Theater of the Sacred

by  Maria Peretzi

Theater is the Art of the Sacred, the art of rituals. All elements of a ritual ceremony are found in Sacred Theater.

Theater springs from the mind’s inherent ability to shape reality, to reflect on how things could be, to imagine, to try, and eventually stage the world in a different way. Theater is the joy of detachment, joy deriving from the creation of the imaginary world of a play. Theater is accomplished by the presence of spectators; a spectator is a witness, who observes this imaginary world, ponders, and by doing so he gains self-knowledge. In other word he acquires education of the psyche, “psychagogy”.

This relationship between the Mind and the world, as well as the one between a spectator and the object of his “psychagogy”, always carries within the cell of the Sacred. The ability of the mind through imagination to reconstruct reality, to reflect on and learn from it, is a trait that differentiates humans from animals. This attribute that sets humans apart from animals is the starting point from which the meaning of sacredness springs.

For animals, things “exist” or “don’t exist at all”. The animal lives in its constant reality, always confronted with what is happening right there, as perceived by its senses. The human mind, however, can imagine the world “differently”, can judge reality, and make choices of controlling one’s quality of life in its relationship to the world. Human emotion, morality and ultimately, religiosity, all emanate from this relationship. Man’s capacity to choose raises the key question “what is the right choice”, and forces him to invoke the higher powers he recognizes to exist, to aid him in that choice.

Man discovers his deep-seated need for education of his psyche.

Ancient Greek Theater is under the direct protection of God. The theatrical space itself where the performance takes place is a temple of Dionysus. In the middle of the square there is always the shrine, the altar, where the theatrical events take place, to constantly remind the reason why the events take place. Dionysus is the divine intervention bringing to the mind detachment, the ability of imagination and regeneration of the world. In the invented world of the scene that develops before the spectator, the action of the proposed reality rediscovers all the elements of the real world. In the myth that unfolds, man’s passions reign once again, the eroticism of his Aphrodite, the patriarchal values ​​of Zeus, the violence of Mars, the wisdom of his Athena, the light of his Apollonian ecstasy.

The Christian tradition was quick to embrace this sacred tool. The supreme liturgy of the Christian year is the re-enactment of the divine drama of crucifixion and resurrection. Psychagogy (education of the psyche) in the holy temple is concretized by the spiritual benefits of turning the mind to the sufferings of Jesus. Jesus himself is paralleled with the vine, and through it with Dionysus. Moreover, the daily interaction with God in the context of the believers’ presence in church, is affected through religious rituals, the formalized relation of the individual to the whole, of man to the universe, of the relation of the Son to the Father. And all this takes place under the continuous recitation of the scriptures, according to the Hebrew model.

When Christianity prevailed, the Church turned against Greek theater with fury and the reason behind it was precisely this process of detachment which was leading to education of the psyche. St. Augustine, Origen, like all other early Christian leaders, condemned it. And we must assume that this was precisely because they considered it to be part of the culture of the ancient world, as a vehicle of spiritual detachment-distraction from everyday life that did not turn the mind exclusively to the passions of Jesus. The same of course was the case with Islam; the religious leaders turned against theater with the same fury, as they rejected any kind of representation, any kind of detachment from reality, from everyday life, if it did not draw nearer to Allah.

In the East, on the other hand, in India, and in the countries where Hinduism prevailed, Theater developed exclusively as an Art of the Sacred. The huge epic of the Ramayana, which narrates the adventures of demigod Rama, has been broken down into a large number of plays, each presented independently, bringing to all social classes the religious and moral education that preserved the spiritual unity of Hinduism, despite the incredibly diverse and contradictory religious practices engaged in by the various Hindu “cults”. Even today, modern cinema of India- or at least the vast majority of its producers- draws its stories and themes from this inexhaustible spiritual source.

In Indonesia, apart from the usual theatrical performance of a play that requires participation of regular actors, Ramayana’s presentation has taken exotic and bizarre forms, such as various forms of puppetry and forms of “Shadow Theater», the theater that we, in Greece, call “Karagiozis”. This Indonesian traditional form of theater, which counts over more than ten types of shadow theater, involves the elaborate construction of puppet figures, many of which have multi-folded arms, just like the “long independent arm” of Karagiozis. This was the way that theater timidly reappeared in Greece during the years of Ottoman rule, breaking the forbidding tradition that had been imposed on theatre for centuries by Byzantine Christianity, followed by the Ottoman Islam.

The Ramayana is the only myth in the Hindu world that is staged as a play. But the plays into which its text has been broken down, if they were ever to be performed all together, would take endless hours of performance, whole 24-h periods.  Consequently, the original play has never been presented in a single performance. In the Hindu world, stretching from northern India, Bangladesh, Ceylon, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, to Vietnam, etc., performances of the Ramayana are staged by various theatre groups in each region, each of which has developed its own traditional modes of theatrical presentation. The training of the actors, the theatrical idiom in which they move and express themselves, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, all these are elements of the local sacred art, traditions that stretch back many centuries.

It is worth noting that this whole tradition developed as Theatre of the Sacred and is still widely practiced by theater groups, the “actors” of which often join from an early age, an art which they usually do not cultivate as a stand-alone profession, but which they practice alongside any “regular” profession. In practice, these “actors” are members of the theater group in the same way that they would be members of a Sufi or other religious Order of this kind. It is these “traditional groups” that periodically give performances in the West and amaze with the quality of their work, which often proves capable of surviving artistically and adapting to modern theatrical spectacles.

With the prevalence of Christianity in the West and the entry into the Middle Ages, theatre essentially died out as an art form. The creative power of Sacred Art, the search for an Art dedicated to spiritual values, reappeared in the West much later in Florence, with the Renaissance of Platonism. During the Middle Ages, the only actors of an outcast theatrical tradition were the gypsies. Little is known about the kind of theatrical performances put on by these nomads who came from India, except that their activities were considered seedbeds of immorality and were often the cause of their persecution.

In modern times, the healing power of theater has slowly begun to be recognized. Even before the French Revolution, Marquis de Sade, the well-known “sadist”, who because of his activities, and in order to avoid imprisonment, had him committed by his family to an insane asylum, attempted to experiment with his patients and organize a troupe for theatrical performances. His actions were well known and have been a “source of inspiration” so to speak, both for Antonin Artaud, the great Greek-French dramatist of the early twentieth century who introduced the “Theater of Cruelty”, and for the modern theatrical tradition of Experimental Theater that includes Peter Brook.

Meanwhile, the concept of drama therapy has been introduced into contemporary psychiatry as a form of group therapy, and, in a way, the activities that are attempted to be incorporated seem to touch in some way on the concept of Theater as a Sacred Art. The point is that in drama therapy, the “acting” activities of those who participate are intended to allow them to see themselves differently, that is, to study in practice the way they react to life events and to their fellow human beings, the other participants in the “group”. Ultimately, the conscious goal is to free oneself, to strive to overcome the standard ways in which one relates to others and get in touch with one’s inner sensations, feelings and thoughts that can effortlessly emerge in a flow of free improvisation in the play with reality.

Grotowski’s work in Rome, before he left for Paris, where he died in 2002, should be considered part of the field of drama therapy. What is somewhat surprising is the fact that Grotowski, who with the introduction of “Poor Theater” brought the concept of Sacred Theater again to the forefront, seems to have abandoned active theater, as from a certain point onwards he does not seem to have been interested in having spectators, but only in contributing to the development and psychological liberation of those who participated in his theater group.  This is the reason why his effort should be seen more as drama therapy than Sacred Theater. For in Sacred Theater, the key element is the influence that the events bear from the Myth studied and ultimately presented, and from the relationship of the observer and the observed that develops between “spectator” and “actor”.

The activities of the RODA theatre group have gradually evolved over the last twenty-six years, allowing in practice the emergence of a modern Sacred Theater. RODA promotes a specific theatrical point of view, which aims to touch in a substantial way those who participate in its consolidation, “actors” and “contributors” of the performances of Roda, but definitely the audience, the “spectator”.

In RODA we work on the assumption of the existence of One Sacred Myth. In our view, all Sacred Texts, regardless of the religion in which they appeared, have a common central theme. Each Sacred text can be seen as a reminder, that there is “another life”, a level of experiencing the world that is not exhausted when man sees the “shadows of things”, according to the image of the cave allegory. Plato, in the example he gives in his work “Politeia” (Republic), simulates the way people perceive the world to being tied-up and with their heads immobilized, facing the wall of a cave. Thus, they do not see the actual things that exist around them, but only the shadows created by the light coming in from the entrance.  The Sacred Myth comes back to remind us that man’s purpose is to free himself from his spiritual chains and turn towards the light.

The image brought by the Sacred Myth is real, in the sense that there is a practical issue of man’s liberation from the ordinary way of seeing things, and there is a matter of his conscious turning towards the light, towards a way of being which, in the New Testament, is also called the “Kingdom of Heaven”. Our view of the Sacred Myth is that this idea of “shift”, of the possibility of man’s evolution, is the Fundamental Idea behind every Sacred Text, behind all Holy Scriptures, behind every Holy Tradition that has ever appeared on our planet. In this way, the Sacred Myth is the backbone of the Sacred Works that are at the root of every tradition.

We, at RODA, select the plays we stage from the great myths and epics of the world heritage. Our aim is to create a tradition of theatrical storytelling of the most important myths that have influenced the formation of our world. In this way, we want to make the contemporary viewer a direct partaker of their universal content. The point, of course, is that narratives such as “Gilgamesh”, which is the most ancient literary and sacred text in the world, the “Ramayana”, the “Odyssey”, etc., works which we have included in our permanent repertoire, can easily become boring, trapped in a sterile, rigid academic theatrical performance. But we make theater a lively experience, and any spectator who has been to our performances, has seen our theatrical super spectacles, full of dance and live music, pulsating with realism and immediacy. This is because the Sacred Myth has within it all the conditions that attract the interest of the contemporary viewer: Adventure and action, the struggle between good and evil, the shift to what has true value not as moralistic, but as a natural necessity. The connection of the living “Now” with things that have always had real value, had always been our purpose.

The success of the Theater of the Sacred lies in the actor’s preparation. And this preparation of RODA performances follows a completely different process from what the commercial troupes apply. Theater education for the actor of RODA goes far beyond the boundaries of an ordinary “rehearsal”. Memory exercises, endurance exercises, attention exercises, participation in ritual dances from the Sufi and Indian traditions, the constant yoga that is always practiced before and immediately after the performance, all these are the starting point of the approach to the issue of freedom of expression and at the same time to the psyche of those who participate in the performance, actors and musicians, and their coordination on stage. When actors feel the same way, then they know exactly what to give to each other and what to expect from each other. In this effort, the actor of RODA is essentially redefining the context of his/her objective experience.

The presentation of any myth should always be the result of a thorough study, the result of a research that can take several years. Each Sacred Myth is a whole world. There is no point in studying “The Ramayana” as a piece of literature, ignoring that behind this work is the whole Hindu tradition. The purpose of the study is to bring out the Sacred Myth through the descriptions and stories presented in each Sacred text. The question that arises for any such work is in what way is the gap between the transcendental “other world”, and the “world of shadows”, i.e. the forms of everyday life that entrap the Mind causing confusion between the Sacred and formalism, is bridged.  For this is the function of every Sacred Myth. It provides insight and thus aids towards detachment from the formalistic doctrine, opening the Mind up to what is truly spiritually superior.

The study of the play includes careful survey for the costumes, the setup, and the lighting, conducted by all the members with whom the performance is completed. It is typical of RODA that all its members participate in all activities, even in cleaning the theater and the stage. The performance is an offering to the audience, and the offering must be complete. Thus, costumes and sets are creations of the members of RODA, and constitute integral parts of the Theater of the Sacred, resulting from the study of the play and the way it must be rendered each time in order to be modern, lively and absolutely interesting for the viewer.

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