When I made the decision to become a theatre student, key people in my life had serious concerns. First, there was no way I could make any money at it. Why study something that doesn’t lead to a career? Second, theatre was vaguely threatening to their concept of my faith. “Actors” are pretenders—professional liars. “The theatre” has a reputation for immorality. Where does a Christian fit in such a picture? While I may never be able to address these concerns to everyone’s satisfaction, what I present here is a brief description of what theatre means to me, and how I understand its role in the life of faith.
Theatrical expression has varied widely throughout history and among cultures. While some of these expressions should rightly receive critical evaluation and even censure (as in the case of ancient Roman theatre in which slaves were killed as part of performance battles), much of theatre can be called good, even godly. Theatre, like other forms of art, can reflect the glory of the ultimate Creator, whose image we bear. It can expose truth in ways that news reports and Wikipedia cannot. Theatre has the potential to open its audience to new ideas and perspectives, inspiring creativity, empathy, and compassion. South African playwright Athol Fugard says it this way:
“In the course of a night watching a play in a theatre you can have a new thought, a new sensitivity to something. And if you change people, you’ll end up changing a society.”
My personal experience of theatre has been transformational. Taking on the perspective of another person is a profound lesson in humility and compassion. I still carry the righteous fury of Ann Dunn, a Catholic nun who witnessed horrific human rights violations in The Fifth Sun. I carry the precocious, inquisitive courage of Scout Finch, whose experience with racism left her wise beyond her years in To Kill a Mockingbird. I carry the stubborn resilience of Lydie Brubacher, who suffered heartbreak for the sake of her Amish community in Quiet in the Land. These characters and the stories that I inhabited through them have left an indelible mark on Mari Raynard, the character I am still becoming.
Not only does theatre reflect and expose truth, sometimes it creates truth. At the church I attend, we weekly “perform” the Eucharist, a portion of the service in which we speak a scripted dialogue and physically play out a version of the Last Supper. Itself an adaptation of the Passover celebration, Jesus’ feast of remembrance invokes millennia of story, embodying history, mythology, religion and community all in one scene. As I stand around the table with my fellow believers, I simultaneously take on the roles of Hebrew slave about to be released, baffled disciple trying to understand, and my own small self mysteriously becoming part of the body of Christ. Together we pretend that we are this Body, and—somehow—it becomes true.
Reflecting on the relationship between faith and art, writer Madeleine L’Engle says,
“God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling.”
As we play together on stage, at church, and in life, may we allow ourselves the freedom to truthfully pretend, as children do, and in pretending to discover, to grow, and to become who God is creating us to be.