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Transitions: performance, mortality and ceremony

Victoria Spence: Life Rites Celebrant & Death Literacy Consultant

Picnic Among Friends, Victoria Spence Picnic Among Friends, Victoria Spence
photo Mayu Kanamori
When I started to make performance, it was in the non-narrative, image-based culture of experimental practice where the emphasis was on the process of making the work as much as the performance itself.

As a maker and audience member, I most often watched the transitions between elements in the work as well as the ways performers made their entrances and exits. Watching them segue, be abrupt, juxtapose, overlap, collide or simply dovetail excited me most. It seemed to me that transitions did much to shape the meaning and affect of the work. It was the spaces, the liminal, still forming places, in between one thing and another, that held me and in which as a performer I felt most at home.

I’ve always been interested in storytelling and in intensity and the experience of authentic presence in real and performative spaces: in what produces the context and capacity for listening and speaking to others; in what has to be present for everyone to opt in, to move beyond the roles of performer and audience.

So when my practice moved beyond the frame of the arts, I was well equipped to pay attention to transitions and to other people’s stories. My Life Rites ceremonial practice honours and celebrates all the significant events of our lives with particular attention to how we complete them. And for those whose lives continue in the wake of the death of someone they love, it takes account of how we make meanings of that life in the processes and choices that we have in the experience of a dying, a death and in organising a funeral.

As a celebrant, I begin with time: initiating conversations about what happens after death, before a death has occurred. By taking more time at the deathbed it’s possible to support people in the transition from their role as carer to significant other (son, daughter, mother, lover). More time can be opened up between the death and the funeral, giving people valuable breathing space. You can expand the time taken within the civil funeral ceremony itself by offering a ‘double booking’ if you are working at a Crematorium. The usual 35-45 minute service that often feels formulaic, rushed and compressed, with the next booking lining up out the front, is the one experience most people know they don’t want.

I collaborate with families to create the context for the death and hence the role and function of the funeral ceremony. This gives the chosen elements more potency, activating them by drawing attention to the reason they are present. By allowing more breath in the experience for those who are still living to find their place and their own rhythm with spoken word, images and music, a deeply felt and meaningful experience is created and with real health outcomes.

These days I work in longer trajectories and time frames with even more moments of transition: at the time of diagnosis of a life-changing illness; at the transition between ‘active’ treatment and palliative care; to being able to have an after-death home vigil or, in the case of sudden and unexpected death, before the family calls a funeral director.

It is in these liminal spaces where another set of values can be articulated to re-frame or even create context and understanding of how to be at this time. To be able to modulate the quality of people’s experience when they are beset by shock and in a place of shared uncertainty has been for me an inherently creative process.

communication/failure (2005), Victoria Spence, communication/failure (2005), Victoria Spence,
photo Heidrun Löhr
Over this last decade I re-trained initially as a civil celebrant, then as a bereavement counsellor and finally as a Death Literacy Consultant with a post-graduate qualification through a Social Work in Death, Dying and Palliative Care course at Sydney University. This move into the social sciences, into evidence-based paradigms has been interesting and necessary for me to fully understand the context in which I am now working. It has also been important for my colleagues to recognise my prior knowledge and information base that was founded in innovative, creative and humanities-based knowledge systems. On the floor in performance-making, living as an independent, freelance artist and multi-skilled collaborator, I was working among richly diverse cultures and communities.

I have clothed my practice, in part, in terms of the medical model and the funeral industry to make it recognisable to them and to foster meeting places for new collaborations and innovations. The uncertainties of the rehearsal room I now negotiate in hospital and living rooms at times of great duress, with concrete strategies, appropriate language and practices to support everyone involved. Walking into people’s lives at times of great loss and stress is profoundly improvisational—sensitising and connecting people back to the present moment in their bodies, through their breath and leading and following them in equal measure as they come to understand what meanings are resonant for them in the dying, after the death and through the funeral processes.

Exploring the relationship between beauty and the sacred within the everyday, in making new meanings and understandings of visceral, embodied experiences, such as the death of someone we love, is part of my reason for founding the Living with our Dead platform of site-specific ceremonial events. The Picnic Among Friends, now in its fourth year, invites people to bring their own idiosyncratic creativity and aesthetics to live with and remember their dead. Creating community memorials, individual assemblages made on picnic rugs, a ceremony and shared lunch in the park, surrounded by simple, tactile artworks, all foster a sense of participation and a telling of personal and shared stories. These narrative trajectories and links have a real function in the terrains of our significant life events.

The many aspects of my practice all rely on the ability to ground people in the experience they are having and to make from that the meanings they will need. I learned this in collaborative creative practice. I work always with a sense of the power of poetics, of personal and idiosyncratic aesthetics and personally authorised participatory making of meaning.

Before becoming a Life Rites Celebrant, Victoria Spence worked in various roles in contemporary performance, creating solo works and performing with Deborah Pollard, The Sydney Front, Sidetrack Performance Group, Legs on the Wall, DeQuincey/Lynch, Guillermo Gomez Pena & La Pocha Nostra and Blast Theory. Her curatorial and performance works include Performance Positive, works charting the impact of HIV and AIDS on communities (1996-97); Solstice Supper, installation performance events with Gay Bilson and Sydney chefs (1995, 1998); and Queer Cabaret events cLUB bENT, Love Child and Taboo Parlour (1996-99). An Asialink residency took her to the Darpana Academy, Ahmedabad, India and a Media Arts residency to Banff, Alberta, Canada in 2005. In 2010 she was a recipient of the Australia Council for the Arts’ Connections Residency, undertaking research in the Funeral Industry and establishing the Living with Our Dead platform.

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 8

© RealTime ; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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