Spiritual theatre and ritual performance

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  June 25, 2010 — 1 Comment

Thank you to Jason, and to my fellow Wild Hunt readers, for allowing me to share my thoughts with you today.

Which came first, ritual or theatre?  Most history of theatre curriculums taught at Universities across the Western world impress upon their students the theory that theatre came from ritual.  In the Journal of Religion and Theatre, Dr Eli Rozik deconstructs this theory, and refutes the work of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, and performance studies professor Richard Schechner.  As contemporary Pagans, we too have recently reconsidered our history through the work of scholars such as Dr.  Ronald Hutton, and are challenged to replace a mythological awareness of our origins with more factual considerations.

Though I find the above arguments fascinating on many levels, as a clergyman and artistic director I am most interested in how ritual and theatre intersect in contemporary society, and within contemporary Paganism in particular.  Pagans practice ritual in private and in public.  We offer solitary devotions to our gods, and large scale community rituals at Sabbats and festivals.  Our religious community is a treasure trove of inspiration, color, pageantry, and transformational power.  What is it about ritual that captures our collective imagination?  In Dr.  Sabina Magliocco’s excellent article “Ritual is My Chosen Art Form:  The Creation of Ritual as Folk Art Among Contemporary Pagans” (published in Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft, edited by James R. Lewis, pp. 93-119. Albany: State University of New York Press), Magliocco details the many reasons Pagans create and perform ritual.  She also cites the various sources for ritual creation including academia, folklore, mass media, popular culture and popular psychology, as well as interaction with other Pagans and our own internal inspirations.  She also mentions the tripartite ritual structure of the French ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep: 1)  the separation from the current state of awareness, 2)  the transition to a middle, distinctly different state of awareness,  and 3) the incorporation and integration of the middle state with a return to the world at large.  This three-fold structure was elaborated upon by Victor Turner in his articulation of a key concept called liminality.  I direct readers to the Limininality.org blog for a well-crafted explanation of Turner’s liminal/liminoid theme.

Why is this tripartite structure important, and how does it relate to theatre and to life?  As Pagans we seek that key moment of transcendence, magic, connection, and transformation that comes from truly effective ritual and magical practice.  There are those rare but amazing and mysterious moments where we feel linked to the ancient past, or as if we’ve entered into another world altogether.  We might even have a peak experience and feel profoundly connected to everything and everyone, where we can see the divine everywhere, and in all things.  These experiences help to create our personal worldview.  They inform our ethics and values, and they give us a reason for living.  We can also experience these profound states of consciousness from truly great theatre, film, and storytelling.  As with rituals, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it is the central liminal/liminoid space which creates the transformational power found in both theatre and ritual.

In the theatre, the audience enters into a unique situation where they experience a story.  Actors guide the audience on a journey, which, if performed well, will allow the audience to resonate with the story.   For a time, the audience is asked to make a personal investment of imagination and emotion, which is embodied in the journey of the actors in the play, movie, or story.  The success of the experience weighs heavily upon the skills of the actors, and the ability of the audience to willingly invest in (and enter into) the world of the story.  If an actor forgets his or her lines, or isn’t truly invested in the other actors and the story, the audience will be separated from the liminal space either temporarily or for the duration of the story.  The same can be said for ritual.  How many times have you attended a ritual where the entire liturgy was simply read off of cue cards (or a loose leaf script), or else some blunder from the ritual team took you entirely out of the sacred nature of the experience?  Knowledge of both the theatrical and ritual art forms can inform and strengthen the other, without losing the integrity of either medium.

I have implemented these ideas in my work with my theatre company Terra Mysterium, and the Neopagan order Brotherhood of the Phoenix.  Part of Terra Mysterium Performance Troupe’s mission statement affirms the use of ritual structures, symbolism, and multi-disciplinary artistic mediums to transform, enliven, and entertain audiences.  We are aware of the natures of theatre and ritual as separate and distinct, yet we seek to allow each art form to inform the other for the creation of something rich, deep, and cathartic for the audience.  Our company’s name can be translated as “Land of Mystery,” which serves as a metaphor for the experience of theatre, magic, and even life itself.  In the Brotherhood of the Phoenix,  we have a celebrant training program which is required of all brothers who wish to perform our public liturgy.  The Chicago temple uses between 7-15 men as celebrants for each ritual.  It is as necessary to train these men in ritual theory and performance, as much as it to train them in the theatrical building blocks of ensemble creation (text analysis, diction and vocal projection, active listening, unison movement, improvisation, and anticipating the next part of liturgy); the ability to act as one cohesive unit.  To see how theatre is influencing Pagans and visa-versa, see Coreopsis: A Journal of Myth and Theatre.  The current issue is dedicated to Paganism.

The skill sets that both celebrants and actors must possess overlap more often than not.  In order to create a dynamic relationship between the ritual team and the circle of seekers, there must be a deep understanding of the ritual’s structure and its goals.  There must also be a profound awareness of the energies present in each moment, so that the ritual moves forward with grace and skill.  Likewise, actors must be aware of the entire arc of the story, their goals/desires as individual characters, and their own profound commitment to each and every moment.  This allows for spontaneous and genuine reactions to other characters, the set and props, and the circumstances of the story.  Both the ritual team and the actors must commit to letting go of fear, self-conscious judgment, and external distractions.  They must use all of their senses in a highly focused and purposeful way, and they must be fully present for the work at hand.    Anything less risks the loss of liminal space and, therefore, the loss of the potential for deep catharsis, transcendence, and transformation. See the work of Lauren Raine, and the MetaMorphic Ritual Theatre Company for further inspirations.

For the non-actor, or for those actors looking to explore the spiritual and metaphysical potentialities of the theatre, I recommend the following websites:  Peggy Rubin’s Sacred Theatre Rubin’s work explores the journey of life, and how to live a richer “story.”  Antero Alli and his paratheatrical research explores the transformational processes of theatre work, without the need to perform for anyone; the work itself the goal.  His ideas and techniques will bring creativity to an actor who feels stuck and stagnant.  They are also excellent for Pagans looking to explore ritual in a more ecstatic, improvisatory manner.

Last, I feel that Viewpoints training is essential for any group looking to deepen their awareness and cohesion during ritual and collaborative magical workings.  Although humans have always used the ideas and tools behind these concepts, Viewpoints as a technique of improvisation emerged from the post-modern dance world. It was first articulated by choreographer Mary Overlie who broke down the two dominant issues performers deal with – time and space – into six categories.  Overlie called her approach the Six Viewpoints.  Artistic Director Anne Bogart and SITI Company have expanded Overlie’s ideas and adapted them for actors.  Anne and Chicago Steppenwolf director Tina Landau co wrote The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition. This text would benefit anyone interested in creating an ensemble of highly coordinated and intuitive celebrants, circle members, or actors.  Whether you perform public ritual or work in private as a small group, these Viewpoints exercises will create group awareness in a quick and skillful way.  The results are immediately tangible, and are as applicable to ritual and magical practice as they are to theatre.

Matthew Ellenwood is a music director, voice teacher, and the artistic director of Terra Mysterium Performance Troupe. Terra Mysterium will be presenting their third production, Finding Eleusis (a modern day exploration of the Eleusinian Mysteries), at the Chicago Fringe Festival September 1-5, 2010.  Matthew is also one of the founders of Brotherhood of the Phoenix a Neopagan order for gay, bisexual, and transgender men who love men, where he serves as the senior clergyman for the order, and as the senior mentor of the Brotherhood’s seminary training program.  The Brotherhood will be presenting the closing ritual for Chicago Pagan Pride on August 14, 2010.

Jason Pitzl-Waters