Why the Ritual of Theater and Life is so Important to our Youth.
By Artistic Director Michelle Romeo
We sat together in a circle last night. 14 teenagers and I spoke about the difference between moods and emotions. We speculated on what our “edge” is in both life and on the stage and how that affects us as performers. This has become a weekly ritual for us and I call it “Tea with a Topic”.
We also have a fairly elaborate practice which involves circling up, bowing in, and doing an exercise we call “I feel, I want, I need.” And yes, we also do the lip trills, vocal warm ups, and stretches which are the pre-requisite for any acting class. Yet I have found that the kids get the most fulfilment in the ritual which warms up not just their bodies, but their minds and hearts as well.
Theater is not just a means of entertainment; it is also a ritualization of life. It has the capacity to move us, transform us and yes, entertain us. As we escape the mundanity of our lives, we become open to an experience of the extraordinary, that which lives in all of us but is not yet manifest. And yes, this applies not only to the experience of the audience but to the performers as well.
I tell my students (in more modest terms) that as performers we have a unique and holy duty to show up authentically and remind others of our collective experience in this world and to give them a taste of the extraordinary. Quite a responsibility you might say. It is one that I believe our youth need and crave! And so we introduce the training, from a young age, of knowing one’s self and developing one’s intuition as well as the vital sense of spontaneity. This work is why I founded our company twenty years ago.
At our academy, we not only train young people in the techniques and tools of the trade, we also provide them with an education that fosters emotional and social intelligence. We seek to cultivate youth who are keenly self-aware, astutely tuned into each other, and have a strong sense of “self”. Furthermore, through ensemble-based activities, a core part of our curriculum, we encourage them to understand the importance of boundaries and connection, and how to hold the “I” and “we” simultaneously without losing either. This is a tall order but a principle that serves them, not only as an ensemble on stage but also in the ensemble of their lives.
So let me cut to the chase and raise the question: How do you get beyond all this jargon and set about doing this work with kids?
If I were to over articulate this with my students, I would probably lose them, but if I can harness the power of ritual and drama consciously, I can trust that this act will get the job done. It’s really that simple; to hold higher expectations of our youth, not in the matter of what they achieve, but rather in stretching what I believe their capacity is to know themselves, and to challenge their beliefs around who they think they are and what they could be.
It all begins and ends with ritual. Theater at its most basic level is a ritual and can be traced back thousands of years as a means of telling stories or celebrating an event. To ritualize anything is to make it special, sacred even. Kids are hungry for ritual and for a container that can hold them completely in all their humanness. I believe this is part of the tremendous surge of youth theater around the country.
During an age where our attunement is towards that of machines and media rather than of self, other, or to the cultivation of an imagination, there has been a collective call to offer to our youth a chance to participate in something that actively engages them. In this case, we are talking about the sacred ritual of making theater together.
The making of theater organically builds our youth’s connection to themselves and to each other, essential for the creation of emotionally mature and aware adults. Ritual can be simple and should be an important part of every class or practice in life.
If you make a ritual with the very young of brushing teeth, you have transformed this act from the mundane to the extraordinary and they might become surprisingly compliant. If you want to get teenagers to talk, make time for it, give it a clever title, make tea, share chocolate, sit on cushions and do this every week without fail.
You have now created a special and sacred container where they can imagine themselves not just as teenagers sitting in a circle being asked about “a topic” but also as human beings with a special purpose. They might even imagine themselves as a board of directors or as congress discussing important issues. The imagination is triggered by ritual and has the capacity to trick our ego into forgetting who it thinks we are and allowing us to become who we might want to be.
People ask me why we bow in, why I ask that all our students wear neutral all black clothing to class and rehearsal and what purpose this touchy feely business of “I feel, I want, I need” serves. For one, it provides a method for students and teachers to shake off the personas of their lives in the outside world and find neutrality and calm, to create the blank canvas of infinite possibility which is essential to any artist.
In addition, changing out of street clothes and into our “actors attire” makes an important shift. Circling up and acknowledging each other by a simple scan of faces is now a statement of “I am a part of something greater than me. I am not alone and I am not invisible.” And this, is the greatest gift we can give our kids – to know they are part of something bigger – and this is the gift of the theater to our youth.