Friday, 4 February 2011


Issue: Ritual in Theatre: Can Theatre Learn anything from Religion?

Convener(s): Nicholas Mcinerny


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

I started with brief account of why I proposed the issue. I mentioned both the origins of theatre in Religious ‘Mystery’ Plays which obviously located drama in a ritualistic world, a notion of a collective, ‘sacred’ space.

I then talked about a more recent history of drama, in the 20th Century and particularly since the WW2. Alongside ‘the death of God’ and the rise of politics as a chief concern, there was a process to demystify theatre and to pursue it as past of an intellectual narrative – so ideas around ritual were neglected because of their religious connotations. Alongside that was an alignment with political theatre with a kind of puritan rigour – distrusting ideas set around ‘the body’ and the kind of experiential effect ritual can provoke.

I mentioned my recent experience with Tantra – explore less ‘I think therefore I am’ and more ‘I feel therefore I am’. The use of ritual in Tantra – my facilitator had trained with Grotowski (?) in Poland as well as Margaret Anand, who first introduced Skydancing Tantra in the Uk, as a means of re-connection. Other ‘spiritual’ practice, such as the 5Rhythm dance practice, contributed to this. All were designed to let me live less in my head and more in my body.

Ritual, in Tantric practice, became part of an enabling space. This allowed us to recognized ritual as an essential part of our individual longing as well as challenging us to go deeper. It was affirming and created a space of safety to allow us to be braver. It allowed for the possibility of CHANGE – all vital parts of theatre.


1. There was a long discussion about WHAT IS RITUAL? How do we characterize the apparently mundane – eg, making a cup of tea in the morning with the sacred, eg lighting a candle in church (and what about lighting a candle at home? Does that in some tiny way draw on the sacred too?
2. One practitioner, using these as examples, talked about how she cannot separate form from practice – ritual is an integral part of everything she does.
3. Does Ritual have to have a connection to something mysterious and/or transcendent?
4. Is it Sociological – a way or making sense of ourselves, the universe. The relationship between the two?
5. Tribal Longing. Does ritual perform a valuable function in allowing us to discover our tribe and reaffirm our sense of belonging to it – eg Community. This is something hugely relevant to our practice as directors/theatre makers/writers – in navigating the relationship between our isolation and our collaboration.
6. Ritual as a process and as a tool. Can you be both improvisation and respond ‘to the moment’ and also create something that connects with others because of some shared notion rooted in – what? Common experience of the world? Of History? Of shared philosophy? We talked about the power, shape and structure of traditional Religious rituals – baptism, marriage, death, mass – that are hardwired into our cultural DNA. They work – and work for a reason.
7. An example of a ritualistic activity that also has an improvisational element is Brian Eno’s use of cards for his ‘Oblique Instructions’ – where a set of random instructions are used to shape his creative process. Powerful and spontaneous – is this a real integration of the creative and ritualistic?
8. Again, Ritual as a place of safety in which you can go deeper. How does this relate to theatre, with its need to appear ‘on the edge’. Does that always best serve the best interests of an audience, when the alternative might be – especially in some forms of theatre, eg Tragedy – to provide something familiar in order to allow for greater exploration. I am thinking of Howard Barker’s writings on tragedy here as a guide.
9. The difference between Custom and Ritual. A fascinating discussion grew out of this. It centre around the idea that Ritual had a clear intention and focus, with a desire to be witnessed, and to share. Custom may, for example, be all the things we associate with the theatre experience – the programme, the drinks in the interval, the curtain, the chocolates – which are there to provide that context in which we can safely surrender to the Ritual if/when it happens – and please let it happen!
10. Related Theatre to other art forms, esp film. There was a discussion of the recent film, MR BONMEE RECALLS HIS PAST LIVES, which was structured around ideas of reincarnation and was episodic and circular rather than linear. This encourages a more meditative approach – not something we see so often in Theatre, but is that a possibility for the future?
11. Discussions of different models – eg the Lecoq ‘Neutral State’ – saying yes to whatever comes to you (very appropriate to this event!)
12. So what are our concerns and responsibilities as theatre makers. Surely we all have to know what kind of ritual will connect with your audience? But also you want to communicate an underlying belief about the world/people/audience in order to CONNECT with that ritual – so in theory there should be a creative tension.
13. The question was raised – is Theatre a Physical Space or an Individual Experience? If an Individual Experience is conducted alone, and without witness, is that truly a Ritual. I talked a little bit about the Burning Man Festival… – and the way ritual becomes incorporated in a total experience.
14. How does the internet impact on Rituals? What new rituals are created by the internet. Given its influence on an increasing sense of an atomized, fragmented – how can theatre both use this extraordinary cultural and social tool – and reflect in back in our work in a meaningful way.

Finally there were several things we kept coming back to in our discussion. These are concepts that powerful Rituals symbolize but can be easily related to theatre. There are:

1. Intentionality is crucial to Ritual. What you intend will convey to an audience, even if they are unsure about what it means. This is the way to explore and extend trust for an audience.
2. Linked to this is Presence. Audience, congregation, witness.
3. Transformation. Every Ritual contains its own process, a journey that leads to the possibility of change. This is a huge abiding power that lies at the heart of Theatre.

Reflecting on that now, as I write up these notes, I am struck by one final observations.

Ritual contains within an inherent energy of optimism, or personal and collective empowerment, of pleasure, and of joy.

Nicholas McInerny

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