Thoughts & Musings

How meditation changed everything for 2nd Story Theatre’s Ed Shea

Shea says he is just a beginner when it comes to meditation and Buddhism. But he is a very enthused beginner.

by Andy Smith, Providence Journal
  • 1st October 20151/10/15
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About a year ago, Ed Shea, artistic director of the 2nd Story Theatre in Warren, picked up a book at Books on the Square in Providence.

“I was looking for a little something, a little peace of mind,” he said. “I guess you can say I felt a ‘spiritual urgency.’ ”

The book was called “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle, and it led Shea into a deepening interest in meditation, and beyond meditation into Buddhism. As Shea learned more, he saw parallels between the techniques used in meditation and those used by actors.

“I frame things in terms of what I understand about acting and theater,” Shea said. “I kept thinking how related [meditation] was to the theory and craft of acting. Being in the present moment is where actors need to be. … In meditation, you focus on the breath. Actors need to focus on what they are saying at that moment. Focus on the line.”

Shea said the same focus even applies to audiences, and their ability to suspend disbelief long enough to concentrate on a theatrical experience.

The enemy of that focus, Shea said, are all the handy devices with glowing screens that we can use to access everything from our work emails to Angry Birds.

“So much is available at our fingertips that the idea of going into a room and experiencing just one thing for two hours is a lot for people,” he said.

Sitting in a patterned chair on the set of “Dangerous Corner,” the current production at 2nd Story, the 57-year-old Shea said he is just a beginner when it comes to meditation and Buddhism. But he is a very enthused beginner.

After reading Tolle, Shea wanted to learn more. He began researching online, and found a book called “How to Sit” by Thich Nhat Hanh, which he said is a very pragmatic guide to meditation. “It’s just about finding a quiet place to sit and breathe.”

Now he meditates for about 45 minutes each morning, and sometimes more later in the day. He said you need to work up to it: “At first, if you sit still and pay attention to your breath for five minutes, it seems like eternity.”

In February, Shea began attending sessions at the Shambhala Meditation Center in Pawtucket. He also attended a week-long silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.

He’ll attend another week-long silent retreat in October, in West Virginia, and late next year he’s planning on a three-month silent retreat in Barre. Shea said that his interest in meditation has progressed to the study of Buddhism, particularly a form of meditation called Vipassana, which means “clear seeing.”

Shea said he sees Buddhism as a psycho-spiritual process, a way of seeing how your mind works and being able to break old patterns of behavior.”

On Thursday, he’ll be speaking at the Shambhala Center, talking about the similarities between the process of meditation and acting. “The technique of acting is uncannily similar to the state of meditation,” he said. “The peaceful place for the meditator is the creative place for the artist.”

But Shea has not been on stage as an actor since he discovered meditation. “I haven’t hit the stage and seen how it affects me,” he said.

That will change in February, when Shea will perform at 2nd Story in a play called “Hysteria,” a farce about an encounter between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali.

In the meantime, Shea said meditation has changed his life.

“I’m happy. Genuinely, authentically happy,” he said. “You find it within yourself. You don’t need outside stimulus to make you happy. There’s no greater happiness than peace, and when you meditate, you find peace.”

Shea said it has changed him at work, as well. The challenges of running a small nonprofit theater haven’t gone away, but Shea said he is dealing with them differently.

“I see things as they are. Not as they were, not as they’re supposed to be, or as they could be, but as they are,” he said. “I try to talk less about the problem, and more about the solution.”

As artistic director for 2nd Story, Shea said he incorporates elements of meditation into his theatrical world — but cautiously. “I’m not forcing it on anyone,” he said. “It’s not like we’re sitting in a circle at rehearsals chanting and breathing.”

Shea said he wants to continue studying meditation and Buddhism. Someday, he said, he would like to teach, although he acknowledges he still has a lot to learn.

And he remains intrigued by the connections between meditation and theater.

“Just as there is a practical approach to creative inner peace, there is a practical approach to creative theatrical expression,” he said. “I could think of nothing better than combining those two worlds.”

Shea will speak at the Shambhala Meditation Center, 541 Pawtucket Ave., Pawtucket, on Thursday at 6 p.m. The talk is free, although donations are welcome. Find more information online providence.shambhala.org.

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