Performance or Ritual

Diana V Toombs

Is ritual performative or is performance a ritual?

The relationship between performance and ritual has long fascinated theatre scholars, and has formed the basis of the work of some of the most influential practitioners in contemporary theatre and performance, in particular the work of Richard Schechner.

So how are the two concepts linked? What is it that has drawn these two practices together?

The Act

According to Richard Schechner, “[r]ituals are performative: they are acts done; and performances are ritualized: they are codified, repeatable actions” (Schechner, 2014:613). Both rituals and performances consist of a series of actions, such as movements, gestures, dances, music and/or dialogue. In both circumstances, they are arranged in a prescribed order. In traditional drama, this often takes the form of a scripted text. In music, dance and many experimental/devised theatre productions, this may take the form of a score. Whether or not the score or script is ‘written’ and recorded on paper is irrelevant. What is crucial to a performance is that the score is set so that the actions are repeatable, in order that they may be performed over multiple performances or events.

Rituals, too, share this trait. Rituals require a score to be created, memorised and repeated over several events and even over several generations. Again, the score need not be written, but it must be codified and performed in the same order by whomever is the designated ‘leader’ of the ritual. Such a score was required as much in the ancient sacrificial rituals as in modern times; for example, for rituals celebrating marriage or marking death.

What of the performers? In both practices, be it ritual or any of the performing arts, a performer must first make the choice to undergo training. The student must then engage in a period of rigorous training in which their body and behaviours are transformed; they are deconstructed, moulded, refined and finally reconstructed in a skilled form. Once the training is complete and the performer has acquired new behaviours and skills, they must then engage in an intense period of rehearsals and/or workshops, which require the performer to memorize and practice the ‘score’ until it becomes second nature. Finally, the rigorous training and rehearsals culminate in the event: the performance or the ritual.

In both instances the performers must always return to a period of rehearsal and/or training, in preparation for the next event. Texts and/or scores must be re-visited and studied, committed to memory and physical action once more.

Event Spaces and Aesthetic

According to Schechner, the first theatres were “ceremonial spaces” (Schechner, 2014:620). Early examples of performance spaces can be found throughout South-West Europe, for instance, in the caves in Tuc d’Audoubert.

It is common in today’s mainstream society to consider performance spaces primarily, as referring to a physical building (for example, a theatre, opera house or concert hall). Examples of this also exist in our past – consider the Greek amphitheatres. However, neither in the past nor in modern society is performance limited to these purpose-built venues. Consider street performances or performances in ‘found venues’ (such as unused shops or derelict buildings) or even site-specific performances (such as those taking place on beaches or in woods).

Similarly, rituals also often tend to take place in purpose-built venues, such as churches, mosques or holy temples. Equally however, they too can take place in what Schechner termed a “ceremonial centre” (Schechner, 2014:618). This was a place where two or more groups of people would assemble on a predetermined, scheduled day, where there was plenty of food available and crucially, where there was a landmark (such as a cave, waterhole or hill). This site then became the stage for the ritual event/performance.

All rituals and performances share this crucially important feature: they occur at a predetermined date, at a set time and involve a series of potentially predictable, or at least familiar, human interactions.


Aside from the performer(s) or ritual leader(s), there are a very important set of people required to make a ritual or performance an actual ‘event’.

These are the witnesses.

In rituals you could also refer to them as participants, and in performance terms you could call them audiences.

In rituals, the witnesses tend to be active participants. These witnesses are often involved in singing/chanting; they may also engage in dance or actively participate in the ritual itself by copying or following the direction of the ritual leader (for example, in ritualistic processions).

In performances, however, witnesses often take on the more passive role of the audience as observer – consider a West End musical or an opera for instance. However, these audiences are nevertheless involved. At the very least, they are witnesses to the event. Without them, there would be no event. Yet, increasingly, performances involve audiences much more fully; they become not simply spectators but willing, voluntary participants. Such is the case in interactive performances, one-to-one performances and of course, let us not forget music concerts where audience members are often up on their feet dancing and singing along. In all circumstances the audiences are witnesses and participants to varying degrees.


With so many similarities, what then is it that separates these two practices? The answer lies in their function.

Performance emphasises entertainment, whilst ritual emphasises efficacy.

Imagine that you have witnessed an event. Is it ritual or performance?

Schechner states that the difference between the two lies in where the event was performed, by whom and under what circumstances it was being performed. However, as he explains “[e]fficacy and entertainment are not opposed to each other; rather they form poles of a continuum […]” (Schechner, 2014:622). There is an ongoing relationship between the two forms. Whether an event is ritual or performance depends mostly on its context and function.

Ritual and/or Performance

What came first – ritual or performance?

As we have seen, both practices share some striking similarities; yet it is in their very purpose, their function, that they diverge and become separate practices. Does this mean that ritual cannot include some elements of entertainment? Is it the case that performance is purely entertainment and has no efficacy?

Which practice came first or which has had more influence on the other is perhaps irrelevant. Instead, perhaps we ought to focus on the future of these practices. It seems highly likely that as we continue to evolve, we will also continue to have the deep desire to mark ‘events’. After all, there will always be stories to be told, morals to pass on, events to celebrate or grieve, and moments when we all gather as a collective. It seems almost inevitable that at such a gathering we will ‘perform’.

Imagine that we gather only for entertainment purposes. We have nonetheless come together, behaved according to socially predetermined rules and conventions and borne witness to the event being performed.

Were not our very actions ritualistic? Was the event itself any less performative?


Schechner, R. (2014) Ritual and Performance [Online]. Available: [Accessed 8th June 2018].

DIANA V TOOMBS is a theatre practitioner and teacher. She graduated from the University of Exeter (MA in Theatre Practice) in 2011 and completed her BA (Hons) in Theatre with Textual Practices at Dartington College of Arts in 2010. She founded DVM Theatre in early 2012 and has since ran theatre workshops for children and young adults and produced ‘SCRATCH’, an event showcasing work-in-progress from artists across the performing arts, from 2012 – 2016 at Matthews Yard. Diana enjoys writing children’s literature, short stories and essays on theatre and the performing arts.