Thursday, July 3, 2014

On Masks, Theatre, and the Goddess

The Goddess has a thousand faces - maiden, mother, wise old woman, teacher, warrior, healer, destroyer, lover, nurturer of new life or the flame of creativity. She is found throughout world religions and mythologies, with names like red Kali, Inanna Queen of the stars, Quan Yin the compassionate, suffering Sedna ocean mother to the Inuit, Aphrodite the capricious goddess of love, and Mary, the Virgin. To me, most of all, she is Gaia, Anima Mundi , the feminine “World Soul”. And in the years I've spent studying Goddess traditions I've come to believe that re-discovering these universal stories of the sacred feminine is very important. For the transformation and profound affirmation they offer to women - and collectively, for the healing of our world. It's my privilege to share some of that telling with women and men through the use of my masks. 

I remember a conversation I shared with Dorit Bat Shalom, an artist I know who brought Israeli and Palestine women together in “Peace Tents ” to share their stories. Dorit asked: " How can there be peace in the Middle east without the Shekinah?" And she went on to say "The Shekinah has been driven away from the holy lands. We cannot heal without Her. " What does it mean, truly, that the displaced, degraded, denied, less? And it is ironic that so much strife now takes place now in the very heart of what was once the ancient fertile homeland of the Great Mother, of Inanna, Astarte, of Isis.  

Artists are mythmakers - and myths are the templates of dreams, art  and religion, the templates upon which both civilizations and individuals name what is sacred, and what is profane. I think the question Dorit raised is profound: How indeed can there be peace, in the Mideast or anywhere else, when deity, and human values, are personified and polarized as almost exclusively male? A mythos that denies “ the feminine face of God”, and degrades or belittles the sanctity of feminine experience - has left us a humanity profoundly divided against itself.

In 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, a group of women created a performance in Oakland, California, that was dedicated to peacemaking. Participants approached a masked “ Sophia” , who held a mirror over her heart. As they drew near, each saw themselves reflected in the mirror. Because Sophia, whose name means "wisdom", ultimately means "know thyself". In all our complex diversity, male and female, dark and light. Then can we become true peacemakers. 

When I studied mask arts in Bali, I realized the Balinese had no understanding of our western discourse on the meaning of, to them, is a way to commune with the deities and spirits of their Hindu religion. Temple masks are not "art objects" - they "belong to the Gods", and are imbued with special meaning and energy, just as the telling of their stories was more than entertainment. 
"Theater" comes from the same Greek word as "theology" - theos , or "god". In traditional cultures, masks, drama and dance are about contacting the divine, and refreshing the mythologies that inform their cultures.. Masks are never made lightly. Animated by the body, masks are threshold tools that mediate between this world and the realms of spirit. There are many procedures to be followed, including choosing the right materials from the right place, asking ancestral spirits what kind of mask is required for specific ceremonies, and consecrating the finished work. A great deal of preparation was necessary, and masks were activated and de-activated with great respect. 

As psychologist Stephen Larsen commented in The Mythic Imagination :
"The primary function of the mask is to unite the indwelling wearer (and the observer) with a mythic being, or as Jung would say, 'an archetypal power'. The mask, as we have found in our own work, becomes a transformer of energy, a medium of exchange between ego and archetype. Thus in traditional societies one finds taboos surrounding the mask, its recognition as a power object.”
Among natives of central Mexico, masks used for corn and rain dances were destroyed after a number of years, because they believed they accrued too much power over time. This sensibility is found in Japanese Noh Theatre. Noh masks are created according to traditions that go back many generations to represent personae that have firmly become animated by the mask. Actors will often sit for days with a mask, creating fusion with the character. An artist I know once told me of an African mask at the Museum of Art in Milwaukee that, legend had it, sweated. She said she went to view it over a number of days, and sure enough, there it was, if carefully observed, sweating away. How is it possible that something like that can occur in a glass case before hundreds of people unnoticed? Magic is literally on display.

 Performance with sacred intent is about giving play, voice, and possibility to the mystery of our multi-dimensional being. We dance and are danced, and find ourselves engaged in a conversation. "We're really praying" Drissana Devananda, a Tantric dancer, said, 
 "It's a devotional practice. We're not bodies seeking the spirit, but spirits seeking bodily experience. Dance is about remembering to function from our whole bodies, the "body mind". That is the place we remember the Goddess."
What happens when we invite the archetypal powers, the Goddesses and Gods, into our magic circle? 

The answer is, "If you build it, They will come ." There is a magnetic field the work engages, a field of syncronicity and relatedness we step into. 

"When you create within a sacred paradigm", playwright Elizabeth Fuller said,
 "You find a strange thing. You are communicating with, and being fed by, sources you know are within you, but have a much greater reflection somewhere else. You are in touch with something timeless.” 

Theatre is circle work. It's been said that no one person holds the truth - rather, within a circle, the truth becomes visible from many different perspectives. This is true of sacred theatre - as the group becomes a strong container, it generates energy that flows to the audience, an expanding circle. "Circularity", the Spiral, is the essence of artforms devoted to the Goddess, to Mother Earth. The wheel of the elements, of the year, circulate. Water and wind move across the landscape like a sinuous snake. All things circle and wind and spiral. 
Masks are also about circles. To me, masks are an impeccable metaphor for the personae that encircle our souls. Who are we, really? In the course of our lives we inhabit a noisy council of selves. The metaphor of the mask leads into that essential inquiry....Is this me? Or this? Can I wear this mask, become it for a while, express its unique qualities, feel it in my body, find it's story? I believe we are transformed into more compassionate beings when we can witness, embrace, and truly celebrate the " circle of self" , from dark to light, mundane to divine, as the whole being each of us really is. Not as an abstract concept, but as an authentic experience to be had within our spontaneous, creative imaginations, and in the sensory, visionary immediacy of our bodies. One way to do that is to use the mask consciously - putting on and taking off "faces", becoming self-aware shape shifters. 
Each mask has its reserve of energy. Women and men exploring mythology may chose to work with an archetype for specific reasons, sometimes to call back something they feel has been lost. A woman named Turquoise, for example, discovered a joyful opportunity to reconnect with "the instinctual woman" when she created a performance for "Artemis". "I found ", she wrote, "renewed love for the animals, the trees, for all living things. I saw my surroundings illuminated with light, the light of nature." 
Some may find themselves drawn to a figure because it affords them an opportunity to explore something they believe they do not know. Enacting the myth of Inanna's descent to meet her dark twin Ereshkigal has been powerful visioning for women into the "underground" of the psyche. Dwelling in the underworld, Ereshkigal may be understood as the “shadow self”, difficult to meet, destructive until her story can be told and known, a dialog can occur. The descent of Inanna is among the most powerful universal myths of death, fragmentation, and psychic integration, and enacting this myth for an individual, or as group process, can symbolically be seen as an intiation into mature empowerment - personal, and collective. Like the Elysinian Mysteries of Greece and Rome, an enactment of the universal cycle of death and rebirth. 

The Goddess within can manifest in the imagination in intimate, contemporary ways. She is a living presence expressed in the "here and now" of our lives. Three young women, for example, created a dance for Lilith as three aspects: a dark winged, elemental Lilith, Lilith cast out of Eden, and finally, Lilith as she appears today - a vamp. 
Finally, sacred intention in theatre and art can create a sacred space, a liminal zone where the "mythic self" can find voice and expression. Which is why it is important to "invoke" with respect, and to "devoke" as well (with gratitude), perhaps especially when working with masks. I used to make sure that all my events had "Heyoka" as well, a person who acted as the Sacred Clown, reminding us that there is chaos, humor and uncertainty as well.

"Mystery" derives from a Greek word, myein , which means "to keep silent ". There are Gnostic experiences that cannot be spoken because they are, simply, larger than any words can express. They cast us into the field of a consciousness that is greater than our individuality. Their expression belongs to dreams, art, and myth. That was surely why the Elusinian rites of Greece and Rome, which endured for 2,000 years, were called "Mysteries". 
Here is a story that demonstrates the power that ritual theatre can have, shared by Ann Weller, an artist and community activist in California. Ann took on the difficult task of personifying the Dark Goddess for a community theatre event in 2000. At the approach of the millenium, its purpose was to symbolically witness and transform the violence of the past century into a new, evolved consciousness. As Ann described her process:
"The Dark Goddess is found in many cultures by many names, and is not aspected lightly. The work calls forth an internal capacity for psychic empowerment, an energy not easy for our limited ego selves to encompass. Because the work is, I believe, ultimately, impersonal. I was a brief vessel for an immense archetypal intelligence manifesting within the drama we created. And yet, the experience did bring personal change. You can't work with sacred theatre and not be changed in some way. I was being re-constructed, whether I was aware of it or not, to better serve Her. I found myself confronting aspects of myself that were just not useful any more. Which meant better serving myself. That's how I look at it. The little overlay of how I imagined myself, which had never been very effective, was now utterly obvious to me. My authentic power began to manifest."

In 1999, and in 2006,  it was my privilege to see 30 of the masks used for the  Annual Spiral Dance in San Francisco. By offering to "aspect" a Goddess, each woman who wore her mask that night was providing a blessing for all gathered, allowing the power of each aspect of the Divine Feminine to radiate into the world. This is an ancient tradition made contemporary, and it was my privilege to participate with many others in this over the years that followed.  It is my hope that this will be carried on by other women in the future, with or without masks, with or without me or my colleagues participating.
There is a way of knowing that we are the artists of our lives, a way of seeing our creativity as a conversation we are having with an infinitely creative, conversant world. Like the Web of Grandmother Spider Woman , the threads of myth are spun far behind us, and weave their way far into the futures of those not yet born. May we dance empathy instead of despair, may we tell the stories that make life sacred and loving, profound and reverent. For today, and for the future. 

Copyright Lauren Raine MFA  2003, 2008, 2014

All photographs by Thomas Lux, Ann Beam, Ileya Stewart, Jerri Jo Idarius and copyright the artists. 
With gratitude to: Elizabeth Fuller, THE INDEPENDENT EYE THEATRE
Dorit Bat Shalom, "The Peace Tent ", inteview 2002
Drissana Devananda, interview 2001
Ann Weller, "Restoring the Balance" , interview 2001


Gail said...

This gets me back on track!

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

You are speaking my language, Lauren. I wish we could meet for coffee, lunch, dinner...:)

Lauren Raine said...

Thanks to both of you! Would love to have you over for coffee and tea and dinner............