Thoughts on a Religious Theatre Community

So first of all, I have decided to run the series on a theatre company run according to the Rule of St Benedict. I may follow it up by looking at some of the other Rules of religious life as well, such as the Rule of St Augustine which the Augustinians and Dominicans use.

One of the major reasons why I’m doing this is that I am interested in the idea of a religious community whose main apostolate is theatre. I’ve run across religious communities that do theatre (like the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut, and the couple Dominican priests who operated an off-Broadway theatre in the 20th century under the aegis of their province), and also arts-makers who live in a semi-communal monasticism-influenced environment (the Art Monastery in Italy, an arts incubator and collective based in a medieval monastery). But I’ve not run across a religious community that does theatre (or arts in general) as its main apostolate. There are many religious congregations, societies of apostolic life, and association of the faithful that focus on missionary work, education, health care, promoting devotions, and other worthy activities. These might use the arts in their work, but I have not run across a single one of these organizations whose charism is to create art to God’s glory. I think this is a lack that should be supplied, and as I am at the beginning of a long-term period of vocational discernment, supplying that missing charism is an option I am considering strongly.

I’ve got to thank the Prof, Scott Walters, for planting the seed of this idea with his vision statement for theatre tribes, though I’m taking it in a bit of a different direction. Nevertheless, imagine this:

A troupe of theatre professionals devoted to creating theatre to the greater glory of God, and also to deepening their relationships with God, with each other, and with their communities by reflecting the servant role of an artist and Christian through a life of radical self-giving and prayer. They take the evangelical counsels, vowing poverty (not hard for an artist), chastity (a bit harder), and obedience (by far the hardest). (Since the model I am considering is intended to grow into a religious congregation, it is Catholic, but I am sure this model could be adjusted accordingly for members of other faith traditions.) The grounds include a chapel (the spiritual heart of the community, reserved for prayer, worship, and reflection – not to be used as extra rehearsal or performance space). There are also living quarters for the community, with extra rooms for visiting artists. There’s a refectory (area where meals can be taken in common), common room (where community members, resident visiting artists, and staff can relax), meeting room (for community and production meetings), and library with study space (the concept of the artist-scholar is an important tenet of the community).

The heart of the community’s work, however, is the theatre. Ideally there would be a larger proscenium-style space (though flexible and not limited to proscenium usage) as well as a smaller black box/studio theatre, accompanied by rehearsal studios of various sizes and equippage (as many as we can manage and practically use, at least one with a piano, one with a sprung dance floor, one with video equipment, etc.) There would also be scenery, prop, and costume shops, as well as materials and item storage. (It would be great to have enough space to offer storage space and materials to the community, with a low rental fee, to encourage reuse of materials. The “greening” of the build-use-destroy process would save other theatres money while bringing in a modest income to the community.) There would of course be a comfortable green room, and a community room where, for example, the theatre could host events, or provide space for gatherings of the greater local community. Programming would not only include shows that the resident troupe puts on, but also involvement by people from the local region. The theatre would be a place for them to create and produce their own art as well. (It could eventually grow into a full arts community, not just theatre.)

Troupe members would teach in schools and at the theatre. Multiple roles in the community (like acting, playwriting, marketing, and painting sets) would not only be encouraged but expected, though of course with a focus on one’s strengths and passions. (If you can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a paintbrush, no one’s going to suggest you take the role of chief scenic artist, but if there are a dozen set pieces that need to be painted, all available hands will be expected to help out.) This community would also share its resources communally, so any salary earned from teaching or independent bookings (or from ticket sales or donations) goes directly into the community pool, which also provides for the community members’ needs, as well as a modest monthly allowance per person. The community would be run on a democratic model similarly to the way the Dominicans run their priories, with members elected to leadership posts like general manager, bursar, artistic director, with term limits (though a person can be re-elected if they’re doing a good job and both they and the community would like them to continue). There would be shared worship on Sundays, among the community members and the local community. Communal prayer would happen in the chapel at least twice daily (morning and evening prayer). Best of all, it would be theatre artists living together, sharing a common life of artistic creation and prayer. Religious life with a theatre apostolate.

Now I’m just throwing ideas out there at the moment. Religious life places certain limitations on the flexibility of a theatre (and, to be honest, on its artistic content). But a life of not only shared artistic creation, but also shared prayer between a community of residential Christian artists is very attractive to me, even if it doesn’t go so far as vowed religious life. (I’ve just brought that aspect in because it’s something I’ve thought about very seriously recently.)

Does any of the above sound attractive to anyone else? Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, critiques? Let’s hash it out. How might something like this work? Keeping in mind I’m discussing at the moment a residential theatre company with communal living that has a religious component. Has anyone heard or thought of anything like this? If it’s an idea that interests you, how might you go about it?

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Religious Theatre Community

  1. Karen,

    Great to meet you. I’ve started by being Artist-in-Residence at the Sheen Center, the Archdiocese of New York’s new arts center in Manhattan, which has two theatres, rehearsal studios, and bedrooms for up to three artists-in-residence at a time. We’re currently taking applications:

    I’m also talking with the Archdiocese about finding a building in which Catholic artists can live in more permanent residential community. (See the latest post on my blog for more information.)

    I’d love to speak with you over Skype to learn more about what you’re seeking, and share where we are now. Feel free to write me directly at ccematson at gmail dot com to set up a time if you’d like.

    Yours in Christ,

  2. I have been discerning this for the past 2 years and am starting research in funding/starting/finding such a community. Have you moved forward? I attend a Benedictine graduate school, know their community life, am a spiritual director, facilitator, improv actor, and co-founded a non-profit faith-based theatre production company.

    Thank you.

  3. Alisha,

    The plan has developed. I’ve just e-mailed you the current idea document for an institute of consecrated life devoted to artistic creation and ministry to artists (which I will gladly send to anyone else who comes across this post and expresses interest). I’m located in Scotland until late summer/early fall 2014.

  4. I’d join! I was a theatre major in college and conducted a local church drama ministry while in seminary. The latter included writing drama sketches, recruiting and training actors in the church, directing, obtaining props and costumes, the whole shebang. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to live in a monastic community (if I wasn’t married with three children!). Your idea combines the best of many worlds, especially if it would welcome married couples and families as well as singles. 🙂

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