When I was a teenager I was preparing to run my first group ritual. I was probably 15 or 16, I'd been doing rituals on my own, formally from books for about 4 or 5 years at that point, but being more or less a kid I hadn't had a team to work with. There was no Scooby Gang ala Buffy and unlike Scott McCall I wasn't alpha of a supernatural pack (yet), despite how much TV makes it look like high school is one supernatural group play date after another.
Around my sophomore year of high school I began expanding my group of Pagan and magic curious friends and we lived in a magical world of hormone soaked epicness complete with our own little magical adventures. We eventually decided to unofficially become "Pagan Youth Group" and have special outings for magic kids only...mostly hanging at the mall and witch shops. And our first official unofficial outing was going to include a Celtic Reconstructionist Bealtain ritual which I was writing.
Proud of my first attempt at a group ritual I sent the script to Ceisiwr Serith (author of Pagan Family, A Book of Pagan Prayer, and a few other titles) to get his feedback. In that feedback he gave me some really important advice "Remember this isn't a Protestant service, you don't need to give a sermon to try and teach a congregation." Ritual isn't preaching, it isn't Sunday school it doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be just a verbal recounting of a religion's ideals or history or mythos.
Cei's advice on this (as with many things he taught me) has stuck with me such that here I am 20 years later recalling that first attempt and his guidance.
On the other end of the spectrum, as an adult I recall one of my early experiences of group ritual magic in which a magician in the local community exclaimed during practice - with an attempt at dramatic gravitas: "remember, this. Is. THEATER!"
I recall being wholly unimpressed.
Now, as I write this, I've been working in a group for 17 years, I've been an ordained priest for 7 years, I ran the Pagan student Union at my college for 5 years, so I have a lot of experience writing group rituals, doing well established group rituals, and being in or watching people's original group rituals.
I have seen and been in several clumsy rituals, even a couple of my attempts have been clumsy. Group rituals are tough sometimes because you have to balance having an effective ritual with satisfying the group's desire to enjoy the ritual, to feel like they got to participate, to feel entertained.
These goals often don't serve each other.
You get a lot of people who toss in a Eucharist or burning an intention or putting a personal item on the altar as easy ways to include people. Sometimes these elements make sense sometimes they're a little forced but typically they're an attempt to keep the magic there while managing group needs.
You also get people who essentially produce very overdetermined plays which don't do anything operatively in terms of magic or spirituality...they just present ritualized drama, they engage in theater, they maybe beat you over the head with a message.
Things like that aren't magic, they aren't ritual, and they're in the bargain basement bins in terms of religion.
If your ritual acts don't do anything, if they are just a show, if they are just communicating an idea, they aren't magic and I'd argue might only barely be ritual if at all.
Now you can easily cite academic books which equate ritual and drama and look at ritual as psychology. But these books are generally written by secular researchers looking to explain human behavior in a secular context. There is a lot of useful stuff magicians and Pagans can take from the academic press but an ethnographic bias or contextualizing religious practice to fit secular concepts are not elements which help us.
We can cite the relationship between theater and religion in Greece...clearly with that in mind, ritual plays can be magical religious rituals. Right?
I've definitely done rituals which involve elements of drama and theater, but the point is always to create a real magical impact. Spiritual forces are engaged and applied to accomplish something. There is a goal beyond a message. Theatrical elements can be tools used by a magician, but they must be used towards a magical purpose. Your actions and words, your costume, your space, these can contribute to theater and to magic even simultaneously. But the theater shouldn't replace the magic.
If we're doing mystery plays we're not doing a play with a clever twist to reflect upon, we're confronting spiritual powers that change us through directly experiencing them.
I was thinking about all this as I was showering this morning. I was thinking about rituals and communities. It made me think of a ritual I read recently by a pretty secular Thelemic author. Putting aside culturally insensitivity problems in it the ritual is basically a series of quasi-history speeches. Nothing really happens. It is literally a pageant.
To me that's sad. Killing the experience of the mysteries, deadening the fires at the core of magical practice in favor of a sort of psychological Protestantism is the work of "The Great Sorcery" the aim of the Black Brotherhood. It moves us to a complacent and distracted place where we get mired like a fool with our "one one one".
So remember, ritual isn't Sunday school, magic isn't Protestantism.