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Notes from the Theatre of Voodoo

(This article was originally published in the 1993 Chaos International edn of Prime Chaos but omitted from the 1999 New Falcon Publications edition.)

The Theatre of Voodoo was the title of a group set up to experiment with integrating the different approaches and ideas of psychology, performance, art, therapy and magick. The idea behind the group was to create a "space" in which the participants could let go of their everyday selves, and invoke "otherness". By pooling the ideas and experience of members who had backgrounds in the aforementioned fields, it was hoped that something greater than any of them could be arrived at.

Ritual Theatre

Regarding magical ritual as a form of theatrical performance is a useful way of approaching its possibilities. In modern society, theatre has become merely a form of entertainment, whilst its healing function has largely been institutionalised as forms of therapy, and its magical aspects have been driven underground. The experiments of the Theatre of Voodoo owed more to the work of Alfred Jarre or Antonin Artaud than Aleister Crowley or the Golden Dawn.

Artaud, in his classic essay The Theatre and Its Double, writes about a "physical language" of theatre, which is independent of speech (and hence, the waking mind), and which is aimed at provoking unconscious reactions in the audience, expressing feelings which cannot be framed into words. Such a "language" includes dance, gesture, mime, costume, lighting and use of props.

Artaud writes that careful attention needs to be given towards these elements if the language is to be effective. This language is the same language that is used to build an atmosphere in ritual magick.

Primal Speech

One of the groups' first experiments in exploring this physical language was to remove speech from ritual, to see how this highlighted the other forms of language. As a preliminary exercise, the group used exercises which replaced coherent speech with animal noises, such as gibbering and grunting. When this is done, the inflection, tone, and patterning of sounds to convey a message become the major carriers of meaning. Removing sound entirely makes one much more aware of gesture and body language to communicate. By attempting to block the ordering of thoughts and feelings into language, communication becomes more subtle.

The physical language that Artaud wrote of bypasses the waking mind and reaches into the darkness of the Deep Mind, bringing us one step closer to chaos.

The Mass of ?

The most terrifying images are those which cannot be named or clearly seen. They are the intangible fears and nightmares that lurk in dreams, at the edge of awareness. Have you ever awakened from a nightmare, afraid, but unable to remember why? The writer H.P.Lovecraft tried to create such an atmosphere in his stories, with beings who were terrifying because they could never be clearly seen. By naming something, we try and exert power over it, by making it knowable.

This ritual began with a group meditation to a background tape of gongs dipped in water, bells and shrill whistles, which almost, but not quite, fell into rhythms. One by one, the group began a slow, stylised dance, each person momentarily freezing into attitudes of fear or horror, then continuing onwards. Some members of the group were masked, others painted. The theme was to try and arouse, through individual action, a group nightmare, with each member of the group attempting to communicate the sense of some lurking, formless horror at the edge of awareness. The dance continued under strobing lights following random sequences, until one member, who had been loudly hyperventilating in a corner, his eyes fixed on "something out there", suddenly became possessed by what was later called a "Nameless God". He began to mouth gibberish and flail his arms about, at which point the dramatic awareness in the room increased sharply. The dance wove around the gibbering God until its host collapsed exhausted, and as the rite continued, other members of the group were swept into possession.

These entities were not like the well-established deities of civilisation, but atavisms from the primal strata of the Deep Mind, who babbled and could not properly use the bodies they "wore". The Mass of ? served to at once conceal and reveal, display and disguise the sense of primal chaos which lies beyond the boundaries of the known.

It should be remembered that this experiment, like others described in this section, was only attempted after the group had been through a considerable amount of preparation. It was the culmination of a lengthy series of group events and exercises, and not something which was casually entered into.

Empty Spaces?

A great many magical techniques are concerned with exploring our "inner spaces", through visualisation, trance induction, and scrying, for example. But what of the space that is around us? Our sense of personal space is important in terms of how we interact with other people, and it is usefully to develop all of our senses as fully as possible. According to legend, shamans and sorcerers are very difficult to sneak up on, as they are aware of what is happening in their environment.

Our "normal" perception of Space is that it is "empty" and that we are separate from each other, and from objects. The amount of Personal Space that we feel comfortable with usually reflects how we may feel about different situations. The more anxious a person is, the more they will draw the body inwards towards a posture resembling the foetal position.

The Theatre of Voodoo utilised games and exercises to "jump" out of the perceptual trap by which we experience of space. Some of these techniques induced a perception that widened, rather than narrowed, awareness of surroundings.

Blind Walks

This exercise can be practised individually but is best done in pairs. A group divides into pairs and one member leads the other, who is blindfolded, around an area. Shutting ones eyes automatically increases the sensory feedback from other organs.
After everyone had tried this a few times, the exercise was modified: blindfolded members were asked to visualise an aura about their bodies, which like a bubble or web, sensed obstacles before physical contact could be made.

Flowing Meditation

This exercise involves imagining space as a flowing, watery medium through which we move. Each movement causes the space around us to flow and ripple. It reacts to being pushed, and can be shaped momentarily by the hands. We are immersed in space like a fish is immersed in water, and we can use it as an additional organ of perception. This idea is used in Tai Chi for example, where one is encouraged to move as though in water, and become aware of the spaces between arms and legs.

We are particularly sensitive, for example, to the blind spot behind our backs, and many people, especially women, can sense what is happening behind their backs ? a survival sense that has remained with use from the arboreal forest to the urban jungle.

Magical Misdirection

Magical misdirection is concerned with the obscuring of roles. Infamous magicians, in both myth and history, have had a trickster or clown side to their character. Aleister Crowley for example, is well?known for his love of pranks, practical jokes and alter egos.

The Wise Fool is a figure found in many cultures and systems: the Fool of the Tarot, the African Spider-god Anansi, and the Norse trickster, Loki. The magician, as the Fool, both mocks and threatens the establishment. Despite their poses and games, sacred fools often have a high status within their community.

To act the fool is to be deceptive. Once you have been established as a fool, there is a lot that you can get away with. This is a lesson that many magicians have appreciated. It is often better to be dismissed as a crank and laughed at, if being taken seriously means imprisonment and torture.

Don Juan, the (fictional) Yaqui shaman made famous through the writings of Carlos Casteneda, says that to become a brujo (magician) one must first move away from all family and friends, to a place where no one knows your past self, where you can cultivate the "mask" of a brujo (i.e the magical personality).

The cultivation of status and status disguise is an important consideration for magicians, especially for those who work in or with groups. The higher the status people will accord you, the easier it is to induce trance?states in others, or perform acts of healing or similar magicks. A group director who is playing a "high status" role can enable other group members to "let go" during an intensive ritual, since they are confident of the leaders ability not to let things get too far out of hand. Note that playing high status in a group is a role which can be adopted and then put aside when the situation warrants it. The desire to have one's fellows accord permanent high status to oneself has often led magicians into claiming all kinds of exalted titles and grades, a kind of one?upmanship that is usually destructive for all parties concerned and tedious to watch. We all though, play status games with each other from time to time, and the following games can show up the differing status roles we pursue.

Gurus and Disciples

For this exercise, one person takes on the role of a guru, and other persons become the guru's disciples, and beseech him to answer questions on life, the universe and everything. The Guru explains and the disciples hang breathlessly on every word. It's not so much what is said that counts, but the way it is said.

Unfortunately there do seem to be a great many people who are hunting for some kind of guru. In direct proportion, there are those who would readily become gurus for the benefit of the rest of us. Whilst some experienced magicians are involved in passing on information and helping others, there are also those who are motivated entirely by financial gain, power over others, sexual exploitation or just feeling important. For those who would pursue Gurus, discrimination before opening ones mind, wallet or legs is to be counselled. It would be prudent to, rather than accepting a teacher at face value, ask why they are acting as a teacher in the first place.

Often, all it takes is an impressive symbol system, either esoteric or quasi?scientific, to raise a person's status in the eyes of others. There are many cases of "fringe" medicines, which were successful, largely due to the clients capacity to invest belief in them. When the various techniques were exposed as fraudulent, the rate of "cures" dropped dramatically. Much of magical healing involves "tricking" a person to heal themselves through their unquestioning belief in the "power" of the magician.