Stories Transforming the Teller: Sacred Theatre

by Sharon Mathis.

As a teller of healing stories, I know that a story invites the listener into suspended time, a landscape of possibilities where even the lies are true. Story creates a vessel big enough for the whole person, with delights for ears, intrigue for the brain, safe places for the heart, and spaces for spirit to enter.

This is the territory of transformation, but it’s not only the listener who’s along for the ride. As a therapist, I recognize how a client’s deepening sense of her story creates meaning and momentum as it weaves the threads of past, present and future. As a teller stepping into my stories, I find that what was familiar in me becomes foreign, and vice versa. My seriousness might disappear under Trickster’s influence, and I know only too well how the Wicked Witch feels.

It was as a playwright and director, though, that I began to see clearly how the power of story and audience together transforms the teller. In one play that entwined women’s stories with the great goddess myths of descent and return, the actors began to change. Major events paralleling the play happened in their lives. Moribund relationships dissolved. A frightened woman spoke up about poor working conditions. A young actor dominated by her mother left home. New awareness of personal power, aliveness and freedom married old identities. Unintentionally, it was the most effective therapy I’d ever done.

What happened? It wasn’t just the identification of the actors with aspects of the role, which occurs often without the same impact. Instead, the catalyst seemed to be a convergence of forces: universal mythic stories into which the actor’s personal story could be fully absorbed; poetry as dialogue, which enabled actors to speak directly in languages of elemental truth; the invitation to the presence of spirit offered by the goddess characters; and the audience’s response affirming the actor’s new reality made visible in her role.

In exploring how to recreate that transformative experience for others, my working partner was Dr. Jean Heinrich, herself a performer, clown, singer, musician and writer/composer, as well as a psychologist. As our thinking developed, we integrated various psychological theories and practices within the context of storytelling as theater.

We wanted to assist people in experiencing their personal journeys as part of the mythic stories of transformation common across cultures. To do this, we invited the engagement of the unconscious or Deep Self through active imagination, a form of guided fantasy that we present with minimal structuring. The stories that emerge are not intentionally created, but instead begin as a recounting of what is experienced in the fantasy. We also wanted to offer participants the opportunity not to just tell these stories, but to have them as lived experience by enacting them in the presence of others.

Knowing that we’d be asking folks to take personal risks and stretch creatively, we recognized that the process of the work was as important as the content. To this end, we support each person in setting her own limits and respecting her own feelings. We embrace foolishness as well as seriousness, for both liberate. We call the whole self to be present including Spirit by whatever face the person knows it. We attend to the joining together of the community’s energies so that the whole group can assist each in enacting a story.

In naming the result Sacred Theatre, we acknowledge that what we do isn’t new. It has roots as deep as ancient civilizations and as wide as the shamanism of many indigenous cultures. Stepping into sacred theatre happens when participants in our workshops enter the room.

Fabric, costumes, masks, props, candles and flowers fill the space. The odd, sensuous surroundings begin the process of opening to curiosity and presence in the moment. Because storytelling is a physical activity, we begin by helping people become comfortable and grounded in their bodies through movement, vocal sounds, and improvisation. A warm-up might include stretching; free-form character sound and movement (i.e. becoming monkeys or swimmers), improvised vocal music such as be-bop or Gregorian chants and mirroring exercises.

Learning performance elements from Greek theater and ritual expands the vocabulary of storytelling. Poetic improvisation demonstrates how to capture experience in sensory words, free from explanation, intensifying speech. The group learns how to work together as leader and Greek chorus using sound and movement echoing, call and response, and layering to amplify or counterpoint the story.

Creating the story itself begins with a time for relaxing and turning inward. Then in guided fantasy participants journey away from the circle of the familiar toward a welcoming place where a vision of earth, air, fire or water bearing a gift awaits. The encounter itself is undirected, unfolding as the participant imagines it. Each returns from the meeting with the gift to hold or release and the story of it to tell.

In silence each person responds to the experience by writing or drawing. In silence each costumes herself and chooses the objects she will use to enact her story. We gather in a circle in silence, the boundary marked by ceremony.

To the drum’s beat, the leaders walk the perimeter, speaking of that moment in the language of the eternal present. “In the season of spring in the time of the first quarter of the Rabbit Moon, in this place in the Blue Ridge of the ancient mountains, we walk the boundary of the circle.” Again the boundary is marked, invoking the four directions as symbols for elemental and human energies.

Now the circle has become a stage for sacred theatre. When ready, each one steps into it alone to enact his or her story.

Some tell about the fantasy itself.  Others use it as a springboard for continuing the tale.  Personal history is woven with the fantastic. No one explains or elaborates. Using language as poetry, the tellers cry out or clown, stalk or sing, rock or chant. Constantly the group responds to the story as Greek Chorus, sometimes improvising, at other times obeying the teller’s commands. Often stories end joyfully, even when they begin with pain. Tales of loss are infused with aliveness, as when a woman sings a lament to losing her voice.

A man enters the circle bent over so low he nearly crawls. “It’s heavy“ he groans.

We groan in sympathy.

“There’s so far to go. I can’t do it,” he moans, “No, no. “

“No, no, “ we moan. “No, no.”

“But I have to. I must.” He puffs and chants’ dragging his load. “Everything depends on me. Everyone depends on me. “

We join him. “Everything depends on me. Everyone depends on me. “

He puffs and drags that load so long that we begin to worry, when he stops. He stares. He stands up straight.

“What’s this?” he demands, and then lets out a roar like a V-8 engine without a muffler. “It’s a bus, a magic bus. “Hey, little school bus, wait for me. “He climbs into the driver’s seat’ shifts into gear, and begins to dance.

 “The magic bus“we chant, “the magic bus.”

“Faster “he orders, and sings to the beat, “I’m the driver of the magic bus. The bus goes where I say; up, down, fast, slow. Get out of our way.”

He takes us on tour, pointing out the sights, as we wave and chanty “The magic bus, the magic bus…”

When he stops, calling “End of the ride for now,” he pauses. “Hey, I left my baggage on the bus. “Grinning, he walks out of the circle.

A woman steps into the center, swathed in white netting. It towers over her head like a ruff bound in black ribbon. She pivots in mincing steps as she talks to herself in a doll’s voice. “Mama said, ‘be good; be nice; be sweet; speak soft.’ Mama said, ‘Be a little lady.’

“Be good; be nice; be sweet,” we echo in the same voice.

“I’m a little lady yes, I am,” she repeats over and over, “I’m good as gold I am.” Turning ever more slowly she ends motionless, listening.

“Mama, ” she whispers. “Something is moving here in the dark where nobody sees. “ She scratches and nulls at the netting. “You can’t stop it Mama. She wants to come out. She wants to fly away.”

She tears at the netting, ripping it off. Beneath she is draped in black velvet shot with silver, which she opens into wings. “I am the Luna, “she cries. “I am the giant moth with the moon on her wings who flies by night. I see in the dark I ride the wind.” We make the sounds of wind while she stretches and circles as if soaring, calling “I am gone, Mama. I am gone into the night.”

The tellers come and go. Repeatedly, we are awed and humbled by their beauty and their stories, and so are they.

Ending, we celebrate each other by singing each one’s name in the way they’d like it sung. The choices range from the blues to the Hallelujah Chorus.

We talk later about how the tellers were affected by the experience. Some describe new identities they have found and claimed, or old ones they missed and returned to. Some say that the story clarifies the next step in their lives or moves them into the next stage of their journey. Others say that it is the images that linger, keeping their power to stir the psyche whenever they appear.

For me, the most profound gift of this work is a deepening reverence for the healing power of story for both the teller and the listener. Sometimes, I end a telling this way:

“A waterfall spirit told me this, ‘It is we nature beings who give you the arts. Humans merely shape what we do. You see, earth spirits give you the colors and forms you make into painting and sculpture. Animal movements give you dance. Your music begins with the rhythms and sounds of water, wind, and birds. But the one art that we cannot do is the making of stories. Story is your gift to us.’ You each have a story to tell, that is your own. Your story is your gift to the universe.”

The article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Sharon Mathis, Ph.D, is a psychologist who uses storytelling in individual and group psychotherapy, and in teaching workshops on creativity. She has told healing stories in coffeehouses, bars, art galleries, churches, and spoken word festivals. She and Dr. Heinrich offer Sacred Theatre workshops in Atlanta, nationally, and in Italy.

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