What Should a Professional (Christian) Theatre Look Like?

by Cole Matson

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.

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