The Big Playwright in the Sky

August 10, 2008
Brad Lepp

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

“Just Jazz it Up!” Two Sundays ago we heard Al tell us that Jazz isn’t an effect to be placed on something, but rather a starting place and lens through which to approach life. That we need to be masters of the skills of life, so that we can put it aside and effortlessly be in the moment. Be in the moment, to improvise, in collaboration & in harmony with those others that share the stage with you.

“I’m sure you’ll make it Theatrical!” “Can you put together a little drama.” Little. Drama. Theatrical, dramatic – the terms are used almost interchangeably now, though of course they reference very different experiences.

There is another distinction I am fond of making for people after a show: “They are a very good performer, I’m not sure if they are a great actor”.

The number of times I’ve been told about someone’s 13-year-old niece or nephew who has such a flare for the theatrical and the flamboyant that they are sure to go into theatre. My response: Do I look flamboyant to you?

The story told for the Children is from a play called Nathan the Wise, by Gotthold Lessing, a German playwright, and the father of modern dramaturgy. First published in 1779, the centre piece of the play is this Parable of the Ring. The context is the Crusades, and with religion and cultures intermixing, the speaker, Nathan is called before Saladin, and is placed in a very precarious position. Which religion is the true one. The subtext is obvious. It is a fervent plea for religious tolerance, and in good form, its performance was forbidden by the church during Lessing’s lifetime.

The title of today’s talk is “The Big Playwright in the Sky: Negotiating good art with good living, shedding the theatrical for the dramatic”. The academic in me likes long titles.

Now I named it that way because I strongly believe that our own interpretation and understanding of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, is necessarily mediated by our experiences and our own lives. My understanding is mediated by the fact that I’m in theatre. I think it is very different from, say, a missionary. And I think that it is interesting to embrace this personal understanding. God the composer, God the Carpenter, God the engineer, God the healer. God the scientist? I sometimes like to think of God as the great playwright. The Bible is the ultimate narrative and full of dramatic action.

Theatre and religion are fundamentally linked in my mind. And I’m not only speaking historically, since I believe the employment of drama and spectacle in early religious ceremony was as rooted politically as it was culturally. But just because you still often seem them together. At Queen’s, the Drama department and the Theology department shared the same building, which admittedly raised a few issues when we practiced our stage combat in the hallways. But also in theatre venues, converting whatever space is available – we almost expect a theatre to be in an old church. There are books on how to convert your local church sanctuary into a performing space.

And it may, or may not, surprise you to learn just how spiritual theatre people are. In one of my first directing projects in Toronto I had 5 actors, who I didn’t know that well, all from very different back grounds; one was a star of the Quebec stage, one had never acted before. They all had different schools of training, different experiences. One actress always needed an ‘adjective’ to go with every line, the other preferred if I didn’t say a word about her character, one actress was focused on the general arc of the character over the whole play, one actor was only looking at how to play each individual scene. One was a devote atheists, one was Jewish, one protestant, one catholic. It sounds like a bad joke, right. How could we communicate? What was our common language? What we all understood, was when I said, “cross stage left, when the spirit moves you”, or “when the spirit moves you, you will lift up your face and look at the audience”. That was a language that all the performers understood.

But the Church and Theatre haven’t always gotten along. It wasn’t that long ago that pastors would write into the Globe and Mail denouncing whatever touring show was coming through town. And in many ways that has never left:

My favourite example, going back a few decades, is that of Reverend John Coburn, who took it upon himself to be a religious theatre censor. It started when he heard about a show coming to the Star Theatre in Toronto, called “The Darlings of Paris”. Now most likely, it was a little risky. He took it upon himself to visit this show and see the obscenity for himself. He then reported it to the church council, and other pastors, and so, they all had to go see it with their own eyes. They then reported it to city counselor’s office, whom of course, all went down to see this naughty show. Reverend Coburn wrote up a 4 page pamphlet which described in “graphic detail”, the goings on at the Star Theatre. It went through four printings. And so charges eventually were laid, and the Star theatre was forced to pay a fine of $10, and close that show. But Coburn had gotten a taste, and he set up a committee of about 40 people, who went to these burlesques and reviews and decided if they were obscene, which they usually were, and pressed charges. And so for a period of 3 years of so, this pastor made a habit of seeing every single show that toured or came through Toronto. In fact, he got a leave of absence from his congregation, so he could focus more solely on seeing this sinful theatre. I think it’s brilliant.

Another example. The play Corpus Christi, was written by Pulitzer prize winning writer Terrence McNalley and it caused some stir a couple of years ago when it first premiered.

The writer describes the play as follows: “Corpus Christi is a passion play. The life of Joshua, a young man from south Texas, is told in the theatrical tradition of medieval morality plays. Men play all the roles. There is no suspense. There is no scenery. The purpose of the play is that we begin again the familiar dialogue with ourselves: Do I love my neighbour? Am I contributing good to the society in which I operate or nil? Do I, In fact, matter? Nothing more, nothing less. The play is more a religious ritual than a play. A play teaches us a new insight into the human condition. A ritual is an action we perform over and over because we have to. Otherwise, we are in danger of forgetting the meaning of that ritual, in this case that we must love one another or die. Christ died for all of our sins because He loved each and every one of us. When we do not remember His great sacrifice, we condemn ourselves to repeating its terrible consequences.”

This is the playwright. Kinda dense, but he makes a thoughtful and interesting point about ritual and play.

The reason the play raised such a stir, was because in this script, Jesus, as well as Judas and some of his followers, are depicted as homosexuals. The layering of action is set against the real-life events of a beating of a young gay boy in Corpus Christi, the town in Texas in 1991 I believe, where the boy was stripped, beaten, and thrown in a barbed wire fence and died. The allusion that McNalley is drawing upon is clear, as is I think his message of compassion and love. But that doesn’t exclude that in this play, there is a scene where the actor playing the Jesus role and the actor playing the Judas role share an intimate kiss.

When the play premiered churches across the country flew into a rage. Now I don’t want to say whether they were right or wrong, but this was before the script had gone into print. This was before the opening performance, so no one had seen or read the play yet. Over 250,000 post cards were sent to the Manhattan Theatre Club. Under pressure, Trans World Airlines withdrew their corporate sponsorship of the Theatre. Over two thousand people protested outside the theatre doors. Actors that were taking part were sent hate mail by the hundreds and publicly ridiculed.

May I remind you, this was before anyone had even seen or read the play.

I’ve read the play, you can ask my opinion if you wish later, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.

How many of you would go see a play, say Corpus Christi, based on what I’ve told you? Is this something that we should stay clear from?

80 years after Reverend John Coburn, many of the same attitudes still remain. One only needs to read about the protests outside of the Pastor Phelp’s Project, playing at the Summerworks Theatre Festival this week to see this tradition continuing. I say tradition, not because I think the Pastor Phelp’s Project is going to be a brilliant work of art, but because people have made up their minds before seeing the piece. So in many ways I respect the Reverend John Coburn, because at least he engaged with the work, he viewed it before condemning it. And then viewed it again, and again…

But the conflict between good art and good living is one that concerns me. Is my ability to create engaging and provocative art incompatible with my ability to be a faithful and devout Christian? And this is a real question.

Good art is engaging, it makes a connection with the spectator. It captures something of the common human experience. It struggles with a question that is greater than itself. It challenges us.

Good drama is a series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking results. Results, because it must register somewhat on the spectator.

It is commonly understood in the theatre world that the spectator makes up 50% of the performance. That the receiver, unknowingly, unrehearsed, unintentionally is the final filter through which the art is communicated, and so is ultimately part of the performance itself.

And so good Drama is essentially the Humanness at the core of the art.

What is left over is the theatricality, the effects, the design, the slap stick, the heightened prose, the effected voices and accents, this it would seem then, is the antithesis, the not-humanness.

I found this wonderfully fascinating and thoroughly frightening, article on the web. Now I know, yes, you can find anything on the web, but as far as I can tell it was written in all seriousness and wasn’t written for National Lampoons or The Onion. This is a legitimate point of view.

The article is entitled, “The Sober Confession of a Theatre Attendee” by Pastor Matt Trewhella of Minnesota. Now, in my attempt to be fair and unbiased, I won’t comment on the poor grammar. I won’t. But I will sum up his argument:

And I quote; “After about three years of my baptism, I finally wore down and attended theatre. My participation in theatre attendance would grow and wane over the years; but by the time God broke through to my heart and I repented before Him in April of 1999, I was attending theatre about once every two or three weeks and renting a movie almost every week. But finally He faithfully delivered me from the madness.” End quote.

Pastor Trewhella sums up his argument in 7 points:
o First, we should stand in opposition to theatre attending and movie renting because it is a criminal waste of time. Ephesians 5:15-16 says that we should “be careful how we live, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil”. When we go before God on the day of judgement we must give account of the manner in which we spent every hour. How much of your life have you squandered in theatre attending or movie renting?
o 2 – It causes dissipation of the mind. And Romans 12:1-2 makes it clear our minds are not to be conformed to this world
o 3 – Movies and theatre portray evil and good and good as evil. Now he doesn’t cite any examples here, but he says the family man is always portrayed as a hypocrite, while the fornicator is a noble man.
o 4- We should oppose theatre and movies, because we are financing evil. We are sending our money to Hollywood, which promotes every form of immorality and perversion. He lists these as baby-murder, disarming the American, and socialism – all of which the bible are clearly against.
o 5- We should oppose theatre because the church has always stood in opposition to it. (I’m not so sure about his history there, but maybe he knows a different history than I do)
o 6- We should oppose theatre and movie renting because as James 1:27 declares, we are to keep ourselves “unspotted from the world”.
o And finally, 7 – we should oppose theatre and movie renting because we are at war, and an army must stay focused. And for this he quotes 2nd Corinthians, and 1st Timothy.

Now, some people do actually think this way. And I don’t want to say this represents all people who have misgivings about the profession of theatre or the cinema. Many very smart people would rather spend their time doing other things, for a whole variety of reasons.

But I had to come to the conclusion that if I find him ultimately conservative in his approach and in his reading – I must make room for the possibility that I am ultimately too liberal in my own approach, and equally misreading the scripture. But reading over Reverend Trewhella’s list, some points do strike home.
o We shouldn’t waste our time. Our time and our charge on this earth are very precious. Who hasn’t walked out of a theatre or of a movie thinking, well, that’s 2 hours of my life that I will never get back. I know I have – I went to see “Step Brothers”.
o How are morals portrayed in theatre and film? And let’s take an honest look. Judith Thompson’s work, as a playwright, deals with some of the most downtrodden and outcast characters doing horrible things. Her first play, Crackwalker, shows a father strangling a child on stage, and he’s portrayed with a certain sympathy. Judith Thompson is considered one of the foremost playwrights in Canada, her plays are embraced by almost every major Canadian theatre as giving voice to a segment of the population that is often excluded.
o Even movies that have a moral message seem to impress their morals through violence. What does this mean for pacifists?
o And yes, theatre and film is a business. And in a capitalist society your dollars are a way of condoning something. At times the decision is made for you, as the government decides which companies receive your tax dollars as arts funding.
o I think part of what Pastor Trewhella is reacting against, is the Theatricality of the art that he is witnessing. A worldliness that is disconnected from the drama, or the humanity of the pieces. Do we not all feel that sometimes? We go into a cinema, sit in the dark, all looking at some lovely projected light, we share a common experience, we eat together (albeit popcorn) and then we get up and leave.

I turned to scripture, to see if my more liberal reading might turn up something that might give some guidelines to approach this topic.

I wanted to stay away from wishy-washy interpretation. I mean, yes, God is a creator, theatre practitioners are creators. The first thing we learn about God in genesis was that God is an artist, that He/She likes to create and takes pride in His/Her work.

We see the amount of artistic skills God gives to people like Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus. And we see that God is clearly a set designer, with the exact directions He gives to the design and construction of the holy temple.

We see a lot of dancing, especially in the Old Testament. Miriam Danced. But then, of course, so did Salome. Moses composes a song.

And it is clear how God feels about Critics – In 2nd Samuel, Michal, daughter of Saul, criticized the way David was dancing, and in response was left barren the rest of her life.

Psalms instructs us to Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts

But Singing and Dancing seems to me to be essentially different than theatre, and I’ve never been one for the ballet.

So we go to the New Testament, and are given the Parables. Jesus, challenging many of the concepts of his own society, through performance.

In Matthew, the stage is set:

A large audience comes. There apparently isn’t a ticket price, perhaps its pay-what-you-can. Jesus goes out on a boat, hence creating a designated performance space, distinct from the spectators. Jesus communicates, making a connection with the spectators through the medium of oratory, speaking in heightened language while clearly conscious of its dynamic. He tells the crowd the parables of the Sower, the Parable of the seeds, of the mustard seed and the yeast, of the Net, and the hidden treasure.
o Just a few chapters earlier Jesus is raising a girl from the dead, casting out demons, and a few chapters later John the Baptist is beheaded, Jesus feeds the five thousand, and is walking on water.
o These acts are important; they are testament to the Divinity of Jesus as God’s son. But to be honest with you, they don’t register as dramatic with me. They are theatrical, they are important, but are they dramatic?

Stuck in the middle of all this excitement is this text heavy, quiet bit of storytelling. For me this is the Human-ness of Jesus’s ministry. The drama lies in the earnestness with which our Lord communicates with his flock. In the recognition of the message. Shared human experiences – feeling like we are that lost grain, forgotten amongst the weeds. In appreciation of the great majesty that is contained within something as small as a seed of mustard. It must have been like having seen a really good film and you can’t wait to go to a coffee shop and discuss it; parables need unpacking.

But drama and art are not to be taken lightly. Through the words of Isaiah, Jesus challenges us:

You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts

I read this as a call to action. That we need to be more engaged in how we interpret the messages in the mediums that are all around us.

I don’t have the luxury of “turning off”, since as we’ve discussed, the spectator is 50% of the performance, and so I have become calloused to the effects of the theatrical, of what I see and hear. Of what I am bombarded with in commercials, waiting for the subway, on the TV, in movies, and on stage. This passivity allows the meaning to exist on a superficial and exterior level.

Rather, if I want to see, and hear and understand. If I want to connect with the Drama, I need to be critical of the theatrical (that’s not to say not enjoy it), but to seek to understand it, how it is working on me. To do this, we need to become masters of the mediums – like Jazz – we need to understand the tools: rhetoric, language, satire, comedy, pacing, action, character, conflict, structure, music, design, and yes, marketing. To understand all these and then to look for the underlying human drama underneath. What is there that I am connecting to? And why?

It is only at this stage that we can go back to the instructions of Psalms 105: “Look to the LORD and his strength; seek His face always”.
o Is what we are connecting with, helping us seek His face? We are called to sing and tell stories about His wondrous Deeds. We are called to be artists.

This is the guiding point I think to my earlier question of negotiating good art with good living. Will our work, our choices in art help us seek His face? The Darlings of Paris – I haven’t seen it, so I won’t pass judgment, but I suspect that underneath the theatrical spectacle there is little Human drama to connect with. What about Corpus Christi, well perhaps there is something more underneath, that we connect to on a human level, and if so, one might suggest that is representing one aspect of His face.

On an every day, Monday faith, level, might this still apply? When we go to the theatre? When we rent a movie? I’m not suggesting that we censor what we come in contact with, but certainly the level in which we engage it. Not less, more.

Take something and make it more theatrical? Absolutely. But never forget to make it more dramatic as well.