All-Out Geekery

As I’m writing this I’m watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog for at least the third time. I’m also a regular viewer of Felicia Day’s The Guild. My most major film project to date has been set in the world of Lord of the Rings fandom. And I’ve even done a vampire movie.

(Speaking of which, on my international red-eye flight last night, I finally sampled the Twilight universe in the form of the Twilight: New Moon flick. I did not become a fan. Though I am definitely on Team Jacob.)

One of the many question an actor thinks about is his brand. I don’t mind admitting that I don’t like a lot of the theatre I’ve seen, and most of what’s on T.V. I have a better hit rate with movies because I’m better able to screen what I see ahead of time. But I’m picky. A story may be skillfully executed, but if I don’t fall head-over-heels in love with the story itself, I don’t care about the execution. And besides the story, there must also be at least one character (preferably more!) whom I can love as well.

In theatre, I fall in love with plays like The World Over, A Man for All Seasons, The Crucible, and musicals like Les Misérables. In film, I fall in love with movies like The Lord of the Rings, Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Last Unicorn. In both, there tend to be intense tests of a person’s moral character set within an epic tale of good-vs-evil, often with fantastic elements.

This love of fantasy intersects with the less serious, more “squee!” fanboy side of my personality to produce an all-out love of geekery. And after watching clips about an hour ago from the Secretary of Geek Affairs Wil Wheaton‘s appearance on the T.V. show The Big Bang Theory (eliciting Khan after Khan reference), I have come to a major and freeing decision about my brand as an actor.

I’m gonna forget about “brand.” I’m just gonna be a geek.

I’m gonna go after the types of shows that make me laugh out loud with glee. Doing The FellowsHip reminded me of many of the fandoms and geek kibble I’ve been a part of and devoured, to greater or lesser degrees. Among them, in no particular order:

-Tolkien
-Narnia
-Harry Potter
-Star Trek (Picard pwns Kirk)
-Star Wars
-Monty Python
-musical theatre
-superhero movies (Batman, X-Men, Spiderman)
-Dr. Horrible
-The Guild
-games (LOTRO, M:tG, a brief trial of WoW, old school Nintendo, X-Wing flight simulators)
-performers like Wil Wheaton, Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day, and Patrick Stewart
-Renn faires (esp. jousting)
Society for Creative Anachronism

I’m going for all-out geekery. And also for an Inklings-tinged vision of religious theatre. Because by Jove, I love them both.

Let’s see where they take me.

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?

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?

C.S. Lewis College & the Arts

I have just returned from a week-and-a-half’s vacation with my family in India. We went from Delhi to Jaipur to Corbett National Park to Nainital in the foothills of the Himalayas. (Let me just say that the sunsets up there are absolutely gorgeous, and I could happily live as a hermit for a summer in sight of those snowy peaks.) I returned to Oxford with family in tow on Sunday to the sight of snow covering the ground. It looks like we’ll be having a white Christmas here at the Kilns!

(Picture snapped yesterday morning)

I also arrived home to some news so good I’ve been sharing it with folks left and right:

Announcing the founding of C.S. LEWIS COLLEGE!

You heard that right, folks. After years of work, one of the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s two major physical projects – the other being the running of the Kilns and its programs – finally has a home, and a proposed start date. And I – and the other friends of the Foundation with whom I’ve spoken – couldn’t be happier.

On the website linked to above, you’ll find information on the Dec. 16th announcement, including videos from the press conference with the participating organizations, and an information video on the plan for the College. There are also press documents and FAQs, as well as links to the venture’s partners.

You want the details?

-C.S. Lewis College will be a Christian Great Books College with a School of Visual and Performing Arts. Denominationally, it will be “merely Christian,” open to all who hold the most basic tenets of the Christian Faith, including Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and others.

-The privately-owned Oklahoma-based arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby has made a generous $5 million commitment to buy and maintain the Northfield, Massachusetts campus of the Northfield Mt. Hermon School, a private co-ed boarding school which has consolidated its activities to another campus, for the purposes of establishing C.S. Lewis College. (Three cheers for Hobby Lobby and Northfield Mt. Hermon!)

-The College plans to enroll 400 students and maintain 40 faculty and 45 staff members when it opens. Subject to the accreditation process, the College plans to commence instruction in Fall 2012.

(Picture from new C.S. Lewis College campus. Photography by Sharon LaBella-Lindale. More pictures available here.)

C.S. Lewis College is exactly the kind of college I was looking for as a high school senior interested in both professional-level theatre training and a solid foundation in the liberal arts within a Christian academy. I didn’t find such an environment at the time (though I have since been informed of smaller Christian colleges that I have been told have excellent theatre programs, such as Benedictine College in Kansas), so I was split between my two top choices. One was Wheaton College, which my father, grandfather, and several other family members had attended and loved, and which impressed me with its commitment to a solidly intellectual Christian environment and the warmth and fellowship of its students and faculty. The other was New York University, which had an academic culture that was the polar opposite of Wheaton’s (just how much so I was to find out later), but which had one of the top undergraduate professional theatre training programs in the country. Wheaton did not even have a theatre major. So, on the advice of my father, I chose NYU. My father knew that I wanted top-level training, and I think he also knew that he did not have to worry about me losing my faith in NYU’s strongly secular environment.

I’ve often wondered if I made the right choice. I was greatly challenged by my teachers, made good friends, and gained a higher level of confidence in my abilities (and of course added a certain cachet to my resume), but the cultural atmosphere oppressed me greatly. The kind of theatre promoted at NYU – postmodern, experimental, and focused on Art for Art’s Sake instead of  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – was not the kind of theatre I wanted to do. On the other hand, I would not have received the same level of training at Wheaton, even though my artistic ideas would have been given much more support.

I don’t want other young Christians following a vocation to a life as a professional artist to experience the same dilemma, and have to choose either a Christian academic environment or top-level professional training. Therefore, I hope that C.S. Lewis College will be able to provide both. I’m sure that it will provide a Christian academic environment that initiates the student in the life of the mind and the growth of the spirit, to the greater glory of God and for Christ and His Kingdom (to quote mottoes of the Society of Jesus and of Wheaton College, found carved in stone at their respective academic institutions). My hope is that the College will also be able to recruit top-level professors and instructors in the arts, that will not only be able to help their students grow artistically in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but also gain the cutting-edge skills required to succeed in the top rung of the professional artistic world. It will be the job of these professors and these students, as it is my job and the job of all Christian artists, to blaze a path for traditional artistic values in today’s artistic culture of death. And we can only do that through unassailable excellence in our own work.

So, in the spirit of love for the Foundation and the College, and whole-hearted support of their mission, I humbly offer my thoughts on the formation of a School of Visual and Performing Arts at a Christian Great Books college, and what I myself would be looking for if I were once again a potential student:

1) A major in Theatre or Performing Arts (with a possible B.F.A. option). I would want to make sure I was receiving enough practical training to be competitive in the major professional markets of New York, L.A., Chicago, and the primary regional theatres around the country. I recognize, however, that a Great Books college usually requires the same curriculum of all its students, or at least a very similar one. (Thomas More College in New Hampshire, for example, allows for tailoring of its largely uniform curriculum through the Junior and Senior Tutorials, Junior Project, and Senior Thesis, in which the student focuses on a particular area of study of his own choice.) A Great Books curriculum might similarly allow arts students in their later years to tailor their instruction by taking specialized training courses (like Performing Shakespeare, Musical Theatre, Commedia dell’ Arte), either through classes or independent or small-group study, or undertake an artistic thesis (like writing or directing a full-length play). Alternatively, if there were a B.F.A. option, arts students could study the same core Great Books curriculum as all other students their first two years, and replace one or two areas of the Great Books curriculum with training courses their last two years. (Great Books curricula are generally divided into areas such as Literature, Sciences, Philosophy, Theology, History, etc. The Masters program at St. John’s College allows graduate students to choose four out of five areas in which to study.) I doubt this is the direction in which the Foundation is going with C.S. Lewis College, but it might be a good option for another institution. My biggest concern as a prospective student interested in acting professionally would be that I would spend all my time reading and discussing books and writing papers, but very little time actually learning and practicing the skills needed to pursue my craft. If I saw on a website a separate School for the Visual and Performing Arts, I would assume that as an arts student I would be carefully trained in my craft, as well as studying the Great Books.

2) Discussion of the Great Books of the arts (especially Christian), with participation by all students, but especially arts students. I would be looking for the Great Books of the arts, and not just literature, to be covered by the Great Books curriculum. For example, Aristotle’s Poetics would be a basic read for all students, as well as the experience of Shakespeare as drama, and not just as written literature. Students would be exposed to the Great (non-written) Texts of the arts, such as the paintings of Fra Angelico, the music of Palestrina, the medieval Mystery Plays (in performance), the architecture of the great Gothic cathedrals. The Way of Beauty program at Thomas More College does this well. It includes instruction in the singing of the psalmody in the Divine Office, for example, and it’s a core part of their curriculum. Arts students may spend more time on the Great Books of the arts, but all students should be exposed to them.

3) Development of an artistic worldview and discussion of the role of the Christian artist. I feel this focus is very much in line with the Foundation’s mission. In order to counter the prevailing artistic worldview of modern and postmodern art, in which all value is subjective and the purpose of art is the self-expression of the artist, we must provide students with an alternate way to view art, and their role in the world as artists. This means discussion of the role of the artist, especially the Christian artist, and an emphasis on the traditional artistic values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. This means asking the arts students to think about what they want to stand for, and what they want to communicate through their art. A possible project might be the creating of a personal manifesto for each arts student. I know some college theatre programs that require their students to take a senior-year “business of acting” course, at the end of which they create a personalized career plan in consultation with the teacher. They leave the class knowing in which areas of the business they want to focus their efforts (Shakespeare, stand-up comedy, musical theatre, film) and how to best market themselves in that area. Arts students at a Christian Great Books college could take a course on the vocation of the artist, which might include regular spiritual reflections on their vocation (perhaps with the guidance of a spiritual director chosen by each student), and which would culminate in the writing of a manifesto describing the artistic mission to which each feels called. Reflecting on the meaning of art and the responsibility of the artist would go far toward helping arts students graduate with a strong sense of vocation and artistic purpose, and with increased spiritual growth as Christian artists and as human beings. You know, I wonder if writing such a “vocation statement,” as part of a senior-year retreat or period of spiritual direction, might be beneficial for all students.

4) A strong ensemble theatre company with a Christian mandate, but not limited to Christian productions. This would be one of the trickiest accomplishments to pull off, but it’s something I intend to try someday. (More on this theme later after I finish reading my current book, God Off-Broadway: The Blackfriars Theatre of New York by Matthew Powell, O.P., a history of the only professional theatre in the U.S. to have been run by a religious order.) Especially if there is minimal flexibility in the curriculum, I would like to see all performing arts students involved in regular practical production work with a theatre company that holds itself to professional standards. It may be entirely student-run, or it may be led or overseen by faculty, but the majority of the work would be done by the students, providing them with opportunities not only to perform, but also to direct, produce, design, write, stage manage, crew, etc. It would also reflect the artistic ethos of the college. I believe the most effective ethos would be one that both glorifies God and lovingly and manfully engages the non-Christian. The Lord of the Rings, in my opinion, is the ultimate example of the kind of art that we need more of. It’s accessible to and rings true for the non-believer, but despite not being explicitly Christian is at the same time deeply Christian. The Christian vision of the world is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, but it is presented in a way that does not alienate the non-Christian. Instead, it helps him to understand what Christianity means through his heart, instead of through his head. It can baptize the imagination. There is room for art that is explicitly Christian and is directed to other Christians. We need that art just as much. But the world also needs art created by Christians that is directed to the general public, otherwise we’re just talking to ourselves. I would also not want the members of a student ensemble to feel unable to take artistic risks for fear of offending someone. There’s a very fine line between making powerful and possibly uncomfortable artistic statements out of a love of truth and with compassion for one’s neighbor, and making such statements out of a desire to be bold or to shock, or worse, out of a conscious desire to offend. Scott Walters, in his important blog post “Offending the Audience” (which I’ve come back to repeatedly), quotes Wendell Berry, who distinguishes between an artist who has the “intention to offend” and one who has the “willingness to risk offending.” I would want all theatre students to know that the intention to offend is incompatible with the practice of Christian charity. But artistis must sometimes have the willingness to risk offending, if what they are saying must be said. If they can say it without offending, though, so much the better. I just wouldn’t want a student theatre company to be de-clawed and limited to doing Neil Simon or dramatizations of Bible stories, for fear of stronger, meatier, and more intellectual and possibly controversial work. This is always a risk in the wider Christian theatre, where we’d rather be safe than risk going over the line. I don’t want to cross that line, any more than any other Christian does, but we may have to get pretty close to it sometimes. But as long as the students have charity toward their audiences and their fellow artists, I think they’ll be able to handle any potential controversy with grace and compassion, and will be able to pull back if they have indeed gone too far. In any case, practice doing solid, thought-provoking work, while feeling out what it means in practice to be a Christian artist, would be an invaluable experience for any arts student.

5) General college-wide support for the arts, and an understanding of the artistic vocation as a means to glorify God. This would include an administration and professors who see the arts as a good thing, and a perfectly valid way to glorify God with integrity. It would also mean a campus ministry that appreciates the sacred arts and their liturgical use, as well as campus ministers and professors who can provide arts students with encouragement as they prepare to enter an often-hostile professional world. It would also mean a career services program that is familiar with the career paths of artists, and can provide help to students who are seeking to enter the professional world directly after graduation (and not just help with finding a day job, but help finding work in their artistic field). Fundamentally, the college would have a respect and love for the arts, and not a skepticism of their value or moral cleanliness. It would be perfectly acceptable to have a college code of conduct reminding students to be responsible in their entertainment choices (as Wheaton does) – in fact, I would probably expect it. But I would be uncomfortable about applying if I noticed a pattern of denunciations of the theatre, or of movies, or of rock music, or of dancing, without specifying the forms of each that are problematic for the Christian. I’m perfectly happy to avoid nihilistic theatre pieces, idiotically crass films, profane rock music, or practically pornographic dance venues, as detrimental to my moral and spiritual health. But, since I know good and fruitful forms of each of these areas of art, I would be disturbed if a college condemned any of them as bad in themselves. I don’t see this as a problem for C.S. Lewis College, since I know the Foundation to be committed to a renewal of Christian thought in the arts as part of their mission. But I thought I’d mention it in general, as I have come across Christians who are skeptical of whole forms of art, based on past abuses. (The relationship between the Church and the theatre in the past has been particularly rocky, not without reason.)

So, there are some thoughts that came to mind as I reflected on the exciting possibilities of having a Christian Great Books college with a School for Visual and Performing Arts. I hope that you’re as excited about the potential of C.S. Lewis College as I am. (And hey, if you are, the C.S. Lewis Foundation is at 93.4% of their fundraising goal for 2009. How about clicking here to help them out with that last 6.6% in the last week of the year? Get that extra deduction for your taxes.)

What are your thoughts about the possibilities for a Christian Great Books college with a School for Visual and Performing Arts? What would you like to see in such a program? I have nothing to do with the creation of the curriculum or the founding of the College – I’m just a cheerleader and a provider of small financial contributions when possible – but I am very excited, and interested in seeing the development of a new curriculum from a college’s inception. As someone who wants to teach at the college level in the area of theology and the arts (especially exploring the areas of #3 and #4 above), I’m interested in your thoughts on the teaching of theatre in a Christian environment. What would you like to see? I’ll make sure the Foundation is aware of the existence of this post and of your comments and support.

May you have a very merry Christmas, and a blessed New Year.

To Theresa Rebeck

This post is a response to the playwright Theresa Rebeck’s essay “Can Craft and Creativity Live on the Same Stage?”, posted on the Lark Theatre Play Development Center’s blog. My favorite paragraph from her essay:

There are always questions inside questions. Who is theater supposed to serve? Why do we do it, anyway? Do we write for audiences, or do we write for ourselves and our community? If we are convinced that the purest forms of theater—the ones that honor the original and mysterious impulses in the heart of the playwright, and ask that the playwright find the most original and “unconventional” theatricalities to express that impulse—then do we need audiences at all? Why do we get mad at audiences for not flocking to theater which doesn’t interest them because it doesn’t care about them?

I heartily recommend that you click on the title link above, and read both the playwright’s essay, and the comments below. And my response:

Thank you, Ms. Rebeck. I graduated a few years ago from one of the top undergraduate drama programs in the country. During my freshman year essay class, I was NOT ALLOWED to write about art pieces with a story. I could only write about non-narrative art. As someone who came to the theatre because of an intense love of story, I was incredibly frustrated.

My frustration increased throughout my education, to the point where by the end I had decided to leave acting. At every turn, the type of theatre I wanted to do was decried as not “avant-garde” enough, too conventional, too “bourgeois,” too traditional and “conservative” (that damning epithet). Why? Because I insisted on story and heroes. I used the word “edify,” and was told with scorn that I therefore wanted all theatre to be neat little morality plays. Two of my fellow students and I walked out of a class viewing of a performance art piece that included a naked man urinating on stage, face front to the audience. When I told another professor about it, I was told that I “had a problem with peeing.” On stage, as art? You bet I do.

There were three fundamental assumptions I took out of the culture in my program:

1) Artists are more sensitive and more courageous than non-artists, and are therefore Very Special People.

2) The measure of a piece’s worth is whether or not it is new and ground-breaking, not whether or not it moves the audience deep within themselves. A piece that uses never-before-seen theatrical techniques and breaks down all the old conventions, but leaves the audience cold and confused (or angry at what they received for their time and money) is infinitely better than an old Agatha Christie or even Arthur Miller stand-by (or, God help us, Andrew Lloyd Webber) that leaves the audience in tears of laughter or pain even when they lie in their beds after the show. Did the audience feel so insulted they threw chairs at you? You’re a theatrical king, a martyr even. Did your performance of the Phantom of the Opera so move a young boy that he decided in his heart, “That is what I want to spend my life doing?” You’re a sell-out who panders to the sheeple.

This of course brings me to 3) Audiences who don’t appreciate experimental theater are not worthy of respect. I have very rarely enjoyed seeing experimental theater. Most every time, I leave feeling angry and insulted. I am angry when an artist uses shock value to get my attention. I am angry when an artist uses symbols or images that refer to story or character, but without the use of any story or character, and expect me to loan them the use of meaning they haven’t earned. I am angry when there is no story, and just an orgy of sound and movement. I am especially angry when, instead of trying to communicate with me, an artist just regurgitates his innards all over the stage. Sure, you may be complex and sensitive, and think a lot of deep thoughts, and feel intensely, but that doesn’t mean all of your thoughts and feelings are worth sharing with the public, especially when you refuse to structure them in a way that makes us able to understand them. Don’t yell at me in gibberish and then blame me for not listening.

I saw Keith Bunin’s The World Over at Playwrights Horizons when in premiered in 2002. It got mediocre reviews, but I remember it as the most moving theatrical experience of my life. It was experimental in terms of performance and staging. 6 actors played dozens of characters, including a gryphon and a hawk in flight. We witnessed a shipwreck on stage, as well as a woman being suspended over a pit of fire by a rope being eaten away by rats. The creativity shown by the performers, director, and designers was astounding. But what I remember most is the story: one hero, one man against the world, battling doubt, cynicism, failure, and loss, and finally coming to an ending so simple, but so perfect and satisfying, with a sweet edge of loving pain as well. I wept non-stop for half an hour afterwards, and thank God both the lead actor and the playwright let me wrap them in a life-or-death embrace, even while my face was still flooded with tears and my body was racked with sobs.

Give me more of that kind of experimental theatre. Give me a strong story with some hope, and a layered character I can love, and you’ve won me.

Filming “The FellowsHip”

I see it’s been about a month since my last post. Sorry! About a month ago was when I got a call saying that I had been offered a lead role in the feature film The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers (known at that time as The Fellowship), instead of the two-line day player role I had been offered earlier. I subsequently went into a whirlwind of rehearsals, finishing up my job at the Baltimore Theatre Alliance a few weeks early (thanks to the understanding of a boss who’s also an actor), and completing my student visa application.

We started shooting at various state parks in northern Virginia on August 10th, and have been shooting 12 hours a day, 6 days a week since then. I’ve therefore had limited computer access. Today is actually the first shooting day in which we’ve had wifi at the location, seeing as we’re shooting at our director of photography’s house.

I have had an amazing time shooting, even though it’s all been happening at the same time as my preparations for Oxford and moving out of my apartment (which happened this past weekend on my day off). The chance to do this type of movie is exactly why I became an actor. It’s an homage to J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, especially as portrayed in the Peter Jackson film trilogy. (I know that sentiments about these films among Tolkien fans are, shall we say, mixed, but I admit that I love them, not as the definitive version of the story, but as a great fanboy re-telling of the story.) There are many Easter eggs in our film for fans of the movies. And the director has managed to assemble a group of passionate geeks, many of whom are Tolkien fans, including our married D.P. and production manager, whose wedding rings read, “Two rings under summer’s dawn / the union of Halfling and Elf,” in Elvish script. It’s a fantastically fun set. The film, as well, is funny, well-written, and greatly entertaining without resorting to crude or profane content or language – an increasingly rare phenomenon, especially in movies aimed at the teenage male market.

Today we’re filming our “escape from the Shire.” A couple hours ago, I was sitting on the couch waiting to be called to set. Our production manager’s year-old Beagle was lying curled up against my side with her head on my lap, having finally decided to trust me after a day spent running the other way. (She’s a very shy puppy, especially when the house is filled with dozens of strange people.) I had my eyes closed and my head against the pillow, resting as I lightly scratched the dog’s side. I heard one of our crew members start to play “In Dreams,” one of the songs that played at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, on the piano in the next room. I sat thinking:

“I have a warm dog lying on my side. I’m listening to beautiful music inspired by Tolkien. I’m working on a film set, and when I’m done with this I’m going to go study theology at Oxford and live in C.S. Lewis’ house. All the stress, trouble, and anxiety in my life – it’s worth it for moments like this.”

It’s a sign of the goodness of God that He gives us moments like this, where we’re truly, truly, content, as happy as we can be on Earth. I’m in awe when I think about how even this will be nothing compared to the Beatific Vision, and eternal joy in Christ.

I should be back posting regularly in a week or so when we’re done filming. If all goes well with my visa (please pray!), I should be shipping out September 8th, and writing to you from Oxford after that point.

In the meantime, here’s some sample footage from The FellowsHip for you to enjoy! I’m the slightly chubby one with glasses.

P.S. – You can follow our producer Scott Matthias’ daily updates from the set by joining the group “The Fellowship Movie” on Facebook.

Review of A Man for All Seasons

Just thought I’d put up the review in the Pasadena Voice that the Pasadena Theatre Company got for our April/May production of A Man for All Seasons. It’s the first non-school review I’ve received that mentions me by name (bolded)!

Pasadena Theatre Company’s A Man For All Seasons Riveting Theater

By Mary P. Johnson

I’ve seldom experienced more riveting entertainment provided by Pasadena Theatre Company than their recent production of Robert Bolt’s classic play A Man For All Seasons presented over two weekends in late April and early May at Chesapeake Arts Center Studio 194.

Bolt’s play first appeared on Broadway in 1961 where it ran for more than a year and was awarded the Tony for best play in 1962.// Actor Paul Scofield played the Sir Thomas More role to win both the Tony and later the Oscar for his film portrayal.

The plot is based on the historical 16th century Chancellor of England cleric destined for sainthood Thomas More who refused to endorse Henry VIII’s wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon because she could not bear him a son as his excuse to marry Anne Boleyn.

A man defined by his conscience, loyal to the dictates of the Church despite the Pope’s being described as corrupt, Thomas More eventually resigns the Chancellorship but remains loyal to King Henry, refusing to support a rebellion on the Scottish border. Despite relinquishing his Chancellorship, Sir Thomas More was eventually brought to trial on false charges and executed.

Pasadena’s production was directed by Stephen Deininger, who is perhaps better known as a skilled versatile local actor. Here he proved a capable director pacing action in this demanding play and selecting a first-rate cast with every actor well suited to each role.

PTC stalwart Chuck Dick plays Sir Thomas More, the veteran actor delivering a thoughtful, nuanced performance in this demanding role requiring his presence in almost every scene for nearly three hours of philosophical debate.// His Sir Thomas expresses every line to evoke thoughtful responses from the audience along with their welcome occasional smiles.

Dick had a fine supporting cast to play loving family members and scoundrels of varying degrees.

Each role contains faceted elements, expertly revealed.

In the role of the Common Man and Narrator, Tom Rendulic amusingly guided the audience through the narrative while proving his versatility in the roles of More’s servant, a boatman, More’s jailor, the jury foreman and More’s executioner, always adding wry humor and conveying a sense of reluctance in his need to survive by recognizing the weaknesses of his superiors.

James Poole as Cambridge student Master Richard Rich gave a credible portrayal of a young man who has few restraints imposed by his conscience, moving ahead by befriending others lusting for power. Poole’s Rich is eventually commits perjury that results in More’s execution.

Outstanding players include Keith Thompson as the Duke of Norfolk, who remains loyal to Sir Thomas but is inclined to go along with the crowd rather than take the higher road of conscience.//

Elizabeth Simonaire plays Sir Thomas More’s wife Lady Alice, growing in the role as she witnesses the unjust fate of her beloved husband. Playing their daughter Lady Margaret is Morgan Wright, who delivers a sensitive performance. Her husband the impetuous William Roper is strongly played by Cole Matson.

As the enigmatic villain Oliver Cromwell, Tim Sayles commands his every scene.

In summary PTC’s A Man For All Seasons will remain in the memories of audience members who were fortunate to attend any of the six performances at Chesapeake Arts Center Studio 194.

I’ve decided to choose St. Thomas More as my patron (although you might say he chose me). It’s partially through his story that I came to the Church, and he’s one of the first true historical heroes I was inspired by, back in high school when I saw the Paul Scofield film for the first time in A.P. Modern European History class. More said about Will Roper, his Lutheran son-in-law, “I will clean give him over, and get me for a while to God and pray for him,” after which Will returned to the Church, which he never left again. It was an honor to be able to play Roper, and for me doing the play felt somewhat like a re-enactment, during which I came to believe that St. Thomas was praying for me as well.

I admire St. Thomas for his:

1) Integrity and commitment to conscience (although not with the same emphasis on the self that one could interpret the Bolt play to have)

2) Loyalty and deference to proper authority (even the King, when the King was his enemy, as far as was lawful)

3) Commitment to religious discipline and study, even as a layman, and joyfulness and thoroughness in leading his family in the practice of the Faith

4) Gentleness, meekness, and charity toward those who persecuted him

5) His refusal to judge others, and only judge his own actions, following the precept of Thomas à Kempis in the Imitation of Christ: “Judge yourself, and beware of passing judgement on others. In judging others, we expend our energy to no purpose; we are often mistaken, and easily sin. But if we judge ourselves, our labour is always to our profit” (trans. Leo Sherley-Price, 1952 – I’m reading a selection of this every day, and this was from today’s reading).

St. Thomas More’s virtue is so very far above my own, but I hope, through his intercession, to get a wee bit closer by the end of my life.

(Oh, and Sir Thomas studied at Oxford as well, at Canterbury Hall, which was subsequently absorbed into Christ Church College. Oxford men unite!)

Theatre Company Brain Dump

Here’s my plan for the next few years:

2009-2011: Second BA in Theology at Oxford University

2011-2012: M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination & the Arts at the ITIA at the University of St Andrews

2012-2015: D.Phil. in Theology, Imagination & the Arts, ditto

Doctoral dissertation: The Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist

And then? I’m currently thinking: Create a Christian theatre company.

Here’s my brain dump about my ideal company:

1) Excellent work. In contrast to the view that seems to be prevalent about Christian art, at least in the U.S., having good intentions does not excuse mediocre work.

2) Do only plays that will contribute something to the world – are edifying, or hopeful, or morally exemplary, or challenges us as human beings.

3) Involve the community, whether by doing world premieres of plays by local playwrights, or supporting young artists, or doing talkbacks and discussions. Be sensitive to what the community wants and needs.

4) Eventually would like to do 12 shows a year (like Spotlighters, the theatre where I currently volunteer doing box office, and teach during the summer’s Young Actors’ Academy), but at minimum, 3-4.

5) Actors, directors, designers, technical personnel, and staff are all the same people, and all work together as an ensemble. Each person works according to his strengths, and therefore no one person will take on all roles unless he wants to, but every person will take on more than one role.

6) The company will work with local churches and be of service to them, whether providing space, being involved with worship (as the company members choose), or helping host activities and discussions.

7) Perhaps affiliated with the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s C.S. Lewis College? It would be awesome for the College’s Performing Arts Center to have an Equity theatre affiliated with it, or at least a high-quality professional non-union theatre.

What would you like to see in a Christian theatre company?

We Are All of Us Called to Be Heroes

I’m appearing as William Roper, St. Thomas More‘s Lutheran son-in-law, in a production of A Man for All Seasons, presented by the Pasadena Theatre Company at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Maryland. Our show closes this weekend (though we’re doing a school show next Tuesday morning, tomorrow a week). This is one of my favorite plays, and was made into one of my favorite movies.

To me, one of the major benefits of this play is the challenge it makes to us, as audience members, to think about how far we would go to maintain our integrity. In our modern Western society, we think of saints as something anachronistic, a relic from a by-gone era. And as I pointed out at the talkback after yesterday’s matinee, when we study the saints, especially those who were major figures in society, we tend to discount any religious motivations for their behavior, and instead focus on political or social motivations. We discussed the motivation of King Henry VIII in pursuing More, whom he could very well have left quiet in retirement, in which case we wouldn’t remember Sir Thomas. Our talkback guest, a history professor from a local university, pointed out that Henry was a significant theologian, and a man who experienced scruples of conscience (for instance, when he mercifully commuted More’s sentence from drawing and quartering to beheading). If you take the view that Henry (and More, and the Pope, and all the other religious political leaders of the time) acted only out of political and selfish motivations, you miss a rich layer of human experience and historical study.

But back to saints. One argument that’s often made about saints, and other heroes, in drama is that they’re “too good,” and therefore the audience can’t identify with them, which means they need to be “humanized.” For example, I remember when I took a course in Arthurian legend at NYU. The professor asked us which of Arthur’s knights we would choose to be if we could. The vast majority of the class chose Lancelot, a handful chose Gawain, and I chose Galahad, because he was the only one who remained sinless and pure enough to wholly achieve the Quest of the Grail. The other students felt Galahad was “too good,” and therefore a character with whom they couldn’t identify. Lancelot and Gawain were “human,” because they made mistakes. It’s not that I could identify with Galahad’s goodness – I’m not even on Lancelot’s level – but if I were to aim to be like any of the knights, why would I stop with Lancelot? Why is Galahad seen as “not human” because he is good, rather than the most fully human of them all?

To me, this idea of heroes and saints being “too good” and therefore not “human” sets up a dangerous dichotomy between the quest for spiritual perfection and “being human.” We are all called to be saints. All of us will either allow ourselves to be made perfect, or will fall to the depths of lowest depravity. There is no just “being human.” Part of being human is the call to sainthood. Now, as humans, touched by original sin, we will all fail in the quest for perfection, but thankfully we have grace, which, if we allow it, will mold us in the end into shining beings even more glorious and good than even the saints were here on earth.

One thing that interests me about actors is the common claim that playing villains is more interesting, because their motivation is more complex, and that playing the good guy is boring. IMHO, the good guy is the more interesting one, because he is the character who does not allow himself to give into the temptations that villains allow themselves to fall into, or he is the one who is redeemed from previous sins by making the hard choice to do good instead. Make no mistake, acting morally and doing good is a lot harder than living for oneself and watching out for “Number One.” I’d rather play a character who has the courage to make that tough choice than play one who’s slick, cool, and morally cowardly. And if it’s the writers who are making villains three-dimensional and making heroes two-dimensional? Then I think that’s a symptom of our fallen nature, which finds it easier to imagine evil than imagine good. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, in order to write (and play) villains, all we have to do is look inside ourselves to find the necessary anger, lust, and pride, whereas in order to write (and play) heroes, we must imagine the inner mental and spiritual state of people better than ourselves. (If someone can find me the exact quote, I’ll add it. I’m blanking on it at the moment.)

All this is to say that we are each of us called to be Thomas Mores, and therefore to read or watch the play A Man for All Seasons should not solely be an exercise in understanding the political, social, and religious decisions that led St. Thomas to his martyrdom, but should also be a lesson in how each of us should act should we (God forbid) be placed in a similar situation. And people are still martyred, and made to suffer, today, for their faith, and for their consciences. The whistle-blower who loses his job and financial security because he will not keep silent about wrongdoing; the student who loses a friend because he will not lie about the friend’s cheating on a test; and the soldier who is mocked and threatened because he exposes inhuman and illegal behavior toward the enemy – all of these share in some small way the honor of those like St. Thomas who treasured their conscience more than their life. Not to mention the thousands of people each year who are actually murdered for their religious beliefs. It still happens today, and will continue to happen, which is why saints and martyrs like St. Thomas must not be thought of as anachronisms, but as living examples on which to model our own behavior today.

“We are all of us called to be heroes.” – Adam, The World Over (Keith Bunin)

Offending the Audience

Several of us theatre artists have been having a passionate discussion on offending the audience, and other matters relating to the place of art and the responsibilities of artists, on Scott Walters’ blog, which I’ve found so valuable (see this post) that I’ve added him to my blogroll.

Scott puts his finger precisely on the problem with the modern art world when he says:

Artists have been taught, ever since the Romantic Movement, that they are above society, above morality, that they have no responsibility to anyone except themselves and their so-called vision, and that despite their anti-social stance society ought to support them because they’re Special People.

This was exactly the atmosphere at my undergraduate university, where many of my peers, encouraged by our professors, congratulated themselves on being artists, and therefore so much more sensitive, empathetic, and courageous than those plebians who weren’t brave enough to “live the dream” of life as an artist. And the height of bravery as an artist was being unafraid to shock, confuse, and offend your audience. I remember watching a taped theatre piece in which a naked man urinated on stage, fully facing the audience and the camera. At that point, which was about 45 minutes into that increasingly enraging piece of theatre, I and a couple other students walked out of class. When I mentioned it to one of my other professors, I was told I had a problem with peeing. On stage – you bet I do.

If you’re an artist of any kind, I highly recommend you read at least some of the thread (now over 70 comments long), which can be found here. Feel free to join the conversation there, or let me know what you think here.

One of the questions that came up was the purpose of art, especially whether artists have a responsibility to make art with their community in mind. I listed a few of my goals as an artist:

-Give people hope
-Inspire them to a morally higher level of behavior (more compassionate, more truthful, etc.)
-Increase a sense of empathy for others
-Celebrate the beauty and goodness in the world

Since I plan to write a doctoral dissertation (or at least Master’s thesis) on the moral responsibility of the artist, this particular question is of the utmost importance to me. I’d like to ask you, awesome readers: What are some of the goals you believe artists should have – if any?