By Christine Albers, Director of Expansion at Maharishi School, Enlightenment, Transcendental Meditation online magazine
I look forward to Maharishi School’s annual speech performance every year, but this year was different. As new host mom of Queena Zhou, a 17-year-old boarding student from China who bravely tried out for the speech program, I experienced the program in a very personal way. Queena garnered a small role in the one-act play, The Elephant Man.
My role was to drive her to hundreds of rehearsals, often in sub-zero weather, picking her up late at night, often with my down coat thrown over my pajamas. Night after night as I sat in my car waiting for Queena, I watched the flow of costumed students carrying props in and out of Spayde Theater. Their energy and enthusiasm was contagious.
These students were rehearsing to compete with thousands of Iowa students from over 360 secondary schools in the State Speech Competition, sponsored by the Iowa High School Speech Association (IHSSA). Of the thousands of acts, only the best are chosen to perform at the All-State Festival for the chance to win a banner for their school. In the past, Maharishi School has won 17 state championships, tying us for second in the state for the most wins in state history.
After two acts from Maharishi School were chosen to perform at this year’s All-State competition, I decided to interview Ben Estey about his experience coaching these performances. A Maharishi School alumnus, Ben participated in the speech program in high school and went on to pursue an acting career on stage and in film before returning to the school as the speech director.
What inspired you to coach Maharishi School’s speech program?
Ben Estey: I have no teaching background and never thought I would teach high school. But when I heard that the school needed a new speech director, I didn’t feel like I could turn it down because I care so much about the program. It’s hard to articulate how important the speech program was to me while growing up. When you have that level of appreciation for something, it’s a lot bigger than you. I wanted to keep the program going for these kids.
How was your experience as a new director?
Ben Estey: This year has been a lot of work, but also the most fun I’ve ever had doing theater. When something that’s been a hobby and a passion for so long becomes your job, it’s what every artistic creative person dreams about. The students and I knew we had a lot of work to do, and it was gratifying because they always tried to improve and do their best work. They have from four to 14 hours of rehearsal outside of school per week, even during holidays, which is a serious commitment.
Does meditation make the students better actors?
Ben Estey: I think it helps a lot. On a practical level, their daily practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) is the perfect complement to doing theater.
Transcending is a useful tool that gives students the ability to go deeper within and bring that knowledge and understanding of themselves to their work. These kids are familiar with self-development and looking inward, and that is a huge advantage—to look at yourself, know yourself, and see yourself as connected to everyone around you. This is necessary to start the creative process.
That’s the value of their TM program. They take care of their minds and bodies on a daily basis, which is a great start for anything, but especially nice for the theater program. Intention, clarity, and connection with each other are so important.
How did the choral reading students perform at All-State?
Ben Estey: The Maharishi School pioneered this category, and we are considered experts. This year’s performance of Dream Song was no exception. Our choral reading critic praised our students on their ability to speak and said: “Your school’s reputation for excellence continues! What a visual display—the colors, the textures, the beauty, the majesty. You are professional, polished, pitch-perfect. I always travel the world with a Maharishi Choral Reading. Thank you!”
How was the one-act play received?
Ben Estey: After The Elephant Man ended, both the judge and I were speechless. It’s hard to go from watching a piece you are extremely moved by, to commenting on it. Everyone in the room had the experience, everyone went on that journey, and it was obvious by that silent moment at the end.
How did you learn and grow from teaching?
Ben Estey: I learned that the greatest reward comes from the connection formed by the whole group. No matter how talented and hardworking any one person is, no one is as strong without the group. Once you experience that level of feeling, support, and love from a group of people, and that common purpose, it’s something you never want to let go of. When theater is done right, you have an expanded experience on stage that is pure love.
Christine Albers, Director of Expansion at Maharishi School, concludes, "After I finished interviewing Ben, I remembered how perfectly Queena had expressed her experience of the MSAE speech program on her Facebook page: “I sat here for a long time, couldn't express my feeling about this speech thing. The only word I can think of is LOVE. I love this program, I love whoever participated in this and supported us. I didn't know most of them well two months ago, but now I just love them so much that I couldn’t even express my love.”
Laser Nite, 18, National Merit Scholar and star of The Elephant Man:
“I really noticed TM was changing my life about a year and a half after practicing regularly. I felt more centered in activity. Rather than being attached to the ups and downs of what's going on, I could ride the waves. That made my life more fun and less stressful because there was no longer any attachment or desire to get more traditional social things like power and money. Instead I wanted love and passion and energy to help the world, to express life in its most optimal form.
“In acting you have to embody a person, and to actually become something which others would identify you not to be. Acting requires changing the foundation of your consciousness. When you meditate you have the ability to become suspended in that state for a period of time. When you come back into activity and it’s time to become a character, become someone else, you don’t just become someone else, you experience yourself as that person, so it’s a very deep experience.”
David Lynch, world-renowned director and filmmaker:
“On my first visit here, a cold and rainy night, really miserable, I was taken to what I was told was a high school play, and I figured, man is it going to be a long night. So off we went and the little theater was packed, and out came onto the stage a group of high school students that from the beginning, middle, and end blew my mind. What I saw there was so powerful. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I loved that thing, and I had never seen anything quite like it; and this reminded me of glowing consciousness on the stage—intelligence, timing, humor. It was exquisite movements and a joy in the doing. It was all there. That was very powerful to me.”
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