17 - star
Updated: May 9, 2021
guiding light, beauty, hope
this card is dedicated to my mfa cohort, in celebration of our survivability and thrivability in soul-crushing times; and in honor of the radical, imaginatory, and transformative art and leadership that we will continue bringing into our professional work. the world is lucky to have us.
special thanks to Tatiana Godfrey and Joshua Glenn-Kayden for their dramaturgical guidance with this card.
"You have to learn how to daydream" -- Maria Irene Fornes
coven ritual: journey to Coven Space
created by Parker Traphagen
Close your eyes and journey to Coven Space.
Where are you? Is it a meadow or a forest? Is it a cottage with a roaring fireplace? With herbs hanging from the ceiling and crystals on the windowsill? Is the sun out? Maybe the moon? allow yourself to let go of stress about the future or past mistakes. Can you see your fellow members interacting in this space or are you alone? Interact with this space. Interact with your fellow witches. Breathe the same air, safely and comfortably.
You have helped to create this sacred space that has helped every single one of us in some way or another. This space isn't going away after coven is over. You can always come back to how it has healed you, brushed away your tears, and how it makes you feel safe. It lives on in all of us. Hold this space close.
I've always preferred uncomfortable truths to warm-and-fuzzy fictions. In my own family, I'm notorious for being the resident fun-sucker: "why can't you let us enjoy movies without picking them apart all the time?"; "not everything has to be about racism and sexism"; "you'll get over this feminism phase when you figure out that nothing ever really changes and it's just not worth fighting for." As editor of my undergraduate newspaper, I loved asking prodding questions of administration and took particular pride in becoming the arch-nemesis of the college president. Theatre spaces, I learned as early as middle school, are particularly antagonistic toward question-askers and pessimists, but I just couldn't help myself. The biggest note from my undergraduate theater instructor: "Fix your face: I can tell when you're bothered by something a mile away."
In a previous theatre life, I was passed over for a very well-earned promotion because of my attitude: I have it on good authority that the under-experienced person who took the job was chosen for their bubbly personality rather than their resume (I on the other hand frequently skipped drinking-heavy work functions and encouraged my coworkers to openly discuss pay rates). I was eventually fired from this theatre company, no explanation given; I can only assume I didn't smile enough.
thought-in-progress: is the theatre industry's positivity culture ableist? while working at the above theatre company, i was in the worst mental health shape of my life; my depression and eating disorder brought me to all-time lows. some days, many days, i was physically incapable of smiling. in capitalist-driven theatre, where is the room for unproductive pain?
Even in graduate school, I fail to learn. In one class in particular, I had a habit of asking dissenting questions. The instructor tacked a minus onto my otherwise "A" grade, warning me to "watch what kind of energies I bring into the space." Perhaps my greatest queer failure (see wheel card) in graduate school has been my inability to meet the tenth benchmark listed in the Theater Department's Graduate Student Handbook: the "ability to remain joyful, playful, and resourceful in collaborative situations: a positive sought-after presence" (12). As I write this, I can hear my thesis advisor, Harley Erdman, assuring me that of course I am a positive sought-after presence, offering me examples of my glowing successes as a production dramaturg and instructor. To which I would respond that I have no doubts of my own intellectual and collaborative capabilities, and I am damn proud of my MFA dramaturgy portfolio. But I also know that I've pushed a lot of people's buttons; I've sidetracked production meetings; in post-mortems, my thoughts linger on the harms caused more than the accomplishments made in a process; my killjoy instincts run dangerously counter to the department's product-oriented mindset, and they show all over my face.
It's funny to consider how theatre, the very art of affective storytelling, holds such tight control over how, when, where, and what kinds of feelings may be felt. After all, we rarely see the comedy theatre mask without its tragic counterpart: surely the theatre is a place for pain? And yet, only certain feelings are permitted in certain circumstances: actors are trained in how to feel feelings and directed to express them onstage; spectators are encouraged to laugh, applaud, and tear up, preferably at the right moments; those of us behind-the-curtain do not have the luxury of much feeling at all, thanks to tight production schedules. "Negative" feelings have no place whatsoever: there is nothing more unproductive to a process than a dramaturg raising their hand to point out problematic marketing imagery or an intern airing a grievance against a superior. Positivity is literally written into our rulebooks, whereas pessimism in its varied forms -- pain, confusion, ambiguity, frustration -- is squelched.
From this capitalist, killjoy perspective, theatre peddles in feeling as something to be replicated, packaged, and sold to consumers rather than something to be simply felt. Colonialist tools are at play, as unhappy dissenters -- often artists and laborers working from the margins -- are silenced, erased, devalued, underpaid, blacklisted and fired. It's no wonder dramaturgs have such shaky standing in American theatre: our work is inherently anti-capitalist. We ask questions when others would rather have answers, demand conversation when the production calendar tells us we are out of time, and advocate for meaning-making over ticket sales. Making trouble is what we do best.
I wonder what a killjoy theatre would look like -- not just the experimental space of Coven, but entire production meetings, workshops, companies, and college departments. What if we valued challenging energies over positive energies? Instigators over sought-after presences? I imagine that such a theatre would be slow-going. It would probably produce fewer products. It would involve hard, consistent shadow work (see emperor card) rather than once-a-semester EDI workshops. But for all of these meandering, seemingly never-ending efforts, I think that our eventual products would be healthier. And celebratory moments, while perhaps less frequent, would feel genuinely joyful.
Still, after all the firings and failures, I would rather be a troublemaker. Still, like Sarah Ahmed, the ultimate killjoy, "I prefer pessimism to positivity" (Ahmed blog). I frown a lot, not because I hate what I see, but because I hold the things I care about accountable. I frown because I'm always hopeful for something better. I refuse to fix my face.
radical hope & imaginatory knowledges
All of this to say, pessimism and hope are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order to chase hope, one needs a certain degree of pessimism. Why strive for something better if you can't acknowledge what is damaged? Radical hope is pessimistic about the present but passionately, erotically, unreasonably even, optimistic about the future. Radical hope for the future requires being a killjoy for the present.
The Coven is overflowing with radical hope, but that is in part because "negative" emotions are so allowed. During our daily check-in, we welcome feelings of all kind. We even have a "venting" channel in our Coven Discord. In these spaces, we share out frustrations with the university and theatre department, family struggles, mental health setbacks, anger and tears. Prior to Coven, I can think of only a single instance in which I openly broke down in front of my collaborators, although I've had more than I can count in bathroom stalls and parking lots (there is so much shame that comes with having to have emotions in secret). In Coven, I have cried with my camera on, a lot. I've felt like shit, a lot, and talked about it. I've even rehearsed through panic attacks. I've also felt abundant, generous joy, far deeper than in any other theatre process I can recall.
And we hold ourselves accountable in our damaged present. We do shadow work and update community agreements; we open multiple lines of communication to express grievances and concerns; the producing team has met with witches one-on-one as necessary to try to become better. Stuff slips through the cracks, harms are inevitably caused -- but we would rather sit in uncomfortable truths than smile them away.
Radical hope, the ridiculous notion that there's an unreachable star worth reaching for, needs grief and rage and pessimism and accountability. There's a shadowy, mucky present that we have to keep trudging through: we need radical hope, not smiles and happiness, to push us through.
Imagination is the knowledge system of hope. It's an epistemology of conjuring, of mentally mapping a then-and-there. After all, we need a blueprint if we are to build better worlds. We need to envision what we are moving towards, otherwise it's not worth the trouble. Leslie Stevenson calls this kind of imagination “the ability to think of something not presently perceived, but spatio-temporally real” – but imagination is also defined as the “ability to think of whatever one acknowledges as possible (italics mine) in the spacio-temporal world” (238). To imagine, then, is not to simply conjure something out of nothing. It is conjuring something out of the hope that it can exist. Perhaps it even holds just-over-the-horizon potential to exist. When Parker leads us through their beautiful journeying ritual, we are not only imagining Coven space: we believe in the possibility of such a gathering. We hope for magick-making, even in the dredges of a seemingly unending pandemic, and we use that hope to transport us to the utopia of a Coven space that's full of joy and warmth and touch.
“Some of us are surviving, following, flocking—but some of us are trying to imagine where we are going as we fly.” -- adrienne maree brown (2016 pg X)
We harness imaginatory knowledges through generative art-making, but more crucially, through ritual: the careful and collective manifestation of hope through imagination. For what is magick but doing the impossible -- that which necessitates daydreaming? In conjuring Coven space, in speaking our desires into existence through spells, we move in the direction of worlds of our imaginations -- the imaginations of young people, queer people, angry and terrified and hopeful people; we diverge from the straight-and-narrow timeline of capitalism and onto winding, circuitous, scenic pathways that make us feel good.
When I light a candle and speak with my ancestors, my conscious mind tells me that I’m wasting my time – but I listen to the tiny voice inside of me that aches for a world that listens to the ghosts of history. When I pull a tarot spread about an upcoming interview or class, I know I am not literally divining the future – but I am giving myself permission to imagine futures that care about me. Witchcraft is the practice of imagining hope amid hopelessness; of imagining better ways of living in a world that refuseses to let us live well.
Ritual, then, is collective imagining: doing nonrational things, together, in liminal space. As explained by fellow witch and dear friend Patrice Miller: “ritual has a defined beginning, middle, and end, these structures within liminal space, so that people leave behind who they are in society. Then there are supposed to be this moment or these moments of communitas where everybody is equal in the ritual; then something changes – like a coming of age – and you leave transformed.”
Boundaries are critical here -- not for dividing the world into power-overs and -unders, but for marking the threshold between mundanity and spirituality. To enter sacred space, the witch sheds the binary, mundane categorizations of rationalism.She must leave such constraints behind if she is to transform. This is why witches cast sacred circles, why the Coven has cultivated a series of entering and exiting rituals: to leave behind tools of violence; and to open up space for immanent value, equal worth, and spirit. (Also, sacred space can be psychically risky: we need to know how to retrace our steps in case of an emergency.)
Temporality and liminality are also key. We enter ritual knowing that we will not stay long: affective, embodied intentionality is a muscle we rarely stretch in our mundane lives, and it’s hard to work very long from a place of atrophy. Communitas is, sadly, temporary, but by engaging with the in-betweenness of ritual, we manifest flickerings of better ways of living. We feel what it might feel to be our fullest, highest selves; we taste this potentiality, not through fantasizing about unreachable stars, but reaching them, really reaching them, even if it’s just for a too-quick instant. Then, maybe, we exit ritual thinking, what would it take to feel like that all the time?
What I’m describing is perhaps just a witchier rearticulation of Jill Dolan’s utopian performance: the theatre is “a way to reinvest our energies in a different future, one full of hope and reanimated by a new, more radical humanism… different kinds of performance… inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible, rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential” (Dolan 2). Theatre, like ritual, has thresholds; it is an aesthetically illuminated gathering space in which transformation and time-traveling occurs. Spectators and performers alike use imagination, rather than rational factual thought, to create truths.
What distinguishes Coven from the kind of transcendent “this-is-why-i-do-theatre” moments that Dolan describes is that we do not limit utopian performance to a fixed end-point; we do not work towards communitas, but rather bring communitas into process, into us, through ritual. The more we practice ritual, the more we honor our immanent worth, and the more we stretch our what-if imaginatory selves, the more glimpses of utopia we see and reach for and touch.