Paul Rebillot

Paul Rebillot, who died in San Francisco on 11th February 2010 aged 78, was a leader in the human potential movement, a major creative force in international psychotherapy and experiential education, and an expert in the development of ritual therapeutic structures based on myth.  Rebillot had a long and very fruitful engagement with Ireland and in the nine months prior to his retirement in 2008 he led three presentations of his best known workshop – the ‘Hero’s Journey’, based on the monomyth of the same name – to a total of 120 participants.  He provided a living link for Irish people to household names in the Human Potential movement, having worked with and/or rubbed shoulders with Fritz Perls, Dick Price, Stan Grof, Will Schutz, John Lilly, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and many other luminaries of the movement who frequented the Esalen Institute in Northern California during the early 1970s. 

Paul was born on May 19, 1931 in Detroit, Michigan, the third of the four sons of Conrad and Rose Rebillot.  Christened ‘Eugene Paul Jude’, he was known affectionately as ‘Genie’ as a child but, as a young man, settled on using just ‘Paul’ only.  He graduated from the University of Detroit with a Ph.  B. in philosophy and education and from the University of Michigan with a Master’s in Communication Arts, specialising in drama.  During and following his university years, Rebillot was deeply engaged with several theatre stock companies as a writer, producer and actor.  Drafted into the US Army, he served for a year in Japan where he discovered and embraced the radical otherness of Japanese Nōh and Kabuki theatre and the deep power of Eastern philosophies of life, particularly of Buddhism. 

Following his discharge from the Army and the death of his father, Rebillot moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s.  There he joined the Actor’s Workshop, a professional acting company of considerable significance in the history of American theatre, developed an experimental theatre department at San Francisco State College and also worked with Mumako, a Japanese mime, at  the ‘hungry i’, an iconic nightclub in North Beach.  During this time he further deepened his interest in ritual gesture – postures which configure personal energies to the attitude expressed by the gesture – that had been sparked by his earlier experience of Japanese theatre.  This would became a key element in his later psychotherapeutic work.

In 1968 Rebillot moved from San Francisco State to Stanford University as an Assistant Professor in the theatre department, before leaving academia altogether a year later to found his own theatre company, the Gestalt Fool Theatre Family of San Francisco.  However, a severe and immobilising existential crisis (or, in Stan Grof’s terms, a ‘spiritual emergency’) – necessitating several months in a mental hospital – led him in 1971 to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California where he did therapeutic work with the co-founder of the Institute, Dick Price.  Price was one of Fritz Perls’ most prominent pupils and the creator of Gestalt Practice, a gentler therapeutic approach than the Gestalt Therapy invented and practised by Perls himself.  Paul’s work with Price gave form to a dynamic that had been working in his life since before his breakdown and he decided to abandon his career in the theatre and re-train with Price as a Gestalt practitioner. 

His training completed, Rebillot remained on at Esalen as a practising therapist and there he came into contact with the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell.  From his newly-acquired skill in Gestalt Practice and his familiarity with Campbell’s work on the origin and function of myth – together with his own uniquely creative insights – Rebillot developed the ‘Hero’s Journey’, the first of a unique series of therapeutic structures that combine elements of theatre, Gestalt, art, ritual, music, drama, mime and movement.  In his introduction to Paul’s book about the ‘Hero’s Journey’ process the noted therapist Stanislav Grof – who also came to know Paul at this time – described it as ‘a prime example of how a gifted and creative individual can transform a shattering experience ….. into something that not only catalyses his own healing and transformation, but provides a useful context for the inner journey of thousands of others ….. a process that can promote growth and self-understanding for thousands of those who suffer from the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ as well as those who are labelled patients and those who treat them’

While continuing to lead workshops and Gestalt trainings at the Esalen Institute, Rebillot began in 1974 to offer his therapeutic structures in Europe – initially leading workshops at the Boyesen Institute in France, and at the late Jacob Stattman’s Institute of Unitive Psychology in Holland.  After some years Europe became the location of most of Rebillot’s work and he developed an apprenticeship programme there – based on the practice of many theatre companies and of medieval guilds – in which students travel and live with their teachers as part of their training. 

The accidental death of his mentor, Dick Price, in November of 1985 shocked Rebillot and galvanised him to begin formalising his training.  In July 1988, he inaugurated his School of Gestalt and Experiential Teaching in Switzerland.  This concentrated on teaching participants to create workshops that used Paul’s original methodology but focused on topics of the trainees’ own choosing.  Rebillotvisited Ireland for the first time in the 1980s at the invitation of Ivor Browne and Paddy Walley of the Irish Foundation for Human Development and from 1991 to his retirement in 2008 his Irish workshops – which were now organised by Fergus Lalor and Mary Mangan – became annual events, attracting an eclectic mix of participants including many from the teaching and helping professions.  Rebillot’s workshops in Ireland included ‘The Lover’s Journey’, ‘Owning the Shadow’, ‘Death and Resurrection’, ‘Exorcising the Demon Should’, ‘The Quest for the Golden Fleece’, ‘Manifesting Your Own Myth’, ‘The Grail Quest – Following the Path of Parzifal’ and ‘The Dream Tarot’ as well as eight presentations of ‘The Hero’s Journey’.  He also began a North American training programme in August 1993.  In May of 1996 he inaugurated, with Ilse Schmidt-Zimmermann, a ‘Rites of Passage’ training programme in Germany with the different focus of enabling selected trainees to become guides in the therapeutic structures that he had created.  Subsequently Rebillot established additional advanced training programmes in Austria, England, Germany and Ireland.  One of the participants in the Irish training group was the influential English dramatherapist Steve Mitchell, through whom Rebillot’s work made a significant impact on the UK dramatherapy scene.  As a result many dramatherapy students from the UK came to Ireland to participate in and learn from Paul’s workshops. 

Paul Rebillot published articles in numerous journals: in America, Pilgrimage and Liturgy; in England, Self and Society and The Journal of Biodynamic Psychology; in France, Psychologie and L’Autre Monde, and in Ireland, Inside Out, the journal of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy.  He also contributed a chapter, entitled ‘The Hero’s Journey: Ritualizing the Mystery’, to Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, edited by Stanislav Grof, M.  D.  and Christina Grof (Los Angeles: Jeremy P.  Tarcher, Inc.  , 1989).  In 1987 he was awarded a grant by Laurence S.  Rockefeller to work on a book about The Hero’s Journey.  The book, The Call to Adventure: Bringing the Hero’s Journey to Daily Life, was  published in July 1993 by HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc. of New York. 

Due, perhaps, to its fundamental grounding in myth Rebillot’s work struck a particularly strong chord in Ireland and the workshops that he led here in the period 1991-2006 consistently attracted larger numbers of participants than anywhere else.  He continued to work in Ireland and throughout Europe well into his seventies, despite increasing health difficulties.  He was motivated by a constant sense of service, convinced of everyone’s capacity to awaken their own creative genius and enter into the drama of their lives with imagination and delight.  He lived modestly and did not seek high fees (he was extremely generous with bursaries to his workshops) or strive for superstar status.

After striving for eight months to overcome the effects of  serious respiratory failure suffered in June 2009, Paul died at home in San Francisco and in the presence of loving friends on February 11, 2010 – just two days before his group of former students in Ireland were due to present his week-long workshop ‘Death and Resurrection’.  His partner, Stanford Eugene Cates, had died in 1988.  Paul is survived by his younger brother, Melvin Rebillot of Petosky, Michigan, by his assistant and companion of many years, Melissa Kay in San Francisco and by devoted friends and students throughout Europe and the United States

 “Since time immemorial, healing was a spiritual matter and was always connected with art, instrumental music, singing, dance, and painting.…Paul Rebillot has been able to rediscover these dimensions and reintroduce them into the healing process.”  Stanislav Grof

Link to Paul Rebillot’s website

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