Archive for October, 2010

Persephone’s Roots – An All Hallow’s Eve Ritual

October 21, 2010

VOX: This is my first blog post previewing a play (and not about something I’ve already seen.) A few weeks ago I learned about an upcoming production in Berkeley by the Ragged Wing Ensemble. I’d seen them perform before, most notably in production they did of “The Tempest” in 2007. This play was a new one, based on an ancient myth, called “Persephone’s Roots; An All Hallows Eve Ritual.” What caught my attention was that it looked like it was going to be both a play and an actual Pagan ritual. This seemed like a good combination to me, and one that has historical validity. And it also seemed a natural fit for the Bay Area, where there are lots of theatre people and lots of Pagans!

I contacted Ragged Wing to get more info and ended up talking to the director, Anna Schneiderman.  So here, then, is my first blog interview, an edited transcription of what we talked about on the phone:  

ANNA SHNEIDERMAN: I co-founded Ragged Wing Ensemble in 2004. My background includes doing a lot of work in outdoor pageantry, ritual performance and large spectacle events with Bread and Puppet in Vermont and Redmoon in Chicago. I studied classical literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago – the Greeks mostly. I studied the connection between performance and ritual, and how ritual can be a performance. I strongly believe that theatre is ritual, and that it comes from that, and that there is a reason why it has survived so long.

The type of theatre that we usually see, where we go and sit in a theater and watch something from beginning to end, and there is this separation between the audience and the performers, doesn’t really serve that ritual function anymore – although I feel it has the potential to. On the other side, many rituals today don’t have any craft to them. What I feel is important, and what we’re trying to recreate, is something that is in between: that is crafted and rehearsed and at the same time it involves the audience in a ritual that they can participate in, that feels like they’re making something happen.

I’ve wanted to do something for Halloween for a really long time. I love Halloween, and the sense of accessing the spirit world is compelling to me. It’s my favorite holiday, and I didn’t want to just go to a party. I wanted to celebrate it in a more sacred and intentional way.

So I looked around at what was happening in the Bay Area; I thought it would be great to create something for Halloween that was a ritual and a performance, and some way for community to come together. Then, maybe six or seven months ago it clicked that this Persephone myth would be a great way to work on it. Basically it’s a journey into the underworld, and there is moment where she has this choice, and there is a deal that happens at the end where she goes back and forth between the underworld and the upperworld. The cycle of the year gets created at that moment. It’s a powerful story, and really relevant to the moment of Halloween.

The next step was I found this park in Berkeley – Codornices Park. It has this tunnel that I fell in love with, and it has this field and this wooded area with all these nooks and crannies. It’s really mysterious and beautiful. So these three thoughts came together: the Halloween ritual, the Persephone myth, and this park. And it all made sense to do the show at this place and this time.

I’m not in the Pagan community; I didn’t realize that the gods in this story were living deities; Little did I know that people are actually honoring them in a living religion. I think it’s great. I’m totally thrilled that Persephone and Demeter are still living Gods. I had no idea. This story and its archetypes are in the culture. And people, even if they aren’t Pagan, usually have some awareness of the archetypes. These are archetypes that everyone can connect with, and I hope that the way we handle this myth can be acceptable also to people for whom these are living gods and goddesses.

I don’t myself pray to these deities. But I feel that by making this performance it’s kind of like I’m praying to them; because it’s a piece of art that we’re creating about them, which is probably the hugest honor you can do. I want it to be open to anybody, not just people who believe in these deities as their own deities. There is a reason for ritual; It’s kind of essential to human nature. But a lot of people in our culture have lost the opportunity to participate in ritual on a regular basis. So I feel that the function of this performance is to be a ritual without being religious, so that people from any background can access that thing that we need.

I have nine people in the creation ensemble. They’re actors, singers and dancers, and we’re creating it together through a collaborative process. They’re coming at it as actors, not Pagans. They auditioned to be in a show. It’s more about creating an experience for the audience than about fully embodying the gods oneself. I think there is something about collectively putting on this performance that is really magical, and then we offer that to the audience so that they can experience it too.

The audience is going to enter the park and we’ll give them certain objects to hold and things to do so that they can interact with the piece as they go through. There will be live music, and the audience will help make it. There will bells to ring, and rhythms to clap, and there will be call and response songs. We’re kind of thinking of the audience as a Greek chorus. But it’s not going to be like a Greek tragedy where we all sit in a big amphitheater and watch it.

They’ll meet the two main characters, Persephone and Demeter. Persephone will discover the underworld. I’m going with the idea that she chooses to go into the underworld; it’s not an abduction. She feels the pull of the underworld. Another thing we’re doing with this piece is that Hades is not represented as a character, but more as like a force, and a place that Persephone wants to go; she is attracted by this dark force and then invites the audience to join her. So we will go with her and go into this tunnel and follow her path.

In my research I found that the myth of Persephone is a marker for the patriarchal religion taking over from the Goddess religion. Basically Demeter, Persephone and Hecate all pre-dated Zeus and the other Olympian gods. The idea of Hades abducting Persephone, and this forced marriage, is part of a series of myths about forced marriages that basically are about sublimating the goddess religions to the patriarchal religions that came in with the Hellenistic gods. One of the reasons I have gotten so excited about doing this particular story was the idea of bringing our society back into balance, and bringing back the presence of the goddess to our culture.

People who come to this might not normally go to something that was fully a ritual, and then maybe they’ll get taken into the ritual side of it as well. The parts where the audience can interact are essential to the piece. But it won’t be intimidating or scary or putting people on the spot. They’ll feel like they’re a part of it and they’re making things happen, but nobody is expecting them to stand up and say something, or to go into a trance. Anybody, including kids, will be able to come and experience this.

“Persephone’s Roots” runs Wed, Oct. 27 – Sun, Oct. 31 @ 5:30 pm at Codornices Park, 1201 Euclid Ave. in Berkeley, CA. This is a free event. More info at http://www.raggedwing.org

Pax, and Happy Halloween!

-Vox