’ throat-singing, which was amazingly beautiful. So I started dancing, like crazy and with this extreme freedom, and I remember thinking, Oh my God, this is maybe the best performance I’ve ever done! And it’s totally okay that there was no one seeing it to say that it was or it wasn’t. That didn’t matter.
LG Not to make it too reductive, but the physical work of the shrine tender is also a kind of rehearsal, a honing of a nonverbal language. You’re getting so much information from the language of those actions which also seem like dance or theater in a way. Or like you said, you could listen to Bach and learn the language of those organized sounds. All these practices are means of communicating complicated, subtle information. It’s actionable information that is not conveyed by somebody explaining it to you. I love that so much. I think a lot about forms, and I’ve gotten very useful information about how to approach music from the Buddhist rituals.
KR You said a perfect word: subtle. Musicians or other performers, when they are really in tune, are able to communicate in that space. Once you’ve found a wave you’re vibrating on, you’re there. I had very profound experiences as the shrine keeper, and similar experiences with art, and the subtlety, it’s the same thing. When your intellectual mind tries to justify it, sometimes you think you didn’t have the experience, you might be making it up because the experience was so subtle. It was tender and that’s why I said at some point, our motivation is love. Not romantic love that comes with jealousy, attachment, and all that. In the most simple way, you just open your heart, you’re offering what you created—in music, theater, or other art forms.
There’s a practice in Buddhism of mandala offering, where you visualize things you want to offer. It doesn’t need to be beautiful. It can be something that your thinking mind judges as bad, but if you offer it as an energy it can be very positive, because if you’re offering to enlightened beings, they have no judgment.
LG Can you think of an example of that?
KR You can offer a difficult emotion, the powerful energy of it. Or, there’s this practice called Tonglen, which means taking and sending. You take someone’s difficulty in any way—it can be in colors, for example. The first time I did it was for Jim’s mother when she was sick, and then for Bob when he found out he had lung cancer. I would take the cloudiness of his lungs and send transparent, bright, vibrant things. Or in sounds, I would send him sounds of saxophone.
The bowls in the shrines mean offerings. If you’re having a difficult experience, you can offer that in color, or in many other ways. I’m reluctant to describe the practices because I’m not a teacher and don’t have authority in that field. There is a book called Emotional Rescue that talks about three approaches to emotions: one is emotions as enemies, when you have no control. You’re taken by the emotion and you do horrible things or feel horrible because of the emotion. The second approach is when you start learning from that: Oh, this is telling me something, I need to look at this. And the third one is just energy. Even anger is not considered bad. Feeling the anger, or say, jealousy, is not a problem; it’s a very strong energy. But if you act it out, you are causing harm, and then, therefore, in a world of causes and consequences, it is harmful.
LG You don’t want to be overcome or ruled by that anger.
KR Yeah, I mean you can feel the anger and be with it—that’s why they sometimes meditate on the emotion. If it takes you, and you do not shout, or yell, or punch someone in the face, if you just sit there and let that move through you without repressing or without feeding it with more thoughts or a storyline, you just feel the energy. The practice is to drop the storyline around the disturbing emotion. I remember doing that in a retreat. They asked us to bring to mind something difficult that had happened, and the emotion coming with it, and then for us to drop the story. It was one of my first retreats and I went to the instructor and said, “I dropped this story and the emotion went away, so how can I work with the emotion?” And the teacher started laughing, “That’s the whole point. If you stop feeding it, it goes away!” (laughter) It only stays there because we keep putting more wood into the fire.
It’s these subtle perceptions and experiences that happen both in Buddhist practice and in art. It’s a science of mind, and there’s a lot of study involved, a lot of training, discipline, time, but then at some point you just stop rehearsing and do it. When it’s time for the show, when you’re there, your main goal is to be present. And when your mind goes somewhere else, you know how to bring it back.
LG Yeah, you’re just living the practice, at some point. What’s happening with you during the pandemic, both in terms of your art and Buddhist practices?
KR I have this thing, I love winter, it’s my favorite season by far. Sometimes I have to refrain from sharing that because people who don’t like winter get upset that I’m so happy. They go into the elevator and say, “Oh my God, look at this day. It’s fifteen degrees!” and I’m just so excited about the cold. 2020 was kind of similar, because it was, in a certain way, a great year for me. But I can’t share that because people might get upset. They say, “I’m so happy 2020 is over.” During the pandemic, of course, I was devastated by all the deaths and sickness and I was really scared. It’s the first time I haven’t seen my mother in over a year in my whole life, and it’s been almost two years now.
KR Also, my sister had COVID in Brazil, and many of my friends lost their jobs, or got sick. The situation there only got worse with the terrible administration. It’s just really difficult in the sense of being in the world, seeing people struggling to buy food, and that being the reality of a majority of people in some places. But the first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering, so it’s a great opportunity to practice awareness while the world is in the middle of suffering through this pandemic. Suffering becomes so clear; we can’t not see it and that is a step away from delusion.
From a Buddhist perspective, suffering—physical and emotional pain—is present all the time. It’s part of life. The second noble truth is that by acknowledging our suffering and observing it instead of pushing it away, we can understand its causes. Seeing that we can end suffering, is the third noble truth. And the path that leads to the cessation of suffering and out of confusion, is the fourth noble truth.
It all starts with this acknowledgement that what we call happiness is also suffering if we get attached to it or believe that it’s permanent. Our lives—precious, amazing, beautiful—are going to end eventually and we don’t know how or when. Life’s impermanence was right in our face all along, before the pandemic, but it’s a difficult thing to acknowledge.
So for me, there was no reason to get distracted from the practice. Lockdown was like being in solitary retreat; I was in my room, the whole time. My roommate, she’s older and has cancer, got COVID and ended up in the hospital for several days last spring. Many healthcare professionals came here to take care of her. I’m really mindful of the people I see when I go out. I wear a mask even inside the house.
During self-isolation, I did a yoga teacher training program and became certified to teach. Practicing yoga helped me a lot while I wasn’t able to do physical exercise outside. I also started collaborating remotely with some of my favorite people in the world. Rodrigo Pavon, Zé Geraldo Jr., and Kenan Bernardes are in São Paulo and normally I would have to be there to work with them. I translated a play by Samuel Beckett into Portuguese. We’re also creating an original work, Não Está Mais Ali, and we’re about to open, whatever way that happens. So last year was a great time for creating things but also for reading and translating, which I love but usually don’t have much time for. I studied a lot of Buddhism and also began facilitating classes on Buddhism.
LG And suddenly, there were no more deadlines.
KR Exactly. I normally love deadlines, but it was actually great to have this stop to one’s agenda. I was able to do things in a more relaxed manner and that was an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I always worked under time pressure because of my visa, having to do a certain amount of work in a certain amount of time. I wonder how quarantine was for you, especially in terms of touring.
LG I don’t like not being able to travel. I realized that I’d been traveling, not all the time, but pretty regularly for a few years, and travel is very central to how I function. The lack of live music was really hard. I miss being with other people, and I miss this collective psychic energy of everybody going someplace else for a period of time. I noticed how much I depend on that for emotional self-regulation, how much of an organizing principle it is for me for everything else I do—even eating and sleeping and meditation and yoga. I used to be like, Well, I better do a lot of this because I’m going to be on tour. So it’s been interesting feeling kind of like not myself. Now I’m busier again because of my new album that just came out and I’m enjoying having some work stress. I’m drinking too much coffee again. (laughter)
KR I had all these plans for traveling that, of course, were canceled. What helped me with the self-regulation process during the lockdown was being able to work collectively with people in new ways.
LG Yeah, that part is really nice. Hopefully, we can take these new possibilities and skills with us, once we can move again, physically, in the world.
KR I’m excited to see what’s going to happen because we can’t continue the same way. It can’t just be like, Okay, restart, let’s pick up where we left off. The world is completely different now. I’m rethinking everything I’m working on. What do we offer as work, as creativity, what do we offer as gentleness, how do we walk in the world? How do we go back to life in a community?
LG We all have these new skills and new ideas. What are we going to do with them?
KR I want to experiment with certain things in theater. I always had this idea of performing either in two places at the same time, or in one place while another person joins with technology from far away. How can we interact, two characters at the same time, when we’re not in the same space?
LG I was recently looking at a performance from 1980 that did that, and it was so novel and wild. It didn’t really work that great, but now 2020 has permanently removed the novelty from remote interaction; it’s become the most mundane thing.
KR When you perform on a stage for twenty-three years, you do certain things a certain way, but on Zoom, the speed of talking and interaction, for example, it just doesn’t work the same.
LG It’s totally different.
KR It’s not audiovisual. The project we’re working on, it’s not film, it’s not theater, it’s a theater play, but how do we do this in virtual space? How do we record? You described the ’80s remote performance not working too well. That’s how I feel when we’re trying to work on Zoom—it’s not really what I want to see.
LG It’s being invented now.
KR I work with the body and I’m from a culture where we hug a lot, so I really miss being with people.
LG One interesting experience I’ll take away from last year is having a dog for the first time in my life. It made me think more about communication. While the dog understands a lot of what I say, he exists mostly in the nonverbal, physical world. He’s a very smart, subtle dog, so I have to get in the zone with him, not just explaining things, like blah-blah-blah, but being directly and immediately present. I learn a lot from that. And it’s very applicable to performance.
KR Now talking to you, I really want to perform!
LG I’m pretty philosophical about live performance most of the time, but every once in a while, I’ll just get hit by, Goddamn it! It’ll be so nice when it comes back.
KR There is a teaching about two arrows. You’ve been hit by the arrow of pain and it’s hurting. But then, when you add meaning to that and worries, like “This is awful,” or “Why me?,” it’s like a second arrow hitting you. It hurts doubly. If we can just be with one arrow… We have a pretty big one stuck in us right now. So I think what I’ll keep trying to do is to not add on and keep it simple.
Lori Goldston is a cellist, composer, improvisor, and producer based in Seattle. Recent works include an improvised solo cello score for a live-streamed theater performance, Death and the Mourning After for Timothy White Eagle, part of La MaMa’s Reflections of Native Voices Festival (2021); a score for a feature-length documentary, Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, directed by Ann Kaneko (2021); and two self-released albums: Very Old Songs with Jordan O’Jordan (2020) and Feral Angel with Dylan Carlson (2021).
Originally published in
Our summer issue features interviews with Mel Kendrick, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Kader Attia, Arthur Jafa and Dana Hoey, Quntos Kunquest, Katiana Rangel, and Anne Anlin Cheng; fiction by Jenzo DuQue, Dylan Landis, Anthony Veasna So, and Sophie Hoss; nonfiction by A.V. Marraccini; a comic by Ronald Wimberly; poetry by Arthur Solway, Rickey Laurentiis, and Alina Stefanescu; an essay and portfolio by Kalup Linzy; an archival interview with Suzan-Lori Parks; and more.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.