Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Beltane Celebration, Ecovillage People, and Improv Comedy Warm-Ups

‘Twas the evening of the first full moon of May! Know what that means? (I didn’t). It’s Beltane! And if there was a day to be introduced to the Earthaven community, oh boy, this was it. I had seen pictures of similar celebrations and was vaguely familiar with the Maypole celebration, but this was my first time experiencing Beltane myself. I’m still working to gather the details surrounding the occasion, but my understanding is that Beltane is the Gaelic (neo-pagan?) celebration of the coming of Spring, exactly midway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. There are, I have learned, eight such celebrations each year—for each solstice, each equinox, and the midpoints thereof. Beltane, however, takes the cake for flare and significance. It makes too much sense to me that the coming of Spring would be celebrated heartily. Observances like Passover (my personal favorite holiday), Easter, and various celebrations of other ancient peoples recognize the re-emergence of life, a natural renaissance of sorts. And no matter your religion or belief system there are so many things to celebrate this time of year: the end of the school year, the beginning of baseball, the NBA finals, the opening of the farmers market, season finales of your favorite TV show, the start of summer camp, perhaps the start of a fun summer fling?

The Beltane festivities at Earthaven started early Tuesday evening and lasted through early Wednesday morning. Most of Tuesday was a dreary mess—cold, rainy, and lonely. I spent most of the day dreading that the remainder of my time in the community would be equally drab. But the clouds let up around 5PM, just in time for the Maypole dance, and my housemate and I approached the celebration in time to participate. As we neared, we saw the community gathered around a post. Most of the women and a few of the men were dressed as fairies: flowing gowns, wreathes made of branches and leaves, face paint, scarves, etc. In my rain jacket, jeans, and boots, I was surprisingly overdressed.

The Maypole

The Maypole is a narrow tree trunk capped by a spinning wheel out of which radiates dozens of long colored ribbons. Each participant takes hold of a ribbon, and while walking and chanting, weaves in and out of each other to form a variegated pattern up and down the pole. Drummers on the periphery of the celebration keep the pace steady. The chant and the rest of the celebration was led by a woman who is an actual ordained priestess—a modern-day witch—who seems very dedicated to this craft and the celebration. She knew the repetitive multi-line chant inside-out and backwards, but almost no one else did, so people started humming to it and/or making stuff up that seemed to rhyme. Similarly, the pattern on the pole was about as tight and accurate as our recollection of the chant. No one seemed to mind. When the pole was finished, the crowd swarmed around it, touched it, and embraced. It was a giant warm group-hug. This is when I stepped back to watch as an outsider, no quiet comfortable enough to hug a group of strangers.

The Beltane Ritual

After the pole was complete, we drift to the other side of the field to start the Betlane ritual. I won’t elaborate too much on the following ritual, because I don’t remember all of it, nor do I understand most of it, but it involved the following: splitting up into small groups based on our zodiac signs and choreographing a dance to introduce our elements into the energy circle (I was fire, and our dance was definitely the most lame); creating the actual energy circle by compiling our individual orbs of energy into the center and letting it “explode” into a perimeter that surrounded the circle of people holding hands; lots of hand holding; expressing gratitude to our spirit; expressing gratitude to our animal instinct (this involved a lot of growling and clawing at each other); expressing gratitude to our ancestors; expressing hope for the future; disposing of our baggage from the winter; dispatching our hopes for the summer; holding hands in pairs while jumping over a fire while trying to avoid other pairs that are also trying to jump over the same fire; breaking the energy circle that we had originally created; and finally crowning and Jack of the Spring and the Queen of the May to lead us in feast.

Ecovillage People are “Yes, And” People

What I loved about this ceremony, and what seemed clear to me, is that while most of the people in the circle aren’t trained in neo-pagan ritual and didn’t take the ritual as literal truth, they played along, accepted the rules of the ritual, and embraced the activities fully and enthusiastically. Each activity was an opportunity to express something individually and collectively at the same time. In other words, the ritual proceeded similarly to a successful improvisational comedy warm-up. To an outside observer, improv warm-ups (and, I imagine the Beltane ritual) appear silly and irrational, but to a participant, the activity succeeds at empowering individuals in the context of a group. The result is an empowered and affirming collective.

I thought to myself, as I growled and clawed at a fairy-clad complete stranger, “These are yes,and people!” My improv friends reading this probably understand what I’m trying to convey. To everyone else, I’m about to reveal a big secret of improv comedy: what seems miraculous and spontaneous in a successful set of improv comedy is the result of several relatively simple techniques which improvisers are trained to repeat. The cardinal rule in improv is “Yes, And.” When your scene partner offers you a “gift” in a scene, you accept it as truth, and give another gift in return, which they accept as absolute truth. The best improv scene is a giant string of affirmation and gift-giving. When this succeeds it appears as if it was scripted all along and the magic of improv comedy. When it fails (as it often does), you lose nothing and but you’ve learned something and you can try again.

Now, not everything in ecovillages is affirmation and gift-giving, but what I’m beginning to realize is that in trying to craft a radical and positive new reality absent of the daily conventions that help us meet daily needs in the mainstream, inhabitants of ecovillages and other intentional communities need to say “yes” to each other. Jonathan Dawson, author of “Ecovillages,” describes ecovillages as one step “beyond the politics of protest,” or a step towards creating new realities instead of only deconstructing and protesting an old regime.

This is how imagination and personal evolution work, I think. Sometimes, it’s appropriate (or imperative) to suspend the rules of normality, just to see what happens. Sometimes, a newer, better “normal” emerges from this temporary suspension. I’ve come to realize, both in ecovillages and in my day-to-day life in Champaign-Urbana, that my favorite people are also “Yes. And” people. Despite my occasional moments of austerity (especially when discussing politics) I tend to be a goofy person. I tend to cling to people that are willing to play along as I let go of the mainstream momentarily. I’m also excited because, for the first time, I’ve pegged in writing why (good) urban planning and (good) improv comedy are the same: they both have important rules and lofty aspirations, but sometimes these rules need to be responsibly and consciously bent, and sometimes these aspirations need to be re-imagined.


  1. love this post robby. sad you won't be in chicago when i'll be there, or at dancing rabbit, but i don't think there's any way i'm not going to see you again, we're just both too awesome. miss you and sending you so much love,

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