Sunday, March 29, 2015 may as well be considered the date of Scientology’s funeral and burial. Yes, the “church” continues to live as a real estate holding company, its billion dollars worth of property around the world continuing to provide cozy, often garish surroundings for Scientologists to “audit” each other, eliminating “engrams” on the road to “going clear.” But somehow HBO’s showing of Alex Gibney’s slash-and-burn documentary, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief—after years of other public humiliations, including several book-length exposés and, of course, that classic South Park episode—seems to mark the moment when derision of Scientology is the only possible stance. It’s the odd person who, after a competent Google search to turn up all these materials, would sign up for L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi religion.
And yet…I know one community of people who may still turn to Scientology, if not for an entire lifestyle than at least for little pits of cherry-picked wisdom. And that’s actors. Almost a decade ago, I spent a good deal of time talking with the students of the late Milton Katselas, a highly regarded acting teacher in Beverly Hills. He was a Scientologist, and a number of his current and former students, including Giovanni Ribisi and Jeffrey Tambor, have been or are now Scientologists. His teaching wasn’t explicitly influenced by Hubbard’s writings, but any insider could recognize the influence, whether in Katselas’s love of citing dictionary definitions for words or his quotation of maxims like “What’s true is what’s true for you.”
Many of Katselas’s students at his Beverly Hills Playhouse were indifferent to his religious vibe; they took what they needed from his acting coaching, and left the Dianetics hoo-ha on the floor. Others got deep into Scientology. In the middle were those who took some Scientology classes, now and again, but didn’t consider themselves church members. But whether full-on Hubbardites or casual fellow travelers, Katselas’ students related to a core aspect of his teaching which came directly from Scientology: his rejection of the romantic notion of the artist in favor of a more mundane model of self-actualization.
That is, Katselas rejected the idea, common to so many actors (and poets, and painters, and so on) that creative chops or creative inspiration come from a higher power. Katselas thought that was nonsense – and lethal for an artist. He offered in its place the precept that an acting career is a mix of talent, hard work, and good management. As he made clear in his master classes and in his textbook, Acting Class: Take a Seat, a successful acting career actually required “administration,” including a good Rolodex, a knack for showing up at auditions on time, and steady follow-up with casting agents and directors. Those took you as far as Streep-like mimetic abilities, which few actors have.
That shift in emphasis came from Katselas’s reading of L. Ron Hubbard. It’s true that, especially in Dianetics, Hubbard’s teachings about human potential had their own mythological and supernatural overtones. But Hubbard mainly located one’s power not in a separate divine being but in the divinity within. And one’s inner powers could be accessed, and honed, through rather pedestrian classes in communication and organization, the kind of effectiveness training so common in corporate suites. That’s a lot of what Scientologists pay to do in their classes: learn how to talk, listen, communicate. Reformulated for Katselas’s acting classes, those skills included the sort of career management strategies that many flighty, romantic acting types tend to think are beneath them.
I did not come away from my time at the Beverly Hills Playhouse with any desire to be a Scientologist. But I did understand why some actors might. Talent doesn’t get distributed evenly or fairly. Katselas, drawing on Hubbard, offered a path to the creative life that placed more control in the artist’s hand. Hubbard always promised that Scientology was not a religion but a “technology,” and Katselas made a similar promise about acting. An acting career, he seemed to say, was not about growing wings to fly; it was more like learning to drive a car, a skill with a rulebook, written by human beings.
Photo credit: Scientology Media/Wikimedia Commons