Scale is a useful tool in performance and ritual. It gives dimension to the objects and structures in a space and gives a sense of relative size to its participants and spectators. It can be a fun thing to play around with. Different scales produce different thoughts and feelings inside us. Tiny things can be frustrating while large things, like really large things, can be downright awe inspiring. This is a fact worth noting. Architects, great leaders, shamans, stage magicians, artists and theater practitioners have known this forever; it’s just one of the techniques in their toolbox to assist in manipulating our psyches.
This past January my fiancé and I traveled to the Yucatán in Mexico to experience Chichen Itza. We met the massive step pyramid known as El Castillo (one of the seven wonders of the world). Beyond the weight of its history, it’s location, it’s perfect geometry and its cultural context, the thing that made the pyramid of El Castillo so powerful for me was its size; this was immediately felt by all who encountered it. I found myself immersed by its shadow, consumed by its gravity, hypnotized by its beauty. How often are we confronted by structures so large that allow us enough space to back up and enjoy the whole view without obstacles? Skyscrapers and Redwoods are massive but are often blocked by so many other structures which, for me, impede their wow factor. El Castillo, however, struck me with awe.
So, it may not be size alone that drops our jaw but a structure’s relation to other features in its environment. Let’s explore that for a moment. As it stands today, El Castillo is unshrouded by the dense jungle that once surrounded it sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries. This was a distraction-free, clutter-free environment that gave me nothing but open space to view it. Another reason I stood memorized by it was due to my relation to its size. When I encountered this object, thousands of times larger than myself, it put my human body in perspective with the rest of the universe if even for a moment. With such a clear plain of vision it was just the behemoth and I. The pyramid’s pinnacle shape demanded my attention to the blue sky, giving me a grand feeling of the width of the world and an even smaller feeling of self. Humbling to be sure.
While I knew the context of the pyramid’s usage -how great emperors sat atop its highest point giving orders, deliberating on sacred knowledge and worshiping to their gods- I maintain it was more the sheer size itself that impressed me. I felt the need to worship this monolith; it makes sense that others did, too; to show it respect for no other reason than how it’s scale makes one feel. The atoms in my body felt as though they were under a light pressure like being submerged underwater. Time seemed to move slower while passing near it.
Take twentieth century French surrealist and theater practitioner (and no stranger to ritual), Antonin Artaud, who was known for creating puppets several meters tall (greater than life size) to create a more visceral bodily reaction in his audience. For “The Sultan’s Elephant,” a performance done by the magnificent Royal de Luxe, they came to central London and brought it to a standstill with their story of a giant little girl and her friend, a time-traveling elephant. For a few days, they transformed a massive city into a community by featuring gigantic puppets. The scale of the puppets was said to have awakened childhood memories in spectators. Adults get very close to the emotion of children, because the scale of the puppets takes you back to when you were a child and everyone was way taller than you.
The takeaway from all of this is that size does matter. As non-ordinary visuals, these large objects and structures help induce a non-ordinary state of reality. They create a shift, an opening that is similar to the ecstatic state of children, who approach everything with wonder and joy. Remember this when constructing your next ritual and utilize the power of scale to affect those you wish to change.