Stagecraft is a physical ritual of gesture and word.
Productions are scripted rituals, enacted and re-enacted by human bodies live and in person in a shared space, night after night after night, mutated versions passed down from generation to generation, mixing the comfort of tradition with the mutability of the present; the art of rituals and the art of theater is bodies in repeated motion.
As such, theater is uniquely positioned to demonstrate how rituals blur the lines between performative artifice and very-real profundity/truth/meaning for all involved. A few recent productions demonstrate how staging explicit rituals — be they annual holidays, daily practices, rare caregiving, or worst-case nightmares — can harness their power for theatrical purposes, all while calling our attention to the theatrically special within our quotidian.
Leopoldstadt‘s seder sequence provides the clearest elucidation; there’s almost no difference between an “actual” seder in “real life” and the seder being “performed” eight times a week on Broadway — the role of both is to honor the persevering longevity of this religious ritual, and to embolden the communal survival it stands for.
In back-to-back scenes, The Cost of Living on Broadway showcased the daily ritual of a caregiving bath. It’s an everyday occurrence that’s nonetheless essential and — in these cases — predicated on the help of another, a casual act of kindness (one not without its thorny complications) that allows their worlds to continue spinning round.
My Broken Language at the Signature included a similarly cleansing bath, when one character relieves another through a spiritually rejuvenating, ritualistic shower. The worst can start to heal through a laying on of loving hands; it’s the balm of human touch, the work of our hands, of reciprocal corporeality.
And then there’s the evil side of this ritual coin. In A Little Life at BAM, Ivo van Hove staged Jude’s cyclical torture as inescapable ritual. Whenever his overt torturers — different characters played by one actor — prowled back on from the wings, his blocking was the exact same every time.
This ritualization of cruelty links our eternal need for rituals with the pervasiveness and ubiquity of what ails us, in the world and in ourselves; rituals for good exist to deal with the overwhelming ritual of crushing turpitude.
Jude’s salvation may lie in the positive rituals found in the other productions mentioned above…but is he even capable of leaving his ritualistic pain behind? Or has his life been so mired by never-ending rituals of suffering that he can’t give himself over to other forms of ritualistic reprieve?
The scripted rituals of life — and of art — are as defined by darkness as they are by light, simultaneously.