The Creativity of Yes + Fellows Hip Trailer

Today’s post is a guest post on Transpositions: “The Creativity of Yes: The Marian Role of the Viewer”

And The Fellows Hip‘s first trailer is out!

We’re trying to attract distributors, so please “Like” and comment if you’re willing. Here are some other ways you can help us find distribution:

1. View our YouTube videos, and give a thumb’s up to your favorites. (These videos need to be in the thousands of views!) http://www.youtube.com/user/OAPfilm

2. Leave a Comment and Subscribe to our YouTube Channel.

3. Join our Facebook Fan Page. http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=wall&gid=39670886057

4. Follow us on Twitter! http://twitter.com/#!/OpeningActProd

5. Join in on the conversation with our blog. http://thefellowshipmovie.blogspot.com/

6. Join and let others know about our email list. (Submit your ZIP code – or city for those outside the U.S. – to let distributors know where screenings should take place!) http://www.thefellowshipmovie.com/zip.html

7. Pre-order the DVD (and receive exclusive special features). Pre-orders not only help us finish the film faster, they also show distributors stronger than anything else that there is an audience for the film. http://www.thefellowshipmovie.com/film.html

8. Do you know someone who could help in getting the word out to the masses? I’d love to talk to that person.

Stay tuned for more information on a podcast interview that the other lead cast members and I are doing next week! In the meantime, you can read this recent article on the film. ETA: The podcast is now up! Interview begins at 34:00: LOTRO Reporter Episode 88 – The Fellows Hip Redux. (And here’s a second interview, recorded prior to the cast’s, with the awesome Fellows Hip producers – begins at 30:42: LOTRO Reporter Episode 87 – Interview w/ Opening Act Productions.)

In other news, this week I received a full work-study grant to attend this year’s C.S. Lewis Summer Institute at Oxbridge, run by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, where I will be presenting a 20-minute version of my thesis, “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist”, as part of the Academic Roundtable. Thank you to the Foundation, and let me know if you’ll be attending! I presented a longer version to the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society this past Tuesday, which was received well, and the attendees created some interesting discussion of their own afterwards.

I’m still looking for members of religious orders in the professional theatre, Christians who run secular professional theatres, and professional theatres which excel at community-building for my Theatre R&D tour this summer. Stops so far include New York City, Toronto, Boston, D.C., Chapel Hill, Austin, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Chicago, with a few stops in smaller areas such as Alberta and Kansas. I hope to have a draft itinerary up in my next blog post (probably after my final Oxford exams, which run June 6-17). Let me know who I should visit!

C.S. Lewis’s Tips on Writing

You may have noticed I haven’t had a post in almost 2 months. It’s been a  particularly busy term. I’ve been revising my thesis on ‘C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,’ taking a class on Thomas Aquinas, and writing essays on Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve also been submitting my applications to graduate programs at St Andrews, Duke Divinity School, Oxford, and King’s College London, as well as serving as the University Catholic Chaplaincy’s Master of Ceremonies, the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society’s Vice-President (and Reviews Editor for its journal), and one of the two primary docents for tours at the Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s house nearby.

I have several blog posts in draft form, including one on how we define Christian art, but sadly they’ll have to wait a bit longer. I’m going semi-off grid for the next couple weeks before term starts, as I have to finish my thesis, study for my Aquinas collections, read several books by Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, do background reading for the capstone God, Christ & Salvation paper, catch up on a year’s worth of New Testament Greek, finish my grad school applications, and write my first couple essays of term, all within the next 15 days or so.

In the meantime, to get myself (and any other writers out there) in the mood for putting words on paper, here are some tips on writing from our favorite Narnian author, C.S. Lewis:

To a young girl

CL3 766 (Joan Lancaster, 26 Jun 1956):

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure yr. sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “more people died” don’t say “mortality rose”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me”.

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”: otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.’

To a seventh-grader, in answer to a school assignment to ask a famous author about writing

CL3 1108-9 (Thomasine, 14 Dec 1959): ‘It is very hard to give any general advice about writing. Here’s my attempt.

(1) Turn off the Radio.

(2) Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.

(3) Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You shd. hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.

(4) Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else. (Notice this means that if you are interested only in writing you will never be a writer, because you will have nothing to write about…)

(5) Take great pains to be clear. Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. In a story it is terribly easy just to forget that you have not told the reader something that he needs to know – the whole picture is so clear in your own mind that you forget that it isn’t the same in his.

(6) When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of {1109} my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.

(7) Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.

(8) Be sure you know the meaning (or meanings) of every word you use.’

To a woman

CL3 502-3 (Cynthia Donnelly, 14 Aug 1954): ‘I think you have a mistaken idea of a Christian writer’s duty. We must use the talent we have, not the talents we haven’t. We must not of course write anything that will flatter lust, pride or ambition. But we needn’t all write patently moral or theological work. Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away.

The first business of a story is to be a GOOD STORY. When Our Lord made a wheel in the carpenter shop, depend upon it it was first and foremost a GOOD WHEEL. Don’t try to “bring in” specifically {503} Christian bits: if God wants you to serve him in that way (He may not: there are different vocations) you will find it coming in of its own accord. If not, well – a good story which will give innocent pleasure is a good thing, just like cooking a good nourishing meal. (You don’t put little texts in your family soup, I’ll be bound.)

By the way, none of my stories began with a Christian message. I always start from a mental picture – the floating islands, a faun with an umbrella in a snowy wood, an “injured” human head. Of course my non-fiction works are different. But they succeed because I’m a professional teacher and explanation happens to be one of the things I’ve learned to do.

But the great thing is to cultivate one’s own garden, to do well the job which one’s own natural capacities point out (after first doing well whatever the “duties of one’s station” impose). Any honest workmanship (whether making stories, shoes, or rabbit hutches) can be done to the glory of God.’

*CL3 = The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. III, ed. Walter Hooper.

Happy New Year!

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

Hilary Term Update

I haven’t posted in about a month and a half, so thanks for your patience. The reason? Hilary Term.

Hilary Term is the middle term of the University of Oxford’s academic year. I finished up the second half of the Patristics paper, and also had the Old Testament paper. No Greek this term, but it was a busier term than Michaelmas because I was also helping out at the University Chaplaincy more often. Over the Easter break, I have two essays to write, one to re-write, and two sets of collections for when I get back.

Next term, I’ll be taking the medieval paper, i.e. the History and Theology of the Western Church 1050-1350. The history bit will be with Dr Lesley Smith, a historian from my College, and the theology bit will be with Fr Simon Gaine OP, a Dominican theologian who just ended his term of service as the prior of our local community of friars. I’m excited to be able to study under him, having met him and heard him lecture a few times, and also having heard good things. I like the guy.

Best of all, I was accepted into his Aquinas class next Michaelmas, which almost got dropped from the schedule since only 3 people (including me) picked Aquinas as their first choice for the special theologian requirement. (All undergraduates reading Theology are required to choose a track, either Track 1 – Biblical Studies, Track 2 – History and Doctrine, or Track 3 – Religious Studies. Track 2, the track I’m on, requires students to choose a theologian to focus especially on for a term.) The other two students are from Regents Park, the Baptist PPH, and Wycliffe Hall, the evangelical Anglican PPH. And then there’s me, a new Catholic convert from Presbyterianism based at the historically Unitarian former PPH. Of course, my friend who studies at Regents Park says that the student from there is likely either an agnostic or an atheist, but that the Wycliffe student is probably an evangelical. So it’s either two Protestants and a Protestant-turned-Catholic, or an agnostic/atheist, Protestant, and Protestant-turned-Catholic, all studying one of the greatest Catholic theologians under a friar-theologian who lives, eats, breathes, and prays the same life Aquinas lived. He’s one of the Angelic Doctor’s confreres. And I get this guy two terms in a row! It’s gonna be an awesome two months.

What else is coming up on the academic front?

My supervising tutor has accepted my topic and choice of supervisor for my BA thesis. Topic: “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Artist.” Supervisor: Michael Ward, author of the acclaimed recent work of Lewis scholarship Planet Narnia, which I am currently reading, by the way. The guy’s erudite, writes extremely well (with the same dry wit that is characteristic of his conversation), and really does have the “encyclopedic knowledge” of Lewis’ works that a cover blurb praises. What’s more, though I was at first highly skeptical, his argument is slowly convincing me. Now, I just need to write my full thesis proposal, due in mid-May, and get it approved by the Board of the Faculty of Theology. Hopefully they’ll think it’s academic enough. I’ve been told Theology and the Arts is becoming a more hip subject among the Faculty, and they’re keen to support it.

On the religion front, as I said, I’ve been helping out more often at the Chaplaincy this term. I helped with the Monday lunches each week for the first few weeks of term, until they went on hiatus for Lent. More importantly, the chaplains asked me to serve as a sacristan for the weekday Masses, since I attend them almost every day anyway. I was deeply honored to be asked, and I love being able to serve my priests in this way. I’m glad I can help take their mind off physically prepping before Mass, so they can have a few more moments to spiritually prep. I’ve also been asked to be an altar server on Sundays once I’ve been received, and I’m looking forward to serving in that capacity as well.

I will be received into the Church on Ascension Sunday, May 16th, at the 5:45 p.m. Mass at the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy. Say a prayer, if you would, for all of us who will be baptized, confirmed, or received on that day. I can’t wait.

What Should a Professional (Christian) Theatre Look Like?

I’ve just finished reading two important books:

1) God Off-Broadway: The Blackfriars Theatre of New York (Matthew Powell, O.P.) – A history of the only professional theatre in the U.S. run by a religious order (the Dominicans)

2) Tribes (Seth Godin) – Thoughts on how to create and lead a tribe

The first got me thinking about what a Christian theatre should look like. The Blackfriars Theatre had two artistic directors in its approximately 30-year history, both of whom were Dominican priests. The first artistic director believed that the theatre should explore “the spiritual nature of man and his eternal destiny” in a way that did not conflict with Catholic moral values (e.g. a show that presented abortion as a valid option for women would be unacceptable), but that it did not have to restrict itself to religious subjects, and could even present characters who were morally imperfect (as long as poor moral choices weren’t promoted). During this time, the first 12 years of the theatre’s existence, the theatre was generally well-respected by the major critics, and did excellent work that was hailed as more risk-taking than that of the secular commercial theatre, especially Broadway. For example, Blackfriars took a morally courageous stance against racism with several productions during the forties and early fifties, well before the civil rights movement.

Unfortunately, the first artistic director was re-assigned, and the second artistic director, who had previously only handled the business aspects of the theatre, felt that the theatre should only put on shows that were explicitly Catholic, and that commissioning and producing dramatizations of the lives of the saints for purely parochial audiences sufficiently fulfilled the mission of the theatre. This second artistic director’s focus was not on creating excellent art, but on didactic moral teaching and evangelization through drama. Of course, when you put on shows only for Christians, only Christians come, and therefore the shows become completely useless for evangelization, since you’re only preaching to the choir. And if the focus is on the quality of the moral instead of the quality of the play, even the Christians stop coming, except out of a sense of duty.

And that’s exactly what happened to Blackfriars. I’ve worked with an actor who was a volunteer at Blackfriars as a teenager, during its later years, and what he remembers is bad writing and very obvious sermonizing. The rest of the professional theatrical and critical community sadly came to the same opinion, and not even its supporters were passionate enough about its work to save the theatre when the artistic director passed away.

I’ve had several conversation with other Christian artists both online and offline about both the status of Christian theatre and the challenges of being a Christian in theatre. The problem with the first? Too often it’s mediocre, as the focus is generally on “does this show clearly preach the Word?” rather than “is this show good?” The problem with the second? If you work for any length of time in the professional theatre you’re going to be faced with the dilemma of being asked to compromise your faith for a job, or be uncomfortable with the moral ramifications of the artistic interpretation of your director, or be ridiculed for being prudish or closed-minded if you oppose certain pieces of art.

In both cases, the Christian artist is asked to put his faith and his art in different boxes, and then to choose between them. The producer of Christian theatre who believes the moral is all asks the Christian artist to sacrifice his artistic standards to his Christianity. The producer of modern secular theatre who believes in taking artistic risks asks the Christian artist to sacrifice his Christianity to artistic achievement.

My contention? It’s not either/or. A Christian owes obedience to Christ above all things, that’s clear, but one of the ways the Christian artist lives that obedience is by giving his best to his vocation. He becomes the best Christian he can be partly by being the best artist he can be.

A couple C.S. Lewis quotes are appropriate here:

[Christ] wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim… The proper motto is not ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who can be clever,’ but ‘Be good, sweet maid, and don’t forget that this involves being as clever as you can.’ God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. – Mere Christianity

We do not need more Christian writers. We need more writers who are Christian. – paraphrase (I’m having trouble finding the exact source)

One could re-phrase that last sentence from the Mere Christianity quote to say, “God is no fonder of artistic slackers than of any other slackers.” And the second quote makes me wonder if Christian artists should even be focusing on making Christian theatre at all, or if we should be working only within the mainstream theatre world, but in such a way that we maintain our integrity and make art that reflects our understanding of “man’s spiritual nature and his eternal destiny.”

Which brings me to the second book, Tribes. I think we have a tribe here, of theatre artists who are Christian and who want to make art that is both: 1) of excellent quality, and 2) compatible with their Christian commitment. We may differ as to whether we each want to work completely in the mainstream theatre world while holding ourselves to a particular code of integrity, or work completely in church drama ministry, or work somewhere on the spectrum in between. My personal professional history ranges from gospel plays to corporate training videos with absolutely nothing to do with religion, but for myself, I tend to favor a combination of the Tolkien and Lewis models. I see the Tolkien model as telling a great story that deals deeply with the themes of faith, but does not explicitly touch on religion (or only barely), and is directed toward a general audience. I see the Lewis model as also telling a great story, but “showing one’s Christian colours” a bit more, and is either directed toward a general audience or towards a Christian-friendly audience (i.e. an audience that will not be put off by clearly Christian references in a story). The theatre and films I’ve done that I’ve been most passionate about have both addressed questions of faith directly (A Man for All Seasons) or have touched on religious faith barely, if at all, but have celebrated virtues in line with the Christian worldview, such as courage, loyalty, and integrity (The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers). The common characteristics, however, have been excellent stories that are worth telling in themselves (aside from any perceived spiritual value), executed to a high standard, and targeted to a general audience. Spiritual themes excite me, but if I’m going to explore them theatrically, the resulting production must share these characteristics, at least in my own career.

So where do we go from here? Would it be better for theatre artists who are Christian to perform in and produce theatre that is clearly Christian, but that is of the highest professional standard, in order to erase the association of the phrase “Christian theatre” with the word “mediocre”? Or would it be better for theatre artists who are Christian to bring their artistic sensibilities and standards of conduct into the mainstream theatre world, and prove that you don’t have to be profane, intentionally offensive, or willing to compromise your religious faith in order to make great art?

And if our tribe were to start a professional theatre company, what should it look like? Should it call itself Christian, or not?

P.S. – While writing this post, I came across this open letter to Fox Faith from Dr. Marc Newman, the president of MovieMinistry.com. He addresses many of the challenges discussed above, and I highly recommend reading it, especially as it’s not too long. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

One of your biggest marketing battles is to convince Christians to see “Christian films,” a label which, over the years, has come to be nearly synonymous with “bad movie.” […] The job of preachers (and Christians everywhere) is evangelism. The job of movies is to tell great stories.

Great stories can move us, affect our world view, cause us to consider ideas that we had never entertained before, and lead to open doors for spiritual conversations; but they cannot substitute for them. When films push too hard to preach or moralize, they tend to fail miserably. C.S. Lewis, when asked whether the world needs more Christian writers, replied, “No, we need more writers who are Christian.” What Lewis meant was that Christians who want to be writers need to hone their craft so that their stories are compelling to anyone who might read them. He was not interested in ghettoizing a narrow niche of minor, or outright bad, literature written by Christians, for Christians. May God bless you in the search for great new screenwriters and filmmakers who are Christians, and may the Church recognize the need to raise up and support committed, creative artists.

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.