Performance Ethnography

An ongoing, thirty-year pan-cultural folk, ritual, and shamanic performance research and documentation project. The goal is to 1) investigate and document vanishing traditions, and 2) articulate and promote an alternative, earth-centric performance expression for our contemporary world. The project's ambition is to offer a new form of indigenous performance, founded in traditional expressions and shaped in response to a globalizing world threatened with environmental collapse. Appreciating and re-imagining the wisdom and expressions of those who have lived traditionally with their indigenous place as to create a new/old way of being with the earth. We are all becoming indigenous again.

Riccio emphasizes that he is not an anthropologist by training, but when he is working with a theatre based on cultural tradition he often applies anthropological methods. Indigenous cultures are essentially oral and when put into written form only a small part of it is conserved. People, however, have much more knowledge which is about to disappear if no one becomes interested in it.
— Kumppani Magazine, Finland

Current Research Project


Miao and Tujia, Xiangxi Autonomous Perfecture, Southwest China

MIao Badai

A demonstration of Badai powers by Shi Bang Wu, China.

From and interview...

Shi: I am drawing in the water action, its power comes from the master Lao Zi the master of all Taoism. I write the sides characters in the water on the table. In the process of the magical words transform the water becoming the “Law Water” or magic water. Riccio: How does the water become magical? Shi: Magical words taught him from his teacher…you must decide to accept the words on special ritual step by step the words are given.

Riccio: You are well traveled and have demonstrated on TV and around the country. Why do you do this?

Shi: I am also a teacher—travel and showing others is the metamorphosis of learning—just like a tree. If the Tree grows from branches new branches—you learn from other branches not from your family. I learn and I teach.

Riccio: Who taught you?

Shi: I Learned from my father—I learned from his trunk. At the trunk is where it is more real, more magic—at the branches the magic is not as strong.

Riccio: How do you maintain your power?

Shi: I get up very early to recite the magical words to learn how to make and hold the water magic.

Riccio: How long did it take you to be initiated as a Badai?

Shi: It was twenty-one days. But this was after long study with my father. I was about twenty years old when I started with my studies.

Riccio: Did you want to become a healer or were called?

Shi: The spirits called me. The spirits know my family well. For many generations, my grand and great grand fathers, and beyond were healers. One son only each generation is chosen to carry this family forward. I was chosen. Only the most honest and dutiful is chosen.

Riccio: How do you eat the water bowl?

Shi: If the spirits are with you must be able to do it! You must bite the bowl without hesitation—it is the test of the gods.

Riccio: Now you are training others. If I wanted to become your student what would you tell me?

Shi: There are pre-conditions before we can begin. You must agree with master and swear to your master to tell him all the things you can and cannot do. You must kowtow to the master. And as your master I must judge you honestly and watch and have a good heart—to avoid evil or just do it for money. If the master and student follow this way then the student will become a healer and begin their own practice.

Riccio: What is the purpose of the rice bowl on the table with incense and money sticking in it?

Shi: It is my offering to the gods. When I swallow the bowl fragments that I am able to cure people. When I eat the bowl I begin to have a sixth sense and to see sickness. but this sensation not always.

Riccio: Do you go into trance?

Shi: No, I do not use trance—I eat the bowl and am connected with the gods and a vision comes and then I visit the people I saw.

Riccio: Then what hapapens?

Shi: Sometimes it is difficult to tell if a sickness is spiritual. But I see that it is the healing ritual goes quickly—and I have a good success rate. The sickness is then evaporated into the air.


Miao Spirit Mediums


N'Cwala, Ngoni, Zambia-Malawi


Therukoothu Performances Tamil, South India

Theru Koothu is a 2000 year old dance/theatre folk tradition still practiced today in Tamil Nadu, southern India. Both sacred and profane, ritual and entertainment, the performance begin after 9pm and continue until dawn. In this video, shot in February 2013, the Koothu troupe performs sections of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata to console a family and to end their 15 day mourning period.


!Xuu and Khwe Bushmen, South Africa-Namibia

Oral History Recording Project--See Shamanism Page for Performance Project

Gomez's telling of the "Two Stones" brought the group to life. Everyone wanted to tell the story as they remembered it. We agreed that "Two Stones" would be the basis of our performance. With a large artist's pad at the center, the group gathered in a circle. The drawing of the story and the agreement to perform the story suddenly gave our work an objective, structure, and immediacy that was satisfying to the pragmatic Bushmen. The drawing and the narrative also provided us with a medium by which we could directly communicate with one another, without language or a translator. After many drawings and story sessions an agreed upon telling evolved.


In the desert there are two stones.

They are by themselves out in the open

Surrounded by grass and small bushes.

The stones are called ~ (n) Whatsu.

‘That means people come out of here.’

They are like two houses with a path.

Both have big holes in them like the entrance to a hut.

The tall stone is a man and the short one is a woman...(continues)


People Come Out of Here: Creating a New Story with the !Xuu and Khwe Bushmen

Two Stones, origin myth of the !Xuu Bushmen

Excerpts from a research and workshop project with the !Xuu and Khwe Bushmen conducted by Thomas Riccio. The project included eight traditional healers and their assistants. For more info,


Christian Orthodox Ritual

Makonda ritual, Tanzania

Makonda ritual, Tanzania

Riccio has taken regional theatre world distances. Mr. Riccio is committed to exploring and developing indigenous theatre worldwide, helping native cultures create their own theatre, where the emphasis is on the experimental, in sharp contrast with traditional Western theatre, which affirms Western values.
— Newsletter Society of Stage Director and Choreographers
Stories cover thick the world, people, events, past present future waddle around. What is out there is a ghost. It seems real. I reach for it, whoosh it evaporates something else takes its place. Why does it always change? But that’s okay. Stories are intimate, pass through, around me, caress, seduce, punch, slam bam, what the fuck, bump into, excuse me? I chase them thinking I will understand, please for a moment what is going on, what can I, should I do? Oh yeah, it is all clear now, it all makes sense.
— from an interview, Voyage Dallas
Video that was part of the exhibit, Open Archive, presented by Red Arrow Contemporary April 5 to May 3 2014. The exhibit documents a selection of my research work in indigenous performance in Asia, Africa, Alaska, and Siberia. Photos, artifacts, and video.

!Xuu Bushman drawing of the sun,

from a workshop and oral history project