Rites and Rituals for Your Roles

It is a time of rituals.  I have decorated my tree, brought in holly and sent cards. There are presents under the fairy lights and a wreath of green on my door. The larders are full and the candles are lit.

The Winter Solstice has provoked rites since time began – predating any Christian beliefs. The turn of the year will see us welcome in the blank pages of 2016 with drinking and feasting; with particular songs and dances; with various peculiar rites such as the bringing in of coal at midnight, kissing under the mistletoe or burning a Yuletide log.

Rituals pervade our lives: birthdays, weddings, funerals. All over the world humans mark their lives and the passing of time with rites of passage: birth, puberty, adulthood, procreation, childbirth and the grief of death. Each of these is garlanded with ritual and ceremony: the giving of presents, the first cigarette, the toast to the future, the uniform, the battles, the decoration of homes, the keening, the burials.

Then there are the ceremonies that accompany our way of life – sport, business, war.

There are rituals to bring us luck, peace or grace; to deliver us from evil: our religious rites, our lucky tokens,  our decisions not to  touch the cracks in pavements or walk under ladders. Don’t mention the ‘Scottish play’; don’t say ‘Good luck’. Our fervent prayers to a god or to ourselves.

Personal rituals may also be called habits. They keep us safe. They establish a normalcy, a code, a way of life. The aged colonial couple stranded in the middle of the African bush where no European has passed their threshold for decades, but who dress for dinner in black tie may seem ridiculous. But for them it is a way of remembering who they are, keeping a toehold in a sane world, not acknowledging – like Kurtz – ‘the horror, the horror’.

It may be on a different scale, but is it so different to the ritual of wearing makeup, which no-one will see but the dogs? Pulling up the bedspread in a flat that will have no visitors? Decorating the Christmas tree when the children have left home?

The role you play will have rituals – specific habits. Ways of doing things in order to keep sane, to make sleep come, to blot out loneliness. A keeping of self-esteem, a place in the world – or to block out ‘the horror’.

Rituals are worth exploring – for actors, directors and writers. They can bring your role to life. Instead of playing someone ‘crazy’ you find the rituals they/you use to keep themselves/yourself sane; instead of thinking ‘lonely’ find the rituals they/you do to bring on sleep; instead of playing a generic ‘drunk’ – see how carefully and ritually you (in your role) become so each day.

When you have found those rituals – act them out as you prepare your performance. Only a glimmer may remain in the final work, but that glimmer will light the way to a world, a time and place, and a deep and specific human life.



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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.