Playing the Cards

The time I dressed as the entire "Devil's Deck"

Playing the Cards

Glastonbury, UK, is a town as much known for the magical, mythological and mysterious as Salem, Massachusetts. There is a real Druid college there, and every year they crown one among them as their Chief Bard - one who can advance their cause with the gifts of story and song. There's a Bardic Trial every year - think a rap battle or a poetry slam, but with more flowing cloaks and crow feathers - with a theme announced by the outgoing holder of "The Chair" (In most places where these traditions still live, the Bard's "Chair" is a figure of speech; except in Glastonbury, of course, where there is an actual chair made of solid metal. Because of course there is).

The year I entered, the theme was a little different. The outgoing Bard declined to give us a theme at all for our (preferably "channeled", natch) compositions, instead presenting us with a deck of Tarot cards; whichever one we each picked, that was our theme. I drew it out and turned it over. The Devil. Brilliant.

Clad head to foot in black, going for a mix between my goth phase of my 20's and a sleazy game show host, I stood up and produced what I consider to be one of my finest performances as a poet - enticing the audience with a piece based on the thought that no literal devil or demon existed in the outside world, but on the inside, in our own little worlds that we all carry inside our heads, a different matter altogether - there could be found all the cold and cunning characters imagination can muster!

I came a close second place. But more importantly, something had been started. A seed had been planted. I co-run a theatre company, and our latest production idea was to perform something based on the Tarot. For those who don't know, the Tarot is a deck of cards made up of images depicting the inner journey we all take in this life, as an actual journey. "The Fool's Journey", the Fool being the one card in the deck that doesn't have a number or a symbol - because he/she/they is the one taking the journey shown on all the other cards. The first sketch of the sequence, it seemed, had already been written.

The whole journey through the deck and all it represents was to be reproduced by just two of us, adding a wow-factor to the proceedings as people saw how we transformed instantly on stage into mythical, magical and mysterious beings that normally either reside in the deck, or in the dreams of its owner.

In top hat, bow tie and tails - black, of course - I became the crystal ball-wielding Magician, pursued by the High Priestess in flowing crimson cloak and mirrored Moon headdress; she then transformed into the belly dancing, corn-crowned Empress, who was soon met again by me as her stern consort the Emperor, clad in golden crown and scarlet cape. I then in turn transformed into the Emperor's spiritual counterpart, the High Priest - in contrast to the expected figure of the Pope, we presented a wild dancing witch doctor, clad in animal skins and horns. Stripped of all of it - there were only adults in the audience - I was met and swept up into a dance by my similarly stripped leading lady, as we embodied the Lovers card. Dressed in matching-but-mirroring outfits, swiftly behind a curtain where we had dashed as the Lovers - we emerged to enact the partnership-brings-progress meaning of the Chariot. I swiftly donned a mask onto my open face, and my leading lady swept the mask off of hers to leave it open for our next pairing presenting the Tarot's picture of Strength - which is, to put it simply, a medieval version, complete with the exact same meaning and message, of Beauty & the Beast. She in a white renaissance gown, I in a werewolf costume that had not seen the light of the Full Moon since the previous Halloween, we embodied the wise and the wild side of every human soul, achieving harmony. I emerged far more calmly, once more becloaked, bearing a lantern to light my way as I walked the path of the Hermit. I laid aside my cloak, revealing far plainer, more everyday clothes to play my part in the following scene in which an ordinary man comes face to face with his hopes and fears - the first in the flamboyant form of Fortune, the second in the imposing masked figure of Justice, my leading lady having the chance to show both extremes of her range in the space of five minutes. Being committed to telling the story in the order it appears on the cards, Justice won out out over Fortune and it was time for me to take my just deserts and become the Hanged Man. We closed the first half with a bit of (literally) gallows humour, and I'm still here, just about; but I will advise anyone who tries to recreate anything like this, to invest in a thicker rope and a stronger ladder than we did on opening night!

Intermission.

Before we get to the Devilish bit that I promised we were leading up to - we still are, never fear (or perhaps do fear, depending on your temperament) - first I need to tell you how, as our onstage Devil, I came to be adorned the way I did.

We knew we wanted something spectacular than the first rendition of the Devil's appearance at the Bardic Trials - it's not really a costumed event, it asks for something more raw, real and in the moment; though there are some dress codes in Glastonbury events eccentric enough to pass for cosplay if it's your first time in town. A subtle black statement of an outfit was fine, but that was then and this was now. Now we had only two actors and thus every costume had to be as unlike the others, and the two of us as invisible or unrecognisable in them, as possible.

The owner of a local second hand shop, who'd become a friend because of how often we shopped in there when we were too far behind to afford to shop in many other places, called us up. "I've got something for you I think you'll like - a little local theatre's closed down, and we've brought in all their stores for our stock!"

We entered what was to us, as starting-out thespians, a treasure trove. There were renaissance robes, witches' hats, and everything from soldiers to cops in between. Some we needed right away, some we stretched the budget to acquire because we had no idea what we would do with them but they were just too good a chance to pass up... and one, though we had to pleadingly get him to hide from other customers till we saved up enough to afford it, was almost an appointment with destiny. Mask, wig and horns, combined in a complete headdress that wouldn't have looked out of place on the villain of a DC Comics movie, there it was it all its crimson red and silver grey diabolical glory. The Devil's Face. Not a scrap of supermarket Halloween plastic involved, this was a professionally crafted piece, meant solely for the stage. It fit perfectly; it made me look every inch the character I'd been trying to put across through voice alone the first time around; and this fiery fella's name - if you're going to enact or embody a demon, it's the done thing to know its name - according to the label left inside by its previous owner, was Nigel.

Anyway, the show must go on.

The second act began with Death. Purple-veiled, skull-wielding, hauntingly-singing, Death. As a balance, in every sense, next comes the flowing figure who embodies balance itself, the white angel of Temperance. Having been suitably dark and captivating as Death, my leading lady floated off into the wings as I waxed philosophical in shining white suit as the following angel. In every light there is a shadow, is a message of the Tarot, so beneath the shining white suit, which came tearing off like a stripper's pants, was my black skintight tribute to my aforementioned goth phase, and with a "MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA" that would have shaken the rafters of the building had they not been made of solid stone, I donned the headpiece, and Nigel, the Devil, arrived on stage, to give an even more impassioned rendition of my Bardic piece than I had done at any stage of the original Trials. The glittering, sequined Star brought love, light and laughter back to the hall as my leading lady gave her own poetic piece, and I tried to shake off the character that stuck with me more than any other in the entire show, in time to reappear as my next, completely contrasting, character. As the Star donned yet more accoutrements of silver and cyan to become the sweetly singing Moon, I rejoined the proceedings, clad head to toe this time in shining gold cloth and flowers, and trying to sing just as sweetly, as her partner card, the Sun. Beneath those gold robes, as Nigel had been beneath the robes of Temperance in his skintight black, this time was the skintight white of the angel of Judgement. My judgement upon my leading lady's Sleeping Beauty character beside me was life, rather than the death that had been given earlier by Justice, and she rose, reborn, clad in the colourful yet fascinatingly revealing costume of the World Dancer, who twirled her way to the wings and pulled me out for my final appearance, to be in the epilogue who I had been in the prologue - the Fool themself.

Applause. Curtain.

It was only meant to be a short and sweet, "hey, this is us and this is what we do, we're the new theatre company in town, there'll be more sometime if you like this sort of thing", sort of thing... but such was the demand for encore of The Fool's Journey - A Trip Through The Tarot, that we encored for the last time six months later, with very sore throat and very sore ankle on closing night!

To this day, four years later, theatre and Tarot are still the two sources that keep the rent paid moth by month. Nigel looks down from the top of the bookcase in the office, over all the other props, costumes, scripts and recording equipment, ready for when we'll need him again, his appearance just similar enough to the other masks to make sure he fits in, but just imposing enough to make sure he stands out.

Watching.

fact or fiction
Stephen Stevie Cole
Stephen Stevie Cole
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Stephen Stevie Cole

Singer, storyteller, stand up comic, Tarot card reader, music teacher, genderfluid, socialist, LGBTQIA+ Equalities Officer, philosopher, magician.

Still white, unfortunately.

See all posts by Stephen Stevie Cole