“Rituals are perhaps the oldest...members of the performance family. Their business in society is to effect transformations that cannot otherwise be brought about.”
—Tom F. Driver, Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual
I sat paralyzed. Heavy. Destroyed and confused at how vicious my own species can be to one another. Then the stage manager called for a 10 minute break, and the cast of Bent dispersed. It was a staff-invited dress rehearsal—the last before heading to the stage at the Mark Taper Forum—during the workday, and it took all my power to pry myself up from my seat and head back to my desk. Staring at my computer, tears streaming from my eyes, all alone in my office, I ached for an outlet.
My colleagues knew, of course, that Bent, which tells the story of gay persecution in Germany during the Holocaust, would be powerful and painful. It was at the first read-through, though, when the devastation of this show truly revealed itself: the script is powerful, but the intimacy and energy these actors omit over the course of the story hits a chord that is usually deeply hidden. We had to offer something—even a small gesture—to our patrons. We had to hold space, especially for folks like me, who are tremendously affected by witnessing such trauma (even in an artistic representation of trauma), before we could expect them to drive home and continue living in this world which has new light—or rather darkness—shed on it. So we assembled a team of Center Theatre Group staff members, and started thinking of what that space might look like, and how an honoring could be created.
A former professor of mine, Helene Shulman, and her coauthor Mary Watkins, wrote about these types of spaces in Toward Psychologies of Liberation:
"Entering into these spaces may require more silence than dialogue, a kind of hospitality or empathetic witness for which the primary ritual is presence or touch. Essentially, spaces of recollection are a way of constructing altars or memorials to what has been ruined in the past."
Keeping in mind the power of simplicity and presence, we decided to create that space as folks exit the theatre by offering them LED tea lights to place in the reflection pools outside of the Mark Taper Forum. Night after night, audience members leave this beautifully tragic story and enter the plaza, where hundreds of lights fill the water. It’s a stunning image. Palm outstretched, staff members ask, “Would you like to float a light for remembrance?” and couples, elders, and young people bend down to place them in. When the candle touches the water, it illuminates.
Some people stand at the railing, in solitude, looking out at the lights for quite some time. Some hold hands or stand with another. Some say prayers. Some people have specific family members in mind: “Thank you. I would like to float a light for my uncle. He was in Auschwitz and didn’t survive.”
Certainly, this ritual—this space for commemorating those lost and acknowledging the struggle that still exists today in our world—is a small gesture. But even small gestures and rituals can help us to collectively heal.
Standing by the railing one night after the show, witnessing those around me watching the lights, the ache I felt alone at my desk after that rehearsal wasn’t nearly as strong. A woman nearby said to me, “When I tossed my candle in the water, I watched it light up—I made a wish and then watched the ripples move out and touch the other candles. It gave me hope.” I, too, left the theatre that night with a little more hope.