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Devised Theatre: Planning Your Own Funeral

04.22.11 | 2 Comments


CATEGORIES collaboration, community, devised work, ideas, partnerships, playwrights, technical work, the process

Previously in this column:

Bright Alchemy Theatre, a very young company devoted to the creation of devised work, decides to begin work on a narrative and thematic sequel to A Cre@tion Story for Naomi, which explored the world’s creation myths.

We began this new process with a question: Why do we feel the need to tell stories of our own destruction?

We explored that question by looking at various apocalypse stories, from grand narratives like the Pawnee apocalypse myth and Ragnarok to zombies and DC comics. But discussion kept returning to more personal ideas of apocalypse, which we focused solely on last week.

Not surprisingly, many of those stories dealt with death. So for our most recent workshop, I gave homework: Plan your own funeral.

This week:

Funerals are rituals. A really obvious statement, I know. But I wonder if we forget sometimes. That we start to think of them as capstones; monuments; dry and sober epilogues to the deceased. When really, they aren’t for the dead at all. They’re for the living.

Asking a group of highly theatrical people to plan their own funeral, I was prepared for grandeur and a little bit of irreverence. But they still manage to surprise me.

One actress is fascinated with the simple physicality of grieving. “I love the idea of a party funeral,” she says. “An Irish wake. You can celebrate or mourn. This great drunken catharsis.”

Another actress has an idea so lovely, that I want to steal it. “When I’m cremated, everyone who wants a vial of my ashes can get one. And they can keep it or sprinkle it somewhere. Whatever they want. Everyone who wants me can take me in that form.”

And one actor admits that he’s given very little thought to his own funeral or his own death. He’s always thought that he’d go out in some vast disaster that would negate the whole idea of separate funerals.

But he also speaks about how a viewing is very important to some people. To see the body and know that the person is gone, that their death is real.

One actress who can’t make the meeting sends me an e-mail ahead of time. “A Jazz funeral procession, possibly playing “Spirit in the Sky” at one point,” she writes. “Then a Viking funeral, where you put me in a ship, set it on fire, and send me out to sea. You may get arrested, but that is a risk I am willing to take.”

I am considering stealing this, as well. And, as I know she will read this: Megan, I promise to set you on fire if and when the time comes.

But maybe we’ll have discovered the secret of immortality by then. Our species has spent a good chunk of its evolution discovering ways to live on. There are the myriad afterlife myths, of course. But even the act of writing is itself a form of immortality. We keep breathing in stories long after we stop in real life.

And now there’s the Internet. That’s something we talk about at length—the idea of data ghosts. Many of us are Facebook friends with someone who’s dead. Some of those sites have been turned into memorials—digital tombstones that still fire off random postings written by loved ones.

And now, one actor reveals, you can hire someone to manage your data after death—all your social networking sites, your passwords, your blogs. Divvied up or deconstructed after you die. The idea of living part of your life online was a big theme in A Cre@tion Story for Naomi. And I suspect that dying online will play a part in this next piece.

I said at the beginning that funerals are rituals for the living, and I think the answers people bring support that. They foster grief; they bring catharsis and resolution; they act as epilogues, or prologues to some new chapter.

And they are the most symbolic of our rituals. The deceased is not really there. Just their body, or ashes, or maybe a photo. Their presence exists only in the stories people tell about them. Just like theatre. Chekhov’s characters don’t care what happens to the cherry orchard. They don’t exist. Only the audience has any stake in it. They’re who the ritual is for.

And with that thought, we decide to take a break. There are shows that need to be closed, one of which is mine, and people are scattering for Easter—a holiday centered around death and resurrection, and don’t think we don’t find this perfectly appropriate.

The next update will deal with topics far more frightening and serious than Death: Space and Money. And the first actual (potential) text of the play.

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  • Several years ago I saw a production at LaMama by the Polish company Song of the Goat. It was called Chronicles: A Lamentation, and in several different languages and in movement it explored the way humans mourn. The company did extensive research, traveling and investigating funeral rites of different cultures. The result was astounding. I think it was exactly the kind of work you would find fascinating.

  • There was an interesting article in the NYT a year or so ago about how funeral and grieving practices in our country have changed through the decades. The more recent trend has certainly been to throw more upbeat party-style post-funeral events that celebrate life, rather than focus on the loss. This along with the move away from actually lowering caskets graveside in the presence of funeral attendants are just two ways that our culture has worked to take the edge off the loss…yes…for the living.

    I work for a local hospice and am currently devising an original play on death & dying with 30 youth 11-18, which some of them will perform for the community this June. So far the experience has been quite surprising. The youth have regularly proven braver than the adults involved when it comes to tackling the topic.

    Nice post. Thanks! Would be interested to know if/how the ‘plan your own funeral’ assignment figures in the work you’re doing….


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