Inside the Actors’ Dream Studio


Ms. Gillingham asks clients to activate the subconscious through close script readings and dream analysis. Some use their dream lives to help define their characters.

Susan Pourfar, another actor who has worked with Ms. Gillingham, describes it as “working through metaphor and image, as opposed to working very literally on text.” “Rather than passively going to sleep at night and waiting for a dream to occur, you engage with your subconscious mind and you ask for a dream,” said Ms. Pourfar, who starred in “Tribes” Off Broadway.

Mr. Donovan began working with Ms. Gillingham in 2006 “basically out of desperation,” he said. “I just wasn’t feeling connected to acting much anymore.” He found himself “shocked at how this worked.” (Mr. Donovan’s recollection of a shard of an image — “a dog licking a black pot on a street” — seemed absurd to him at the time, but it helped him develop his lawyer character on the television series “Damages.”

The New York Times asked actors in current and recent stage shows to share what happens when a scripted persona becomes entangled in their own subconscious. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.


Excerpt: ‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem’

Rowan Vickers and Phillip James Brannon in a scene from Nathan Alan Davis’s play about Nat Turner, who led a slave uprising in 1831.

By NEW YORK THEATER WORKSHOP on Publish Date September 26, 2016.


Phillip James Brannon

Played the title role, right, in Nathan Alan Davis’s “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” at New York Theater Workshop.

There was one speech about Nat Turner’s father, when he’s telling the story about when his father ran away. And how he could have run away, and he did, and God told him to come back. I fell asleep working on that speech, and I woke up a few hours later in tears. I woke up weeping, like hard weeping. If you’re working on a scene all night long, it’s not that crazy that you might dream of that scene when you go to bed. But I wasn’t dreaming of it like I was rehearsing. I was dreaming as Nat. I would wake up, and it would feel like, “Whoa, I’ve been working on the scene all night long.”


Saycon Sengbloh, right, in “Eclipsed” with Pascale Armand, left, and Lupita Nyong’o.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Saycon Sengbloh

Played one of several wives of a rebel commander in the Liberian civil war in Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed on Broadway.

I remember dreams about children being hurt. Waking up and not remembering the specifics but remembering that a child or children had been harmed. Dreams of war, but like very violent. Like hand-to-hand combat. The feeling about wanting to protect children, my desire to want to protect children increased exponentially. Also my desire to even consider adopting a child absolutely increased. I want to have children, too, but I started to think about children with no homes, and I started to think about children’s welfare.


Excerpt: ‘The Encounter’

Simon McBurney in a scene from his one-man show on Broadway.

By THE ENCOUNTER on Publish Date September 29, 2016.


Simon McBurney

Plays multiple roles — narrator, explorer, native — in the one-man show “The Encounter on Broadway; the play is based on “Amazon Beaming,” a novel about an American photographer in the Brazilian jungle.

My dreams are, curiously, quite a lot about the dead. A lot of people from my past have come up. That’s partly because every night there is a moment when I embody Loren McIntyre [the photographer] at the point of loss of consciousness, where he is convinced that he is dying. And as I do it, I get a very powerful image of the loss of consciousness within myself, but also because I witnessed my father and my mother’s death, I’m very aware of what that is actually like to be next to it. One recurring dream is that I have been flying and crashing in the plane. I can see that the plane will not make the ground. It will be trying to land — it takes off, but then the moment it takes off, it begins to lose height, and I can see that it’s not going to make it. But it’s not that I wake up just before it crashes, it’s that I can sort of manipulate the dream where the airplane itself very frequently turns into cloth. It becomes a kind of malleable substance instead of being metal.


Quentin Earl Darrington in “Cats.”

Richard Termine for The New York Times

Quentin Earl Darrington

Plays Old Deuteronomy in the musical “Cats on Broadway.

I teach several students all over the country and some even overseas. I have this one student who lives in Lebanon. She’s under a lot of pressures — economically, from the government, from living situations there. Her greatest dream is to be here in New York, and to be on Broadway, and to be an actor in this country. I have seen her in my dreams, but I have seen her particularly as [the “Cats” character] Grizabella. Because of the Grizabella role being the quote-unquote outsider, being the one who’s not accepted, who has faced certain hardships and is judged by those certain things. She wasn’t dressed as a cat, she wasn’t dressed as Grizabella, it wasn’t so glamorous as to say that we were on a stage and there were lights and sound and an audience watching. But she took on the form of, or a type of, Grizabella in the dream.


Daniel J. Watts, center, and Nike Kadri, top right, in “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Daniel J. Watts And Nike Kadri

He played Black Man With Watermelon, and she played Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread, in Suzan-Lori Parks’s surreal “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead” at Signature Theater.

WATTS The first week it was crazy. Nike actually brought it up. She was like, “Hey, are anyone’s dreams different?” I was like, “YES.” My father’s passed away, I had a grandfather on my mother’s side who had committed suicide, when my mother was three. Those two had been on my mind a lot, and they were popping up in my dreams.

There are watermelons all over my dreams. There’s a point when the entire stage has watermelons all over it. So watermelons pop up a lot because I’m so used to seeing them.

KADRI Given the language of this play, how full it is, how latent it is, in that one sentence can be interpreted in five different ways, or it contains so many analogies and similes and puns — I think that’s probably what led to me having such vivid, active, voracious dreams.

There’s only one I can think of in particular, and it’s kind of faded now. One of our cast members who plays Before Columbus was in my dream as a wise jaguar-leopard sort of figure. I was in this jungle, trapped, and he was on top of a cliff. And I met him up there, and he was going to give me, I don’t know, maybe the secret to life [laughs] or some sort of huge advice. But then I woke up before he told me what it was going to be.

The spirit of that leopard-jaguar didn’t sound like him, I just knew it was Before Columbus, the character. Before Columbus is sort of wise, all knowing, because he was there before Columbus and was able to speak some truths that had been erased perpetually by history.


Judith Light in “All the Ways to Say I Love You.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Judith Light

Played a high school teacher reflecting on a romantic relationship with a student in Neil LaBute’s “All the Ways to Say I Love You at MCC Theater.

I don’t remember my dreams very much. When I’m working on a role, I have what I call waking dreams. I open myself up to my unconscious. There will be these images, or pictures, that come into my head as I am literally walking to the rehearsal, that I start implementing in the rehearsal without consciously thinking about it.


Sandra Oh, right, and Raymond Lee in “Office Hour.”

Ben Horak/SCR

Sandra Oh

Played a professor who must confront a student who might be a potential shooter in Julia Cho’s “Office Hour” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.

I would be dreaming about the play, inside the play, waking up saying the dialogue to the play all the time. I’ve always wondered how to survive as an actor when you physically have to do something that’s very tense. Let’s say if you are frightened onstage, which I had to be. So you’re frightened onstage for 90 minutes, every night, and your body thinks that it’s real — what happens? Eventually in your dreaming life, you’re trying to work all that fear out. So I would have very, very challenging sleeps.

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