There is a feature of Church of England choirs that many people do not realise:
They are professionals. They are not singing out of spiritual conviction (or at least, are not required to); they are singing for money, given to them by churches in the belief that this is a valuable part of their worship practices. Perhaps it is also considered a ‘draw’ to possible congregation members, or those who might hire the church for a service, though I cannot speak with any authority on the point.
I bring this up as I consider audience relationships, for I suspect that most on the religious side of the Church of England would consider there to be an unseen attendee at their services, to whom they pray.
Yet among those performing the ritual, many do not believe this.
Is this important for performance?
For The Moon
I presented a small piece to the nearly-full moon at the last solstice, intrigued by what performance method would work best. The piece drew on various midwinter rituals I am familiar with.
Yet I do not worship the moon, much though I enjoy astronomy and feel the draw of a full orb in the sky.
There are many approaches to performance in this context. I often divide them by how ‘internal’ or ‘external’-first they are. In rough order from most internal to most external:
1. A demand for wholehearted belief in the moon’s supernatural significance.
This is the school of thought that most strongly leads to method acting and casting based on lived experience.
Here, however, is a good example of why such approaches can feel odd. Should no piece based on an outdated belief system (such as all Greek tragedies) be performed, as none shall truly believe it?
2. A desire to summon up some sort of appreciation for the belief system.
This might involve study of the belief system itself (such as the Greek tragedies) or finding some appreciation for common objects of devotion (whether philosophical, such as aspects of Greek religious thought, or literal, such as a common appreciation for the beauties of the moon).
This is, perhaps, my favourite of the internal-ish approaches. It allows for a living tradition rooted in the performance rather than the belief; one that calls for appreciation but not obedience.
Equally, it can lose colours specific to a belief system by being rooted in an internalised sense of ‘this makes sense, right?’. One might point to the example of many different operas: merely appreciating them as from a Christian context, as one might from a lens of appreciation, might cause people to miss out on the finer nuances between late 1600s Catholicism and late 1800s Protestantism, yet those are potentially important when interpreting the work.
Many performers have learnt how to do a Whiggish history of events, but never heard of a mentalites history of thought and modes of thinking, despite the latter probably being of more use.
3. Drawing on a parallel to the belief system.
Similar to the above is the almost syncretic idea that belief in anything can be a source of internal inspiration for presenting works rooted in belief.
In my experience, this claim is more common in those from my culture’s dominant monotheistic faith, or more nonspecifically ‘spiritual’ practices that draw extensively from it (intentionally and not). Dominant enough to not need to know the vast differences between belief systems, far beyond ‘aspects of a universal truth’, monotheistic enough to still want there to be one single truth. I paraphrase a rather nuanced conversation, with apologies.
Others tend to appreciate that belief systems do, in fact, have significant differences in how they shape behaviour and thought.
4. Representing those within the belief system.
This is the practical reality of many strands of living traditions; that they are passed down, replicated, and in this oral tradition an external representation of the original belief-performance survives.
Here is, for example, the Church of England choirs’ immaculate technique and extensive set of shared understandings about how to perform the core repertoire, and the knowledge required to do so well.
It is difficult, however, when a belief-performance is either lost to tradition (such as Greek theatre) or invented (as in my moon-performance).
5. Starting again; creating the effect of belief.
There is something that happens when an audience gathers; this is a central conviction of mine. Humans like being together, at least sometimes.
Approaching belief-performances as texts and working from the externals allows us to ask ourselves: how do we create the effect of belief-performance with this work? What is it that will create the same effect, if possible?
What are the essential qualities of the work that will make this happen? Is it possible, if neither performer nor audience believes?
Myself, I suspect the perfect representation of the external qualities of belief-performance can lead to exquisite effects. There is a magic to conviction well-represented.
However, I merely presented something small to the moon. Spending time on a belief-performance as a text, like the various staged Messiahs and Passions that have been created in the past decades, would be an obvious development.
My suspicion is that it might be more fun to think about what a belief-performance for a belief of our modern age, free of pre-existing traditions. But that is for another time.