Published in Kindred Spirit Magazine
How to set yourself free through drama – overcoming self-consciousness
Kindred Spirit: Story is a powerful way of facilitating understanding of our deeper impulses. Claire Schrader focuses on the Russian story of “The Firebird” as an expression of the potential that lives in everyone to be truly ourselves.
The Firebird – a metaphor for Feeling Trapped
In the Russian fairytale of “The Firebird”, the Firebird is a magnificent fiery bird coveted by a tyrannical king who traps and puts it in a cage. The story uses a metaphorical language to express the inner firebird and the parts of ourselves that may have been trapped or suppressed.
I first came across this version of the story many years ago when asked to script improvisations around the story for a theatre company. I fell in love with it and it has since become a metaphor itself for my approach to healing through drama.
I see the whole idea of freeing the firebird as a metaphor for freeing self consciousness in people. Lifting them to new levels of magnificence and enabling them to express their passion and joy in being alive.
The Power of Story
I work through story – using myths and fairytales – exploring through movement, music, dramatic enactment and ritual as a means to move out of stuck places into expressing our true, authentic selves.
My approach work with a specifically adapted form of drama – the Sunflower Effect® – to invite people into an arena of play. Where they have an opportunity to stretch and take risks in a non-judgmental atmosphere.
There is a dressing-up box, props and musical instruments, enabling them to enter into the world of their imagination, suspend disbelief and become something other than themselves. Most people have little or no prior experience of drama.
In this story, the Firebird is a beautiful and mystical bird similar to the phoenix with resplendent fiery plumage ,which represents the joy and freedom of being authentically oneself. It arrives as mysteriously as it disappears, and its fiery feathers fill the tyrannical king with covetous desire.
He wants the Firebird as his possession, to display its magnificence as a camouflage for what is lacking in himself. The king is ageing, and his kingdom failing. As his tight control has wrested any potential for growth and life out of the kingdom and the possession of the Firebird becomes an all-consuming desire.
Ivan, an unsuspecting and innocent, is used as an instrument of the king’s destructiveness in capturing the Firebird. With the help of his down-to-earth and intuitive horse, Ivan lures the Firebird with sweet grapes and entraps it in a net, bringing it to the King, who displays his trophy in a gilded cage for all to see. The Firebird does not retaliate or defend itself against Ivan’s subterfuge. It itself offers no threat. Its’ fire is in direct opposition to the King’s control and acquisitiveness. It’s is a fire of Spirit and inspiration that can easily be vanquished.
Feeling like the FIREBIRD
Many of us feel like the Firebird, traumatised by the conditions that entrap us and block our full expression. In the story, the Firebird does the only thing it can. It withdraws.
The magnificent plumage that the king had desired fades to a dull brown. The Firebird becomes no more than an ordinary and bedraggled bird hiding miserably in the corner of its’ cage. It soon becomes an object of shame, and the King hides it away.
We all come into this world brimming with potential. Some of us go on to fulfil that potential in spite of personal circumstances. Many, however do not. Many of us forget what that potential was. We do jobs that are expected of us and do not allow any outlet for creativity or for expressing our inner spirit. And leave us feeling frustrated and deadened.
In this, we are like the King, our own oppressors, using our own control to stifle the life within. Some of us have had the experience of being creative as children and then suddenly, in adolescence or young adulthood, have felt the “cage door” slammed shut.
I know these feelings very well. I had lived in the cage so long. I was full of judgments of the cage and myself for being there. My own inner critic followed me everywhere so that my feathers too faded and which kept me trapped and stuck.
Drama, The Way Out
But there was a little germ of intuition within me that knew that the way out was through drama. There was so much I needed to express: anger, frustration, resentment. And those in turn lead me to discover my desire, joy and power. I needed something that was physical and vocal.
Working with drama meant that the emotions didn’t feel so personal: they were distanced and it was fun and liberating to express them. There was something important for me, too about those emotions being seen and shared by others in a creative context.
The creativity that I was then able to express, radically changed the course of my life. I have become a different person through it. Many of the things I have subsequently achieved through theatre, performance and the Sunflower Effect would have been an idle dream if I had not taken that important first step.
Stepping into the Void
In discovering how to awaken my creativity, I had to learn how to trust myself enough to take a step into the void of not knowing, of having no thoughts or ideas. This was not easy as I had little belief in myself. I had to endure my fear of freezing and looking stupid in front of other people. And to discover what wanted to move inside me. I discovered there was always something there.
I had to learn how to trust myself enough to take the risk to express myself. From that place, I was able to respond from a very authentic place. Not from a need to perform or look good but because there was a spirit within that needed to express itself. What continually surprised me was that this spirit did not come from an ego place. It almost always expressed something larger than myself, that was beyond what I knew. And enabled me to connect easily with other people.
This is something I notice in my courses and workshops. I am continually amazed and surprised as people work with these principles and how easy it is for them to connect with each other. And how instinctively they are able to respond to each others’ creative expression without anyone dominating the process. It is indeed a shared experience in which flow is possible between people. It works through a balance of structure and spontaneity, allowing the focus to move from one to another so that all voices can be heard.
Reaching Beyond Mundanity
For me, there is a special potency that comes from working with ancient myths from cultures all over the world, some of which are many thousands of years old. I have my favourites which have a particular healing effect and seem to bring with them some of the spirituality of the cultures from which derived: the Sumerian myth of Inanna in the Underworld, the Egyptian story of Osiris and Isis, Dionysus, Perseus and Medusa, Kali, Parsifal and the Fisher King.
Fairy stories like The Firebird have an emotional resonance for us today and offer the possibility of reaching beyond the mundanity of this world. When used as the inspiration for creative expression, these myths and fairytales take people into another dimension of awareness.
Expressing the symbolism and archetypes contained within such stories through a physical form brings mind, body, emotions and spirit into alignment. The imagination is called into being as people transform themselves through all the trapping of the theatre: costumes, masks, lighting and music. Emotions are expressed, and energy is moved through enacting the story, which brings about healing.
Afterwards, there is an opportunity to reflect on the experience, to ask what was felt, what was released and how the expression touched others. The healing/release may have been felt there and then, or it may appear in the days or weeks afterwards. Often people are able to drop particular modes of behaviour that have been destructive and kept them stuck And claim the more healthy parts of themselves.
And it is important to register, too, that the enactment of the story is not enough in itself. It is the context in which the story is enacted through which it becomes healing and transformational. And that is the context of there being a healing intention that brings into being a whole realm of energies – the source of which is hard to ascertain. Some might call it the collective unconsciousness or the power of love, but to my mind, particularly when ritual is used, there is often a sense of a higher power being brought into play.
The story of the Firebird resonates with many who feel their potential has been shut down. For one young woman, enacting the Firebird brought insight into the way in which she trapped herself through habitual ways of thinking. She was able to experience this physically and emotionally and therefore was able to free herself from her own trap. She experienced a sense of personal transcendence that profoundly touched her and subsequently had a deep impact on her life.
For this young woman and many like her, that in expressing themselves in this healing, physical way creates heightened moments of experience where intense feelings may be felt. I have watched many groups recreate this, as they express together the Firebird freeing itself from its wretched cage, draped in multi-coloured fabrics and often accompanied by haunting music as the Firebird reclaims its true power. Even as a witness, I am deeply moved by the sheer beauty of their expression as they, along with the Firebird too, reclaim themselves.
Often afterwards, people report that the intensity of the experience shifted something in them. They felt emotions they hadn’t felt before, a sense of connection with others that was rare. Some feel it as a heightened state of consciousness, after which they can never be quite the same again. Healing happens for them, I feel, because all the old, stuck and dead feelings are awakened and then swamped by the heightened state. So that they dissolve into it like wax melting. And this healing can be akin to an intense spiritual experience.
The Cauldron of Transformation
At the end of the story, after Ivan has been on many dangerous exploits at the king’s bidding, including enticing the beautiful Vasalissa out of her hermitage. (There is no character more spiritually attuned than Vasalissa, whom Ivan entraps in a similar way as he did the Firebird. She is also the human form of the Firebird.) However, Ivan finally incurs the King’s displeasure. He is sentenced to death: to jump into a cauldron of boiling water.
But for Ivan, this cauldron becomes a cauldron of transformation as he has stirred Vasalissa’s compassion. And he emerges transformed, all his ugliness and age having dropped away from him.
The king, eager to experience the same, jumps into the cauldron. The cauldron transforms him too but into what he really is, a dead soul. And he disintegrates into nothing. Vasalissa and Ivan rush to free the Firebird, throwing the cage door open so that this magnificent bird can reclaim its freedom.
The cauldron is a wonderful metaphor for bringing about change through ritual. I invite groups to create a Cauldron of Transformation as a ritual structure in which they can leap into and play out, with each other’s support, all the things that they want to transform.
These may be aspects of themselves or situations in their lives, or unfulfilled dreams. Or it may be parts of themselves that, like the King, need to disintegrate into nothing. They may play musical instruments, dance, or create a more subtle experience. Very frequently, they report later that a situation has miraculously lifted, or they have come to an important decision, or an opportunity has arisen that is taking them forward in their lives.
Creativity leads to Spirituality
The Firebird has no home. The place where it comes from and goes to is unknown. Its true home is vested in itself as an expression of its own innate Spirit. A state many of us long for and may have brief moments of experiencing.
In her inspirational book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about creativity as a pathway to spirituality. She says that the spirit that comes from creative expression leads us in some way towards those deeper parts of ourselves.
“The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union: the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity”
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way,
The Firebird is that Spirit, that mystical union.
Expressing that Spirit in a physical form by enacting it enables you to embody your own inner Firebird and to access your wild, free spirit. This is what will lead you to expressing your potential. There may be a fear of losing yourself. And there is reason for caution as you follow a calling into unknown territory.
But the Firebird is not a fireball of frenzied and uncontrolled passion. Its flight has serenity and dignity. It moves through the air slowly and alights where it chooses, mostly unseen by the vast majority.
As you allow the Firebird’s wings to carry you, you will begin to live more from your instincts and intuition. Your life will begin to have more flow. You can let go of the tyranny of your head and allow your heart to guide you.
Perhaps we discover like one young woman,
“That in doing this work I can be/become anything I want to be… as in life, and follow any strand that feels interesting or has meaning for me.”
Maria Article: I want to be an actress…”
There is no freedom, to my mind, greater than that.
Kindred Spirit March 2006 Re-written 2022
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