First Temple of Dionysos

From the time I was three, I wanted to be an actress when I grew up. I’m told that it started when some adult tousled my golden curls and told me I looked just like Shirley Temple. I demanded to know who that was, and my mother found Good Ship Lollipop on tv and let me watch it. I immediately insisted that I wanted to be just like Shirley.

Like any kid, I wanted to be other things sometimes. A teacher, or a chemist, or an astronaut, or whatever, but I always wanted to be an actress, too. There wasn’t a whole lot available in Central Florida in the 80s for a kid who wanted to act, not without going to Orlando, over an hour away, something not even conceivable to my mother. But I was in all the school plays and talent shows, and indeed I wrote a play for my very first talent show. I did speech and drama competitions: monologues and one act plays. I’d check out biographies of actors, and play scripts on the rare occasions I could find any, from the library. I started struggling through Shakespeare at twelve. I was obsessed.

In ninth grade, I heard that the Cocoa Village Playhouse had started a youth acting troupe, and jumped at the chance. There were auditions, the first time I’d had to try out for a director I didn’t know. That was terrifying.

But I walked in for those auditions, into the 70-year-old vaudeville house, with the stage bare and the house lights up and no scenery or paint… it was amazing. I’d only ever done shows in school cafeterias, or, at best, small and shabby auditoriums. I’d been to the CVP a couple of times to see a play, but I’d never seen it out of its makeup and costume.

I won my slot in the program, and the Playhouse became my temple. Acting had always been a holy and transforming thing, truly cathartic, as it was always meant to be. The words burned out of me, comedy or tragedy, raising my emotions to a fever pitch, and leaving me cleansed and emptied afterwards. I did my best to bestow that gift on my audiences, and sometimes managed it.

The Playhouse was the first place I spent much time that was dedicated purely to acting, to the sacred art of theater. It was a holy place for me, my first Temple of Dionysos. There were others, later, when I went to college and majored in theater and spent hours on end every day of the week on or behind one campus stage or another. Florida State has six stages that belong to the School of Theater, and before I dropped out, I came to know each one intimately.

It was while I was still going to the Playhouse that I first began to study and practice Wicca, and I naturally included Dionysos among the gods I honored, as patron of the theater. One of the first pieces I had on any altar, which is still on my Dionysos altar today, was a pressed-glass ornament with the comedy and tragedy masks on it, facing one another, in profile.

I have even more trouble talking about the experience of acting than I do about other ecstatic experiences — and it was always an ecstatic experience, the first I ever knew, even if I didn’t know what to call it. Partly it’s simply that it’s been so long. I acted a little after leaving school (which I did due to bipolar disorder, Dionysos stirring up my life in other ways), in community theater and in SCA commedia dell’ arte productions, but not much. I didn’t have the focus for some years, lost in my madness, and by the time I did again, I was too sad over losing my dream. But it’s also that I don’t know how to explain it to most religious fellow-travelers, to the pagans and polytheists I usually discuss ecstasis with. It’s not like trance, like spiritwork, like sacred intoxicants. Or rather, it is, experientially, but the process to get there is different. Yes, certainly, most of the people I talk to are aware that theater is sacred to Dionysos, but even most of the Dionysians I know have never been actors. And the few who have, well, I’ve never needed to explain it to. They know. We’ve never had to speak of it, because the exhausted, exhilarated smile and the looks in each others’ eyes afterward are enough.

Let me try, though.

To step onto a stage is to throw yourself over a precipice, with nothing to catch you but the contemplation of the audience. If you choke, if you fail, you will fall and batter yourself on the rocks below. But if you are good, you can catch the audience’s attention like a wind, and rise beyond the cliff.

The script changes as you speak your lines from words and directions on a page to a holy hymn, sung in antiphon by cast and audience together, to build a song to praise the gods.

The high of the performance is like wine raging in the blood, sending you mad, allowing you to completely become another person, to transcend your own self and leave behind your own consciousness for a little space of time.

The smells of dust and paint and makeup become an incense to accompany the oblation of your own mind and body and soul, a thing you build from yourself that becomes more and other as you present it.

Acting is a holy thing. Theater is a holy thing. Not only to view, as a Catholic watches Mass, but a holy act to perform, as much as any feast day ritual, a sacrifice and offering in itself. Acting is worship. Acting is ecstatic.

There are actors out there who are purely mechanistic. They learn it all by rote, every nuance, and deliver the same performance every time, a robot repeating the same words and motions over and over. Some of these actors are even very good, professionals acclaimed by theater-goers, critics and colleagues. I’ve never understood it. How can they not feel that rush? How can they not subsume themselves in their roles, or at least yearn to? What joy can they possibly find in acting that way? Why do they bother?

And of course, most actors, amateur or professional, would never describe it the way I do, as a religious experience. Many of them would recognize the feeling, though, even if they never would put those words to it, even if they would consider those words blasphemy.

While I was in college, my younger brother, who was going through a fundamentalist Christian phase, had a part in his church’s play, something one of the members wrote, with angels and demons battling for the souls of mortals. He was terribly proud of it. I couldn’t be there for any of the performances — I was in the middle of rehearsals for something myself — but I managed to visit for the dress rehearsal, to please him. It was badly written, the costumes were from a thrift store, the handful of set pieces were made by the sixth grade Sunday school class, and I seriously wondered if the demons were intentionally made up like drag queens in some kind of homophobic parody (they weren’t; nobody knew how to do makeup for men). And yet. Every single one of them up on that stage was doing this for their god, and I could feel it. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I had chills. That tiny nondenominational evangelical Christian church… became a Temple of Dionysos. Sacred theater. Bad, but holy anyway. It was, in the most literal and oldest sense, awesome.

We know, we worshippers of Dionysos, we disciples of the vine, that theater is sacred. Most of us don’t act, though, and certainly don’t have the opportunity to act together, to perform theater as an explicit act of worship, to be seen by other worshippers. I wonder what we might build together if we did.

Sorry, forgot to add:
Rebecca, the MadGastronomer, is the Klodone of the thiasos. She spins, weaves, and makes things. She’s over here doing her own thing. You can read more by her at Ariadne’s Thread and Arachne’s Tapestry.

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