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  • Writer's pictureMaegan Clearwood

7 - chariot

Updated: May 3, 2021

7 - chariot

momentum, progress, direction, force, energy, action

COVEN-19 time spell, from Spring Beltane ritual

performed by Nicole Bates and Maegan Clearwood

This is a spell for lifetimes that are not measurable by clocks or calendars.

This is a spell for lifetimes that are not evaluated by profit margins,

Or new years resolutions

Or biological clocks.

A spell for lifetimes that are not limited by life.:

Forever times composed of Nows.

This is a spell in honor of a woman

Who measured time by frosted windowpanes and poems.

Some say goodnight — at night —

I say good night by day —

Good-bye — the Going utter me —

Good night, I still reply —

For parting, that is night,

And presence, simply dawn —

Itself, the purple on the hight

Denominated morn.

We invoke a timespace of unproductivity; we invoke luxurious sleep.

Pain — expands the Time —

Ages coil within

The minute Circumference

Of a single Brain —

Pain contracts — the Time —

Occupied with Shot

Gamuts of Eternities

Are as they were not —

We invoke a timespace of acknowledged pain; we invoke breathability.

AFTER a hundred years

Nobody knows the place, —

Agony, that enacted there,

Motionless as peace.

Weeds triumphant ranged,

Strangers strolled and spelled

At the lone orthography

Of the elder dead.

Winds of summer fields

Recollect the way, —

Instinct picking up the key

Dropped by memory.

We invoke nonlinear time; we invoke humility.

We have all the time in the world.

a disavowal of standard plot times

I don’t hate Aristotle, nor do I hate every dead-white-cis-male writer whose work is Aristotelian (Tennessee Williams was my first playwright love, after all). For years, however, I suffered from severe dramaturgy imposter syndrome because I did not grasp, let alone embrace, Aristotelian structure. It seemed as though other dramaturgs spoke some secret geometric language for which I had no natural gifts. Freytag’s Pyramid felt similarly constraining: rising action, climax, denouement – these words felt empty and mapping a script onto their linear trajectory was an exercise in futility. Aristotle speaks of the tragedy as “a whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end…. a well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles” (7). “I dug right down to the bottom of my soul” to visualize the wholeness of plays, but like Diana Morales attempting to be an ice cream cone, “I felt nothing.”

“Standard Time Line and Standard Plot Line are in cahoots!” (Parks 11)

Instead, I built timelines, a different composition for each play that I encountered. My first, I think, was for a workshop of a musical adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five, a plot literally unstuck in time and space that necessitated transposing three temporalities, each with its own rhythm, shape, fissures, and cracks. The trauma narrative of Slaughterhouse-Five is too unwieldy for a single timeline, so rather than mapping the story onto a pattern, I mapped a pattern out of the story. Suzan-Lori Parks describes this content-form relationship as it pertains to playwriting: “As I write along the container dictates what sort of substance will fill it and, at the same time, the substance is dictating the size and shape of the container” (7-8). Parks offers Rep & Rev (Repetition and Revision) as an example of departure from linearity, a pushback against the presumption that all events must lead up to a single cathartic moment. History, “time that won’t quit,” ebbs and flows through her stories, while words fluctuate in meaning and weight with each reconfiguration. Parks pulls from jazz aesthetic, noting that “the idea of Repetition and Revision is an integral part of the African and African-American literary and oral traditions” (10). She is not only working within an explicitly Black artistic methodology, but also building narrative room for her Black characters to navigate their specific spatio-temporalities.

Narratives, and the people who live them, do not necessarily abide by beginnings and ends, nor by chronology and straight lines. Parks demonstrates the necessity of Black structure, narratives that expand beyond the progress-oriented pyramid of Western storytelling. I am reminded of Sharon Patricia Holland’s The Erotic Life of Racism, in which she demonstrates slavery’s unyielding presence in quotidian realms of the present. Whiteness moves through linear, process-driven time, whereas blackness is historically entrenched in space: “racism consistently embeds us in a ‘past’ that we would rather not remember, where time stretches back toward the future, curtailing the revolutionary possibilities of queer transgression” (44). Parks reroutes time by giving Blackness a temporal life, by engaging with the hauntings of history and working beyond the linear limitations of Aristotelian plot.

Linearity also cannot contain queer temporalities, in which identity is formed against the grain of heteronormative adolescence and families are chosen rather than reproduced. Trauma time, also, operates outside the bounds of chronology, as individuals are dislodged from the present and thrown backwards into memory in cyclical, sometimes never-ending ways. And, of course, there’s lockdown time, Zoom academia time, and collective pandemic trauma time. I am inspired by the motion of the Tarot in understanding time’s limitless configurations: cards are numbered, representing normative understandings of individual growth, but the Fool is not bound by this chronology, instead traversing and retraversing points along their journey, never settling on any denouement-resolution ending for long.

What, then, is Coven time, given this infinity of temporalities?

little infinities & spiral patterns

During a spring semester journaling exercise, Percival Hornack described Coven time as candle wax, happening “slowly, then all at once. You don’t notice until it’s pooling at the bottom and then the light is dimming/ending.” Tory Vazquez wrote that “Time is really quick in Coven spaces. At the same time, it feels like a realm/universe of its own. You can tell that there’s a sense of direction time-wise, but it’s flexible. If we need more time for something, it’s there.” Parker Traphagen spoke about the Coven feeling both rooted and in-motion, endless despite having an ending around the corner. Jemma Kempner said that she forgets about time in Coven space, particularly compared to other Zoom spaces, in which she finds herself constantly checking the clock. She spoke about a slowness born out of “trust that whatever we make will be beautiful, trust that it will happen.” Nicole Bates was reminded of “little infinities” from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

I’ve never read a John Green book, but there is something little and infinite about the Coven that I feel compelled to explore. In a typical, in-person UMass theatre department process, actors rehearse four+ hours five+ days a week, to say nothing of production meetings, email conversations, design presentations, and tech. How does Coven, which meets for two hours twice or three times a week, feel so temporally luxurious? How does time move at the steady, peaceful pace of a candle melting, where other artistic/academic spaces are dictated by clocks and calendars?

The Fault in Our Stars, I have learned, follows Hazel and Gus, teenagers whose lives are rendered chronologically finite by terminal illness. When mapped onto the conventional (ie capitalist, Western, heteropatriarchal) timeline of a human life, their lives fall tragically short. Go to college, get a job, settle down, make babies, make money, retire and relax – the markers of a life well-lived are impossible to meet. The lovers break through linear notions of valuability and love, however, by articulating a timeline full of infinities. As Hazel explains through the magick that is math, “There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.” According to number-smart people that I found on the Internet, Hazel’s logic may be incorrect (counter-argument: all infinities are equally infinite? If so, no matter how many infinities one stacks on top of each other, the final amount of infinity will be the same), but if anything, “real life” number theory only makes the concept of small infinity feel more palpable. Math Youtuber Vihart describes multiple theories of infinity:

Whether those different sorts of infinities apply to something like moments of time is unknown. What we do know is that if life has infinite moments, or infinite love, or infinite being, then a life twice as long still has exactly the same amount. Some infinities only look bigger than other infinities. And some infinities that seem very small are worth just as much as infinities ten times their size.

And so, the infinity of Coven space is as spacious, as valuable, as the infinity of, say, a traditional rehearsal process. Infinite temporalities intersect and interplay in a given artistic process, so it is not the number of rehearsals that ultimately defines whether time is well spent. Nor are all infinities equal: Coven infinity feels slow and steady, unlike a typical Zoom classroom, which might feel infinite in the most unpleasant sense of the word.

Our little infinity, I think, feels liberatory because the Coven decides our own worth. This worth exists beyond the constraints of capitalist rehearsal time, which may be ten times our size, but depends on production quality and butts-in-seats to determine worth. Our worth is inherent. As magickal practitioners, we are most “successful” (see wheel card) when we honor the inherent value in ourselves as individual witches and collectively as Coven – not when we sell out opening night.

…the world itself [is] a living being, made up of dynamic aspects, a world where one thing shape-shifts into another, where there are no solid separations and no simple causes and effects. In such a world, all things have inherent value, because all things are beings, aware in ways we can only imagine, interrelated in patterns too complex to ever be more than partially described. We do not have to earn value. Immanent value cannot be rated or compared. No one, nothing, can have more of it than another. Nor can we lose it. For we are, ourselves, the living body of the sacred (Starhawk 15).

Of course, COVEN-19 is a public, marketed event, so we are bound to certain constraints of a traditional production process. We are luckily relieved of ticket sale pressures during Zoom theatre times, as the department is currently requesting donations rather than paid admissions. We still, however, must consider marketability: as part of our inclusion in the theater department’s official season, we need to craft blurbs for websites and press releases (hopefully language that won’t scare away skeptical patrons). We must communicate artistic decisions through the language of the mundane in order to collaborate with members of the department’s broader production team. There is also the general expectation that we generate a product that is consumable by a general audience: a performative output that looks and feels polished and complete.

There are no little infinities within a production-oriented timeline, which is not an inherently “bad thing”: We need the support and resources of a funded theater department, so we have to accept linearity to a certain point. We invoke little infinities, however, by imagining artistic creativity beyond the limitations of a fixed public performance. Simply put, our final product is the least important element of Coven work. Most production processes focus energies toward the “climax” of opening night, but Coven operates fractally: practicing at the small scale what we want to see at the large scale (brown 52). We focus our energies inward, on valuing our inherent individual and collective value; our “finished” product is simply a reverberation of the tiny, intentional, care-taking practices that we invoke on a regular basis together.

If I were to draw Coven temporality, it would reflect adrienne maree brown’s fractals, which she observes in “the prevalence of spiral in the universe – the shape in the prints of our fingertips echoes the geological patterns, all the way to the shape of galaxies” (51). We start at the center, from-within, cultivating power in small ways: checking in at the top of rehearsal, sharing and meeting our needs, laughing over memes and developing inside jokes. We build on this collective energy slowly, first through low-pressure research projects (become a mini expert in something witchy of your choice and present your findings in whatever way you feel most comfortable), then through devising exercises, writing, and performance. Our public ritual is, therefore, more a natural culmination of sharing space than it is a finished product. It is a continuation of generative process, rather than a capitalist break in our creative cycle. To quote Parks once more, we reject the pressures of a “climactus dramaticus.”

Because our spiral timeline is mapped onto a linear theater department timeline, COVEN-19 does, technically end on May 1, 2021. But brown reminds us that fractals echo. Of course Coven time feels infinite: we are building ways of being that will ripple outwards for the rest of our individual witchy lives and beyond.

queer-time excerpts from COVEN-19 tech process

Me: Not to bring up a big dramaturgical question so last-minute, but I just noticed during tonight's run that Micki introduces the Witching Hour and Dusk sections, but we don't have an intro for Dawn. How important is consistency here, and is it something we feel called to tweak?

Parker: If the show is all about breaking cycles and queering time, then maybe we should just leave it the way it is and let the last section be different.

Micki: Be really honest everyone, is the Ancestry Ritual too slow? I know it's supposed to be meditative and quiet, but we don't want people to just lose interest.

Tory: How was my timing for the ancestry journaling? Does it take too long?

Varying Coven responses: Let it be slow! Take up space. So much Zoom theatre tries to be exciting and attention-grabbing, let's invite the audience to be quiet.

Some of the glorious failures that happened during Invited Dress and Opening Night: Percy's puppet screen collapsed; long silences as we waited for music cues because Ali didn't realize her phone wasn't playing sound; Helen got tongue-tied and invited audiences to chew their poop at least 20 times.

Varying Coven responses: "oof, failure is queer it's true"; "so queer!" "the queerest!"; lots and lots of laughter

The ritual itself moved through the liminal timespaces of Witching Hour, Dusk, and Dawn, taking the audience from darkness into light, from interiority to exteriority. Meanwhile, outside our windows, the "real" world moved from light into darkness, meeting the ritual in the middle, very briefly, with Dusk.

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