Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Funeral For A Magic Marker, and Other Rites of Darkness!

It began with a spontaneous funeral for a magic marker.

At the Deming Learning Center, I am currently teaching two courses back to back for New Mexico's GEAR UP program. This is a college preparatory program, offering academic courses that count towards high school GPA and may also count as college credit as they experience college-level course work. Some of the students are also there on court orders, as a condition of their probation.

My courses are Theatre Appreciation and Theatre Production. The same eleven students spend the entire day with me. They are as young as 16 but I'm treating them all like college freshmen (with similar expectations).

On our second day, we were examining ritual and ceremony as part of our study of early western theatre. We learned about paeans and bacchic rites, and this evolved into a discussion of the uses of ritual and ceremony. Since my course is about the experience of theatre, not just history or literature, this led us to discussing why and how we might create a ceremony to mark an occasion, commemorate someone or something, and/or make visible something that is invisible (like, for instance, "gratitude" or "a vow").

All the elements of producing a play are present in producing a ceremony. As I was writing on the whiteboard with a dry-erase marker, providing a list of some essential steps for inventing and producing a ceremony, the instrument finally exhibited signs of being too dry to write any more. The tip was worn flat, and the thing was spent.

Very well then. I dictated the remainder of the list for them to write on their own, and then I demonstrated each step in turn, improvising a funeral service for the magic marker.

I had brought things to play with: a bunch of colorful sarongs that could be worn or used as altar cloth, a couple of drums, a rin gong, some incense, a candle. I had also gone to the snack room and picked up a sampling of the snack foods provided by the program: fruit, cheese, crackers.

Following each step of the outline I had given the students, I improvised the funeral service by creating a sacred circle, lighting fire and incense, bathing the magic marker in some water, saying words of tribute to the old and exhausted magic marker that had written so many words and drawn so many images to help open up people's minds and spread knowledge to the human realm. With tongue in cheek, other students volunteered to participate in the ceremony, making tributes of their own and ringing the gong. They also came up with the convention of draping themselves in one of the sarongs before entering the circle and speaking.

Once this was concluded, we had a discussion as a class about their thoughts for this summer, the season itself and the GEAR UP program, what they hoped for, and things they wanted to leave behind or release. This emerged into the following assignment: as a class, they would design a ceremony, a "Summer GEAR UP" ceremony, clearly stating what their aspiration was and their feelings about it.

One group was responsible for arranging the entire room, including the sacred area and where people would sit, stand, or whatever. Another group was responsible for deciding what symbolic actions would take place and in what order, the list of events. A third group wrote all of the text for a scripted ceremony. After everyone worked individually, we got together and reconciled the different ideas.

The photo above shows the altar they made, and how they arranged the room. Click on it for a larger view, if you like.

Since this was a ceremony about the GEAR UP program, we all went outside and took a walk around the building as a group, picking up whatever objects caught our attention. We collected flowers, interesting stones, and other relics. There was a discarded ornament from a quinceanera dress, for instance, among our finds. One student became interested in various bottle tops, and amassed a pile of them. A plastic red spoon. A battery. Coins.

These, the students arranged all over the altar table. Here's one view:

The script the students wrote was funny, spoofing formal and poetic language yet with a heartfelt sentiment beneath it, about achievement, personal strength, and transition. What also emerged was a desire to let go of things, which they decided to do by having everyone write something on a piece of paper -- the slips would be collected and disposed of after the ceremony.

What came together was a mix of humor with sincere feeling, and after a rehearsal of the ceremony the students decided they wanted to invite other classes (including their friends and other teachers) to come in and witness or take part in the ceremony.

The ceremony "committee" also decided it would be a good idea for participants to adorn their faces and arms with art. An art class gladly lent us water-soluble wax paints, and the students designed and personalized makeup for the ceremony.

After everyone had a turn disposing of the slips of paper bearing names of things they wished to release or leave behind, they had all participants gather around the altar to blow the candle out simultaneously and then "break the circle" by dancing away from the table and out into the hallway.

A day after this, someone asked my wife -- not me, even though I'm around and accessible -- what all of this has to do with theatre.

Goodness they get so sensitive (or is it scared?) here.

Possible answers:

"What doesn't it have to do with theatre, silly goose?"

"Evidently you should be in the class. He'd probably let you sit in."

or my personal favorite: "Nothing! Haven't you heard my husband is really a warlock with special instructions from the Grand Wizard of the Houha Knights of Wickedness to corrupt the minds of Deming's children and turn them away from JEE-zus??"

At least the latter would be telling them something they want to hear. But my wife won't tell them that.

Sometimes it is hard to leave the learning center, even though the days are long and I am tuckered out by six o'clock. They are smart, funny, inventive students, with open and curious minds. And with quite a flair for scenic design!


Jomon said...

What a gift to show these students their own innate ability to invoke the sacred right there in the ordinary. I am forwarding this to a friend who is studying to be a school counselor. Does it seem there may even be more connection to theater than counseling? Great post!

Algernon said...

Glad you appreciate the work!

quid said...


Isn't all of life theatre?

What a wonderful experience you provided them. Some of them will remember the day all of their lives... their learning "breakthrough". When you are feeling down, consider that.


Debby said...

Probably the most discouraging thing I see in this world is the refusal to accept, even for a moment, that it is possible that someone might see it another way. It seems as if we are almost fearful of freethinkers. I'm sorry for you, a freethinker of the finest caliber.