Towards a Christian Theatre Tribe

by Cole Matson

I’ve been feeling an excitement over the past few days about theatre that I haven’t since the early months of my life at NYU. Mainly it’s come from this site, which talks about forming a different kind of theatre company – a Theatre Tribe. Essentially, a Theatre Tribe is a group of theatre artists who not only produce theatre as a community, but work as a community, live as a community, and engage with their neighbors as a community. As I understand it, a Tribe should:

1. Consist of a variety of artists – actors, directors, designers, playwrights, stage managers, dramaturgs, arts administrators, etc. A theatre company is generally going to consist mostly of actors, but the Tribe should have at least one person who either specializes in or can take on each of these other roles.

2. Be self-supporting. This doesn’t necessarily mean making all of its money through ticket sales. As in this vision statement by Scott Walters, the Theatre Tribe wiki’s author, members of the Tribe could grow and sell produce, or teach classes for the community at the theatre. The goal is to get away from being part-time artists who have to work a day job, and instead letting all one’s energy be focused on the theatre and its community.

3. Have a single financial pool. This means that all the money earned from the theatre, and that the individual artists earn from teaching their own classes, or from outside acting jobs they get, goes into one pot. Once expenses are covered, the remaining income can be divided up equally among the artists. Alternatively, they could each receive according to their needs. For example, if one of the tribe members is in need of a doctor visit, the tribe would cover that extra cost, while everyone else foregoes some Starbucks that month. However they decide to divide up the income, nobody has a completely independent revenue stream.

4. Make educational activities a commitment. And as Scott says, this doesn’t just mean doing a free student performance of one of the theatre’s productions. It means actively engaging with the community in terms of workshops, classes, dramaturgical work, visiting schools, having talkbacks, and participating in a dialogue with the community. Which brings me to the all-important…

5. Be active in the Tribe’s community. This means that Tribe members do not withdraw into their theatre, but rather make themselves and their theatre part of the community. As in Scott’s vision statement, they could allow local community organizations to use space in the theatre for free during dark nights. Tribe members should be involved in their local churches, civic organizations, clubs, charities, and volunteer organizations.  And they shouldn’t do this just to bring more people to their shows, but because theatre and its makers should be rooted in its community’s soil.

I’ve been thinking about what I want to do with my Theology degree. I know I want to do grad school, mainly to use the time to write a book on the moral responsibility of the Christian artist – a call-to-arms on how to live our lives as Christian theatre and non-theatre artists. My original plan was to do a D.Phil. from the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, but since I don’t feel called to academia, their planned new M.Litt. might be a better degree for my purposes.

Afterwards, I want to put the principles I write about into practice, through a Christian theatre or film company. I think I’m more likely to choose theatre, because that’s what I know better, and I love the theatre community, and the ritualized magic that an exceptional dramatic moment can tap into. (For example, see a good production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, like the production that Everyman Theatre did locally last season. The City of Bones sequence will electrify your spirit.)

The idea of a Christian Theatre Tribe – a blend of monasticism and theatre collective – sounds right up my alley. I’m not sure it’s my calling, but I believe it will be a calling for somebody, and whoever it is, I will support them.  If you’re out there, let me know.

NB: As part of the C.S. Lewis Foundation‘s mission of “advancing the renewal of Christian thought and creative expression throughout the world of learning and the culture at large,” they plan to found C.S. Lewis College, a Great Books college with a School of the Visual and Performing Arts. When I was applying to colleges for my first degree, I was unable to find a Christian college that had both strong academics and strong professional actor training. I believe and hope that C.S. Lewis College can be this type of college, and I am determined to help it succeed. Its mission to renew Christian creative expression in the culture at large is in lines with the vision of a Christian Theatre Tribe, and if this idea kindles even a small flame in you, please let both me and the Foundation know. I just received a letter this week informing me that the Foundation has had to let go of half their paid staff. As someone who also works for a non-profit that is feeling a dire financial pinch, I ask that you prayerfully consider making a small tax-deductible donation to the Foundation. I’ve sent mine in already. Both the people and the mission are worthy, and they do good work.