Saturday, 14 February 2009

Ritual and Special Events

Because of my current research into the history of celebration, I have lately become interested in the impact that ritual has on special events.

Many of us often think of ritual in terms of one of its most limiting definitions, "a state or condition characterized by the presence of established procedure or routine." What is also fascinating is how close this is to the definition of an addiction as "the condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or involved in something" and the definition of an obsession as "something that preoccupies a person to the exclusion of other things."

Here's an example. We get up and check the Blackberry and Facebook before breakfast every day, then again at coffee break, at lunch, and perhaps several more times during the work day. Is this simply ritual or has it transformed into addiction or obsession? Where does ritual end and addiction or obsession start? If we don't perform a ritual, does it screw up our mind? Do we have to get to the point where doing without it would literally have physical and psychological consequences for it to be labelled an addiction or an obsession?

So what does this have to do with events? Plenty, because ritual is a big part of almost every special event nowadays. Think of a football game. Let's imagine you are a football fan and attend every game of your favourite team. At the game, you love to watch the cheerleaders and have a couple of beers, screaming with everyone else as the heavy rock music urges the crowd on. Every aspect of the game and what you do is really just ritual, from the cheerleaders to the beer to the rock music and the ritual coin toss and kick-off, as well as the players doing victory dances in the end zone. Take all of this away and what would happen to you and to the other fans? Would you still go to games? Would there be "withdrawal symptoms?" I hazard a guess that there would be, just like an addiction. Are you obsessed with the game? Probably, if you have to give up all other activities at all costs to attend. Therein lies the relationship of the three: ritual, addiction, obsession.

What about other event types like an annual corporate dinner? Here's an example from my own experience of producing such an event. It was a business association that one year decided to hold an awards banquet to honour senior businesspeople in the community. As it turned out, the event was so successful that they decided to make it an annual affair. I continued to do all the production work for this event for about 16 years until I sold my company. The interesting thing about the event was that the format and location remained exactly the same year in and year out. Oddly, in spite of this, the event sold out every year, and the association had the audacity to sell an entire table for more than the cost of a table full of single seats only, with attendees happily contributing! It was held in the same hotel ballroom, the physical setup always included two small stages of the same size at opposite corners of the room, there was always a short 20-minute entertainment segment to end the event, and it followed a strict invariant running order with speeches, awards, and meal courses planned in exactly the same order and at the same times each year. It also began with a reception in another part of the hotel and a special procession to dinner with guests being led by some sort of musical group every year. The only thing that changed was the overall theme of the event which was manifested in creative d├ęcor and unusual customized entertainment. This event had become a true example of one containing clear ritual activity. While the transformation to personal addiction or obsession was never a possibility, there was a distinct possibility that the business association would have suffered some sort of "corporate withdrawal" if the event had been cancelled.

To summarize, what most of us in the industry don't realize, is that we are integral parts of events that depend on ritual activity. This ritual activity is really the "glue" that holds everything together. It is often how well we recognize and manage these rituals that will lead to event success or failure. It behooves us to learn about ritual behaviour.

More to come.