Next Steps: Catholic Artists’ Community in NYC

Brief update to let you all know what’s going on with the institute of consecrated life devoted to artists:

I’ll be disappearing to the family ranch in Kansas for the months of September-December to finish my dissertation. I will not be working on anything not related to my dissertation (which is on the Eucharistic theologies of the Reduta Theatre, the Rhapsodic Theatre, and Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre), except for a talk in New York City in November. (If you’re in the NYC area and want to get together then, let me know in the comments!)

In January, I plan to move to a house of spiritual formation for Catholic young adults on Long Island, New York. There, for a year, myself and other interested artists with whom I have been discussing the idea will lay the groundwork for a lay community of Catholic artists in the New York City area. Some of us will also be exploring the creation of a theatre company, or at least the mounting of individual productions.

open hands

Here are the answers to some questions you might be thinking:

Q: What’s a lay community? Is it the same idea as the institute of consecrated life?

A: The two ideas are different. The institute of consecrated life would involve eventual permanent vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in an institute recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (with a form of affiliated membership for non-Catholics). The lay community idea involved Catholic artists living together in intentional community, without vows or any promises of permanent membership/residence. I have discovered that while there are a few artists who feel called both to an artistic vocation and a consecrated vocation, there are many more who would like to live in community with other believing artists in a way that provides spiritual support for all the members, but without placing limitations on their work or careers, or their ability to pursue dating and marriage. The lay community would, basically, be a group of Catholics who are also artists living together in a shared house or apartment.

I expect that, out of the lay community, there may eventually arise a few candidates interesting in pursuing a consecrated life dedicated to service through the arts and to artists. At that point, we will explore the institute idea more fully.

Q: What would this lay community look like?

The current idea is that a small group of Catholic artists – probably 3-6 to start – would live in community in either donated or privately rented accommodation. (If you have any leads on appropriate sources of housing, please comment below, or email me!) We would continue to work in our normal jobs – as actors, filmmakers, painters, etc. – and would maintain our own individual finances. In order for the community to be intentional community, we would have at least some structured shared time together each week. (For example, when I lived in the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, we took turns cooking each other supper on Sunday nights.) For those who wish, there could also be some times of shared prayer each day. In addition, anyone who wants to cooperate on a ministry project, could. However, requirements would be flexible, and not oppressive. This would be a freely-chosen and freely-developed way of community life, chosen for a period of time, not a permanent commitment to a structured monastic timetable. One of the benefits of living in the community house in which I intend to live over the next year will be learning what works and what doesn’t in structuring a community, especially one in which the members are not necessarily working normal 9-to-5 jobs. (For example, it makes no sense to require a house full of actors to attend communal morning prayer at 7.30am. Actors often work until midnight.)

Q: Why Catholic? Why not Christian (or ecumenical)?

The primary answer to this question, at the moment, is that it is Catholic artists who are interested. I have had conversations with non-Catholic Christian artists who are interested in some form of community life, but the ones who have indicated immediate willingness to create something now are Catholic artists interested in creating a Catholic community. It is important to me, as a Catholic raised in a Protestant church, that all the members of Christ’s Body work together. Therefore, I hope that a ‘merely Christian’ community can also be founded at some point. And if anyone wants to take up that project, let me know how I can support you. I am excited to see how the Spirit brings together these two ideas.

As for a religiously-ecumenical community – that is, a community of artists who belong to a variety of religions – I think such a community is a good idea. It is not, however, the idea I feel called to pursue. For me personally, at the moment, it is important to partner with other artists who share faith in Christ, so that we can support each other in that faith, and preach Christ to the world. However, my prayers and blessings go with anyone who does feel called to witness to the commonality of faith between people of different religions by living together in intentional community. For, in the world, we are all called to live together in community and love.

Q: How can I learn more?

Fill out this form, and let me know your questions. If you request, I can add you to my list of people to inform via e-mail once we get started. I can also send you a copy of my draft document describing the proposed institute of consecrated life dedicated to artists and service through the arts.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or comments, or would like to support this project, please comment below, or shoot me an email. Thank you for your prayers.

Yours,
Cole

_________

Image credit: Reg A. Klubeck – “I looked at my hands today”

Juliusz Osterwa’s Dal & Genezja: A Vision for Theatrical Religious Orders from Post-War Poland

From Kazimierz Braun, A History of Polish Theater, 1939-1989: Spheres of Captivity and Freedom (Contributions in Drama & Theatre Studies, #64) (London: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 20, bold added:

While in Warsaw the Clandestine Theater Council worked on practical plans for the operation of theater after the war, in Cracow [the famous actor and director Juliusz] Osterwa alone drew up a statement on the moral, ideological, and religious foundations for future theater. Osterwa based his concepts on a thorough critique of the prewar Polish theater, including his own work, from an aesthetic as well as ethical point of view. He concluded that the Polish theater, along with the entire country, must undergo a “great transformation,” as a result of their “purification” by the sufferings of war. The purpose of the transformed theater would be an absolute devotion to the service of the nation and of God (testimony to Osterwa’s Catholicism). In the process of developing these postulates, Osterwa created a vision of the entire theatrical life in free Poland, encompassing different types of theater institutions, their objectives, organization, architecture, and rules for the Actors’ Union. To establish new work ethics and transform theater people internally, Osterwa envisaged two theatrical associations, Dal (“Further away”) and the Fraternity of St. Genesius or Genezja (“Born again”). Dal was to be a community of theater artists oriented toward service to society through service to art. A personal vocation to devote one’s entire life to theater would be a precondition for membership. Besides training, rehearsing, and performing in the productions, members would supervise community groups, teach acting, lecture, preach, and publish theater manuals. They would work within a cooperative structure, and their way of life would approach the monastic. Genezja would be an artistic-religious order, a brotherhood of theater people, representing the next step up beyond Dal. Service to God, within the Roman Catholic Church, would be the first priority in Genezja and the basis of service to society, through the medium of theater. The monk-members would lead a monastic life, observing religious practice, training as actors, preparing performances with religious themes, and organizing church ceremonies in which they would participate as lectors, vocalists, and preachers. Both Dal and Genezja were clearly utopian projects, but, like every utopian idea, they challenged the present and contained a seed for the future: a call for total sacrifice to theater and for the subordination of theater itself to higher values.

Anyone know where this statement can be found, or if either of these two ideas have been taken up? Anyone want to make them happen?

Grotowski’s Vision for a Theatre Renewal

From Jerzy Grotowski, “The Theatre’s New Testament”, in Towards a Poor Theatre, ed. Eugenio Barba (London: Methuen Drama, 1991), pp. 50-51:

From where can this renewal [in the theatre] come? From people who are dissatisfied with conditions in the normal theatre, and who take it on themselves to create poor theatres with few actors, “chamber ensembles” which they might transform into institutes for the education of actors; or else from amateurs working on the boundaries of the professional theatre and who, on their own, achieve a technical standard which is far superior to that demanded by the prevailing theatre: in short, a few madmen who have nothing to lose and are not afraid of hard work.

It seems essential to me that an effort be made to organize secondary theatre schools. The actor begins to learn his profession too late, when he is already psychically formed and, worse still, morally moulded and immediately begins suffering from arriviste tendencies, characteristic of a great number of theatre school pupils.

Age is as important in the education of the actor as it is to a pianist or a dancer – that is, one should not be older than fourteen when beginning. If it were possible, I would suggest starting at an even earlier age with a four year technical course concentrating on practical exercises. At the same time, the pupil ought to receive an adequate humanistic education, aimed not at imparting an ample knowledge of literature, the history of the theatre and so on, but at awakening his sensibility and introducing him to the most stimulating phenomena in world culture.

The actor’s secondary education should then be completed by four years’ work as an apprentice actor with a laboratory ensemble during which time he would not only acquire a good deal of acting experience, but would also continue his studies in the fields of literature, painting, philosophy, etc., to a degree necessary in his profession and not in order to be able to shine in snobbish society. On completion of the four years’ practical work in a theatre laboratory, the student actor should be awarded some sort of diploma. Thus, after eight years’ work of this kind, the actor should be comparatively well equipped for what lies ahead. He would not escape the dangers that threaten every actor, but his capacities would be greater and his character more firmly moulded. The ideal solution would be to establish institutes for research which again would be subject to poverty and rigourous authority. The cost of running such an institute would be a half of the amount swallowed up by a state aided provincial theatre. Its staff should be composed of a small group of experts specializing in problems associated with the theatre: e.g. a psycho-analyst and a social anthropologist. [What about a theologian? – Cole.] There should be a troupe of actors from a normal theatre laboratory and a group of pedagogs from a secondary theatre school, plus a small publishing house that would print the practical methodical results which would then be exchanged with other similar centres and sent to interested persons doing research in neighbouring fields. It is absolutely essential that all research of this kind by supervised by one or more theatre critics who, from the outside – rather like the Devil’s Advocate – analyse the theatre’s weaknesses and any alarming elements in the finished performances, basing their judgements on aesthetical principles identical to those of the theatre itself.

Is this something we can, or ought to, do as Christians in the theatre? What would a network of small ensemble theatres made up of spiritually- and artistically-motivated Christian actors/pedagogues/researchers look like?

Would it be a network of Christian “theatre monks”?

Theatre R&D Research Tour Itinerary (+ ArtMonks)

You all have been very helpful in suggesting places and people for me to visit as part of my Theatre R&D Research Tour. My current rough itinerary is below. Please let me know if you are on the route and would like to meet (or know someone I should meet), or if I should adjust my route to meet you!

Aug 14: Depart Chicago to NYC

Aug 15: Arrive NYC

Aug 16: NYC – Mtg w/ Fr Jim Martin SJ of the LAByrinth Theater Company; 7pm: Jerusalem [I HAVE AN EXTRA TICKET – TAKEN!]

Aug 17: NYC – 8pm: War Horse with friend

Aug 18-19: NYC – Mtg w/ Keith Bunin (playwright, including my favourite play The World Over at Playwrights Horizons), Fr Bill Cain SJ (playwright, most recently Equivocation at Manhattan Theatre Club), Steven and/or Chris Cragin Day of Firebone Theatre, Fr George Drance SJ of Magis Theatre (& Jesuit Artist-in-Residence at Fordham), George Hunka of theatre minima, & Rob Weinert-Kendt of American Theatre magazine

Aug 20: NYC to Toronto

Aug 21-22: Toronto & Kitchener, Ontario: Mtg w/ John Franklin of Imago magazine & Alan Sapp and/or Kathleen Sheehy of Lost & Found Theatre

Aug 23: Toronto to Boston

Aug 24-25: Boston: Mtg w/ Fr Robert VerEecke SJ (Jesuit Artist-in-Residence at Boston College)

Aug 25-26: Boston to Chapel Hill, NC (via Baltimore)

Aug 27-28: Chapel Hill: Friend’s wedding

Aug 29: Chapel Hill to Asheville, NC

Aug 30: Asheville: Mtg w/ Scott Walters of CRADLEarts

Aug 31: Asheville to D.C.

Sept 1: D.C.: Mtg w/ Fr Peter John Cameron OP (playwright & founder of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre) & Fr Rick Curry SJ (founder of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped)

Sept 2-4: D.C. to Gove, KS

Sept 4-5: Gove: Visiting 91-year-old grandfather at family farm

Sept 6-15: I’m not quite sure yet how I’m going to do this, but here are the spots I planned to visit during this time:

Austin, TX: Mtg w/ Travis Bedard of Cambiare Productions

Irvine & Los Angeles: Mtg w/ actors of Cornerstone Theater Company, actor Chad Glazener & friends, Fr Radmar Jao SJ (actor), Peter Senkbeil (professor of theatre, Concordia University; doctoral dissertation title: “Faith in Theatre: Professional Theatres Run by Christians in the United States and Canada and Their Strategies for Faith-Art Integration”), & Gabriel Voss (actor)

Vancouver: Mtg w/ Cheimanus Theatre Festival, Lois Dawson (stage manager), Ron Reed of Pacific Theatre

Chicago: Mtg w/ Dan Roche of the Bird & Baby Theatre Company, & returning my car to my sister.

Now I can’t drive and visit all of these places within the time allowed. I previously had an extended itinerary that went until almost the end of September, but I recently learned that I have to be at St Andrews by Sept 17 for orientation. So, I’ll either have to skip one or more of these stops and pick them up next time, or put in some flight time (if I can find some inexpensive deals on small budget airlines).

This itinerary is still rough; the only dates set in stone are the ones whose explanatory text is bolded. I’m still working on setting up dates with some of the above people. There are also some people I’m hoping to meet whom I haven’t yet contacted.

May I ask for your help in two areas?

1) Trip logistics: I’ll be making most, if not all, of the trip in my trusty little Toyota hatchback. Gas is expensive. If you could make a donation toward the cost of the trip by using the PayPal donation button on the right, I would appreciate it. Also, if I’m going to be in or passing through your area, and you’re willing to let me crash on your couch for the night, I would appreciate that, too. And hey, if you’d like to donate a plane ticket to one of the major metropolitan areas on the trip (especially one of the three I’ll have trouble visiting – Austin, Los Angeles, and Vancouver), you’d have my undying gratitude! Everyone who helps out in any way will receive a copy of the report I plan to compile about the trip, as well as an invitation to crash on my own couch at St Andrews. Which brings me to…

2) Interview questions: Most of these meetings are going to be somewhere between a casual chat and a formal interview. I have my own list of questions which I’ll be compiling, but if there is anything you’d like me to ask these folks, here’s your chance. Leave questions in the comments, or e-mail them to me. I’m speaking with three rough groupings of folks: members of religious orders involved in professional theatre, professional theatres informed by a Christian vision, and secular professional theatres which excel at building community. My plan is to record and compile these interviews into a single document covering the entire trip, which I will make available for free on this blog (and will send individual copies of to donors and interview subjects, including hard copies upon request).

Thanks for all your help and support, and thanks especially to the people who have agreed to meet with me during this trip. I’m looking forward to it!

***

On a slightly-related note, I spoke with Liz Maxwell and Betsy McCall of the Art Monastery this week, to discuss setting up a chapter of ArtMonks at St Andrews. If you’re going to be within travelling distance of St Andrews over the next year and are interested in a monthly discussion group about art and monasticism, please contact me. If there’s enough interest, I plan to set up a preliminary meeting in September or October, to discuss the form the  group and its activities should take, including whether or not it should be an official ArtMonk chapter, an independent but allied organization, or something else altogether.

Theatre R&D – The Research Tour

I’ve been reading Chris Guillebeau’s blog The Art of Non-Conformity recently (added to blogroll), and this post struck me. In it, Chris relates a piece of advice that marketing guru Seth Godin gave him: “I think you need more of an agenda.”

Chris started thinking about his blog’s agenda, and I’ve been thinking about mine. I’ve also been thinking about where I go once I leave Oxford, which will probably be the case at the end of July. (I finish my final exams in June, and am sticking around for the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial conference, the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute at Oxbridge, Jul. 26 – Aug. 3. I’ll be presenting on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist” as part of the Academic Roundtable. Go here for more information or to register.)

I don’t yet know where I’ll be this coming autumn. It could be St Andrews, Duke, Kings College London, or Oxford. Or, if I’m not accepted into any of those programs in the first round, it could be almost anywhere else.

Wherever I am, I feel the time is right to start taking steps towards the religious theatre community I wrote about a year ago. Now, I’ve decided to approach the religious life and theatre aspects separately, partly because I’m still allowing my recent conversion to Catholicism to settle into a deeper regular practice before I start making any moves toward vocation, but also because I think they will have to operate as two separate entities, even if they end up being linked later. In any case, I’ve spent a year-and-a-half in a theatrical fallow period, since I’ve been focusing on my studies and writing at Oxford, and I’m rarin’ to go again.

Another blog post that has stuck in my head recently is from Scott Walters, on “The Need for Theatre R&D”. Scott’s vision of a theatre company living communally, and rooted in its community, has inspired much of my thought on the kind of company I would like to start. This new post, emphasizing the importance of theatre makers sharing the results of their experiments with the wider field, verbalized another goal of mine, the artist-scholar model, in which company members not only exercise their craft, but also contribute to the intellectual discourse of their field. (That’s why my ideal space has a comfortable – and comfortably large – library!)

To that end, I’m going to be undertaking a research tour of the U.S. and Canada this August-September. There are two kinds of theatre makers (both individual artists and companies) whom I would like to meet:

1)      Christians working in secular theatre. I am especially interested in companies run by Christians, or with a Christian background/mission, that produce work aimed at general audiences, as opposed to church drama ministries, companies that serve primarily church audiences, or groups that function primarily as mission teams. These types of work are valuable, but they’re not what I feel called to do. I’m looking for companies that produce shows alongside the rest of the theatres in their area, but are informed by Christian faith. (Basically the theatrical equivalent of the Inklings.) I’m especially interested in members of religious orders who are using theatre.

2)      Theatres which have especially close bonds with their local community. In keeping with the principles of Scott’s vision, as well as the guiding principle of hospitality that informs my vision of a Benedictine theatre company, I’m looking for theatres which are rooted in their local communities, instead of focused solely on the needs and desires of the artists. Which professional/semi-professional theatres do you know that epitomize neighbourliness and community?

My goal is to study the practices of these groups, in order to glean and share information, examples, and inspiration that will serve our wider community (as well as guiding the development of my own company).

Tell me where to drive this summer!

Benedictine Theatre Company: Seeking Peace (+ C.S. Lewis Matters)

I just realized I haven’t had a Benedictine theatre company post in four months, so here’s another. Before we get started, though, I’d like to point out my new friend Ryan’s blog, which I’ve added to the blogroll on the right. Ryan Pemberton is a new theology student at my college, from Seattle, and is also a great C.S. Lewis fan, and an apologist in his own right (with a book and everything!). He is blogging about his and his wife’s new life in Oxford at Ryan & Jen Go to England. (He also has an apologetics/devotional blog at hands&feet, which provided source material for the book. If you like it, leave him a comment saying you want a copy!) He’s an engaging writer, and you’ll read about his many Oxford- and Lewis-related adventures. The guy’s been here a little over a month, and he’s already had tea with Walter Hooper, briefly Lewis’s secretary and now literary adviser to his estate, multiple times, as well as visited the Kilns and taken in meetings of the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society. All that while diving into essays and New Testament Greek (which I returned to myself as of today, since I recently decided to take the optional Greek translation paper during my final exams – don’t ask me why). If you like his blog, leave him a comment

Also, if you’ve ever wanted to take a tour of the Kilns, but can’t afford the airfare – now you can! I just put up a photo tour of 68 pictures on Flickr. ETA: Had to temporarily place the Kilns photos behind a privacy barrier, to make changes. Sorry! I’ll edit this if/when I open them back up again. Re-ETA: Kilns photos available again! Seeing the real thing is still best, though, so if you’re going to be in England and want to come visit, you can either contact me (as I am a docent) or the Warden to book a tour. More information about touring the Kilns can be found here.

Oh, and final piece of news – I finished the first draft of my thesis last Monday! 63 pages and 21,046 words, a full 40% OVER my maximum word limit. Now to begin the cutting and revision process, so I can hand in a revised draft to my supervisor in 2.5 weeks. (Thankfully, I know at least a portion of the cuttings will go to serve as seed for another paper.)

Now back to Benedict:

Prologue – Day 3

And the Lord, seeking his laborer
in the multitude to whom He thus cries out,
says again,
“Who is the one who will have life,
and desires to see good days” (Ps. 33[34]:13)?
And if, hearing Him, you answer,
“I am the one,”
God says to you,
“If you will have true and everlasting life,
keep your tongue from evil
and your lips that they speak no guile.
Turn away from evil and do good;
seek after peace and pursue it” (Ps. 33[34]:14-15).
And when you have done these things,
My eyes shall be upon you
and My ears open to your prayers;
and before you call upon Me,
I will say to you,
‘Behold, here I am'” (Ps. 33[34]:16; Is. 65:24; 58:9).

What can be sweeter to us, dear ones,
than this voice of the Lord inviting us?
Behold, in His loving kindness
the Lord shows us the way of life.

***

What strikes me is the line: “keep your tongue from evil.” I think a Benedictine theatre company should be known for its integrity, love, and respect for others. One of the ways it should show this respect is in the avoidance of gossip. It is the responsibility of the leaders to set an example. We all know how gossip thrives backstage, often leading to hurt feelings and petty rivalries. One of the ways leaders of a Benedictine theatre company can help avoid the creation of such a negative atmosphere is by listening to the artists with whom they work.

An example from my own life: My first time as a young producer, my superior at the theatre company I was working with called me to pass on a complaint from some actors about an action taken by a member of the production staff. Since I knew and trusted these actors, I assumed things had happened the way they had said, though from my experience with the staff member, I figured the problematic action must have been unintentional.

So, I sent out an e-mail to the production team reminding them of the staff policy in question. I didn’t name names, but I did mention that I had been told there was a violation. Unfortunately, even with the somewhat vague wording of the e-mail, I had still left in enough detail to enable other staff members to identify the alleged violator. Another staff member, who had brought the first staff member on as part of his team, e-mailed me upset that I had basically made a public, though indirect, accusation against his team member, without consulting her to get her side of the story, which was very different.

Right there, I realised my big mistake. I hadn’t even thought to ask her, and I also (albeit unknowingly) made it very easy for other production team members to know who I was talking about, leading to deeply hurt feelings.

What I should have done was handle it privately, and get both sides of the story before I made any decision. (After talking to both sides, I’m still not sure what actually happened, but I suspect that we could have worked it out if I had led with better communication.) I also learned that taking care of one’s team is the most important part of being a producer. Not even advertising, budget, or ticket sales trump showing your people respect and love.

That’s what a Benedictine theatre company is all about. We’ll see later that St Benedict says that guests should be welcomed as if they were Christ himself. I think this courtesy and care extends not only to guests (e.g. patrons), but also to all the company members, visiting artists, support staff, and anyone else with whom the company interacts. And it begins by refusing to get caught up in backstage gossip, and by giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

“Keep your tongue from evil.” “Seek after peace and pursue it.” These are two of the mantras of a Benedictine theatre company.

Previous posts:

1) Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

2) Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

I’m here at the Wade Center at Wheaton College doing research for my thesis on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,” supervised by Dr Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and Acting Chaplain of St Peter’s College, Oxford. I’ve finished my primary research, which included reading all C.S. Lewis’ work that has been published in book form, including his collections of essays, poetry, letters, and diary. I’m now working on the secondary reading, and should have that done by the end of the week, which will finish up my research, except for a few bits and bobs that I can access elsewhere. I drive to D.C. this weekend to do ADR for The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers, and then a one-day shoot of an educational video that I just booked, for a guy I worked with a couple summers ago. So I will make a (little) money acting this summer, not just spend it on research trips! (I have some good news about The Fellows Hip, too, but that will have to wait until I’m given the go-ahead.)

And now for a continuation of our series on a Benedictine theatre company:

Prologue – Day 2

Let us arise, then, at last,
for the Scripture stirs us up, saying,
“Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep” (Rom. 13:11).
Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,
let us hear with attentive ears
the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,
“Today if you hear His voice,
harden not your hearts” (Ps. 94[95]:8).
And again,
“Whoever has ears to hear,
hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Matt. 11-15; Apoc. 2:7).
And what does He say?
“Come, My children, listen to Me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 33[34]:12).
“Run while you have the light of life,
lest the darkness of death overtake you” (John 12:35).

***

The Rule of St Benedict is meant to be read daily to the monks, and therefore there is a section assigned for each day, such that the entire Rule is read three times in a year. The Prologue is accordingly divided up into several sections. Today’s section is the second of the Prologue, for Jan 2 / May 3 / Sept 2.

It doesn’t give us much meat for our purpose, but is rather a call for the hearer to take notice, and begin the task of following God. We are back at the beginning of the Rule – a time for fresh starts, no matter how inert or unsuccessful we have been in the past.

This call to action reminds me of a blog post I read recently, on a “post-evangelical” Christian blog called the Internet Monk. In this blog post, blogger Jeff Dunn outlines a calling he has to start an artists’ “retreat/school/monastery,” a place where Christian artists can come “not to work on their art, but on their spirit,” as he said to me when I spoke to him via phone this past Saturday. Jeff and I both agree that Christian artists don’t have to make art that is explicitly Christian – that art is not merely an evangelism tool, but is in itself a way to glorify God. As he says in his post:

I love to help set artists free from the little Christian art box we like to put them in. You know—if you are a Christian painter, then you can only paint pictures of a pasty-white Jesus knocking on someone’s door, or of cottages in gardens with unusual light coming from their windows. If you are a Christian songwriter, you have to write plastic lyrics that portray Jesus as your girlfriend. And if you are a Christian novelist, you have to create fake characters acting in unrealistic ways in an unreal world. None of this brings glory to the Lord. It is simply an attempt to make money from people who need to feel good about themselves.

What’s different about Jeff is that he is right now starting his artists’ monastery. He’s got a plot of land lined up in Ohio, ready for purchase and renovation. You can find more info at his follow-up post.

I’ve let Jeff know that I’d like to help in whatever way possible. Right now that way is prayer. So if you all would please keep Jeff and this artists’ monastery in prayer, we would appreciate it. (And if you’d like to help, especially with funding, why not contact him?)

This past week I also met with Dan Roche, a professional actor/director who’s unusual in that he left Syracuse’s BFA program to study theatre at Wheaton, a college without even a theatre major, but with a close-knit theatre community and an opportunity to do plays more meaningful than the postmodern cynicism subtly or not-so-subtly encouraged at many of our professional undergraduate training programs. After starting Stone Table Theatre Company, which came out of a drama ministry started at his church, he worked in the Nylachi market for several years, before returning to Wheaton. He basically picked up where he left off, and recently started the Bird and Baby Theatre Company, which has as part of its mission the mandate to produce at least one play a season by or about one of the Inklings or related authors (C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, etc.). (You’ll see that I’ve added Bird & Baby to the list of links on the right-hand side of the page.) Their most recent production was a stage version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Jeff and Dan have risen from sleep and started to run. I know of other folks, like the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver and Cambiare Productions in Austin. Who else do you know that’s running? I’m thinking of doing a tour in the future of theatres that either have a Christian mandate, or are run by Christians, to talk about their approach to creating theatre for general audiences. Who should I visit?

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

Benedictine Theatre Company: Prologue

Well, I’ve done it: I’m now a Roman Catholic. At the 5:45 p.m. Mass on May 16th at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, I was received into the Church by Bishop William Kenney. It was a remarkable experience to be able to participate fully in the Eucharist for the first time, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. (I also now have four rosaries – all the confirmands received one as a gift from the Chaplaincy, and I received two others from friends, added to the one I had been given by a Dominican friar friend earlier.)

I thought I’d celebrate this event by starting the series on a Benedictine theatre company that I promised here. This series will look at the Rule of St Benedict, and how its principles could be applied to the constitutions of a theatre company. I’m going to go chapter by chapter. Let’s try this as a thought experiment; I acknowledge that not every chapter will apply equally well to our goal. I’m going to use the edition of the Rule available on the Order of St Benedict’s website, which you can find here.

Prologue

L I S T E N  carefully, my child,
to your master’s precepts,
and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).
Receive willingly and carry out effectively
your loving father’s advice,
that by the labor of obedience
you may return to Him
from whom you had departed by the sloth of disobedience.

To you, therefore, my words are now addressed,
whoever you may be,
who are renouncing your own will
to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King,
and are taking up the strong, bright weapons of obedience.

And first of all,
whatever good work you begin to do,
beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,
that He who has now deigned to count us among His children
may not at any time be grieved by our evil deeds.
For we must always so serve Him
with the good things He has given us,
that He will never as an angry Father disinherit His children,
nor ever as a dread Lord, provoked by our evil actions,
deliver us to everlasting punishment
as wicked servants who would not follow Him to glory.

***

I’d like to focus on this last paragraph, especially the phrases, ‘whatever good work you begin to do, beg of Him with most earnest prayer to perfect it,’ and ‘we must always so serve Him with the good things He has given us.’ A Benedictine theatre company must always have as its goal the service of God. This mission should inform not only its choice of productions, but also its behaviour towards its artists (both permanent and for-hire), audience, and the wider communities of which the theatre is a part (e.g. civic, artistic, etc.).

I’m here at the Wade Center at Wheaton College, doing research for my thesis on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist.” I’ve been meeting up with several Christianity and the arts folks while here, and tomorrow I’m having lunch with a guy named Dan Roche, who started a theatre company called Bird & Baby. The Bird & Baby Theatre Company (named after the pub at which the Inklings met every Tuesday morning for beer and talk) “commits to producing at least one play in each theatre season written by or inspired by one of the Inkling authors” (from the company website). They also focus on producing shows that are family-friendly.

I’m hoping to discuss with Dan tomorrow a question I’ve been thinking about as I work on this thesis: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an explicitly, or simply implicitly, Christian theatre company?

If you’re explicitly Christian, you’re flying your flag. If your work is excellent, you’re helping to fight the connection between “Christian theatre” and “mediocre” that is unfortunately commonplace. On the other hand, mainstream audiences may avoid you, either because they think your work will be poor, or aggressively evangelical, or just not for them. And Christian audiences may insist that your shows avoid profanity, mention of immoral situations or choices (even if they’re portrayed as incorrect), and violence, or assume you’re a church drama ministry and should act accordingly.

If you’re only implicitly, and not explicitly Christian, you’re much more likely to give mainstream audiences time to get to know you on your own terms. And, you can also demonstrate that stories don’t have to be obviously Christian in order to be deeply Christian (e.g. Lord of the Rings). You also have greater freedom to tell the stories that move you, without having to limit yourself to being squeaky-clean and appropriate for children. On the other hand, if you want to engage with Christian audiences as a Christian, as well as engaging with mainstream audiences, you may find it more difficult, as they may ask what exactly is Christian about your company, or accuse you of hiding your faith to kowtow to the theatrical establishment. It may not be obvious that you’re making Christian theatre.

There’s also the evangelical aspect. I think that art that is explicitly Christian and art that is only implicitly Christian can both lead people to Christ, which I obviously think is a good thing. Good art made by Christians, but which is accessible to the non-Christian, can serve as a proto-evangelion, a preparation for the Gospel, and a baptism of the imagination. Later, a person may seek to know more about Christ through explicitly Christian art.

I’m more comfortable creating art that is only implicitly Christian, partly because I did not grow up in an evangelical milieu and am uncomfortable with direct evangelization, unless the person I’m in dialogue with asks to know more about my faith. (This may be a fault, or an attribute of temperament, or both.) I do not want to denigrate the gifts and mission of those who can do direct evangelization effectively and compassionately. Preach it! But that’s not the type of theatre I want to do. Nor am I interested in doing church drama ministry (which, again, there is a place for, especially when it’s well done).

On the other hand, I’m aware that non-Christians who enjoy art created by Christians in which the Christianity is implicit may feel betrayed when they learn about the religious meaning that lies below the surface. (I’ve certainly heard this from people who enjoyed both the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings.) The sense of betrayal seems to stem from an original belief that the author had just created a good story, now replaced by the belief that the author was secretly trying to sneak in religious belief, in an attempted brainwashing in which the story was just a pretext for nefarious dealings. Now, that’s not how Lewis and Tolkien wrote their stories, though I wouldn’t say that attempted brainwashing hasn’t been tried by others. But for both of those authors, the story came first, and any evangelical effect on their readers’ imaginations was a happy, even if not directly intended, by-product. (Although I do think the evangelical effect of his fiction was more on Lewis’ mind than on Tolkien’s.) Like them, I just want to tell stories that bring some good to the world. After that, it’s up to God, and I know He’ll use them as He will.

This is a question I’m still struggling with. What do you think?