More on a Christian Theatre
by Cole Matson
My posts “Offending the Audience”, “Towards a Christian Theatre Tribe”, and “Theatre Company Brain Dump” have gotten a relatively large amount of attention. There are comments on this blog and on my Facebook page that have been waiting for responses for a month. (Life has been very busy, filled with several 15-17 hour work-days, and I won’t have a day off until mid-June, which is why this is the first week I didn’t have a post up on Monday.) I thought I’d address a few of the themes from the comments, in a simplified Q&A-type format.
You said that one of your goals as an artist is to inspire hope. Do you think that all art should be positive and uplifting?
No. I believe that hope exists for the world and for each individual person, so any piece of art that is nihilistic or makes the claim that all is hopeless and life is meaningless I would repudiate as untrue. I also believe that one of the purposes of art is to remind the audience that hope exists. However, there is room for many different types of art, not all of which is pleasant to experience. For example, another legitimate purpose for art is to remind the audience that evil exists. If the art piece stops there, I don’t think it has gone far enough, but it still serves a purpose. If it goes so far as to say that evil not only exists, but is inevitable and undefeatable, I would say it is wrong. If, on the other hand, it not only states that there is evil, but also hints at the possibility of overcoming it, I would say it does well. For example, The Lord of the Rings is filled with much evil and destruction, and part of the point of the chapter “The Scouring of the Shire” is to remind the reader that the effects of evil are real, and can’t be wished away. The Appendix to the book even discusses the death of Aragorn, and there are several reminders that even this hard-won victory of the restoration of the Kingship of Gondor will one day fade away. However, Tolkien being a faithful Roman Catholic, we are assured that one day the marring of Arda will be undone, and Middle Earth will be remade into a new and glorious form, free from all evil and the workings of Melkor. There is hope.
You keep saying art should serve this purpose, and that purpose. Do you think the artist should make art with a particular purpose in mind?
Again, no. He may, but good art generally starts with an image, or a longing to tell a particular story, or some such expression of a creative impulse. However, between the first stirrings of that impulse, and the exposure of the finished product to an audience, I believe the artist should consider whether his work is good, not only in terms of quality, but in terms of serving someone besides himself. Does it celebrate, inspire, strengthen, edify, teach, warn, confront? It doesn’t have to do all of these things, or even one in particular, but it should in some way make the world better for the fact that it exists. And it should be true; that is, the audience member, through experiencing it, should have gained some level of true understanding about himself, the world, or his relation to the world. If he learns that life is meaningless, he has not gained understanding, as he has been taught something untrue. However, this line of thought leaves the realm of art per se, and gets into philosophy and theology. We may agree, as artists, about the best techniques in which to say something, but completely differ as to what is worth saying, and whether what the other says is true.
But isn’t the artist’s responsibility just to the quality of his art?
No. As a human being, and a member of the human community, he has a responsibility to act morally and serve his fellow human beings – in his case, through the creation of art. (I would also add that, as a creature, he also has a responsibility to his Creator, but I won’t go further into that in this post.) As a commenter on one of Scott Walters‘ posts (I think) said, artists are not social workers. They don’t serve in the same way social workers, or teachers, or pastors serve. However, he must serve, in whichever way he is called, and in whichever way his particular style of creation can serve.
However, this question brings up a very important point. For too long, especially in Christian art (to our disgrace), standards for art have seemed to live by the maxim, “As long as your heart’s in the right place, your work doesn’t need to be especially good.” One of the commenters on my blog, Alida Anderson, has an awesome post on her blog Thoughts on Art and Faith, called “When ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough”:
Too often, I think that the attitude within the church is, “Whatever we give God, he’ll do something good with, so I don’t have to give my best.” And yes, while it’s true that God makes beauty out of our brokenness, it doesn’t give us the excuse to be lazy or to give less than our best–not only the best of what we currently are, but the best of what we can be, through training, practice, and honing our skills…
When Christians make art that presents our faith to the world, we come at it with a significant disadvantage, because people have a preconceived idea about what “Christian art” (or movies, or music, or theatre) is like, and that preconceived idea is, more often than not, that the work is cheesy, outdated, preachy, ineffectual, and so on and so forth. There’s a notion of what the work looks like, and when the work feeds into that stereotype because we don’t do the best we possibly can, it is not only dishonoring in our work as worship, but it reinforces a stereotype that doesn’t need any more help being perpetuated.
Yes, God can work through–and despite–us in anything… Still, it can’t be good enough to hope and pray for the best results from work that is less than the best. If God can do amazing things through mediocre work done by imperfect, broken people, imagine what he can do through excellent work done by imperfect, broken people. We’re still the broken part of the equation. That doesn’t change. But the work we do doesn’t have to be half-assed because of it.
Exactly. As an artist – just the same as with a shoemaker, architect, or doctor – you still need to do a good job. The discussion of the role of the artist in serving his community assumes that as a given. Another one of my commenters, Travis Bedard, said, “If all you manage to do with such an endeavor [i.e., a Christian theatre tribe] is raise the bar for Christian theatre above the Sunday morning sketch the world will be improved immeasurably.” I hope that’s what we as Christians in the arts can do, because while there’s room for the “Sunday morning sketch,” it shouldn’t be what most people think of when they think of Christian art, which includes in its tradition the Sistine Chapel, Mozart’s Requiem, and the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Speaking of which, one of the greatest gifts this blog has given me so far is that it has put me in touch with some other like-minded theatre artists. Besides the afore-mentioned Alida Anderson and Travis Bedard, stage manager Lois Dawson has let me know about the Christian mandate of Pacific Theatre in Vancouver. I’m also meeting a couple Christian actresses from Canada tomorrow night. They found me through the blog, and are going to be here in Baltimore for a conference. I’m taking them to dinner and a show (On Golden Pond at Spotlighters Theatre, which is where I volunteer in the box office and teach during the summer Young Actors’ Academy).
So, I’m looking forward to meeting them, and thinking and talking more about this topic. I’m going to wrap up, because my roommate just got home and it’s Chinese food time, but first I want to let you know that the C.S. Lewis Foundation posted this week about activities coming up later this year, including not two but THREE week-long Seminars-in-Residence at the Kilns this summer, and a Regional Retreat with Diana Pavlac Glyer in Navasota, Texas. (I highly recommend attending a Seminar-in-Residence if you have the opportunity.) Read about them here.
I’m working on responding to the backlog of comments, and will plan to be back on schedule with blog posts next Monday. In the meantime, enjoy the weekend!