about the coven
In summer of 2020, I was supposed to begin conducting research for my Dramaturgy MFA thesis, which at the time was a feminist interrogation of violence and intimacy in The Sweet Science of Bruising by Joy Wilkinson. Instead, faced with the heavying reality of live theatre being cancelled for the foreseeable future, I conducted embodied research on spirituality, identity, witchcraft, activism, community/space-making, self-love, and imagination. Fall loomed, and I had not decided on a new thesis topic, but I was in a better mental and emotional state than I been in years. So I cobbled together a proposal for a thesis that served as a natural extension of the internal work I was already doing: a Coven of theatre witches, with the goal of devising a public, remote ritual through our explorations of feminist, nonhierarchical art-making. I had never dramaturged a devised theatre piece before. Looking back at my thesis proposal, I had more clarity on what this project was not than what it would be: "I refuse any longer to participate in theatre at the expense of my own mental or spiritual well-being; nor can I condone recreating the forms and artistic processes that risk harming me or my students and peers. If I am going to create art for my MFA thesis, I am going to do it intentionally and responsibly – as a feminist, activist, and powerful witch."
Luckily, I pulled together a team of collaborators who helped shape the process into a meaningful, intentional devising experience. My co-founding collaborator was Helen Rahman, an undergraduate who is wise beyond her years in matters of spirituality and mysticism. The fall producing team was soon rounded out by MFA dramaturg Percival Hornack, who brought with him experiential knowledge on virtually any topic imaginable, from runes to queer space-making to facilitation of process. We held auditions early in the fall semester, welcoming anyone with an interest in witchcraft and prioritizing community building over “talent.” We were soon a Coven of 12, including our Stage Manager Alison Butts, whose intuitions in flexible caretaking and compassionate communication grounded our entire rehearsal process.
We broke the process into three stages, meeting for two hours and 15 minutes per gathering: community building and research (two rehearsals/week); generation of performance material (three rehearsals/week); and rehearsal/tech (four rehearsals/week). Our goal was to devise an approximately 30 minute, interactive ritual for the year’s full moon Samhain, or Halloween. Performance dates were [INSERT HERE]. Rehearsals began with a check-in (what are we bringing into the space/feelings are valid) and warm-up (led by all witches on a rotating schedule). The main thrust of rehearsal varied depended on where we were in process. We closed with housekeeping from Ali and a check-out. Significant discussion and research continued outside of official rehearsal time via a Coven Discord server.
Through a series of brainstorming Jamboards and research on witchy topics of interest, we decided to build the ritual around the theme of rest as a radical tool of resistance. We were also interested in crafting ritual components with our audience, then bringing those elements together in the ritual itself. These elements became music/gesture, found object/breath, words/drawing, and rage. Spectators were asked to fill out a pre-show survey and choose one of four tarot cards (the Queens of Swords, Wands, Pentacles, and Cups): these cards decided which of the four Brooms (breakout rooms) they would join. The performances were divided into three parts:
1. Audience and Coven witches together in Zoom space. We offered introductory videos about how to navigate Zoom and what to expect of the evening, then moved into a land acknowledgment and check-in. Spectators were asked in advance to, if possible, bring with them a candle and something to eat: together we broke bread and lit our candles to lsat for the duration of the ritual.
2. Spectators were sorted into their Brooms. In Gesture/Music (Queen of Cups), Nicole and Matthew led an intuitive movement and sound-making exercise. In Rage (Queen of Wands), Helen, Parker, and I led spectators on a guided meditation and then turned the audience’s rage into three poppets*. In Found Object/Breath (Queen of Pentacles), Micki, Mahek, and Percival asked spectators to connect with and breath into various items in their homes. And in Words/Drawing (Queen of Swords), Tory, Jemma, and Kat led an intuitive tarot exercise.
3. We gathered together in the main Zoom space. Broom witches shared what they and their guests were contributing to the ritual. The ritual itself was a moon invocation and a conjuring of rest as fuel for resistance. We blew out our candles and sat together in darkness.
Prologue: Spectators were invited to decompress with a dance party.
All but two of the witches from the Fall process returned for the spring: Ali Butts returned as stage manager, and Helen Rahman stepped fully into the Coven as an artist-witch and spiritual guide rather than producer. Our goal this time was to devise a ritual in honor of Beltane, or May Day, and we were promoted as part of the Theatre Department’s Rights of Spring Festival.
Rehearsals were again two hours and 15 minutes, although we were more flexible with stages of development. We met twice a week for the first half of process, bumping up to three times a week once we started generating material. Percival, Ali, and I were significantly more transparent with the Coven about production decisions, including budget, performance dates, marketing materials, and rehearsal schedule, and we brought many of these conversations into rehearsal for general consensus.
As of today, March 23, the general structure of our rehearsal process has remained the same, but we have built enough trust with each other to dig more deeply into research topics and shadow work.* The structure and theme of our Beltane ritual are still in development.