The White Lama is a multi-media work performed by two musicians and one actor, about the quest for the sacred, framed by the adventurous life and death of Theos Bernard. Both biography and invocation, the piece is envisioned as a concert with visuals, soundscape, text and a live score by Composer Phillip Glass.
In 1937 after years of stopping foreigners at the border, the Tibetan government welcomes a young American and initiates him into their secret world. He’s greeted as a reincarnation of their most beloved saint and returns to America to great acclaim carrying hundreds of sacred texts. He travels the country as showman, celebrity and spiritual teacher. In 1947 he sets out again for Tibet…and never returns. Sacred Charlatan is inspired by the life and disappearance of Theos Bernard as his journey intersects with eastern religion, western spiritualism, and the tabloid environment of early 20th century America.
Theos Casmir Hamati Bernard (b.1908) was many things including a religious pioneer, an early yoga practitioner, and one of the first westerners to set foot in Lhasa, Tibet. He garnered positive public feedback, but also scorn and private dismissal as a fraud and imposter. He played a role in the surprising story of Hatha yoga and Asian religious practices coming to America – these centuries-old spiritual disciplines, once dangerous and alien, now commonplace on Main Street or at the mall.
As a performative experience, Sacred Charlatan features a live Phillip Glass composition on piano and synthesizer with Tibetan musical master Tenzin Cheogyal on various traditional instruments. Atop this soundscore is Kevin Joyce’s acting, movement, and vocal work in the role of Theos Bernard, along with film and video by Nikki Appino, who is also the piece’s conceiver and director. The piece will move from biographical representations (e.g., a turn of century newsreel) to large visuals; a move from the relative world to the universal. The piece will develop it’s vocabulary through a series of workshops and rough recording sessions over the next two years.
The White Lama is about the fertile religious climate in America that has inspired both devotion and demagoguery. It’s also about lineage and legacy; the power and influence that one life can have over time, like a teacher on a protégé. Most importantly, it’s about a commitment to carving a path into the unknown and “the seeker” in all of us.
The White Lama -The Life and Death of Theos Bernard