June 1, 2021

Ritual in a Time of Crisis

Ritual tends to be communal. Presence is vital to communal rituals. When a crisis prohibits such gatherings we experience isolation from one another.

Ritual seeks to invoke change. If a ritual is not successfully completed, it lacks efficacy.

What happens to a society that cannot complete its rituals?

René Girard considered this query with regards to social tensions. Girard wrote of the “sacrificial crisis.” This is a moment that requires a specific communal ritual: sacrifice. If the ritual sacrifice is not successfully completed, social tensions may metamorphosize into widespread violence.

The Ancient Athenians were concerned with miasma (pollution or stain of guilt) resulting from uncompleted or aberrant rituals. As Helene Foley observed in Ritual Irony, the plots of several late Euripides plays are organized around a sacrificial crisis facing the characters. Consider Herakles, Orestes, Iphigenia at Aulis, and Bacchae. In these works, the communal ritual of sacrifice is adulterated in some manner and tragedy ensues.

Alienation. Violence. Pollution/Stain. Failure to successfully complete rituals can have severe societal consequences.

Are there rituals that societies deem so vital they are conducted even in a time of crisis?

We might answer this question using the context of the pandemic, as well as Richard Schechner’s three categories of ritual defined by function: religious, social, and aesthetic.

The devout consider religious rituals such as the Muslim adhan or Christian mass to be vital, even in the midst of the pandemic. For the believer, abandoning such rituals would risk spiritual miasma.

Most governments have permitted religious rituals to continue during the crisis. This exception suggests that modern societies place a high value on religion. Social rituals, such as in-person weddings and graduations, are prohibited. So are aesthetic rituals such as theatre performances or gallery openings. From these mandates, we may conclude that modern societies place less value on social and aesthetic rituals than religious ones.

Has there ever been a society that designated aesthetic rituals as essential?

In 405 BCE, Athens was on the verge of defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Food supply lines were cut off and Athenians were starving. Surrender was imminent.

Despite the crisis, Athens held its two major theatre festivals: the Lanaia and City Dionysia.

These festivals had religious, social, and aesthetic functions. But ultimately, the Lanaia and City Dionysia centered around theatre. Each festival awarded a coveted prize for artistic merit. Each festival was an aesthetic ritual.

Athens fell to Sparta in 404 BCE.

From this historical anecdote, we may conclude that Ancient Athens held theatre in high regard. Indeed, higher than any other civilization in recorded history.
May 1, 2021

Cosmology and the Seed: Reflections on the Genesis of Theatrical Worlds

Theatre is a living art. A production is a world. The genesis of a theatre work requires a catalytic force of cosmic magnitude. But this great potential, capable of generating a new Big Bang, begins infinitesimally with a seed.

The seed may be anything. For example: an image, sound, architectural environment, story, title, the memory of a dream. Anything.

It is important to manifest the seed in some way, such as the written word or a printed image.

The seed contains a profound passion, a deep-rooted connection to an idea. This kernel becomes a compulsion that renders the artist restless at night. It will grow inside, like a malevolent tumor, if not removed through the praxis of artistic violence. “If you do not bring forth what is within, what is within will destroy you” (apocryphal Gospel of Thomas).

One must connect to this passion unequivocally, without judgement. Early on, judgement is a paralyzing enemy, antagonistic towards ideas. The time for judgement will come later.

The seed must be guarded. It is a lodestar; when lost, return to it.

The seed must be protected throughout the planning, meetings, rehearsals, and long hours. It is easy to lose. If that occurs, the catalytic elements are lost and the world cannot take shape. The vessel remains empty (Luria).

How can we begin to understand the phenomenon of potential / seed crossing into being / performance? When we reach the limits of logic, we turn to myth.

For the Ancient Greeks, katabasis was a descent by the living into Hades. This mytheme concerns the difficulties of traversing between two completely different domains.

Katabasis is a metaphor for an artist’s work. The artist enters a terra incognita to bring forth what is in darkness. Orpheus, a mortal, fails. Dionysus, both human and divine, succeeds.

The seed is also the criterion for evaluation. Performance is an opportunity to consider whether entelechy has been achieved. But the judge is the spectator, whose gaze is another catalytic element that triggers a kind of alchemical change. A world unto itself emerges which, in truth, has little to do with the artist.
April 1, 2021

Space in the Time of Plague

During the pandemic, space is problematized. The fundamentally human act of a face-to-face encounter can be fatal. Mass congregation is impossible.

When we lose direct human contact, we also lose spaces. For example: restaurants, schools, and theaters.

Theatre cannot exist without space. The phenomenology of theatrical space is a mystery. When a performance meets the gaze of the spectator, we enter a different domain. It is conjured communally, with performer and spectator breathing the same air and experiencing the same flow of time.

We live in a digital age. In this time of plague, we have inevitably expanded our understanding of space to encompass the internet. In many instances, there is a kind of transliteration involved as we seek virtual substitutes for real-world needs.

I approach this space with a hint of skepticism. Foucault would understand the internet as a heterotopia (space of otherness). Similar to the “space” of a phone call, the online world is a readily accessible meeting point that, paradoxically, does not exist.

I, too, have an instinct to transcend the physical limitations on space necessitated by the pandemic. The space in which you are reading these words is for disjecta membrae (scattered fragments). A low-key outlet.