As we come to the end of the year, I’d like all who practice magick of any kind, but especially those who do group rites, to consider a simple question:

Are you doing ritual…
or ritual theater?

There is nothing wrong with either. There is nothing inherently “better” doing one rather than the other. I think there’s great value in both. But there are major differences between ritual and ritual theater.

Ritual, if done well, is magick
Ritual theater, if done well, is magickal

Ritual, if done well, can help you achieve your magickal goals
Ritual theater, if done well, can remind you of your past and/or provide catharsis for the present

Ritual, if done well,  is designed to change your future
Ritual theater, if done well, is designed to change you

Ritual, if done well, has everyone involved
Ritual theater, if done well, has actors involved and an audience that mostly observes

Ritual and ritual theater may overlap, but if not done well, neither is better than watching a show on TV

What is Your Medium?

Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) wrote the book, The Medium is the Message. I think understanding some of his basic concepts is vital to understanding effective ritual design. McLuhan described various media as ranging between hot and cold relative to your involvement. TV is a cooler medium because you don’t have much involvement. You sit on the sofa and watch it. You can ignore it and do something else while you watch it. In 1969, multi-award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler [he’s my distant uncle by marriage, although I’ve not seen him in many years], even made a well-reviewed movie titled Medium Cool.

McLuhan wanted to stress that it was the medium itself—in this case, TV—that was the message. The content was irrelevant. People approach news shows just as they approach sitcoms or dramas. In those entertainment shows we expect people to yell at each other and are comfortable with it. So we expect the same thing with news shows, and many of the most successful “news shows” consist not of news, but of hosts and guests yelling at each other. The content is lost. It is only the nature of the medium itself that is important. McLuhan wrote,

In a cool medium, the audience is an active constituent of the viewing or listening experience…[The] eye acts as a surrogate hand in filling in the low-definition image thus engendered.

With a cooler medium, there is less involvement in the content. Involvement is with the medium. A warmer medium is attending a movie. The actors are literally bigger than life. You are so close to them you can see the hairs in their noses! You’re in a special room, not your home where you know the location of everything. Most of the people in the room are unknown to you as opposed to the family and friends in your living room or being by yourself. You have to become involved in what is on the screen, something at a distance, not part of your living room.

Warmer still is live theater. You can pick up the energy and emotions of the actors in a way that doesn’t come across in the movies. It is far more likely that you can be drawn in and have your emotions excited and released, resulting in a catharsis, a cleansing release of energy and emotion.

Even warmer is radio drama. This is because you can’t see anything. You have to visualize in your imagination what is described and create in your imagination what isn’t described, filling in the scene. People used to sit around radios and imagine the scenes and images of what they heard. On October 30, 1938, if you tuned in late to one radio program, you would have heard a band playing. Suddenly, what seemed to be a news report broke in, talking about a “huge flaming object” dropping from the sky near the town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The music program returned, but had repeated news break-ins leading to the impression that we had been invaded from Mars.

It may sound naive today, but because people had their imagination and involvement so triggered by the program—a dramatic presentation of War of the Worlds from Orson Welles based on the book by H.G. Wells (no relation)—many people believed it was really taking place. There were panics all over. According to one description of what happened, “People packed the roads, hid in cellars, loaded guns, even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from Martian poison gas, in an attempt to defend themselves against aliens…”

An even hotter medium is reading, where you not only create the visuals in your mind, but you must also create the background sounds, the sounds of voices, and all the little things that result in a full scene but are not included in the writing.

Ritual Theater—Luke Warm
Ritual—Blazing Hot!

Determining the difference between ritual theater and ritual is not clear cut. There is a contiuum ranging from pure ritual theater, where people would sit in an audience watching the ritualists, and pure ritual where everyone is involved. However, as a general rule, if people are watching more than participating, it’s theater, not ritual; drama, not magick.

Some events are both ritual and ritual theater. For example, in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, initiation rituals involved a group of officers and the initiate. However, there could also be an audience that participated very little in the ritual. So the actual initiation is both ritual and ritual theater. The involvement of others and their energy, as well as the initiate seeing the activity of others and of the temple, makes the very concept of “astral initiations” into the Golden Dawn dubious at best.

Good Theater and Good Ritual

Since not everyone can be participating in a group ritual simultaneously throughout the ritual, I would contend it is imperative for ritual designers to clarify their goals as to what they want to achieve. The “cooler” and less involving a ritual is, the less magickal it is. The warmer and more involving the ritual, the more magickal it becomes.

When you plan your next ritual, what will it be? If you want it to be warmer or even hot, make sure everyone is involved and immersed in the rite. If you want it to be theater, make sure the actors/ritualists function as actors. Taking some classes in acting will certainly help. Larger public rituals are far more often ritual theater than actual ritual.

Whichever you do, please remember that with training, we can always do better, and that with ritual or ritual theater, we should always do our best.

Written by Donald Michael Kraig
Donald Michael Kraig graduated from UCLA with a degree in philosophy. He has also studied public speaking and music (traditional and experimental) on the university level. After a decade of personal study and practice, he began ten years of teaching courses in the Southern California area on such ...