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.

12 thoughts on “What Should a Professional (Christian) Theatre Look Like?

  1. Bob,

    Please forgive the delayed response – term has started in the past few weeks, and I’ve also been trying to get the first draft of my thesis written.

    I’ve heard of Taproot (good things), but thanks for sending me to their website. I’ll add them to my list of theatres to visit on my planned research tour this coming summer. Is there anyone in particular from the theatre you suggest I talk to?

    Break a leg in “Beams”!

    Cole

  2. I’m an actor and stumbled upon this blog in doing research for “The Beams Are Creaking” – a show that will be produced by Taproot Theatre Company in 2011 and that I will likely be a part of (schedule permitting).

    I wanted to provide you with Taproot’s website: http://www.taproottheatre.org/ as a very good example of what a professional Christian theatre can do while garnering consistent critical praise from the mainstream theatre community of artists, audience and critics.

  3. Did the artistic director mention how they addressed the audience dichotomy? Do they just focus on a balance in their season between “too Christian” and “not Christian enough” shows?

  4. I think that’s a very fair generalization to make. It’s a tough balance to appeal to both Christian and non-Christian audiences with the same show (especially those people who go to theatre simply to be entertained, rather than for professional development, to see other worldviews better, or to approach it with a critical mind).

    I remember talking to the artistic director of the faith-based company here in Calgary, where she said that their church audiences loved The Beams Are Creaking, a biographical play about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but when the company did a show later that season that had an equally powerful message, but had a few swears in it, there was a significant backlash.

    There was nothing wrong with Beams, and certainly Bonhoeffer’s story is interesting to more than just the Christian subculture (I mean, he participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler), but the company wanted to stretch. So yeah. Mention God too many times, and it’s “too Christian;” do a show that isn’t clear enough in its message (or has too many “objectionable” elements), and it’s “not Christian enough.”

  5. Alida,

    I have been batting around the idea of comparing mission statements and management/artistic practices of faith-based theatre companies of the type you’re describing. I’d be very interested in taking a look at that data or reading your conclusions when you write them up. (If they’re in the thesis you sent me, then I’m even more excited to read it.)

    I remember having a conversation with @PacificTheatre on Twitter, and them saying that they had an audience dilemma: the Christian members of their audience thought their productions weren’t Christian enough, and the non-Christians thought they were too Christian. Obviously that’s a generalization, but they did see it as a significant phenomenon that impacted the size of their audience. Is this a phenomenon that the companies you researched are experiencing?

  6. I’ve been collecting data on faith-based theatre companies in North America for the past while, and one of the most interesting things to compare are their mission statements. There’s such a wide variety of phrases that people have chosen to use to describe their work, and I kind of love seeing how they distill what’s important–and how I can nod my head in agreement with almost every one of them. I told someone over Christmas that I’ve started collecting board manuals and mission statements, and those (along with a few years’ worth of Form 990s and a list of back productions), can tell me a lot about a company.

    Travis, I think that there are more and more artists who are doing that kind of high-quality work that explores faith. There are certainly many, many churches doing theatre that fits into a specific context, and there are also theatre companies that are kind of an extension of that work, but there are also many theatre companies run by Christians that are striving for excellent work.

    My research focused on about 50 companies–deliberately avoiding theatre done within churches and focusing on companies that are peers and colleagues with the community or professional theatres in their cities. Of course, I haven’t seen work by every company, but in talking to many people, I get the feeling that there are a lot of theatre professionals that feel this way–trying to find the balance between quality and content.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Travis. It’s actually been resonating with me all afternoon.

    So I have permission to just create the theatre company I would most like to see and do the art I’d most like to do. That is a good thing, but here’s the rub. If I’m going to collaborate with other artists – say, you know, a *company* – there needs to be a language of shared mission. So what does that look like? How do I describe the mission of my theatre using language that is distinctive from all the other theatres that aren’t necessarily interested in the great Christian themes of sin and redemption, good vs evil, Providence vs nihilism, but that doesn’t put me in the pigeonhole of “Christian theatre”? Do I use language like Blackfriars originally used, i.e. “exploring the spiritual nature of man and his eternal destiny”; do I use more clearly Christian language like the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver (“non-propagandist professional theatre where [its company members] would be free to explore work having particular meaning to them as Christians”); or do I avoid any language of spirituality or religion and just use language of telling good stories with a purpose?

    I remember as a teenager I saw my life’s purpose as “change someone’s life for the better.” If I could do that, just for one person, I would have made a difference as a human being. It’s a tall order, but that’s why I became an actor, because I believe stories have the ability to do just that. Of course, if you have as your mission “to tell stories that will change lives for the better,” people might think you’re getting a little big for your britches. But hey, maybe it’s good to be bold. ‘Cause that is what I want to do. It’s proper to pay forward all the life-changing gifts other artists have given me through their stories.

  8. Alida,

    That’s not the quote, but I like it anyway. I was hoping you in particular would respond to this post. Would it be possible for me to read your thesis? My e-mail is ccematson AT gmail DOT com.

  9. I was coming in to write essentially what Alida has already covered.

    There is no theatre that you, Cole, could create at this point in your life that WOULDN’T be Christian.

    And THAT is the Christian theatre that needs making.

    In the same way that evangelism in general should be less tell and more show, I think that high quality theatremakers making theatre that resonates with their faith (either in support of or in the questioning of) is something that I would be interested in seeing, in direct opposition to the majority of the skits that Willow Creek and its ilk churns out…

  10. Also, as I’m sure you might guess, I have a lot of thoughts on the topic of “Christian theatre,” including thoughts on the title (I wrote a whole chapter of my thesis on the semantics of using “faith-based theatre,” “Christian theatre,” or “theatre from a perspective of faith”), but it’s 2:45 a.m., so I’ll have to come back to that tomorrow.

  11. I’m not sure if this is the writing quote you’re looking for (it sounds a bit too long for what you were trying to paraphrase), but one of my favorites on the topic is by Madeleine L’Engle (in “Walking on Water”):

    “Not long ago a college senior asked if she could talk to me about being a Christian writer. If she wanted to write Christian fiction, how was she to go about it?

    I told her that if she is truly and deeply a Christian, what she mentions is going to be Christian, whether she mentions Jesus or not. And if she is not, in the most profound sense, Christian, then what she writes is not going to be Christian, no matter how many times she invokes the name of the Lord.”

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