Thesis Proposal: COVEN-19, or Magicks for Unprecedented Times An exploration in feminism and devised theatre-making Maegan Clearwood Two things have kept me intellectually, socially, and spiritually alive these past three years: theory and witchcraft. Theory, which I’ve explored through my coursework in the WGSS department, has broadened the way I see the world and armed me with new frameworks and vocabularies to resist the systems that are destroying the people and communities I care most deeply about. Witchcraft has been the resistance itself: it has helped me define my personal brand of queerness, of believing in my intuitive sense of self and empowering me to express it fully as a giant middle finger to the heteropatriarchy. [LC1] I am not the first to find liberation in these spaces. bell hooks, of course, came to theory because she was hurting, “to grasp what was happening around and within me” (59). Theory has the power to validate, describe, and contextualize lived experiences. In many ways, theory is akin to spellwork: it harnesses words to manifest change, not of energies or desires necessarily, but of ideologies. [LC2] Witchcraft too has liberatory potentials. Indeed, the mantle of the witch has throughout history been embraced as a mode of resistance. Kristen J. Sollee, in her forward to Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels, says that, “as a fraught political climate simmers and comes to a roil, the occult is often the next mode of defense, a reproach” (x) – no wonder, then, that I and so many of my generation are embracing tarot, astrology, and spellwork. I have clung to theory and witchcraft to buoy me through times of stress and upheaval and personal trauma – but I am not getting my MFA in theory or in witchcraft. I am getting my MFA in theatre. So how to invoke these theoretical and magickal practices in a theatrical way? I’ll be honest: theatre has not sustained me in years -- if anything, theatre has hurt me. In various theatre spaces and by various powerful artistic leaders, I have been gaslit, spoken over, and dismissed entirely. And my horror stories are marginal compared to the many that are becoming newly public, thanks to the courage of BIPOC artists coming forward with their experiences in racist, misogynistic theatre institutions
and training programs (we see you). Western theatre is steeped in processes that uphold dominant power structures: hierarchical artistic processes; capitalist models of production; seasons that center white, heteronormative narratives; and a culture of fear that intimidates the most vulnerable members of the theatre community from speaking their truths. I believe in the uniquely magical power of live theatre[LC3] , and I cannot imagine teaching or creating any other form of art – but ours is not a healthy relationship. 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. Last semester, I thought and wrote about what feminist dramaturgy means to me, so I will quote my past self here: “dramaturgy broadly is an epistemological project: the dramaturg has an intimate relationship with the text, and the innumerable choices she makes in the cultivation and sharing of contextual resources embeds her labor in meaning-making and knowledge production. A feminist dramaturg recognizes the embodied and culturally positioned nature of knowledge production and seeks to dismantle abusive power structures through, to use Donna Haraway’s phrases, ‘passionate detachment’ rather than the disembodied, mystifying ‘god trick.’” In this paper, I drew heavily on epistemological theories of situated and subjugated knowledges, which I expect will also be at the heart of my thesis project[LC4] ; as I explain further in my Glossary of Terms section. However, I do not intend to draw on a singular theoretical framework to understand feminist devising or witchcraft, and will likely create a theoretical foundation that is indebted to many different perspectives. The process of writing that paper helped me articulate many of my issues with “standard” approaches to dramaturgy in order to define what makes my own approach feminist. The traditional notion of the production dramaturg as “expert-in-the-room” or detached observer/critic is supported by institutional models of theatre-making. It is difficult, at times perhaps even impossible, to practice the tenets of feminist dramaturgy (reflexivity, caretaking, integration of multiple perspectives, to name a few) in institutional spaces or standard models of rehearsal/production. And so, even though I have never worked as a
dramaturg on a devised theatre project, I turn to this model in order to play with the concepts I explored in my feminist research paper. As seen in Women, Collective Creation, and Devised Performance, feminist artists have been leaders in devised work since its inception. The mutable, process-oriented nature of devised work makes sense as a working model for artists who want to explore anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical, feminist and antiracist themes. I could, for my thesis, attempt to enact feminist dramaturgical practices through a new play festival or production of a feminist play – but this top-down, director-centric mode is simply insufficient[LC5] . I do not yet know what themes or words COVEN-19 will explore, as the project’s direction relies entirely on the exploratory work of the collective[LC6] . I do, however, suspect that we will not be performing a Samhain ritual that is explicitly about feminism or antiracism. The feminist element of my thesis comes from praxis, from enacting fundamental principles of collectivism, caretaking, value for individual perspectives, and reflexivity into the rehearsal/performance space itself[LC7] . Witchcraft plays a significant role in this feminist undertaking, one that is unfixed and malleable and always subject to change. At the start of the devising process, I expected to use the tools of witchcraft – covens, spellcrafting, ritual – as metaphorical frameworks to create theatre. I expected magick to be an afterthought to performance. To my utter, delighted surprise, however, we are a Coven first and devising collective second. Most of the witches in the Coven are novices, some of whom have never practiced witchcraft in any deliberate way prior to auditions. Various tenets of witchcraft have proven critical to our community-building process: deep breathing/meditation/mindfulness; connections to one’s own body, the bodies of other creatures, and the earth; tarot as a tool for intuition and insight; writing and speaking spells to manifest desires; and so much more. Originally, I intended witchcraft to be a set of tools from which we could create theatre; now, however, magick is central enough to the process that it has become an object of dramaturgical inquiry[LC8] . At this stage, my thesis is an exploration of witchcraft, using feminist theory as a conceptual lens and devised theatre as a foundation/set of tools to with and from.[LC9] The positionalities of feminist theory, devising, and witchcraft are likely to change as the Coven continues to evolve.
My proposal is not groundbreaking. So many artists before me have bravely stepped outside the bounds of capitalist institutional theatre-making to create feminist, intersectional, radical art. I am following in the footsteps of the scholars whose theoretical texts have become my spell books, including Jill Dolan, Jose Munoz, bell hooks, Donna J. Haraway, Stacy Wolf, and Kimberlé Crenshaw Williams, to name just a handful. Their words are spells that empower me to practice scholarly and artistic magicks. Jill Dolan manifests power through positionality; bell hooks manifests compassion and empathy through embodied experience; and Stacy Wolf manifests catharsis and self-reflection through queering the musical canon. I also acknowledge the magickal work of such theatre artists as Ntzoke Shange, Taylor Mac, Paula Vogel, Maria Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry, Tony Kushner, Susan Glaspell, and Suzan-Lori Parks: their craft truly is spellwork, and their words are trulyspells. Through the ritual of performance, Parks invokes ancestral magick, Kushner muddles the line between our world and spiritual realms, and Fornes transcends time and space through incantation. I invoke these theory and theatre witches as I build upon magickal traditions with my Coven. This project is my experiment in personal praxis: combining my still-evolving concepts of feminism and spirituality with theatre-making to, hopefully, heal rather than harm. COVEN-19, or Magicks for Unprecedented Times, is a devised theatre project that values process over product; plays with non-hierarchical collaborative models; and uses the tools of witchcraft to form community. GLOSSARY OF TERMS This is a working list of terms that are integral to my thesis, both in theory and practice. This is not a collection of hard definitions: these words are not static or fixed, and they will (and indeed already have) evolve as I encounter them in my research and enact them with the Coven. Coven: Quite simply, a Coven is a group of witches who do magick together. There is a history of patriarchal, hierarchical, even abusive covens (I won’t ramble about the patriarchal underpinnings of neopagan and Wiccan practices right now, but it’s an important element of this history to acknowledge). Most important for my purposes, a coven is a community – and forming a healthy, supportive community is an immense responsibility. From Pam Grossman’s Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power: Engaging in shared emotional work in any field is an exercise in vulnerability, and for metaphysical work this is especially true. Rituals entail making noise or sitting in total silence, both potentially terrifying when done in the presence of other humans. They involve doing things like swaying, dancing, or waving strange objects in the air. They have you speaking to beings or entities that can’t be seen, sometimes even serenading them. If a witch chants in a forest but no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound? A group of witches definitely does, and they can certainly hear one another, regardless of whether or not the spirits do. To practice in a group requires both a loosening of self- consciousness and a tightening grip on the rudder of sincerity. You have to care, and you have to let others see you caring. And you have to bear witness to their caring in turn. You will most likely grow to care about them. And heaven forfend, you may even allow them to care about you too. When we decide to be part of any community, we are making a commitment to literally be there for ourselves and for each other. (190-191)GREAT quotation. Devised Theatre: I have a lot more research to do in this area, as devised theatre is not my background or area of expertise. As I understand it, devised theatre simply means an open-ended process that does not begin with a script or concrete blueprint for
performance. There may or may not be a director and/or dramaturg who leads the creative and knowledge production process. Feminism: I am inspired by bell hooks’ definition here: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (Feminism is for Everybody 1) that “directs our attention to systems of domination and the interrelatedness of sex, race, and class oppression. Therefore, it compels us to centralize the experiences and social predicaments of women who bear the brunt of sexist oppression as a way to understand collective social status of women in the United States.” Feminism invokes gender, but in order to be a truly emancipatory practice, it must reckon with the intersections of myriad strands of identity and positionality: individual, embodied experiences must be prioritized in order to form a collective movement toward gender equality. My personal feminist practice is therefore intersectional and indebted to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw Williams. Feminist Devised Theatre: No concrete definition yet! I anticipate drawing heavily from Kathryn M Syssoyeva and Scott Proudfit’s Women, Collective Creation, and Devised Performance: The Rise of Women Theatre Artists in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Based on the devising process that I’m currently facilitating, however, I and my co-producers are enacting various feminist practices from the below list of Feminist Theatre tenets. Particularly central have been: decentralizing the creation process; pushing against hierarchies; acknowledging power dynamics; and decentralizing the knowledge creation/producing process. Feminist Theatre: Drawing on my understanding of feminism as intersectional and embodied, I believe that feminist theatre must: center embodied knowledges, particularly subjugated knowledges; center subjugated knowledges without traumatizing or placing undue emotional burdens on BIPOC artists; practice an ethics of care, and therefore prioritize process over product; decentralize the creative process, breaking down traditional hierarchies as much as possible; acknowledge power, as it operates in the world at large and therefore in the rehearsal process; take responsibility for harm caused by the creative process, even when that harm is unconsciously enacted and unintended; cite the artists, activists, and theorists whose work influenced and made room for feminist theatre practice; recognize spectators as embodied subjects to whom theatre artists have a responsibility to challenge without harm; and recognize that it is an inherently political practice, even when the content is not explicitly so. My ever- evolving concept of feminist theatre is influenced by many thinkers and artists, but I offer specific gratitude to Dr. Priscilla Page, Talya Kingston, and Finn LeFevre for graciously offering their personal wisdom during my research process last semester. Queer/Queerness/Queer Theory: The biggest disappointment for me in my WGSS coursework has been the fact that I haven’t had the privilege of taking a class explicitly about queer theory. Maybe if you end up doing a PhD!!My personal definition of queerness is, like queerness itself, ever- changing. A few definitions to begin: “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality, aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Eve Sedgewick); “a contestation of the terms of sexual legitimacy” (Judith Butler); “a category marking the sexual as a site for a variety of cultural struggles” (Karma Lochrie); “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant… it demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative” (David Halperin). The definition that truly cracked open my understanding of the concept, however, is Jose Munoz’, for whom queerness is inherently beyond definition or full embodiment: We are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present… Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world. (1) The current explosion of witchcraft in both popular culture and individual practice has been queerer than ever. The Witch, in all of her historical iterations, is an outsider; a non-conformist; a powerful being who is feared and hunted for daring to be different. (I think there’s an argument to be made that witchcraft is inherently queer, despite the patriarchal underpinnings of many neopagan movements and the strict binaries at the core of so many practices.) What happens if I bring Munoz’ utopic conception of queerness into our Coven and performance? How can we restructure hegemonic modes of living and performing? How can we embody this futurity and bring our audience on this journey with us? How can magick push us closer to this horizon of queerness? Magick: To pull from some definitions we cultivated as a Coven, magick is/may be: feeling all of my feelings without shame; receiving power from the earth; music; the inexplicable capabilities that happen throughout our world, and worlds beyond, that are not given explanation outside of the energies of the unknown; energy beyond what you can feel tangibly; free will; calling something into being; alignment; belief in the power of words; love (of all kinds); understanding of self; the uncanny; animals; honoring the child within; the power of introspection. Ritual: Honestly I have a lot of work to do with this term. This is a tough one – I did a bit of touring through your tumblr and saw the brainstorming you all were doing. So interesting.For now, I invoke the words of the Coven. Ritual is/may be: repeated pattern to honor an entity; action, intent, desire; women taking back their power, voices, all things ownership; something to be done together; a sometimes habitual/regular process to harness energy/contact energies and spirits; people practicing something in unison; ceremony; a continued practice that makes the world, oneself, and the group better for all the best reasons; holidays; something that happens live. Samhain: According to Lisa Stardust of Teen Vogue: “Also known as the “Witch’s New Year,” Samhain occurs on Hallow’s Eve. This Gaelic holiday occurs at the end of the harvest season and marks an entrance into the ‘darker’ half of the year (being that it’s the midpoint between autumn and winter). The veil between worlds is very thin and spirits come out to play (which isn’t a bad thing). As long as we are careful not to let in bad energy, we will all be fine.” Traditions may include inviting ancestors to feast with us and enjoying autumn foods. Spell: To pull from some definitions we cultivated as a Coven, a spell is/may be: harnessing energy for a specific goal; making shit happen; speaking something into existence; voicing your needs; desire; manifestation; sensual divination, through words and oratory practice, with which we make shit happen; a sequence of words that elicit an indescribable emotional and/or physical response; representation of one’s power. Theory: A framework for understanding a phenomenon, system of power, or set of experiences. Queer, Marxist, intersectional, globalist/third-world, and Woman of Color theories offer various entry points into and lenses through which one can describe gender inequities and the practice of feminism. I am not interested in prescribing to a single theory, or branch feminist theory, for my thesis project, but rather aim to navigate the perspectives of various theorists to expand and describe my conceptions of power and theatre-making. Witch: A witch practices/manifests magick. They may belong to a specific branch of witchcraft (Wicca, paganism, Celtic magick, vodou, etc) with a specific set of spells/rituals/texts through which they manifest their powers. Our Coven is devising our own definition and practice of witchcraft. To pull from our definitions again, a witch is/may be: someone on a spiritual journey; what old white men despise for no good reason; a belief in oneself and one’s POWER; a lesbian with cats (life goals); anyone who calls themselves one; someone who uses their own energy, elemental energy, ancestral energy, etc, as they desire; tapped into the world around them; an esoteric being; an individual who practices magickal spells, healings, and overall abilities to harness energy and earths beyond us; confidence; connected; a person who practices mindfulness and intentionality, who sees themselves in connection with other creatures and the world around them; able to see the magic in things that seem ordinary.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION This fall, I am co-producing/devising COVEN-19, or Magicks for Unprecedented Times. The rehearsal process begins the week of September 14, with performances the last week of October (featuring a midnight Samhain performance). I have few specific artistic goals for this project, as the collective – 13 witches in total, lucky us! – will be using the first few weeks of the rehearsal process to determine our passions, skill sets, and shared goals in order to discover a specific “concept.” Something I intend to bring into the conversation with the coven early, however, are the connotations of doing a performance on Samhain (a Blue Moon Samhain, nonetheless). This celebratory date holds deep spiritual and symbolic meaning for many witches, as it is believed to be the time of year in which the veil between our world and that of the dead is thinnest. What do we need to collectively grieve? Whom from beyond the veil might we wish to honor or acknowledge through ritual? The title of this piece began as an inspired pun, but it took on new meaning when my co-producer Helen and I realized the significance of embedding collective trauma into the project’s name. Even if this Coven takes on dozens of future iterations, it was born out of this pandemic; rehearsals and conversations will inevitably concern this theme; and our need for a remote community is strengthened by the isolation we have all been experiencing. The format of the devised performance is also to be determined, but based on the parameters for this remote fall season, it will be under 45 minutes and entirely on Zoom or a similar online platform. The performance will be live, although there may be pre-recorded components. We may take advantage of Zoom breakout rooms in order to empower spectators to direct their own experience, going to different virtual spaces that feature various types of performances and levels of audience interaction.. The press release blurb that I wrote, with insights and approval from my producing team, is as follows: 2020 is on fire, and more than ever, we are being called upon to own our individual and collective powers, make meaning out of utter chaos, and manifest tangible, seismic change. This Samhain, when the veil between our world and the otherworld is at its very thinnest, our Coven will perform a live, remote ritual for the community that addresses the grief and pain we are all experiencing — but
also the potential for transformation in these strange times. The time is ripe for magick-making: join us. I am privileged to be co-producing this project with Helen Rahman (undergraduate theatre student and the coolest witch I know) and Percival Hornak (first year MFA dramaturgy candidate), and we are bringing Alison Butts (undergraduate theatre student) on as our stage manager witch starting next week. So far, the process has been collective and democratic. We have not made any major producing or artistic decisions without the consensus of the full group, and although we have come up with some exciting ideas for the devising process, we intend to step back and allow the ensemble to take the lead, integrating our ideas if necessary. I anticipate that our roles will change now that we are heading into the rehearsal process, but the overall approach of equally dividing labor and making collective decisions will remain at the core of our process. I plan to produce a spring iteration of COVEN-19, which I see as an opportunity to take what I learned about both process and form in order to approach the devised process with a more explicit and intentional artistic goal. Because we do not know whether any in-person performance will be taking place come January, it is impossible to plan this project in too much detail. I’m not sure, for instance, if it will be integrated into the spring season or will function as an independently produced project. If we are performing and rehearsing in-person, I will need to propose a larger budget for production needs and perhaps seek outside grant opportunities. I’m also not yet sure of when the performances should take place. Ostara (spring equinox) takes place at the end of March, which would mean a speedy rehearsal process akin to this fall’s timeline. Doing a performance around Beltane, or May Day, would give me plenty of additional rehearsal time, but fall so late in the semester that it would add potentially undue stress to my thesis writing process. I could, of course, plan for performance dates outside of the Wheel of the Year cycle, but the question remains: do I want to replicate the condensed rehearsal process from the fall iteration and work towards a similarly brief final performance, or give myself and the artistic team additional time to work? I suspect I will not be able to answer this question until the university, and then department, has a clear plan for the spring semester and academic calendar. I am,
however, considering how these different possibilities might impact the artistic process as well as my personal thesis timeline. This spring, I also want to program ancillary events to explore witchcraft and devised theatre more deeply, both for the general community and for the spring coven. I am interested in a series of lectures and workshops with practicing theatre artist- witches. The lectures will be semi-public, and the workshops specific to the Coven. Potential speakers include artistic director and witch Bonnie Cullum of The Vortex (Austin, TX); members of the Western Mass pagan community; members of the Western Mass queer witch community; and DC theatre artists who run the ongoing Tarot theatre project. These ideas are obviously still in early days, but I intend to finalize them by November of this semester so that I can integrate producing needs into my timeline. GOALS/DESIRED OUTCOMES - Muddle the divisions between my various perceived roles to embody a holistic approach to theatre-making that centers an ethics of care (for myself and for my team), decenters the role of dramaturg from expert-in-the-room to intuitive learner, and shares epistemological power with the collective. - Explore witchcraft through feminist theatre-making. By imbuing both the performance and writing process with magick, I hope to push against the objective, product-oriented rhetoric that is the standard and incorporate an element of theatrical mysticism. I as a dramaturg-scholar cannot understand or have expertise everything, and I am making space for the unknown and unknowable. - Act on my belief that embodied knowledges are theory. For my above-quoted Issues in Feminist Research paper, I interviewed three of my feminist-dramaturg colleagues, and their insights were invaluable to my own exploration of situated dramaturgy. Thanks to my background and training in journalism, I instinctively turn to conversation in order to learn. Written theory will certainly ground much
of my research, but I also intend to interview theatre-witches and feminist devised theatre-makers as a central element of my writing practice. GUIDING QUESTIONS - What is feminist dramaturgy and theatre-making? I explored these concepts at length last semester in my Feminist Research class, but how will my definitions change through praxis? - What is a dramaturg’s role in a devised theatre project? There are plenty of case studies about dramaturgs and devised theatre, but these processes are usually director-led, with the dramaturg leading the knowledge production process. Provided I successfully decenter this epistemological work, what work am I doing? Am I facilitator of process? Producer? Director who refuses to be named as such? Creator/performer? - What is “intuitive dramaturgy”? Is it even a thing? I think it has to do with acknowledging the problematics of logic and reason and embracing knowledge processes that are less academically “legitimate.” I just made up the term to remind myself that my artistic work is not an exact science – but maybe I can actually craft a definition and explore it further. - How can we use a remote performance medium in a way that feels embodied and transformative? How can we fully engage an audience in the process of spell- casting and ritual overZoom? - How can witchcraft inform a kind of theatre-making that is anti-capitalist and non-hierarchical? How can it inform a feminist artistic practice that centers intuition andmindfulness? - How can we bring the audience into our magickal process? What is our audience’s role in a Zoom magickal performance? Can we encourage spect-acting in this remote context? How do we activate the audience’s role and share magickal energies across remote spaces? TIMELINE Fall 2020 – presentation of COVEN-19, or Magicks for Unprecedented Times August / September: Write promo blurb and audition notice; propose budget; identify needs (materials as well as labor); finalize thesis committee Sept 8 – 9: Auditions! Week of Sept 14 – Lock in rehearsal schedule; start exploratory devising process; identify roles for ensemble members (social media wizard; techno witch; Zoom supervisor; scribes, etc); read as much as I can about devised theatre- making and talk to devised theatre artists as I go; budget meeting with Julie Fife Sept – Oct – Document process via social media and witchy grimoire blog; create marketing image(s) and send to Anna-Maria; purchase witchy books and supplies for the Coven based on exploratory conversations Oct 1 – Start locking down concepts for final performance; begin researching any grants I might need for spring iteration; communicate with costume department about any potential needs; Mid-October – Finalize “script”; draft program; identify Zoom needs and host practice night with Th110 Oct 28 – Invited Dress Rehearsal Oct 30 – Nov 1 –Performances! November/December – Reflect on process, post-mortem with production team, and plan for the spring: find co-producer(s) and stage manager; determine dates for rehearsals, performances, and programming events; finalize Coven company for the spring semester (run auditions if necessary) Winter break Clarify goals for the spring (what worked the first time around? What failed? What will I adjust/transform/reconsider?) Continue doing research on feminist theatre, devised theatre, and witchcraft
Write draft of thesis outline
Spring 2020 – COVEN-19, or
February 1 - Semester starts
Early February – Begin rehearsals
February – Speaker/workshop series (once a week for a month?); Part 1 of devising process (research process and ensemble-building)
March – Transition to Part 2 of devising process (generative work, structure, performance).
Late April/Early May: Performances! May 1 will be a sunrise Beltane ritual.
May – Share final draft of thesis