Sacred Theatre and the Power of Transformation

by Matthew Ellenwood

The theatrical arts have their origins in humanity’s urge to communicate myth, ritual, and song through the medium of storytelling. All ancient cultures gave praise to their spirits and gods, and celebrated the “sacred times” with stories and songs about the origins of the tribe and its place in the world. The birth of theatre, as we know it in the West, took place in ancient Greece. The patron of theatre is also the lord of intoxication and ecstasy. His name is Dionysos. The birth of acting is attributed to a Greek poet named Thespis who jumped up into a cart with an enormously charismatic presence, and delivered his poem from the perspective of each character. To this day actors are called Thespians in honor of “the first actor.”

To the ancient Greeks, the theatre was a divine place of transformation. It was a place of ritual, of entertainment, and of medicine, for it had the power to bring about an emotional catharsis of joy, sorrow, rage, and awe. In our current times, theatre competes for a potential audiences’ attention with television, cinema, video games, and hundreds of other diversions: anything that tells a story. Spiritual theatre must do more than simply “tell a story.” Theatre that is spiritual in nature is transformative in nature. The actors must see their own experience as part of the story and reveal their souls to the audience. The stage itself must contain symbolic patterns that have an almost subliminal quality, that offer a change of energy to the actors when they physically encounter them. The audience should be able to see their own experience reflected in the story unfolding before them and leave the theatre having experienced a personal encounter with the numinous.

Terra Mysterium was founded with these concepts firmly in mind. Our method is to use interdisciplinary modalities such as music, dance, ritual, magic (both of the stage and mystical varieties), visual art, and theatre (both comedy and tragedy) to communicate stories that call out to Spirit, and seek transformation in sacred and secular expressions. I asked members of the Terra Mysterium performance collective to share their thoughts on spiritual theatre with me. May their thoughts open a window into this fascinating realm for the reader.

What is the most magical thing about being a theatrical performer?

Shivian Balaris: “So much of ritual (especially that of group/public ritual) involves, if not requires, quality and potent theatrical skills in order to manifest change and transformation in the participants and presenters.”

Where do you find spirituality in theatre?

Tim England: “The entire experience of theater is magical and transforming. It transports you to a place where anything is possible, and mythical worlds come alive.”

Kat O’Connor: “I guess ultimately for me there isn’t a divide between spiritual and mundane. What theatre is is communication, what art is is communication, and spirituality is connection to and communication with that which is greater than ourselves – the divine, and the universe (in the cosmic, human, and ecological senses).”

Ruby Sara (a writer for Terra Mysterium’s upcoming show): “I believe that the world is, literally, created from Story. Therefore, to engage in theatre is to engage in the raw materials of the universe, and for me, this is indiscernible from ritual. In the microcosm of the theatre, we have the opportunity to bring the richness of human drama under a microscope so we can better grok it at its core. Theatre is a relationship between the people on the stage and the audience, and authentic relationship leads to transformation, which for me is the bedrock of magic.”

Where does spirituality manifest in the theatre?

Keith Green: “In the creation of an ‘otherworldly’ reality. It is as if you are transposing another time and place over this one, or opening a gateway to another realm.”

Petrucia Finkler: “The actors lend their bodies and voices to be conduits for the essence of human drama. I feel that theatre truly has the function of some sort of sacrificial arena for public catharsis. The enhanced reality of the stage puts the audience in contact with not only the deeper and darker parts of themselves, but the beauty and sensitivity of the human condition. When it’s well done, everyone leaves the theater redeemed.”

How do theatre, magic, and the spiritual all intersect?

Shannah Lessa: “Performance is, in my humble opinion, inherently magickal. Theater performance is a tangible, accessible manifestation of transformation – through time, space and spirit.”

Matthew Ellenwood is the artistic director of Terra Mysterium, the senior clergyman for Brotherhood of the Phoenix, and a professional conductor, voice teacher, and actor.

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