Venturing into the Dark with a Lifeline: PAUL CALDERON with Elisabeth Ng
Obie Award-winning actor Paul Calderon’s new play Master of the Crossroads makes its world premiere at The Bridge Theater. You may have seen him in Pulp Fiction, Boardwalk Empire, Madam Secretary, or more recently on AMC’s Fear of the Walking Dead. He has worked with such luminaries such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, and Spike Lee to name a few.
His new play Master of the Crossroads explores the crossroads between mental illness, family, and violence in an intimate setting. At the heart of the play is Cornbread&emdash;who is struggling with mental illness and threatening to crucify a stranger tied up in his living room—and his ex-wife Yolanda. The play is currently running at the Bridge Theater in Manhattan until February 9th and features graphic violence, nudity, and racist language.
I had previously studied acting with Paul Calderon, who introduced me to chakra and energy work. It may sound esoteric, but I remember coming away from classes feeling grounded and with a tangible acting process. I sat down with Calderon to discuss how he incorporates this process while directing his latest play.
Elisabeth Ng (Rail): What inspired you to write Master of the Crossroads?
Paul Calderon: The inspiration is from a short story that I had published years ago. The story was about two brothers, and was loosely based on my brother and myself. I had always wanted to adapt it for the stage. For the stage play. I changed the setting from Spanish Harlem to the South.
Rail: Why the South?
Calderon: It just felt right, because of this current cultural atmosphere with gun violence and bigotry—and I felt like the southern language would serve the story better. We had a company meeting with the actors, and it felt right to go that route.
Rail: What is your personal experience with the South?
Calderon: I was in the army in Georgia and worked on a few movies and TV showsin Alabama, Florida, and New Orleans. I was working there constantly, and I always told myself that I wanted to write about Southern culture.
Rail: As someone who started my artistic career in this current atmosphere of heightened sensitivity and awareness, I sometimes feel afraid and hesitant to explore sensitive material. Given that Master of the Crossroads explores mental health issues and gun violence, what advice would you give an emerging artist who wants to tackle sensitive material in their writing?
Calderon: I throw all of that away. As artists, we cannot allow the norms to affect us. If we allow that, then we begin to edit ourselves and we don’t reach our full potential. So I throw all of that out of the window. It is a reckless way of approaching things, as opposed to a mindset of, “Oh no, I have to do it correctly because of right now,” but I don’t want to handcuff myself. That being said, I do want to speak about what is going on right now in this current political and cultural climate—but in my own voice.
I can’t worry about being “right.” Because then I’m not really writing about my own experience. If you are thinking about how people will look at or judge you, then you start editing yourself. And that short changes yourself, because you are thinking about what they want you to say or write. But there is no right or wrong. It’s really a combination of both.
Rail: When I was a student taking acting classes with you, you taught us how to work with our chakras and how to incorporate that into character work. I remember using the chakras to shape how our characters would move physically. The biggest takeaway I had was learning that my heart chakra was blocked—and that was hindering my ability to access certain emotions for the stage. How did you incorporate chakra work when you were working with the actors on Master of the Crossroads?
Calderon: We had a six week rehearsal process, and it was grueling, because we were doing unusual techniques to get to the source of the characters and story. All the actors are highly trained—[Nixon] Cesar is Method trained, and Sarah [Kate Jackson] had Meisner training. And then I brought in my own methods with chakra work, psychological gestures, and working on scenes blindfolded. It wasn’t easy working that way, and it was unusual. But the substance of the story worked with these unconventional methods.
The rehearsal process was not easy. There was a lot of apprehension and fear. My job as the director was to reassure the actors that they were okay. Because of the subject matter, it was not easy. It was risky and the actors were very brave. I was asking for their trust to delve into their own emotional psychic terrain.
As the director, my job was to be their guide. I can’t let myself be sucked into whatever doubt or apprehension is present. When a director gets sucked into the actor’s psychic terrain, they lose perspective and can’t tell a forest from the trees. The energies get entwined, and you can’t tell what energy is yours or not.
I am certified by Master Mantak Chia of Thailand to teach Qigong and taoist meditation, and I am also a certified yoga instructor. I’ve done this work for many years, and I decided to incorporate what I had learnt to cleanse the auric field and toxicity that actors absorb playing characters—to cleanse and discharge that unwanted energy. It sounds esoteric, but it’s not. Every organ in the body absorbs different emotions: the spleen absorbs worry, the liver absorbs anger, the heart absorbs intolerance, the lungs absorb grief and worry; the kidneys fear. There are specific sounds and taoist yogic movements that you make to discharge whatever toxicity is lodged in each organ and transform it into something positive. We can never get rid of anything. We can only transform it. So we transform anger into joy; fear into courage, and so on. I use it all the time in my theater and film work.
A lot of schools talk about getting into character. But at the end of the day they don’t talk about discharging the energies inherent in whatever character you’re playing. They don’t give you tools to discharge unwanted energy, and a character is nothing if not energy.
Rail: You mentioned once in class about actors delving too deeply into a character, but not being able to get out.
Calderon: Many years ago I studied Jungian psychology and shadow work. What I learnt is that you need to visit those dark places with a flashlight—you need to venture there knowing you are going to these dark places in order to work through what needs to be worked through.
Artists have this dark idea that they should venture into these ideas blindly, and then they get lost. You need to tie a lifeline when you explore. If you go down without it, you can get lost and drown because you cannot get back to the surface. I always tie a lifeline so that I can resurface.
Rail: How do you tie a lifeline?
Calderon: It’s an intent. There are certain rituals you can do. There is visualization, using the imagination to actively seek out answers and to face certain dark issues that you may have. You need to do it with a strong intent. You can also seek the help of someone who has been there - not for them to hold your hand, but for them to give you the tools. Because it is very, very risky.
Rail: Did you incorporate this work in your writing process?
Calderon: I use a lot of different things to work on the characters—shadow work, ancestral work. Creation always demands destruction, the destruction of what you think something is. I don’t question it. I try not to think. I don’t write—I just allow things to come through. I don’t take credit for the things I write. This might sound weird and ‘new age-y’, but the minute I think I go upstairs to my head center. When I write, I go to the navel center, where the intuition lies. I meditate and let it come through to me. When I try to force it, it just doesn’t come through.
Rail: You mentioned that this story was loosely inspired by your brother. What is your relationship with him?
Calderon: I am the oldest by about ten years. My brother was the black sheep of the family, and he carried a lot of the shadow from our family. Every family needs a black sheep, for better or worse, and he became that black sheep. He was on his own and became a father at sixteen. He is one of the most amazing spirits I have ever encountered and I love him dearly. He lives in Colorado, got married, and has a new baby boy. He is a very, very beautiful spirit, and he had to go through that darkness in order to get to the light
Rail: What are his thoughts on the play?
Calderon: I don’t think he knows I’m doing a play on him! I don’t like to draw my family into anything I’m doing. He’s in Colorado and I’m not going to send him the reviews. I recently won a lifetime achievement award and I didn’t tell him. I see all this as secondary to our connection as brothers. I don’t want the business to intrude on that. It’s just him and me, and I don’t want any intrusion. I know I could be destitute emotionally, financially, physically, and he would still love me just as much.
Master of the Crossroads, written and directed by Paul Calderon, presented by Primitive Grace Ensemble, is currently playing through February 9th at The Bridge Theater (at Shelter Studios, 244 West 54th Street, Manhattan). The show stars Obi Abili, Nixon Cesar, and Sarah Kate Jackson. Tickets are $18 at brownpapertickets.com.
Elisabeth Ng is a Singaporean theater producer based in New York. She is an artistic associate at the Playwriting Collective, a theater group dedicated to working class artists and was awarded the ICWP 50/50 Applause award in 2016 for her commitment to diversity in producing.