Story as Rite

Reflections on the transformational power of ritual theater among the Radical Faeries.

The author as Oscar Wilde.
The author as Oscar Wilde. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John Michael Swartz.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

The Radical Faeries are a queer intentional community and countercultural movement begun in the late 1970s and still flourishing today. To learn more about one of the group’s founders, the noted gay activist and theorist Harry Hay, listen to this episode of the Making Gay History podcast.

If you’ve heard about the work of Taylor Mac, the performance artist, playwright, and MacArthur “genius grant” winner, you know something about Radical Faerie ritual theater. Mac’s immersive performances, like the critically acclaimed 24-Decade History of Popular Music, blend politics and the personal through a lens of high camp and witchy rites. But Mac is by no means the only one working in this field today. Countless faeries are constantly working inside this form, blending theater with ritual and casting story- spells intended to change the world.

To wit: Each August for nearly the past two decades, Radical Faeries from across the Northeast and beyond gather in the woods of Vermont to put on a piece of ritual theater—for one night only—as a way to mark the harvest. It’s our time to come together, reflect on what we have sown over the year, and reap the rewards as a community. The play is written in the months before the event, but everything else—the casting, the rehearsing, the making of the costumes, and the building of the set—that all happens in the week leading up to the show, in a mad dash toward communal artistic expression. Frenzy is part of the magic. The chaos energy, the swirl, the late-night costume making in damp tents—these are what make the play alive. It’s a collective fantasy of more than 10 dozen faeries leading up to the ritual act itself: The performance, a singular piece of ritual theater by queers, for queers, in a forest without reliable cell service.

This year, the play, a series of vignettes introduced by Oscar Wilde (played by me), was helmed by P and B, a fierce duo who wanted to explore legacies of loss through seven different texts, ranging from the Bible to Beauty and the Beast, as a lens for community building and working through personal narratives of trauma. From my perspective as narrator Wilde, I watched as different people in the community were brought to tears by the stories that unfolded in front of them. I watched friends move through the trauma of grieving lovers recently lost to suicide; I watched people decouple themselves from feeling shame around sex work; I saw people hold space inside themselves to interrogate their darkest desires. Afterward, people changed their faerie names—which, as radical acts of self-definition, are spells unto themselves—and new friendships unfolded. This is what ritual theater can do.

Not all theater is like this, of course. But here, inside a play that was really a ritual, we collectively stepped into the possibility of performance and how a performance as a ritual can change you. Having been a part of this ritual several times before, I can say for myself it is the closest thing to transformational community magic I have ever experienced. When you label theater as ritual, it becomes so much more than just playing a character for people looking to be entertained, because everyone is in on the process. It’s theater with religious trappings, all of the performance and all of the belief bundled into one experience. The play becomes a container where people reflect on their journey to the faerie gathering and during the week itself, all through the lens of the story. In a way, one could say the process every year feels like a therapeutic group hallucination.

In my role, each day I felt as if I was being guided by the line-learning process to explore my own desire and to name what that desire was, what I wanted. Late-night primal dancing around the fire. Indulging senses, howling. Becoming larger than life, a Wildean guide to a realm of radical faerie stories. Ritual has the power to remake you when you give in, and this character would leave me changed.

After a week of stewing in potential, when the performance finally started, it did so to a real clap of thunder and a deluge of rain as Cain, in mud-stained coveralls, crawled through the grass, wailing. With opened skies and wind howling around us, Cain wept over the body of his brother and lover, just slain by a seven-headed God for the sin of his sexuality. As I stood there, watching, I could not help but reflect on the beauty of this moment. Some would call it pathetic fallacy, to think that the Earth was setting our stage for this scene of brotherly love and murder, dressing it in storms. But I have spent enough time around the magic of ritual performance to know that, inside sacred space, the Earth listens to us and responds.

An hour after this scene, at the climax of the play, I stood on an outcropping of rocks pontificating on desire, delivering lines about sunset skies, rubbed with rouge like a lover’s cheek, to a world that matched what I was saying—for the storm had broken.

I was at that moment not the same person that I was at the start of the play. Baptized in rain, witness to trauma in the name of God, moved by the creative energy I saw pouring out of all the performers, all the costumes and sets, the weeklong collective investment in this story, I felt the words that I spoke through Wilde ring true as a spell: “I am your artist.” With our art and our imagination, we make more than just these plays. We make ourselves; we make the world. In a play codified as a ritual, we give ourselves permission to be transformed by the experience. We allow ourselves to keep parts of a journey and bring them more fully back to ourselves.

I have worked in the arts for years but have always felt like a fraud, like I was somehow faking it. But inside this play, inside this role, I heard myself say those words with that childlike determination and belief I thought I had lost. I said it beyond doubt, or fear, but from a place of ownership. It has nothing to do with whether the performance was good or bad or believable or camp, but everything to do with the honesty I felt in myself. The ritual of this theater piece for me was the experience of playing the character I want to be: a shameless artist and flirt. To be witnessed by my community in that moment and to be trusted with the vision of P and B to tell their story: It was the most humbling gift of the summer, being allowed to imbibe magic through a ritual performance.

Is it really fair to call this—performing a crazy play in the woods for a bunch of faeries—radical? I can’t imagine another word for it. Showing up for community like this, building a piece of art, is hard work. Some might find it campy and indulgent and superfluous, but storytelling is deeply fundamental to the core of who we are as humans. We understand ourselves through narrative, so we need new stories if we are to be radical, to radically change anything. It’s clear the old narratives no longer serve us. Stories are the guidebooks to new worlds and to breaking down the status quo. Stories show the way, and group performance like this can show us collectively how we need to work together to make dreams of fantasy worlds a reality. To take some words off the page and build a new place amongst the forest is just a starting place. We can do anything we set our minds to. We can envision new worlds, and then go make them—that is not just a play, it’s an undeniably radical act.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.