The Secret Teachings of Helen Hayes

By Keith Varnum

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”

“And he has brain.”

“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has brain.”

There was a long silence.

“I suppose,” said Pooh,

“that’s why he never understands anything.” 

—Winnie the Pooh

Do our senses deceive us? Not really. We perceive to the extent that our five senses allow us to perceive. We simply miss a lot of the full spectrum of what is really going on around us. We can’t grasp the whole picture employing only our “normal” five senses. A “silent” dog whistle is a prime example. The sound vibrations produced by such a dog whistle are not audible to the normal human eardrum. But they do exist. Just ask a dog! We can’t see a television signal, but it flows right by us to produce a picture we can see on a TV screen.

However, our multisensory awareness does absorb information our five senses are not able to pick up. We can train ourselves to be sensitive enough to pick up transmissions outside our “normal” range of perception. Multisensory awareness is a skill that can be developed by anyone.

One of my most practical lessons about extrasensory perception I absorbed—literally—from Helen Hayes, one of the most gifted actresses in the history of the American stage.

I had the inestimable privilege of taking a theater performance class from Ms. Hayes when I was an earnest freshman at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It is paradoxical, and at the same time fitting, that in an acting class, I would master a very effective tool to create what I desire in the real world. Acting is the art of creating a specific perception of reality. And what is reality, ultimately, but each person’s individual perception and interpretation of the world?

The first morning of class, twenty expectant, would-be thespians sat waiting in an empty theater. Ms. Hayes swept smoothly onto the campus theater stage, as swiftly and silently as a hawk swoops after its prey. Indeed, she had a target: our young programmed minds. And our rigid mental conditioning was vanquished before we even knew the name of the game.

Without introduction or protocol, she announced, “I’d like you to sit in the front rows as my audience. I’m going to come on stage seven times and would like you to make notes on what you feel, what you notice, and, particularly, what type of character you experience me portraying.”

My pen strained at the bit to be let loose. I was about to learn from a master of the craft. With the intensity of a hungry animal, I watched as Ms. Hayes proceeded to come on and off the bare stage seven times. Each time, she walked casually from behind the right curtain to center stage, stood immobile and statuesque for a few minutes, and then glided offstage left. She wore the same plain gray dress in each of the seven walk-ons. Her face was void of makeup. She wore no jewelry. She used no props. Her entire physical manner and bearing appeared to be a repetition of each previous presentation. Each time, she seemed to exactly duplicate the way she carried herself, making the identical arm and body movements. As far as I could see, neither her dress nor her actions ever varied. It was as if the first walk-on had been videotaped and then replayed six times in a row. Each performance appeared to be a carbon copy of the previous one.

What I saw were seven identical characters. What I experienced was something else again: seven quite different portrayals. Surprisingly, I knew immediately, without any doubt, the exact nature of each of the characters she was depicting. I could feel each varying persona she assumed. The personality, mood, disposition and tone were distinct in each instance. In the first scene, she was a downtrodden cleaning woman; in the second, a very proud, self-possessed upper-class snob; in the third, a mean-spirited spinster. Another time, she was a very wise and caring grandmother.

Beaming with a vibrant energy now totally her own, the renowned actress met us in the audience pit. She asked each of us to share what we just witnessed. We discovered we all experienced simply knowing the traits of each different personage she was performing on stage. She asked if any of us knew how she was able to convey each distinct character’s temperament and personal story so definitively. Not one of us had an answer, a theory or even a clue. As far as we saw, she moved and acted exactly the same way in each of the seven enactments. She didn’t appear to do anything differently, in any way, each of the seven times she came on stage. In the overbearing silence, we squirmed uncomfortably in our seats, chewed on our pens and stared at the rafters.

Saying nothing, Ms. Hayes proceeded to show us more fully and specifically what she had just presented on stage. She assumed each of the seven characters one by one, physically demonstrating how she held her head at a slightly different angle during each of the character depictions. In each instance, she moved her arms and shoulders in a unique manner. Her gait was subtly distinct in each entrance and exit. She exhibited how minute body variations and nuances created the effect she wanted to have on the audience. Each cock of her head, twitch of her eyes, turn of her hands and shift of her weight changed our perception of her persona.

Each of us, being the ardent students we were, took copious notes. We felt we had solved the riddle. We now knew how this brilliant actress had created and conveyed the essence of each dissimilar character.

Then the crafty Ms. Hayes oh-so-sweetly and innocently requested, “Now, put your notebooks away. Become a gallery of spectators again. Just relax. I invite you to simply experience me coming on stage again, just as an audience would.”

We put our notepads down, but not away. Not one of us was willing to completely relax and let go of being a student at this point. We were determined to deduce her secrets and document her techniques.

Again she walked on and off the stage seven times. This time, of course, we scrutinized her every movement and pose, searching for the subtle body variations she’d demonstrated to us. We were looking for the nuances and hints of the acting craft she’d just shared. Bewildered, I couldn’t discern she was using any of those contrivances at all. Even after she revealed the skillful devices an actor can use, it appeared that she was not employing any of those tricks of the trade. Again, to my awe and astonishment, even though I couldn’t detect any changes in her movements or expressions from one presentation to another, I still knew what personality the actress was portraying each time!

Upon collaboration afterwards, my fellow students and I agreed the adept Ms. Hayes had kept a couple of the old characters and had introduced five new ones in her second presentation. And we all agreed on the exact order in which she depicted each portrayal. But none of us could decipher the methods the actress used to convey each distinct personality. I scratched my head in wonder, asking myself, How did we recognize each character with such ease, accuracy and agreement? 

As we students were reeling from our utter failure to discover her devices, Ms. Hayes nonchalantly stepped forward. “Class dismissed,” she announced softly. We protested, wanting to ask a million questions, but to no avail. She disappeared as skillfully and mysteriously as she had shifted personas before our eyes.

Ms. Hayes was not only an extremely talented actress, she was also a very wise teacher. She knew we needed time to examine our experiences, our perceptions—and ourselves. We were given a week to ponder what actually had happened on that bare stage.

My friends and I discussed it at great length, but we couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t until later in the week, when I finally got myself quiet enough to probe more thoroughly into my own life experience, that I found the answer. Ms. Hayes didn’t simply portray the various characters. She became each character. She merged so totally with the essence of each personage in such a complete way, she radiated the spirit and energy of that character to the audience. We students didn’t see each character, we felt them. We recognized each distinct personality through feeling rather than observation.

Ms. Hayes was a master at using direct transmission to reach her audience. She sent her messages via the channel of extrasensory perception.

When the class met the next week, Ms. Hayes talked about her approach to characterization. She explained that when you allow yourself to become the core spirit of a certain type of person you want to portray, you will automatically communicate that essence directly to the audience. When you own, embrace and integrate the essential qualities of a character into your being, you’ll naturally convey those attributes. As the character speaks from his or her soul and heart directly into the soul and heart of the audience, a direct transmission occurs. Whenever communication is approached in this direct way, techniques, props, costumes, contrivances and other devices are unnecessary.

Helen Hayes demonstrated to me that the most profound communication in life occurs from essence to essence, spirit to spirit—not form to form. When a person becomes the essence that they wish to share with the world, the sharing of it happens naturally and automatically. It was a very valuable and liberating lesson from an inspired communicator. It is a dynamic truth and a tool I now employ in all my interactions with others.

This true story is an excerpt from Keith’s latest book, Inner Coach: Outer Power:

Forty-eight firsthand stories reveal the amazing creative powers within you that can heal your body, expand your heart, and attract phenomenal abundance into your life. Fresh and captivating, Keith shows you the practical, everyday use of levitation, alchemy, multi-dimensional travel, near-death experiences, out-of-body journeys, parallel realities and time-tripping. Spiritual teachers unveil their secrets to happiness. Ancient shamans impart how to manifest an easy flow of money. Angels illustrate how to heal the body instantly. Nature devas share keys to attracting soulmates. Spirit guides demonstrate how they can save your life in a crisis. Using his vast exploration as a healer, mystic, acupuncturist, urban shaman, filmmaker, personal coach, and seminar leader, Keith helps you become a real Miracle Maker!

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