In my twenties, sitting in the green room readying to go on stage, I was talking with a fellow actress. A Theater Professor at Yale, she began talking to me about the history of theater and its ritual and healing roots. It was the first art form, and as ritual the hunt or major events were re-enacted so that they became part of the community experience and story. Theater was also utilized to interact and give honor to the divine. She went on to talk about how for the ancient Greeks, theater was an essential part of their culture, seen as a vehicle for catharsis, healing and the well-being of the culture.
THE in Greek means GOD
THEOLOGY is The Study of God
THERAPY is The Discovery of God
THEATER is The Revealing of God
The first instance of therapy that is recorded took place in Greece. To conduct a therapeutic experience, the client was put into a dark chamber beneath the stage of the ampitheatre. This person was laid on a raised platform, an altar of sorts, with snakes placed all around the floor of the chamber. The person as left there until they had a dream.
The client then emerged and stood in the center of the stage of the ampitheatre and recount the dream to the elders sitting on the benches in the audience. Once the story of the dream was told, the client would then sit down in the audience and the elders would re-enact the dream, bringing it to life. This was the first recorded therapy which utilized theater to 'reveal' what was discovered through the receiving of the dream.
This conversation had an extraordinary impact on me. It planted the seed that would become Healing Theater a few years later.
An Introduction to Ritual Theatre
Ritual theatre is one of the most ancient forms of healing that is still practiced in tribal societies today. Since the earliest times ancient people healed themselves and explored what they couldn’t understand about the world through dramatic ritual. Such were the beginnings of ritual theatre.
Much later the Ancient Greeks developed these into Dionysinian rites which eventually evolved into theatre because the Greeks very clearly saw that it was necessary and healthy for the wellbeing of their society for emotions to be released. This was the sole/soul purpose of the performance.
Theatre has developed considerably from these origins so that nowadays we equate theatre more often with being entertained. It is unlikely that we will associate theatre with healing or being changed ourselves.
And yet ritual theatre, is even more important and relevant in contemporary life – and this is why I and many others believe ritual theatre is coming back.
Why We Need Ritual Theatre?
As we advance further in science and technology and the faster our world becomes, the more we need to find some kind balance between these sophisticated and our human-ness.
Malidoma Somé, author of many books on ritual, says this more very forcefully – “the Western Machine Technology is the spirit of death made to look like life”. He says we need to return to our spiritual roots or we lose ourselves. And this is most effectively achieved through ritual.
Ritual theatre is a way of restoring this energy and returning us to our spiritual roots in a contemporary way that is acceptable to a western life style because its form is familiar to the vast majority of people. Everyone understands what theatre is and its purpose, even if they’ve never been in a theatre.
Ritual theatre too spawns a rare quality: a quality of soul. Soul connects us with our ancestors throughout time, it connects us with others in shared experiences and it connects us to the deepest parts of ourselves. Many of us are hungering for this, are hungering for this connection – aware what the technological is doing to us, making us more and more disconnected, more in our heads, producing tremendous suffering under the labels of stress, fatigue and health problems.
But when we participate in a ritual theatre event we move away from the event feeling that something profound in us has shifted, emotions may have flowed, we have laughed, danced and played, or we have found a new, softer side of ourselves.
It may have enabled us too, to leave behind the trauma of a painful experience. We feel elated, inspired and invigorated, as if we have entered in a new state of being. We have in fact entered into an altered state of consciousness similar to the states that shamans induce in their powerful healing ceremonies that draws us to contemplate our deeper nature,
What is Ritual Theatre?
So what exactly is ritual theatre, and how does it differ from a classic theatre experience?
Ritual theatre quite simply is the enactment of a myth or archetypal story with the intention of bringing about healing – usually to resolve an issue, to deal with a difficult life experience, to restore depleted energies or to ease a transition.
Anyone can participate in a ritual theatre and it requires no particular ability or talent other than an open heart and a willingness to allow the journey unfold.
The kind of ritual theatre that I am mostly talking about occurs behind closed doors of a workshop room or a private space where participants are also witnesses and onlookers of the ritual drama. It can also take place in a hospital, a school, or in the community enabling marginalized groups to reintegrate into society.
However it can equally be a ritual performance before an audience involving large numbers of people. An example of such an event was the Cosmic Celebration, a vast mythic pageant, “celebrating the unity of all religious paths and the human family” which was initiated in the seventies by Pir Vilayat, a Sufi Master and was performed worldwide to thousands.
This also included up to 350 people from the local community who took part in the performance – so it was truly a ritual experience. The Cosmic Celebration was also performed at St James Church, Piccadilly which for the last 30 years has been hosting the inspirational Alternatives talks featuring key authors/speakers in the mind/body/spirit arena . (A chapter on this ritual theatre production features in the book. See picture below) This is a very different kind of experience to a normal theatre performance.
Ritual Theatre takes participants on a mythic journey through which they can experience and explore the many parts of themselves diving into mythic adventure, of monsters and heroes. It follows the patterns of the Hero’s Journey uncovered by Joseph Campbell, based on Carl Jung’s discoveries of how myth expressed the collective unconscious through which powerful healing of the psyche and soul could take place.
Ritual theatre brings the theatre element to Jung and Campbell’s discoveries enabling participants to express the collective unconscious through playing out powerful archetypal stories. This is potent facilitating the healing of psyche and soul and much closer to the kind of ritual healing ceremonies that took place in ancient times and in tribal societies.
This is all explored in further depth in the book I edited Ritual Theatre, The Power of Dramatic Ritual in Personal Development Groups and Clinical Practice which was published in the UK by Jessica Kingsley publishers and includes chapters from leading drama therapists including Sue Jennings, healing theatre pioneer and author of many books.
Since the publication of the book I have been heartened that many readers have written to me telling me the book has changed their life and awakened them to the power of ritual theatre.
From an interview with Jessica Kingsley
Theater as a Healing Art
Theater is Entertaining.
But it is not the end itself, but the means to a a carthatic awakening
Entertainment as simply the Sugar that helps the Medicine go Down
Embody Your Story; Become Enlivened