The Power of the Dog director Jane Campion said it was instrumental to making her film, and everyone from Sandra Oh to Bill Pullman claims to practice it. But what is dream work, exactly? To find out, we turned to a dream coach named Kim Gillingham—and tried it for ourselves.
January 13, 2022
Back in October, I was at a press conference following a screening of The Power of the Dog, still cemented in my seat and turning over the movie in my mind. Then the director Jane Campion mentioned off-handedly that she had enlisted a dream coach named Kim Gillingham when making the film. Campion called it “the most amazing work I’ve ever done,” adding that “she’s the only person I think that’s really helped me as a director to go very deep.” Kirsten Dunst interjected to share that she and her husband and co-star Jesse Plemons do the same work, with a different practitioner. My curiosity was instantly piqued. A dream coach? This sounded mystical and mysterious and maybe a tiny bit cult-like. But more than that, The Power of the Dog was such a transcendent piece of art, so clearly the fully-realized vision of its creator, that whatever she did seemed to work.
When I looked her up, I quickly realized Gillingham’s fingerprints are all over the industry. Sandra Oh shouted her out onstage when accepting her SAG award for Killing Eve. Bill Pullman, who worked with her for the crime drama series The Sinner, said the process was “revelatory” and that his dream “ended up fueling that whole arc of that season” during an interview on WTF with Marc Maron. On the very next episode of the podcast, Benedict Cumberbatch, who also worked with the coach on The Power of the Dog, called her an “amazing woman.” Gillingham has appeared in the credits for King Richard, Pieces of a Woman, and Honey Boy, to name a few recent projects. Amy Brenneman, who played Laurie Garvey on The Leftovers, even told me that she believes “this kind of work can save the world.”
Who was this person who had quietly become a go-to guide for storytellers? And could there be something to mining material as hidden in plain sight as our dreams?
Gillingham conducts a practice called dream work, where she meets with actors, directors, and other creatives to help them unpack their dreams, access uncharted corners of their unconscious, and fish out new ideas. Her sessions, which she offers both one-on-one and as workshops, combine somatic and breath exercises with dream exploration, all coated with a layer of Jungian theory. “We’re never looking to analyze the dream. We’re never looking to interpret the dream. We’re never looking to solve the dream,” Gillingham tells me. “We’re looking to work creatively with a dream.”
When we speak one afternoon in late October, I find that Gillingham has a warm, maternal energy and a solidity that can be felt through the computer screen. She’s dressed in a black sweater over a crisp white button-down. (No crystals or incense in sight.) Gillingham grew up in Colorado, a self-described shy and introverted kid with a “very big inner life.” She made her way to Los Angeles to study theater at the University of Southern California, then landed a handful of roles in the late eighties and nineties. In the infamous “Puffy Shirt” episode of Seinfeld, she plays an attractive studio assistant who asks George out when he briefly becomes an in-demand hand model. In the first season of Friends, she is the ex-girlfriend Joey is trying to win back. “I was young and blonde and kind of getting blonder with every job,” she says, laughing. Gillingham is currently a brunette.
After a while, she discovered that getting typecast as so-and-so’s blonde girlfriend was a “super unsatisfying way” to practice her art—a feeling undoubtedly familiar to any creative person who feels boxed in, unable to bridge the gap between what they want to make and what the market demands. “I just remember being like, ‘I’m acting from the least resonant part of myself,’” she says.
Gillingham credits two people with putting her on her current path. The first is Sandra Seacat, a renowned acting teacher with roots in the Method—which encourages performers to bring in their personal experiences when building a character—and introduced dream work to the industry in the 70s and 80s. “I call her the frontier. She really pioneered the work,” Gillingham says. The other is a Jungian analyst named Marion Woodman. Then she had a baby, the exact sort of big life change that encourages the gears to shift. She decided to start teaching acting in her thirties and steadily grew her practice from there. Today, at 58 years old, Gillingham refers to her acting career as “going to Cincinnati on my way to Hawaii.”
Her clients extend across creative fields, primarily actors, directors, and writers, though she’s even seen a scientist or two. (Not as far-fetched as it sounds: according to some stories, the theory of relativity and the idea for the periodic table came to Albert Einstein and Dimitri Mendeleev, respectively, in their dreams.)
Sometimes, something magical happens when she works with multiple people working on the same production: their dreams begin to align with each other, as if their minds are melding in their sleep. “You hear repeating images or repeating themes within the dreams,” she says. “You start to hear the unique DNA of the piece itself.” Gillingham credits psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious—the idea that the deepest unconscious mind is universally shared and inherited, which is why the same archetypes will crop up in mythology across cultures.
Sandra Oh has worked with Gillingham for over 15 years, and likens dream work to meditation. “It really is a deep, deep practice, and the more you do it, the more it becomes the practice. It becomes much less goal-oriented,” she explained. “It was a profound change and a deepening in my own understanding of my work and art.”
Heidi Schreck, the creator and star of What the Constitution Means to Me, described Kim to me as possessing a kind of “genius,” as well as an unexpected rigor. “When you first meet her, it feels like this is just like open, warm, loving softness, that turns out to have plenty of intelligence behind all of it,” she said. “She’s completely non-judgmental, but if you get off course or you try to avoid things or you disconnect, she sees it and pushes you. So I would say there’s a fierceness there.”
Gillingham herself rejects any stereotypes about dream work being an airy, New Age-y discipline. Instead, she sees dreams as fundamentally grounded in the hard truth of reality. “A dream will kick your ass like nothing else,” she says. “The dream will wake you up. That’s why they’re here.”
For as long as humans have been on earth, we’ve dreamed. And for about as long as we’ve dreamed, we’ve assigned meaning to our dreams.
In ancient Egypt, dreams were seen as a means of communication with the divine. Oracles in ancient Greece would receive prophecies in their sleep. A Sumerian tablet from 2,500 B.C.E. includes the first recorded dream analysis, commissioned by King Dumuzi of Uruk after he had a freaky and unsettling nightmare. The Bible? Now that’s a book that’s just lousy with dreams.
Dreams are so commonplace that we forget that they’re a wonder. Whatever you believe about them, they’re objectively fascinating: a self-generated movie your mind will play at night, a story that blooms with rich symbolism and narrative tension and surprise. No wonder, then, they have become something worth exploring by people involved in telling stories in their waking life.
But you also can’t throw a stone in the Hollywood Hills without hitting a purported guru or snake oil salesman. Something that independently comes up when speaking to people who work with Gillingham is how far she is from that. “She has no interest in the power of being a leader in any kind of thought or discipline,” Derek Simonds, the creator of the crime series The Sinner, told me. “She’s a facilitator. She’s not asking you to believe in anything except what comes out of you.”
Simonds met Gillingham about 20 years ago. He was a struggling writer and decided to take a class with her; he ended up working as her assistant for a stint and eventually started conducting dream work sessions himself. “I am amazed at the number and the stature of people who work with her, and it continues to grow and grow, I think especially even in the past five years,” he told me. “You see Kim now being flown across the world to work with creative artists. She’s a formidable person now that many people have heard of.” Brenneman recalled arriving on sets and realizing that her co-stars are “dreamers,” as she calls them, too. Schreck shared that while attending one workshop she caught sight of many actors she admires. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Kim is working with everyone in Hollywood,” she said with a laugh. “She just doesn’t talk about it.”
Gillingham has a therapist’s tight-lipped sense of privacy. Combined with her demureness when it comes to self-promotion, this means clients mainly come to her through word-of-mouth and the whole process feels shrouded in secrecy. So I decided to try a session myself.
The night before my dream work session, I answer several questions she sends over and, after reflecting on my answers, am instructed to “ask” for a dream to come that night. I’m not feeling too good about my odds—while I’m usually able to vividly remember my dreams, I’ve been in a dry spell. But I shut my nightstand light off, drift to sleep, and proceed to have … one of the most boring dreams of my life. (In short, I went to a sauna, then I went to another sauna. I believed this symbolized my deep desire to go to the sauna.)
The next day, I meet with Gillingham for an hour-long virtual session, feeling ashamed at my dream performance anxiety. She kindly shrugs it off and we begin with me describing the dream to her, after which we do some body relaxation and breathing work. Then she walks me through the dream again, this time with much more minute details, urging me to embody different elements in my dream, a practice known as “active imagination.”
I am told to envision myself in the sauna. Then to envision myself as the sauna—which sounds out there, but is in line with Jung’s belief that all aspects of a dream are representative of the dreamer. The dream is broken down into very precise frames, as Gillingham asks me how my body feels in each moment and what I think it means, as well as any words it shakes loose.
Near the end of our session, Gillingham points to some personal things she’s picking up on, suggesting that I use them as writing prompts to see where that takes me. There are also certain background images and symbols in my dream that she urges me to look into more, with the caveat that I should avoid dream interpretation websites.
“I mean sure, read them. Know that it’s the same thing as reading Instagram. It’s the Instagram of the dream world,” Gillingham tells me, the only mildly rude thing I hear her say in the entire time we spoke. “It’s as if I said to you ‘oranges are great.’ And you’re like ‘I don’t like oranges,’” she explains. “We’re all different. We all experience the psyche differently.”
I’m not working on any specific creative project when I go into the session, so I can’t judge its efficacy on that front. But I do know that after we talk, the dreams start to flow again.
Gillingham’s grand, overarching mission is to help artists move culture forward. The way she sees it, you can express what you think people will think is good or you can express what’s true to you. She hopes her work will guide people to tap into the latter. “The artists are always in front heralding the new and the temptation to repeat the old narratives, while being very, very comforting, is in the way of truth and growth,” she says. “If we maintain this place of ‘I think that did well so I’ll make that again,’ we’re lost.”