A 150-foot white cross looms up from the forested slopes above the Ridgecrest Conference Center, outside Asheville, N.C. If you were among the 500 or so theatre folk at the Christians in Theatre Arts conference at the center, back in June, you might have (guiltily) stolen away from a daytime workshop—“CPR for Pulpit Scripture,” say, or “Developing a Drama Ministry,” or “Safety and Realism in the Simplest Stage Combat”—to hike up those slopes. And if you’d followed the right trail, you’d have arrived at the base of the cross, which is set in a small clearing. Nearby, a metal box on the ground bears a warning from the local power company: “Warning: Hazardous Voltage Inside.”
That pretty much sums up how the conference participants down below were feeling—how, in fact, they feel much of the time. Stranded in the wilderness of a largely secular culture, many Christian thespians consider themselves guardians of a spiritual power source—a potentially incendiary one. On the one hand, devout or inspirational theatre seems to have the power to galvanize believers and witness to the skeptical. On the other hand, drama as a whole may distract the faithful from a God-centered life. And the broader theatrical culture seethes with nihilism and vice—or so it can seem.
Meanwhile, non-Christian theatre professionals can be dismissive, even hostile, when confronted with their Christian counterparts. Fresh in recent memory, after all, are controversies like the 1998 fracas over Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, staged by Manhattan Theatre Club to strenuous protests by the religious right. So perhaps it is no wonder that, in the words of Jim Poole, a quiet, blond Chicago-based actor who attended the CITA conference, “There isn’t persecution, but of all the religions, if you say you’re a Christian, there’s a bias.” Believe in Deepak Chopra, he says bemusedly, and everyone can relate; mention Jesus, and “it’s the dead elephant in the room.”
Theatre-oriented Christians, in other words, get flak on two fronts. Though many churches have warmed to the art form in recent years, stage-struck believer Art Hutcheson, director of drama for Light and Life Christian Fellowship church in Long Beach, Calif., still feels that “the theatre community has trouble seeing how you can be a Christian and do theatre; and Christians cannot see how you can be involved in theatre and be a Christian.” Hence the need for an organization like CITA, dedicated to supporting the faith’s theatre artists and “improving the quality and credibility” of their work. Informally launched in the mid 1970s by Christian artists who, according to executive director Dale Savidge, had experienced “a real feeling of isolation,” the organization now numbers about 1,200 active members. With no home base, CITA runs drama ministry clinics and annual playwriting competitions, hosts auditions for Christian theatre companies and publishes the biannual Christianity and Theatre magazine.
Perhaps most significantly, CITA hosts regional and national conferences where you can hobnob with like-minded people, swap tips on Christian-friendly playwrights and share hard-earned pieces of spiritual wisdom. At this year’s national conference in June, workshops ranged from the technical “Theatre Design for Playwrights” to the issue-oriented “What Do Scripture and Soap Operas Have in Common?” to the near mystical “Spiritual Growth through Acting Exercises.” In the evenings, you could gravitate to an auditorium stocked with red Baptist hymnals to watch liturgical dance—Christian dancers are increasingly active in CITA—or sample Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek’s intensely earnest musical Quilters, about American pioneer women and their life-affirming needlework. For light relief, there was PG-rated stand-up from Hollywood’s “clean comedian” Robert G. Lee, who did a gentle 20-minute Bible parody featuring imitations of Casey Kasem and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Much of this entertainment would have landed with a deafening thud in a room full of non-Christians. But it hit the right note for CITA’s constituents, who represent a spectrum of overlapping interest groups—the theatre enthusiasts who mount skits and plays in churches; the freelance artists who present religious entertainment to other believers; the academics in drama departments at Christian universities; the Christian artists struggling through the secular theatre world; and, finally, a handful of professional theatre companies that adhere to a loosely Christian mission—Seattle’s Taproot Theatre or Houston’s A.D. Players, for example.
What all these artists have in common is a slightly anxious interest in reconciling the standards of two demanding vocations—vocations that have been clashing since this country’s earliest days. The early colonists enacted laws against theatre, which they saw as a godless business. As late as the 19th century, many American Christians felt, in the words of a typical religious tract, that “nothing is more potent in causing men to relinquish a strictly religious life than the spirit and associations of the Theatre.”
Such formalized prejudice had more or less died off by the turn of the century, though, and since then a range of denominations have explored the theatre as a means of drawing believers together, celebrating a religious tradition, or presenting the Christian message in a catchy way to a world increasingly in thrall to the media. In the latest installment of this trend, the past 25 years have seen an explosion in the use of theatre as a spiritual tool in evangelical Protestant circles. Largely responsible was the groundbreaking work of South Barrington, Ill.’s nontraditional, and hugely successful, Willow Creek Community Church—where, in the words of drama-ministry director Steve Pederson, “When [theatre] isn’t part of the service, people wonder what happened!”
Modeling themselves in part on Willow Creek, evangelical Protestant churches have hired drama directors and sanctioned the staging of Bible stories and inspirational skits during religious services. This liturgical development, in turn, has inspired Christians to create theatre outside church sanctuaries, founding dramatic ministries like Acts of Renewal, a husband-and-wife team that performs skits (about gender relations, the Garden of Eden, etc.) for colleges, retreats and national organizations like Promise Keepers.
The majority of CITA constituents are evangelical Protestants who have experienced this aesthetic/theological détente. Most also share a roughly utilitarian vision of theatre—utilitarian, that is, from the heavenly perspective. “Art for art’s sake is void!” asserts Sam Vance, Taproot Theatre’s intense young assistant artistic director for touring. Drama, in the view of Vance and similarly inclined thinkers, can and should serve God’s purposes—although it may do so in mysterious ways. In February 2000, for example, Taproot staged H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, convinced that the horror tale contained a fundamentally Christian—and, in this era of genetic engineering, highly relevant—message about the proper balance between human and divine power.
Even if this kind of scripted revelation catapults over the heads of the audience, Christian artists feel that it may still serve the cast. Just before leaving the conference, New Jersey-based playwright Buzz McLaughlin noted that actors involved in his plays— works like Sister Calling My Name, written for the secular marketplace—have sometimes regained their lost belief. Leaning over the cafeteria table, a dirty brown Dramatists Guild baseball cap perched on his head, he confided shyly, “I think that’s better than if the play won the Pulitzer Prize.”
Waltzing down the path of utilitarianism, of course, comes the specter of bad, useful art. The danger is one that artists at the 2000 CITA conference acknowledged, often ruefully admitting that Christian theatre has gained a reputation for mediocrity. “It’s a battle of stereotypes,” remarked JoEllen Anklam, a director who is a full-time drama volunteer for the Northside Church of Christ in Newport News, Va. “When you think of church productions, what do you think of? Of things that are not quite up to par.” As a result, she says, the work she and her colleagues do is viewed, in theatre and media circles, as “not legitimate.” A production like her site-specific Dickens’ Christmas Village, performed outside in Newport News’s historic district, may attract a newspaper’s religion writer, she says with some exasperation—its theatre critic, never.
With such testimonies surfacing repeatedly, the crisis of artistic quality became the conference’s overarching theme. “I think in some way I’ve helped create a monster,” Willow Creek’s Steve Pederson confessed in his strikingly blunt speech at the conference’s plenary session. “So much of what we do isn’t good.” He went on to suggest that, having triumphed in the “drama wars”—the battle with church authorities over theatre’s spiritual value—Christian theatre artists would do well to focus on aesthetics. And many of the conference’s seminars aimed at helping his audience move in this direction. The “How Not to Write a Play” workshop, hosted by the Atlanta-based company Art Within, for example, advised playwrights to empathize with the views of their non-Christian characters even when those views seemed evil, in order to avoid writing self-righteous and didactic scripts.
CITA constituents, in other words, seem increasingly convinced that you can’t fob bad art off on God. (“What kind of theatre artist would Jesus be? He’d be an excellent theatre artist,” playwright Amy Russell exclaimed as audiences filtered out of the auditorium one evening after a bout of liturgical dance.) But even with this growing consensus, the field of Christian theatre burgeons with thorny theoretical questions—the kind of puzzlers that, 500 years ago, would have launched Church schisms and Grand Inquisitors. Should Christian theatre be directed at other believers, as a substitute for modern secular entertainment—Bible-based plays as alternatives to, say, “The X-Files”? Or should it be aimed at witnessing to the broader American public, in the hopes of making converts or, at least, altering the tone of modern culture? Can Christian theatre boot about existential questions without supplying answers? Should Christian troupes employ nonbelieving artists, or might those staff members lead company and audience astray?
One of the most intriguing issues for the broader theatrical community (in view of Corpus Christi and similar melees) is the sticky matter of content. Can believers justify working on plays that affirm alien values? Are artists who shun such plays courting smug pharisaism? This dilemma can spark clashes even within the Christian drama community. After a late night forum on the conference’s first evening, Cristie Kearny of Knoxville, Tenn., related how she resigned from a Knoxville company after two years as artistic director. “I was fighting them at every turn,” she explained. “They wanted safe, happy endings, saying the name of Jesus constantly.” The straw that broke the camel’s back, she says, was “an hour-long argument about ‘Can you say ‘shit’ in a Christian theatre?'”
A more sophisticated version of this same question volleyed back and forth in a workshop entitled “Absurd Wisdom: Directing Albee, Ionesco, Kopit, Sartre.” Some modern plays, the workshop participants agreed, project a weary despair—an assertion of meaninglessness—that seems to contradict the Christian message. Might the bleak vision of an Endgame, say, damage the faith of a Christian spectator? Rebecca Greer, a Memphis-based actress who hopes to start her own company, put the problem eloquently: “I don’t want to lead people into the wilderness and then say, ‘Here you are. Find your own way home.'”
Can a camel fit through the eye of a needle? Can you squeeze into heaven through No Exit? Deanna Jent, one of the workshop leaders and the director of theatre at Missouri’s Fontbonne College, was sanguine at least on the latter count. Absurdist theatre, she said, is no more nihilistic than the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 2—“Emptiness, emptiness, says the Speaker, emptiness, all is empty.” This verse dispatches the reader on a spiritual journey as it segues to a testament to divine order, reading, in the famous St. James Bible version, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”—whence confidence, hope and the song by the Byrds.
“God doesn’t call us to comfortable places,” Jent concluded, “He calls us to questioning.” Her workshop co-leader, CITA board chairman Harvey Johnson, who heads the drama program at Pennsylvania’s Geneva College, concurred. Christians can best serve the world, he suggested, by understanding and empathizing with its pain. “Scripture says be in the world, not of it,” he observed. Staging Ionesco or Kopit, he suggested, is a way to be in.
In-ness without of-ness, though, is tricky to negotiate. Jesus instructed his disciples, “You, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.” This directive would appear to suggest that Christ’s theatrically inclined followers should labor in the world at large, rather than sticking to a religious theatre ghetto. Secular productions, though, can seem spiritually risky to many Christian artists. Actress Greer, for example, recalls being fired from a cast of The Doctor in Spite of Himself when she objected on principle to some bawdy stage business. “We as actors don’t like boundaries,” she observes. “But Christianity does have some very clear boundaries.”
Other Christian artists feel differently. One afternoon at Ridgecrest, the young members of Orlando’s Trilemma Productions could be found hanging out on a dormitory porch, taking a break from workshops. “We view ourselves as the bad boys of the CITA conference,” said Aaron Wiederspahn, a Kierkegaard-quoting actor/author who wears a nose ring and whose business card states that he is Trilemma’s “Enigmatic Swan.” The two-year-old Trilemma steers clear of the ghetto, aiming ambitiously to be “one of the leading professional production companies in the country.” It stages works that encourage “the discovery of truth”—last April’s offering, for example, was Neil LaBute’s bash, staged with mostly non-Christian actors. “You have to be in the midst of the culture,” insisted Wiederspahn, whose recent one-man show Why I Am the Star (the Amalgamation of Alwinkle J29.VII) is a rebuttal of Ayn Rand. “As Christians, our mission is to reflect light, but that means covering the depths of evil and goodness.” As for the temptations of the secular world, Wiederspahn emphasized, “If a person cannot live life as a Christian within the mainstream theatre and thinks he can do it within the church, then he’s blind to what his struggle really is.”
A number of artists at Ridgecrest seemed to think that, when you get right down to it, theatre is always a metaphysically risky business. Such, at least, is the opinion of Ken Bailey, director of PR and marketing for Houston’s 33-year-old A.D. Players, which aims to disseminate “the creative signature of God.” Describing A.D.’s repertoire, which runs along the lines of this season’s The Winslow Boy and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Bailey says, “One of our greatest challenges is coining a phrase for theatre you could bring your grandmother to see.” He still emphasizes, though, that, “Theatre by its nature is not safe.”
But if you can’t make drama sin-proof, you can try to make it good, and that’s what’s absorbing Bailey and his counterparts at the turn of the millennium. “I have a friend who’s a plumber, and he’s a Christian,” Bailey pointed out reasonably as the Ridgecrest conference wound down. “Well, that doesn’t make him an inferior plumber.”