On a Benedictine Theatre Company

A while back, I mentioned on Twitter that I was interested in exploring the idea of a theatre company based on the Rule of St. Benedict. It would take its management practices from one of the fathers of Western monasticism, who believed in the virtues of hospitality, gentleness, and compassion – as well as loving obedience. What would a Benedictine theatre company look like?

1. It would be welcoming. Patrons would never go away feeling like they were just another $20 butt to fill a seat. They would be able to identify the head of the theatre and call him by name. (Let’s call him the theatrical “Abbot” to keep with the Benedictine theme. The title is a placeholder for the artistic director, executive director, board president, or any other significant leader of the company, but is especially appropriate for whomever you can identify as “the guy who runs the joint.”) The Abbot would make himself available to patrons, staff, artists, and anyone else who interacts with the theatre. He would definitely always be there to greet the patrons at a show (and if, for some necessary reason, he can’t be at a show, he’ll have a deputy who’s also well-known and shares his philosophy of hospitality). He would also work to make sure that the theatre is welcoming for artists, both company members and visiting artists. Whether it’s providing snacks in the dressing room, a killer cast party, or simply making sure everyone gets paid something for their work, a Benedictine theatre company will be known for the home it provides for its artists.

2. It would be firm but gentle. Policies of the theatre in terms of member responsibilities, box office and rehearsal procedures, the cleanliness of the prop room, etc. would be spelled out clearly to avoid confusion, but would also be flexible if needed for the welfare of the group. People will be assumed to be trustworthy and responsible, and treated with the according respect, unless and until they break that trust – innocent until proven guilty. Even if people make mistakes and break rules, they will be treated with gentleness and the assumption of goodwill. Only if it becomes a pattern of immature or incompetent behavior, with no effort made to improve, will a person be asked to leave the community. Even in this case, they will still be treated with the respect due to a fellow human being and colleague. A Benedictine theatre company will be known for treating its artists, staff, and volunteers with dignity.

3. It would treat the audience as members of its community, and do shows that build up that community. This doesn’t mean doing fluffy feel-good after-school special fare, but it does mean asking yourself when considering a production, “Does this help my community in some way? If I were to see this show, would I feel like the theatre had invited me to participate in an important experience with them, or would I feel like they couldn’t care less what I thought or felt about the show and its effect on me?” Does the company engage its community off-stage as well? What about offering classes, or reduced rate tickets for students AND teachers AND volunteer firefighters, etc., or a free ticket give-away to low-income neighbors (as Single Carrot Theatre did in their Baltimore neighborhood a while back)? Or even allowing members of the community to use theatre space for free or cheap on a dark night? (See Prof. Scott Walters’ vision for such a community-based ensemble theatre company.) A Benedictine theatre company will by its neighbors as a member of their community.

I’m thinking of doing a series exploring how each daily reading from the Benedictine Rule can be applied to the running of a theatre company. I may be painting an idealistic picture, but I figure the higher you aim, the higher you hit. Questions:

1. Would you be interested in such a series? I’d definitely love feedback so we can hash this out together.

2. What would you expect to see in a theatre company that called itself Benedictine, either as a patron or as an artist/staffer?

3. Any additions to the above brainstorming?

And finally: When you think about your dream theatre company, what’s the number one thing you want?

Wildest Dreams Wishlist for 2010

Bonnie Gillespie is an L.A. casting director and author. She also happens to be one of the most positive voices around (online or offline), and her writing always exudes joy, confidence, and love. A feature film she cast, Another Harvest Moon, premiered recently, and is getting buzz for its excellent cast. In this week’s installment of The Actors Voice, Bon’s column at Showfax, she mentions the “wildest dreams wishlist” she asks all her directors for when she first starts working with them – basically, who in their wildest dreams would they want in these roles, “if money is no object and all offers will be taken seriously.” Bon’s suggestion for this New Year is that, yeah, goals are good, but think about what, in your wildest dreams, you want to see happen, this year and beyond, for you and for the world you’re in. As she says, “‘Why have blocks?'” Dream it, do it.

In that spirit, here’s my wildest dreams wishlist for 2010:

1) Get a predicted First degree on my exam results from all my tutors.

2) Go on an awesome promo tour for The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers this summer, with my director and the rest of the FellowsHip, as a kick-off for a wide studio release in theatres nation-wide.

3) Write my extended essay on theatre and theology, with a topic entirely of my own choosing, and have it be both exciting and inspiring to myself, my supervisor, and other artists. It will be publishable and reach a wide academic and artistic audience. I’d say what the idea is, but I have several stewing that I like. I think if I had to pick right now, it would be on how to run a Christian theatre company, perhaps looking through the lens of the Rule of St. Benedict or the Dominicans. Hey, it could even jumpstart a movement.

4) Be cast in a lead role in The Hobbit. (Hey, it’s wildest dreams, right?)

5) Be accepted into a Masters-to-Ph.D. program at St Andrews or Oxford in Theology and the Arts, with a supervisor who’s just as passionate about the type of art I want to do as I am.

6) Plant the beginnings of the Unicorn Triumphant Theatre Company by producing The World Over here at Oxford, in a production at the Oxford Playhouse or OFS Studio, in tandem with Fr John at the Chaplaincy and his dreams for a Chaplaincy drama group.

7) Lose 15 more pounds and get a 6-pack.

I think seven dreams parallel my earlier seven goals nicely.

Bon also talks about wildest dreams for the world in which one moves about, like the acting industry. What would I like to see in the world of theatre?

1) A renewal in theatre like that in literature that came out of the world of the Inklings (and Inklings-by-association and -by-influence), from which we not only got brilliant manifestoes on religion (The Everlasting Man), education (The Abolition of Man), and art (Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories”), but also great art that revived old ideas for new audiences (the pinnacle of which was The Lord of the Rings, but which also included the Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Williams’ Arthurian poetry).

2) Christians taken seriously as artists again.

3) A plethora of new branches of college/university theatre programs that provide professional training equal to that at Juillard, NYU, or Yale, but that are fed by the deepest roots of the Christian tradition.

4) Recognition in the wider artistic culture that the artist has a moral responsibility to his audience, to live with them in community and compassion, and that self-expression alone does not great art make.

5) Less related to the artistic world, but definitely related to the world in which I move: A return to actually doing theology in an academic theology program, instead of doing socio-historical-linguistic criticism and calling it theology. The Synoptic Problem is not theology, it is only a preparation for doing actual theology.

6) Increased church support for Christians who have vocations as artists, even those Christian artists who don’t do explicitly Christian art.

7) World peace. ‘Cause, you know, it’s wildest dreams and all.

What about you? What are your wildest dreams?

What Should a Professional (Christian) Theatre Look Like?

I’ve just finished reading two important books:

1) God Off-Broadway: The Blackfriars Theatre of New York (Matthew Powell, O.P.) – A history of the only professional theatre in the U.S. run by a religious order (the Dominicans)

2) Tribes (Seth Godin) – Thoughts on how to create and lead a tribe

The first got me thinking about what a Christian theatre should look like. The Blackfriars Theatre had two artistic directors in its approximately 30-year history, both of whom were Dominican priests. The first artistic director believed that the theatre should explore “the spiritual nature of man and his eternal destiny” in a way that did not conflict with Catholic moral values (e.g. a show that presented abortion as a valid option for women would be unacceptable), but that it did not have to restrict itself to religious subjects, and could even present characters who were morally imperfect (as long as poor moral choices weren’t promoted). During this time, the first 12 years of the theatre’s existence, the theatre was generally well-respected by the major critics, and did excellent work that was hailed as more risk-taking than that of the secular commercial theatre, especially Broadway. For example, Blackfriars took a morally courageous stance against racism with several productions during the forties and early fifties, well before the civil rights movement.

Unfortunately, the first artistic director was re-assigned, and the second artistic director, who had previously only handled the business aspects of the theatre, felt that the theatre should only put on shows that were explicitly Catholic, and that commissioning and producing dramatizations of the lives of the saints for purely parochial audiences sufficiently fulfilled the mission of the theatre. This second artistic director’s focus was not on creating excellent art, but on didactic moral teaching and evangelization through drama. Of course, when you put on shows only for Christians, only Christians come, and therefore the shows become completely useless for evangelization, since you’re only preaching to the choir. And if the focus is on the quality of the moral instead of the quality of the play, even the Christians stop coming, except out of a sense of duty.

And that’s exactly what happened to Blackfriars. I’ve worked with an actor who was a volunteer at Blackfriars as a teenager, during its later years, and what he remembers is bad writing and very obvious sermonizing. The rest of the professional theatrical and critical community sadly came to the same opinion, and not even its supporters were passionate enough about its work to save the theatre when the artistic director passed away.

I’ve had several conversation with other Christian artists both online and offline about both the status of Christian theatre and the challenges of being a Christian in theatre. The problem with the first? Too often it’s mediocre, as the focus is generally on “does this show clearly preach the Word?” rather than “is this show good?” The problem with the second? If you work for any length of time in the professional theatre you’re going to be faced with the dilemma of being asked to compromise your faith for a job, or be uncomfortable with the moral ramifications of the artistic interpretation of your director, or be ridiculed for being prudish or closed-minded if you oppose certain pieces of art.

In both cases, the Christian artist is asked to put his faith and his art in different boxes, and then to choose between them. The producer of Christian theatre who believes the moral is all asks the Christian artist to sacrifice his artistic standards to his Christianity. The producer of modern secular theatre who believes in taking artistic risks asks the Christian artist to sacrifice his Christianity to artistic achievement.

My contention? It’s not either/or. A Christian owes obedience to Christ above all things, that’s clear, but one of the ways the Christian artist lives that obedience is by giving his best to his vocation. He becomes the best Christian he can be partly by being the best artist he can be.

A couple C.S. Lewis quotes are appropriate here:

[Christ] wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim… The proper motto is not ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever,’ but ‘Be good, sweet maid, and don’t forget that this involves being as clever as you can.’ God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. – Mere Christianity

We do not need more Christian writers. We need more writers who are Christian. – paraphrase (I’m having trouble finding the exact source)

One could re-phrase that last sentence from the Mere Christianity quote to say, “God is no fonder of artistic slackers than of any other slackers.” And the second quote makes me wonder if Christian artists should even be focusing on making Christian theatre at all, or if we should be working only within the mainstream theatre world, but in such a way that we maintain our integrity and make art that reflects our understanding of “man’s spiritual nature and his eternal destiny.”

Which brings me to the second book, Tribes. I think we have a tribe here, of theatre artists who are Christian and who want to make art that is both: 1) of excellent quality, and 2) compatible with their Christian commitment. We may differ as to whether we each want to work completely in the mainstream theatre world while holding ourselves to a particular code of integrity, or work completely in church drama ministry, or work somewhere on the spectrum in between. My personal professional history ranges from gospel plays to corporate training videos with absolutely nothing to do with religion, but for myself, I tend to favor a combination of the Tolkien and Lewis models. I see the Tolkien model as telling a great story that deals deeply with the themes of faith, but does not explicitly touch on religion (or only barely), and is directed toward a general audience. I see the Lewis model as also telling a great story, but “showing one’s Christian colours” a bit more, and is either directed toward a general audience or towards a Christian-friendly audience (i.e. an audience that will not be put off by clearly Christian references in a story). The theatre and films I’ve done that I’ve been most passionate about have both addressed questions of faith directly (A Man for All Seasons) or have touched on religious faith barely, if at all, but have celebrated virtues in line with the Christian worldview, such as courage, loyalty, and integrity (The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers). The common characteristics, however, have been excellent stories that are worth telling in themselves (aside from any perceived spiritual value), executed to a high standard, and targeted to a general audience. Spiritual themes excite me, but if I’m going to explore them theatrically, the resulting production must share these characteristics, at least in my own career.

So where do we go from here? Would it be better for theatre artists who are Christian to perform in and produce theatre that is clearly Christian, but that is of the highest professional standard, in order to erase the association of the phrase “Christian theatre” with the word “mediocre”? Or would it be better for theatre artists who are Christian to bring their artistic sensibilities and standards of conduct into the mainstream theatre world, and prove that you don’t have to be profane, intentionally offensive, or willing to compromise your religious faith in order to make great art?

And if our tribe were to start a professional theatre company, what should it look like? Should it call itself Christian, or not?

P.S. – While writing this post, I came across this open letter to Fox Faith from Dr. Marc Newman, the president of MovieMinistry.com. He addresses many of the challenges discussed above, and I highly recommend reading it, especially as it’s not too long. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

One of your biggest marketing battles is to convince Christians to see “Christian films,” a label which, over the years, has come to be nearly synonymous with “bad movie.” […] The job of preachers (and Christians everywhere) is evangelism. The job of movies is to tell great stories.

Great stories can move us, affect our world view, cause us to consider ideas that we had never entertained before, and lead to open doors for spiritual conversations; but they cannot substitute for them. When films push too hard to preach or moralize, they tend to fail miserably. C.S. Lewis, when asked whether the world needs more Christian writers, replied, “No, we need more writers who are Christian.” What Lewis meant was that Christians who want to be writers need to hone their craft so that their stories are compelling to anyone who might read them. He was not interested in ghettoizing a narrow niche of minor, or outright bad, literature written by Christians, for Christians. May God bless you in the search for great new screenwriters and filmmakers who are Christians, and may the Church recognize the need to raise up and support committed, creative artists.