Performance as Ritual / Ritual as Performance

I think about you reading this now. I wonder who you are.
What influences the way you feel and see the world? What do you and your generation need in these extraordinary times? I imagine you might like my friends. over the past decade every six weeks we gather to enact spontaneous mostly outdoor rituals. Our performance-relationship tapestry weaves together the colourful threads of our own personal, political, and cultural values while affirming our ability to adapt to what life throws our way. for us, change is not an isolated or isolating experience. rather, our performance rituals reveal to us how transformation, like seasonal
change, is necessary for mutual health and wellbeing.

We know stagnation numbs the joy out of life. ritual helps us express our passionate care and concern for each other, for the earth, and for a vision of fairness toward all beings. our ritual work can demonstrate our
appreciation for the generations of social change makers that came before us — our ancestors — and helps us imagine ways we can support those who will show up after us — our descendants.

Ritual is multidimensional. It’s a tool. It’s a practice. It’s a process. Ritual helps us give shape to the seeming randomness of our world. Ritual permeates all aspects of life: birth, death and regeneration — and everything in between. Ritual is immense and ever evolving in its scope, application and possibility. When we open ourselves to ritual it meets us where we feel the most alive. Ritual for all its conceivable grandeur is also an under the nose, tip of the tongue mystery. Once you begin to understand the significance of ritual you begin to unlock one of its many secrets: ritual is everywhere.

My own initiation into performance/ritual

I have come to believe that we are born with an intrinsic sense of ritual. From breathing to seasons, life expresses itself in rhythm. Rhythm is intimately connected to ritual, and therefore ritual can intimately deepen our connection to life. The American poet Mary Oliver writes:

… rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a
pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows
sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.
A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry (2001)

The constant rhythm and repetition of rocking soothes a child. I was an expert rocker. I would agitate my cradle back and forth until, by the end of the night, I had moved that cradle across the entire room right up against the door, jamming it shut. By the age of four I moved on to twirling like a whirling dervish. Again and again I would spin and rotate around the living room until I would accidentally crash into the corner of the television set, and once again get sent to the hospital for stitches. I was a wild child and now that I look back, I see that it was theatre that saved me. Theatre provided a harness for my pent up energy. To a kid who felt lonely and different from everyone else, theatre also offered a place to belong. It helped me find my crew of adventurous playmates. We liked getting lost and finding our way home again. We performed our way into trouble in order to find an inventive way out of it.

We were learning to investigate our inner/outer realness through our very own makethen-believe world of performance. I used to think I was a fraud. I now realize I am simply pretending-my-way-into-real. Performance ritual is now my life’s practice.

My life has always involved performance in one way or another. At age 15 I was the founding artistic director of the Peterborough Children’s Theatre Workshop. I hired five young talented friends and together we figured out how to produce, perform and pay the bills. For five summers we toured southeastern Ontario and ran summer drama camps. After a year at theatre school I quit and travelled the world. Daily, I discovered how to trust others by trusting myself. I returned, finished my acting degree and got my first big break performing in a play called Flesh and Blood, the first national youth production about HIV/AIDS at Theatre Direct in Toronto. I had just come out of the closet as a gay person (perhaps my biggest life ritual rite of passage ever) and was cast as the boyfriend of the lead male character who had contracted AIDS. I can still hear the audience of high school students either clap or boo when I kissed the other male actor on stage! I was proud to be gay and on the cutting edge of social change.

I then moved west, and by age 25 I was directing plays and running theatre
festivals. One day just as we were about to launch a performance about HIV,
my doctor called to say that my own every-three-months routine HIV test had come back positive. I was thrown into what I now understand as my next big rite of passage, a very intense kind of ritual that you will read about later in this chapter. My life and my art were mirroring each other. With lots of support from friends and community I learned how life and art can also nourish one another.

I soon left commercial theatre to focus on theatre as a healing art. For many
years I travelled, performed and taught Playback Theatre, a form of ritualized theatre where we spontaneously performed audience members’ real life stories. By performing hundreds of life-defining moments each year, I learned a lot about the human spirit. Finally, I moved to a small island to become a hippyfarmer where ritual found me hungry to merge my community values and art back together again with the healing power of nature. So as you see, ritual has always been an important part of my life. To me, it is a form of sacred theatre where nature, mythology and politics meet and where personal and community education, play, art and healing intersect to help us re-connect to what matters.

Deep in my bones I know that ritual helps us collaborate toward creating a safer and saner world.

Read more about Playback Theatre

Performance as ritual

There is no quick and easy way to define “ritual.” Our English word for it comes from a 14th century Latin word — ritus — which meant a religious ceremony or occasion, and also meant a custom that was handed down. These days, it’s common to think of rituals as connected to religious ceremonies but there is much more to a ritual than that definition. Of course religions of all kinds incorporate rituals and so do activities that are non-religious, or secular. Our wise sage of performance studies, Richard Schechner, tells us that

Teaching ritual is incredibly difficult because the subject is so vast
with no general agreement on the basics, including what ritual is, how
it works, what it feels like to perform a ritual or participate in one,
and what its functions are.

The best part of this ambiguity is that every generation gets to make up our
own rituals. Rituals involve people doing very real things in real places, while at the same time they invite people to enter the realm of their imaginations. Ritual is often filled with paradox, of seemingly competing ideas and/or actions. A ritual can be deeply reassuring for some participants, while at the same time it can be deeply unsettling for others. Aspects of ritual that might seem like opposites contradicting each other can dramatically play off of each other in very dynamic ways. In fact, using a forward slash is a good way to show how full of paradox the world of ritual can be. It’s all about the power of ambiguity.

Ritual is secular/sacred, reassuring/unsettling, it takes place in real/ imaginative spaces, it is here/not here.

a world of ritual
If you look up the word ‘ritual’ in any thesaurus you may find any of the following:

We can start by taking a look at the different layers of rituals. I’ll lead you
through some of the concepts worth knowing, including trance and ceremony, as well as rites of passage and initiation. Then I’ll give you some examples of three performers I know who ground their work in ritual. Finally, I’ll offer you some suggestions for how to start (or continue) your own work as a ritual maker.

When you are performing on stage you are both yourself and the character
at the same time. This is a vitally important concept to wrap your head around. Acting in a play can be fun to do, especially when you get to imagine yourself “as if” you were a character whose life is very different from yours. But can you imagine playing a character and then getting so completely swallowed up in that character that you lose all sense of reality and start to think you actually are that person? Part of a theatre director’s job is to guide actors so that they can reach a high level of intensity while performing a scene, but always coming back to their real lives once the performance is over. It is very much the same with ritual. Participants in a ritual rely on the ability to step temporarily “over the borderline” into the realm of belief. We use the symbolic power of imagining “as if” in order to make the ritual come alive while it’s happening and then when
it’s completed we step out of it, back over the borderline into habitual reality. This is one of the reasons people feel a calling to create and participate in rituals. It is because rituals offer us a chance to step into creative realms for a while and be temporarily lifted out of life as we know it — surrender to greater heights of wonder and euphoria — before being safely returned back to the earth of our bodies. Rituals refresh, renew and revitalize us. Taking part in rituals occasionally has the power to leave us permanently changed.

There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit.

Sobonfu Somé

Read more about Richard Schechner and his works

Read more in Teaching Ritual edited by Catherine Bell (2007)

Watch the movie trailer for Pina (2011)

Also, take a look at this short video from the film
showing a march of the seasons performed by her
ensemble of dancers (2011)

Ritual as Performance

trance ritual in indonesia

During religious ceremonies in many tribal cultures, the separation between people and the world of the spirit disappears and something extraordinary emerges. In these ancient traditions, rooted in generations of training, this is sometimes known as trance possession. On the islands of Indonesia, trance ritual is rooted in tribal cultures, passed along through the generations from their ancestors.

Trance is a cathartic and cleansing ritual. Fred Eiseman, Jr., an expert on
rituals from the Indonesian island of Bali tells us that the word for trance in
Balinese is rauh meaning “come.” The notion is that a spirit has come and ‘entered the body’ of the performer in trance. Trance participants become vessels for elemental, ancestral or divine spirits. Trance may also be brought on for the purposes of hearing prophecy, or to direct the community to fulfill some neglected ceremony or function. The trance leader is called the dalang (or sometimes called the pawang or penimbul). The dalang oversees the physical and spiritual well-being of the ritual and its participants.

This sacred performance renews the community’s commitment to a divine
source of their spiritual practice and to their ancient past. It weaves together their heritage of honouring their ancestors with their present daily concerns about births and marriages, sustainable crops, and health in the village. While people in Western cultures may easily dis this approach to life and death, there are Indonesians who rely on trance performance as one way to remain spiritually and culturally grounded as they face the complexities of an uncertain future in the 21st century.

Sobonfu Somé, whose name means “Keeper of Ritual,” is one of the most notable voices in African spirituality.

Learn more about Sobonfu (1999 – )
Watch an 8-minute preview of the documentary

Jathilan: Trance and Possession in Java (2011)

ceremony in the lives of indigenous peoples

Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable …. These are ceremonies that magnify life.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Read about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013)

As part of this chapter I respectfully requested Coast Salish elder and friend
Bill White to share his thoughts on ritual and ceremony. When Bill White lost his father at the age of five, his mother Kay George made sure that young Bill would spend a lot of time with relatives and learn about his people’s traditional ways in order to give him strength in his life. That early period framed his love and acceptance of the protective qualities of elders and traditions. Since the 1970s Bill has worked with Elders/Sulsalewh through the local School District and the University of Victoria. I am honoured he chose to share his wisdom with us.

Letter from Bill White

dear robert,

many of us grew up travelling with parents and grandparents to spiritual and cultural events in our own coast Salish communities of southwestern British columbia and northwest Washington State. often a thousand people attended. can you imagine a thousand first nations families gathered in one longhouse? the basis for participating in ritual and ceremony in our culture is to learn from childhood to listen intently and to watch. At least four formal times in a persons’ life (naming, puberty, marriage, initiation) the old people provided songs, ceremonies meant to protect, to surround and to visibly show our world consists of movement, ways of understanding our connections to the natural and supernatural worlds. ritual and ceremony
provides a vehicle for training for life. We need to learn that holding onto various ‘griefs and sorrows’ are dangerous and if unchecked could result in illness and or alienation. these formal events are meant to remind individuals ‘you belong’, ‘you are worthy’ and that throughout life we must learn ‘to move together’, ‘to love one another’ and ‘to always help one
another.’ I have worked with elders since the mid-seventies onward and learned that with each new day the past becomes the present, the present prepares us for the future.

When we consistently let go of ‘darknesses’ (hurt and sorrow) we obtain ‘balance within’ and the future is stronger! our old people always open each private and community event with prayers and or prayer songs to help remind us of our connections to the creator and through him to each
other. our shared world is fast paced and now more than ever it
is essential for young people to learn they belong, to learn to
listen to their own hearts and souls, and to know there is
great joy when connected to others. listening to old people,
observing preparation for ritual and ceremony, and in
particular opening prayers, as well as to the advice to the
audience it became clearer to me that ‘talk’ too was sacred.
the old people believed all things are sacred. hy Staapka
Siem na Sulxwane (thank you dear elders)!

– Bill White

Rites of Passage

In some cases, rituals are intended to help people make a transition at a significant point in their lives, as they move from who they have been into who they are about to become. These rituals are called rites of initiation or rites of passage. After going through a rite of passage we are transformed and can never go back to being the person we once were. A healthy society provides its young people with rituals to guide them through these stages of growing up. As I described earlier, tribal, Indigenous or other tradition-rooted cultures actively and carefully train their youth through rituals and ceremonies that prepare them to navigate and recover from the struggles and dangers they will face in their lives, and also to challenge them to awaken their ability to search for answers from within. These initiatory practices bring on heightened states of consciousness that transcend personal day-to-day levels of awareness. The process of initiation is intended to bring young people to their full power so that as they grow, they can take command of their own value as contributing members of their communities. Sadly, most Western cultures don’t have structured rites of passage to help youth today to step into their power.

Life is packed with challenging transitions. Looking back, the first time you lost a tooth may not seem like a big deal now, but it was probably a big deal for you when it was happening. That’s a marked life transition. What about the first time you were taken to a hospital because you broke a bone or had a serious illness?

Have you gotten your driver’s license yet? That’s a significant life change, too. More seriously, perhaps you or people you know were living a normal life when war came and threw everything into chaos. Surviving violence or the death of a loved one are profoundly life altering transitions.

You start out one morning with a sense of who you are and what your life is
like. That’s your identity. Then suddenly a crisis! The origin of the word ‘crisis’ comes from the notion of a “decisive point.” You either choose or are forced to confront your sense of what’s happening in your life. If it is shocking, it can throw you seriously out of whack for some time. A change has occurred, and with it new decisions must be made. As you move through these times of transition you realize that the experience has changed you. Often, after you’ve made it through this period you are considered more mature than you used to be. The important question is this: was there someone at your side who offered support while you were going through it and basically confirmed for you that, yes, this is a big deal? It makes a valuable difference to not have to go through our challenges alone. It’s a little like learning an instrument or a sport all on your own versus having an excellent teacher or coach who’s been there, who
can give you the guidance you need to prepare for the challenges ahead, and who is there at the end to say: congratulations, you made it.

It is during these times of transition in our lives that we really need people
at our side — people whose opinions matter, like close friends, teachers we
trust who believe in us, or family members who love us. Without them, we’ll probably still make it through the crisis. But, if we go through a tough transition alone it is very easy for us to become numb and shut down, just to protect our minds, bodies and hearts.

This is where rites of passage and rites of initiation come in. As I mentioned
earlier, many cultures around the world have long held traditions of rituals
where young people are initiated with a process that guides, challenges, and acknowledges their major transitions through life. These rituals are not so common in modern Canada. Our loss. That said, my friends and I consider the current climate crisis to represent a global rite of passage, initiating the world into a more ecologically responsible and socially caring society. It is my hope that you can be part of helping to create and restore constructive rituals for your generation and the generations that come after you.

In his book The Forest of Symbols, Anthropologist Victor Turner presents a useful idea he got from the French folklorist Arnold van Gennep. Van Gennep wrote that to understand how rites of passage work, you need to realize that they have three parts or stages: separation, transition, and reincorporation. Let’s break them down.

  • Separation. The first stage is the crisis that happens to you, changing
    the life you’ve always known. Someone you care about moves away or dies. You get fired from your job or you get seriously ill, or hurt. Maybe
    you make a realization about your sexuality or gender and finally accept
    that there’s no going back. You are separated from the way your world
    used to be. Dealing with this change, whatever it is, that’s your initiation
    into a new version of you. The bigger the crisis the more intense the experience is going to be.
  • Transition. As you go through a big change, a rite of passage gives you a
    kind of time-out space between the old you and the new you. It is during
    this second stage that you are forced to ramp up your game and figure
    out some new skills to be able to manage what’s coming at you — skills
    that may have seemed impossible for the old you. Victor Turner called
    this time-out period the liminal space. He said it was “betwixt and between” life as it used to be and life as it’s going to be from here on out. It is an intense time, no doubt. You have to reinvent yourself as you look
    for meaning, purpose, and belonging in your life, and that’s hard work.
    The point of a liminal space is that human beings are not machines. You
    can’t be expected just to switch gears and be good to go. It takes some
    time to gear up until you are ready to launch yourself back into the world as the newer, older, wiser, and more confident you.
  • Reincorporation. In this final stage of a rite of passage the ‘aha’ moment
    occurs when you realize that although you’ve lost something, you’ve also
    gained something — a new sense of who you are and more of what you
    have to offer the world. A true rite of passage involves other people welcoming you back into the family of things. It is vitally important to have other people who acknowledge that you have grown and are able, as a result of your initiation, to take on new responsibilities. At the end of a successful rite of passage these people say: While we have not directly
    experienced your journey, we went through a similar journey. We know
    that it has been difficult, and we’re here to say: thank you for your stamina and courage. You made it. We appreciate you and welcome you as part of your chosen community. Please share what you have learned on your journey so we may all continue to grow together.

Turner had a word for this spirit of a community where each person feels
connected and committed to each other. Each person has something to contribute and much to receive. He called this vibrant spirit of community: communitas. When the new initiate is welcomed back from the initiation, there is a party to celebrate. Celebrations are built into rituals and for those who truly know how to celebrate, the party can be a work of art!

Read Victor Turner’s The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (1967)

Myths, stories, and rituals
No one knows for sure whether myths grew out of rituals or rituals grew out of myths. What is important to us here is that while a story is not always part of a ritual performance, myths and fairy tales, legend and lore, as well as our own personal stories can often play a significant role in rituals. The ageless stories that have been passed down to us with their symbol-rich characters, extraordinary settings, epic disasters and heroic adventuresome deeds can make for inspired performance material.

The true purpose of the theater is to create Myths, to express life in its immense, universal aspects, and from that life to extract images in which we find pleasure in discovering ourselves.

Antonin Artaud

Learn more about Communitas
For more on Antonin Artaud, read The Theater and Its
Double (1958)

Music and ritual: R. Murray Schafer’s Patria cycle

I will never forget that night deep in the woods by the shore of a lake in central Ontario when I witnessed an extraordinary performance called Patria 9: The Enchanted Forest directed by R. Murray Schafer. At the end there was a woman playing Mother Earth who was wearing a gown as big as a parachute. As we turned the corner we came upon her floating on the lake. She was a mezzo-soprano and at the exact moment she began to sing, “Your soul is now awake … ” the Northern Lights suddenly appeared in the starry skies over our heads. It wasn’t some kind of trick done with special effect lighting instruments; it was the actual aurora borealis — the Northern Lights! Her singing only lasted for a few minutes. As the
final notes of her song turned into a whisper, those glorious colourful dancing lights high up in the sky just faded away. A newspaper reviewer who was there that night wrote that God must have been the stage manager.

I was so blown away by the experience that I signed up to be part of the
crew of 60 musicians and other performing artists who perform a nine-day
ceremony that takes place every year in the wilds of Algonquin Park, Ontario. Wouldn’t you have done the same thing? It is part of an ongoing series, or cycle, of music dramas called Patria that Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has been creating for decades. The performance ceremony is called Patria Epilogue: And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, which is the eleventh and final installment of the Patria cycle. As you can imagine, being part of this crew involved more than going to a theatre to set up. We all helped each other to transport food, clothing, families and equipment (including a double bass!) by canoe. Separated into eight different animal clans we were spread out over three wilderness lakes.

During the time we were together we performed rituals from the moment we were awakened by a solo musician serenading us on a misty morning lake to the closing songs and moonlit wolf calls around the campfires late at night.

Schafer is a composer who creates a space of transformation for the participants in his performance rituals through music. The Patria Cycle is an example of ritual being both/and or both/neither. It’s not an opera, it’s not musical theatre, it’s not a play, and yet it’s all of them and it’s more. To give this performance ritual a shape, he draws upon the image of a labyrinth to act as a guiding symbol. Wolf (parallel to Theseus in the original Greek myth) must journey through the dark and mysterious labyrinth while the Princess of the Stars, Ariadne with her knowledge and her beautiful lyrical singing, inspires him to find his way. Patria Epilogue: And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon is performed every year for eight days
and nights in August at the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve in Ontario. Perhaps someday you may choose to take part in this magical ritual.

For Schafer, the primary purpose of art is transformation — he believes that art succeeds only if it truly changes both the people who make it and the people who come to experience it as witnesses and participants. And why is this important? He passionately believes that art will save the world by restoring what has been lost: the harmony between people and the natural environment.

The idea is that by mythically recreating a world of wonder and joy and connection to the sacred through ritual, the people will become awakened to what has been lost and they will renew their personal passion to rediscover it and fight for it. I can tell you, this has certainly been true for me.

To learn more about the Patria performance ceremony or to get a copy

Learn more about Theseus, the mythic king and
founder-hero of Athens

Hear co-designer Gerard Smith talk about his work on the Patria cycle, the part called Asterion: A Journey Through the Labyrinth (2014)

Learn more about Ariadne

Burning Man

In the desert pop-up city of the annual Burning Man festival, over sixty-six
thousand DIY/DIT (do it yourself/do it together) co-creators immerse themselves in a week of performative art.

the red tent, an ancient ritual re-imagined for our times

One of the great tragedies of our times is that the vast majority of us have received no traditional rites of passage to mark the changes in our lives. One exception is in the Jewish tradition where boys and girls at the age of 13 experience their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. (Read more about a Bar Mitzvah (2018)

A profound rite of passage happens when a girl physically and psychically
transforms into a young woman through the arrival of her first monthly menstruation cycle. I have asked my best friend and co-ritualist Seraphina Capranos — a classical homeopath, herbalist and sexual health educator — to share her knowledge of the Red Tent, a ritual-based experience that supports women. Red Tent opens spaces for women of any age to support one another during what many call a woman’s moon time, reflecting the parallel between the 28 day cycle of a woman’s body and the moon.

Learn more about the Red Tent Movement (2012)

letter from seraphina capranos

my best friend robert has asked me to share with you my experience of a red tent. this relatively new women’s movement, based on an ancient ritual, was re-inspired by Anita diamant’s book of the same name. In it she envisions the book of Genesis from a woman’s perspective.

Imagine if you will, entering a dome shaped tent, a space that is warm, cozy, a space made beautiful by women for women who are menstruating. here is a ritual of refuge, a break from linear time (schedules, clocks, the mundane world). our society has forced women to keep going when our bodies need a break, a creative space to draw, journal, and dream into deeper experiences. you walk through the threshold passing out of the outer world of busy into a world of red, a fluid, dream-like space rich with comfort. Everywhere plush pillows, old woolen carpets, a table laden with chocolates and delicious fruits. Spread before you are coloured pencils, paints, journals, tarot cards, essential oil perfumes, massage oils, herbs for cramps, tampons, and pads, books about women’s bodies and ecstatic poetry. Groups of women may quietly massage one another’s feet and hands. others are off in a private corner. here I found a sanctuary I did not even know I craved.

There is a profound depth when women are in their moon
cycle together. When our senses are more fully awake all the things in this ritual space are reflective of the depth and rhythm of your body, heart and soul, dark chocolate, plush velvets, rich aromas. this mysterious rite of passage opens within you one of nature’s greatest secrets: each woman is connected to all women.

There is no need to talk; laughter and tears are always
welcome. co-creating this ritual container marks this space
as sacred. you have temporarily entered into a world of cocreation, one suggestive of mystical experience.

– Seraphina capranos

Read more about Seraphina’s projects (2015)

Visual art and ritual: anna gustafson’s Snow Fence

As we’ve seen, one of the definitions for ritual involves actions and activities that are repeatable. Even though we may be following in the steps of a tradition — repeating actions in a certain way — it feels new each time. Through this repetition we can become more mindful, to the point of actually experiencing something bigger than ourselves. There are, however, plenty of things we do in our lives exactly the same way, day in and day out, purely out of habit. When I asked my artist friend Anna Gustafson how ritual figures in her work, she told me that she designs visual art installations to bust up the kind of mind-numbing ruts we settle into as we move through our days. Anna believes that simply becoming more thoughtful and conscious will lead to greater and more alive connections among people. So how does she accomplish this through visual art?
Her latest project is called Snow Fence and, like Schafer, she also turned to the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne. In that story, the king’s clever daughter Ariadne gives a ball of red thread to Theseus. By gradually unwinding it as he goes deep in to the labyrinth he doesn’t have to worry about getting lost because he knows that he can find his way out by following the thread back to the entrance. That means he can give all of his attention to his task — defeating the Minotaur. He does slay the Minotaur and after saving all the Athenian youths from death, he leads them back to safety.

Anna’s Snow Fence seems simple enough. It is a fence, fifty feet in diameter,
made from dozens of red wooden slats set up in two interconnecting spirals. It can be assembled, disassembled and reassembled anyplace in the world where there is enough room to put it. There are entrances on either side and people who start travelling into the labyrinth from opposite ends will meet in the middle. Snow Fence is designed to be a container for a ritual. That is, it’s full of potential for people to be as focused as Theseus, able to put all their attention to a task, a question or personal intention — whatever that means to them. They can create whatever ritual they can imagine in that space.

Snow Fence offers an invitation for meditative walking or for exploration and interaction through dance, music, performance or really any ritual that can fit into this unique space whether that ritual involves two people or two hundred.

Anna’s ritual-space artistically supports people to explore their inner and
outer realities simultaneously.
You can design a ritual that is just intended to be fun and still follows the
principles of more serious rituals.

Read more about Anna Gustafson’s Snow Fence project (2016)

Check out the video to get a flavour of this cheeserelated ritual (2015)

This is their official website if you want to learn more


Before moving on to steps for designing your own rituals, here
are some recipe ingredients to help you make your ritual stew.

First: a danger warning

Ritual is an extremely powerful tool. When used irresponsibly,
rituals can deflate courage, stifle creativity, and cause serious harm. There is, sad to say, a nasty history of rituals used to bully, demean and hurt people. Think of ritual hazing or rituals intended to force entire groups of people to submit to falling in line. As artists, it is our responsibility to use our talents and artistic vision to contribute to making a more conscious world — to support people and communities not to damage or manipulate one another. Build your rituals with utmost care for the participants. Here’s an important question to guide the ritual’s values and principles: would you want to be a participant in the ritual that you’re creating for others?

Before setting out to create a ritual, choose where you want to go. Decide what your intention is. What is it that you hope the participants will have by the end of the ritual that they didn’t have when they started?
As a group, decide:

find a story or myth to build into your ritual
Once you set the intention for your ritual, you can start to look for a traditional story or myth that mirrors that intention. Invite everyone in the group to suggest folk tales and myths they know and like. Make a list of the elements in each story or myth: what do the characters actually do from beginning to end (or maybe you just want to use one part of a long story).

See if one (or more) of the stories has elements that will be perfect to use
because the elements in the story are a great match for the intention of the
ritual you want to create. If you need to, go to the library or check the Internet to read more about the story or myth you have chosen. There may be details in the story that you have forgotten or never knew, or maybe one of the members of the group offered this story and nobody else was familiar with it until now. Add the elements you learn into your outline of the story or myth.

Read more on myth in traditional stories

Make a map of what will happen first, then next, then next
Think about the intention you’ve set for your ritual, think about the myth or
story you’ve chosen, and all the elements in it. Now let your imaginations start to run with it. Imagination is your greatest tool and a lifelong ally. Nothing human has ever been created without it! Don’t let “reality” stop you: pretend your way into making your ideas happen. One of the great truths of ritual is that belief goes a long way in making the world you create become momentarily real.

Play with the ideas of fixed and fluid
As you create a structure with fixed steps that you and the participants in your ritual will move through, you will start to discover opportunities for surprising spontaneity and flurries of abandon from within the structure. You’re going to have to trust me on this one.
Having a set structure can take you further than if you’re just winging it on
your own. It’s a paradox because we think of structures as putting limits on us, but it actually works the other way around. Try it out and I guarantee you’ll be integrating this concept into all sorts of performance work you do.
My grade 11 English teacher gave me some advice I have used all my life: “As an artist learn to move freely in the harness.”

introducing rhythm
One of the ways you can lead the ritual participants to be fluid and to move
freely in the harness is by introducing rhythm through repetitious sounds and actions that will encourage everyone to surrender to the experience.
Connecting to a rhythm during a ritual can help keep everyone focused and
present with what’s happening right now.

Once it’s finished, there will be time for the group to go back to reflect on
what happened and understand where you went together, but in the midst of the ritual/performance, you’ll want to stay fully engaged in the moment.

big energy that listens
You can raise ritual energy even further through drumming, movement, music, and chanting.
Play with the rise and fall of that intensity in your rehearsals. During high energy moments it is especially important for the guide(s) to have eyes, ears and senses fully open to what’s happening in the group as a whole, and with all the individuals within the group. I call it big energy that listens, meaning when you are being big and bold leading the group, it’s not a one-way street with all your energy moving outward. It is a valuable skill to be highly aware of yourself while actively taking in a sense of where people are at in the group physically and emotionally. Like an empathic form of a martial art, you tune in to everyone’s needs, including your own and adjust as needed. This is a practical skill that requires reflection and refinement — and is a path to gaining mastery in this work.

Here is a website with some useful ideas for creating safer, anti-oppressive spaces

Make the container a sanctuary, a safer place to take creative risks together
Rituals are places to be seen and heard. Create opportunities in which participants may (if only temporarily) experience a sense of belonging, have a personal and collective sense of purpose by making discoveries together. This gets to the heart of a ritual — it’s about doing something with other people who see and acknowledge each other as they move into and through the experience together. A sanctuary is a place where people trust that they will be safe — a place they feel free to take the risk of being fully themselves without fear.

As you consider what will go into your ritual, give some thought to what you can do to create an environment that will seem like a sanctuary to everyone who is there. The participants need to feel that as their ritual guide, you will do your best to ensure they will all be able to trust each other. To begin, that means that you need to make sure everyone feels included and welcome. Ideally, each participant will be tuned in enough to notice if there is unconstructive stress or conflict among people in the room.

As performance leaders, what can you do in practical terms that will help
participants develop the skills they need to do this and to ease stress if someone feels left behind or unfairly pressured? Learning how to resolve conflicts between people creatively with a calm and win-win attitude is a sign of a maturing ritual artist. That’s part of your job description when you take on the responsibility of creating and guiding a ritual. If you don’t feel quite ready for it, find someone else on your team who has that ability so you can learn while developing your own ritual facilitation style.

When people feel more included, they are more willing to step outside of their comfort zones.

Participants in a ritual take risks not because they’re reckless, but because
they feel everyone in the room is looking out for each other. Nothing ever
changes without vulnerability, and when people trust that they can take a risk, they start to surf the performative energy together. That’s when peak experiences can happen. The writer Brené Brown once said,

Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.

Brené Brown, The Power of Vulnerability (2010). TED Talk

Once you and your team have put your attention to figuring out how you’re going to make a performative space that will feel like a sanctuary of mutual
trust, creative vitality and intelligent risk, you are on the right road to where you need to be. Your imaginations will then guide you through the next steps.

There are so many variables in the world that it’s impossible to have a 100%
safe space. So instead we often talk about creating “safer” spaces, which means as safe as we can make them with as much thought and care as we have to give.

Wrapping up
After the performance/ritual let everyone involved get grounded again. Have a brief, perhaps silent rest, eat some food and drink some water before discussing the ritual. Then share what happened from each of your different points of view.

Could you feel moments of resistance and surrender? What were the most
effective transitions? What made them work?

My favourite ritual debrief is in a talking circle where we describe what happened as if it was an amazing, life changing story. To do this can be as simple as the first person starting the description of their experience with the words “Once upon a time …” Then even your performance analysis becomes its own ritual simply because you used story-like language to describe your actions.

Try this one out. You may surprise yourself with how much you are learning together.

a final word of encouragement: Keep it simple.

Simple does not always mean easy.

Let the ritual be your teacher, guiding your efforts one step at a time. Simplicity helps you stay focused on your group intention and will support you to have a more intimate and enlivening performance experience.

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