A Christian Theatre Manifesto: Part 3

ezekiel (1)

(Read Part 1 by clicking here and Part 2 by clicking here)

by John Ellis

To my slight frustration, many of the directors, teachers, and writers that I look up to seemingly only go so far in practice. Thankfully, in word they’ve shown me the aesthetic path that my theatre practice has taken. For example, the brilliant director Gregory Mosher understood, “that the essence of theatre is a bunch of people in the same room. The less they’re divided the better.”[1]

Yet, Mosher, who served as the artistic director at both the Goodman and the Lincoln Center, and who resisted working on the larger stages at both theatres, preferring to stage much of his work on the smaller side-stages, still told his stories in front of crowds of hundreds using the traditional staging artifices that can lead to the Deadly Theatre. Apparently, and based on his work, Mosher believed that “the less they’re divided the better” had an end point that terminated at the edge of the stage; division between the world of imagination and the world of reality still characterized his work.

The truth is that the experimental theatre artist will often find himself or herself venturing further into questions alone. As James Roose-Evans stated, “To experiment is to make a foray into the unknown – it is something that can only be charted after the event.” Pushing boundaries in the search for better ways to tell stories to audiences is not for the timid. Throw in the Christian worldview, and the Christian experimental theatre artist will most definitely be making “a foray into the unknown.”

None of that is meant to discourage you. In fact, if anything, if you have the artistic temperament that tends towards exploration and pushing boundaries, my warning will most likely stir a desire to strive to create something that holds intrinsic value separate from the market and separate from the approval of the status-quo. That, of course, raises the question as to how we make that kind of theatre, especially within the worldview of Biblical Christianity.

How does the Christian experimental theatre artist explore and create theatre that pushes past the boundaries of traditional theatre, connect and resonate with the audience on deep spiritual levels, and glorify God?

To help answer that question, I want to share and then interact with a quote from Zelda Fichlander, who was the longtime artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage:

“The central task in the theatre is to objectify, to clarify, to lay bare the wellsprings of human behavior so that we can actually see our own internal feelings instead of just have the sense of them in some inchoate form fluttering around inside us. What the theatre does is to make a shape for the interior life – objectify it in form. The more the audience is able to empathize with this life, the more they can open up places within themselves that have been closed. They come to ‘think feelingly’ about experiences that they recognize on the stage to be their very own. Theatre is a way of describing in space, time, and motion our collective memories.”[2]

With her first sentence of the quote, Fichlander recognizes and promulgates the notion that, in short, theatre exists to confront humans with our humanity. The pushes and pulls of society, modern society especially, and the concerns and machinations of the increasing demands of materialism (philosophical materialism that encompasses much more than just consumerism) have created an autonomous raft that floats humanity farther and farther away from, well, humanity.

In Christian terms, and referencing Part 2 of this series, the dehumanization of society is a direct act of rebellion against the One who created humans in His image. The more dehumanized we become, the more marred God’s image is. An attack on our humanity is an attack on God.

Secular theatre recognizes that there is something intrinsically wrong with our dehumanization and it has a glorious history of pushing back on the dehumanizing tendencies of society. For example, absurdist theatre recognizes that modernism has reduced humans to machines and consumers leaving an existential hole in humanity. Sadly, without the true solution to the conflict, all that’s left for the secular artist is absurdism or nihilism and the despairing tragedies of the great existential theatre artists. On the other hand, like most of society that simply wants to blissfully drift along, unaware of the impending doom, traditional theatre tends toward escapism, a la Peter Brook’s Deadly Theatre.

One of the best ways to ignore what Christians throughout the years have described as a “God-shaped hole,” or, in secular terms, that existential hole that the great artists have been seeking to understand for generations, is to numb and/or hypnotize ourselves with amusements. Much of the staging artifices used by traditional theatre serve to separate humans from fellow humans. Instead of bringing humans together to explore the human experience together, traditional theatre asks us to turn inwards to have private moments of enjoyment. Deceitfully, traditional theatre slathers itself with the façade of a communal experience, propping it up with the air of an unearned artistic respectability.

Humans long for communion. Shamefully, sin not only separates us from our Creator but also from each other. In our rebellion, we have a tendency to feed the real need with false idols. The Deadly Theatre allows rebellious humans to convince themselves that possess real connections apart from submission to God. But fake communion leads to destruction.

So, over the generations, feeling the falsity of the staging artifices of traditional theatre, courageous theatre artists have bravely sought true communion between humans. Sadly, their efforts have amounted to little more than tilting at windmills. That, however, doesn’t mean that the Christian experimental theatre artist can’t learn from their experience and wisdom. And one of those past brave theatre artists whom we can learn from is Harold Clurman who believed it be an unassailable truth that communion in the theatre happens best with real and substantive interaction. Writing in The Fervent Years, Clurman confesses:

“I wanted a theatrical production or, to put it more exactly, a play to make men more alive. The theatre was not a bar, as Craig had said, but a famous temple. Art was not a pick-me-up, but a communion. … I understood now why I loved to go to the theatre, even when I did not respect it in the way I respected the very idea of a concert. When I had been contemptuous of the stage I had generally been displeased by the emptiness of the plays. But I loved to go to the theatre because the presence of the actors – their aliveness, the closeness of the audience, and the anticipation of a communion between all of them in terms of imagination, embodied through their actual movement in tangible space – was the very flower of large social contact, even when the occasion for this contact, in terms of literature, was a silly anecdote. At each performance in the theatre something happened between contemporaries that was a deep pleasure for those who loved the human vibration of people their common play and enthusiasm. Since this pleasure was so rich, even on the low level of the ordinary show, I clamored for greater occasions, for closer embrace, for a more rooted togetherness.”[3]

Years ago, as I fell in love with theatre at the expense of my movie-stardom dreams, I, too, had an increasing desire for a, “closer embrace, for a more rooted togetherness.” There were moments of theatre making and theatre watching that touched nerves I was unaware that I had; desires to explore myself in relation to myself, in relation to fellow humans, and, to my surprise, in relation with something transcendent to myself and my fellow humans. The thing was, much of the theatre around me seemed to unwittingly erect roadblocks steering me further away from the “closer embrace” and “rooted togetherness” that I craved.

I began to ask:

“If what I’m doing is to create shared human experiences between the world of imagination (stage) and the world of reality (audience) that help all of us ask better questions about the human condition and explore answers, then why am I employing devices and staging forms that create distance between the two worlds? Why does the audience sit in the dark in their prescribed place and merely watch my world through the veil of the fourth-wall? Shouldn’t I be looking for ways to integrate the two worlds?”

After years of internal debate, conversations with fellow theatre artists, and much study, I became firmly convinced that the correct answer to that last question is, “Yes, I should be looking for ways to integrate the two worlds.”

Unbeknownst to me as an atheist at the time, it wouldn’t be until I submitted to God through repentance of my sins and placing my faith in Jesus that I would truly begin to see a clear path forward for how to make theatre that created a “closer embrace and a more rooted togetherness.”

It was my Christian Faith that unlocked the second part of Fichlander quote for me:

“What the theatre does is to make a shape for the interior life – objectify it in form. The more the audience is able to empathize with this life, the more they can open up places within themselves that have been closed. They come to ‘think feelingly’ about experiences that they recognize on the stage to be their very own. Theatre is a way of describing in space, time, and motion our collective memories.”

In Romans 1:19, writing about those in rebellion against their Creator, the Apostle Paul famously claimed, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”

In the early 20th century, Carl Jung posited what he termed the “collective unconscious.” According to the Swiss psychiatrist, humans share memories with our ancestors. Memories that exist in our collective psyche and that shape and inform our personalities.

While we may scoff at collective unconscious as psychobabble, Jung’s theory does illustrate how rebellious humans attempt to coopt the truth to serve their own ends. You see, as Paul pointed out under Divine inspiration, all humans share knowledge of God. Tragically, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, we seek to suppress and pervert what we share. Even in our worst moments, though, all humans still carry the image of their Creator. Communion in theatre is possible because we are all made in God’s image (the anthropology of Part 2).

What’s more, Fichlander’s belief that “theatre is a way of describing in space, time, and motion our collective memories” has a deeper resonance than she realized.

Our collective memories are shaped and directed by the truths that we are all made in God’s image, we all have knowledge of God, and that sin has disrupted our ability to live well. Calling the audience to empathize with the enacted retelling of the human condition works best when communion between the world of reality and the world of imagination is at its deepest. Out of that empathy comes the opportunity to move forward to the solution.

Now, and getting down to some theatre theory nuts and bolts, communion between actors and audience will not be possible if the audience is allowed to forget about themselves. The escapist invitation from traditional theatre for people to enter into a false world runs at cross purposes than that of the Christian experimental theatre artist.

The gifted yet depraved experimental theater director and theoretician Richard Foreman was obsessed with preventing the audience from forgetting about themselves. Because he failed to acknowledge the truth of God’s rightful rule over all, Foreman had to resort to tricks in order to keep the audience from letting go and plunging into escapism. Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre is an example of theatre artists initially asking the correct questions but ultimately failing to follow those questions to the Truth.

I mention Richard Foreman, a theatre maker to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for helping shape my own theatre theory, as a means to illustrate how secular experimental theatre is only willing to go so far down the road of truth. Whatever we Christian experimental theatre artists do, we must be careful not to simply copy nor blindly follow rebellious guides. And what we do, how we tell our stories, cannot be neatly mapped out. Hence, the experimental part. And the experimental part is important.

As tempting as it is, I’m resisting the urge to provide a list theatre artifices and rules of my own making. Don’t misunderstand, I have semi-solid rules for the making of theatre that I use as a baseline for myself. That’s not to say that my experience and wisdom can’t be helpful for others. Nor does it mean that my semi-solid rules shouldn’t ever be followed or tried by fellow Christian experimental theatre artists. It’s that with this Manifesto, I want to encourage you to be willing to bravely explore theatre while questioning the rules created and established by others. If you’ve had a theatre teacher or professor insist that costumes and sets should be designed before blocking begins, question it. If you’ve been taught that table reads are an essential beginning to the rehearsal process, question it. If you’ve read that theatre audiences should be limited to fifteen – as I believe, teach, and practice – question even that.

With this series of articles that make up my Christian Experimental Theatre Manifesto, I’ve attempted to provide some concrete presuppositions from which to question theatre. I’ve also attempted to point you in the direction of some questions that may help facilitate your growth as a theatre artist.

So, Christian experimental theatre artist, I encourage you to ground your work in four principles: 1. God is the author/creator of all things. 2. Humans are made in God’s image. 3. Sin is the ultimate problem for all humans and the gospel of Jesus Christ is the ultimate solution for all humans. 4. All that theatre requires is the communion of two humans as they explore the human condition through enacted storytelling. Everything else, as it relates to theatre, is up for grabs.

Finally, my desire is to issue a call to Christians who have a passion for enacted storytelling to embrace our heritage found in the prophet Ezekiel. We have much to say and our calling is to find better ways to tell our stories in ways that help our audiences make connections with God’s Story.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Arthur Bartow, The Directors Voice: Twenty-One Interviews (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988), 240.

[2] Arthur Bartow, The Director’s Voice: Twenty-One Interviews (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988), 117.

[3] Harold Clurman, The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre & the 30’s (New York: De Capo Press, 1975), 12.

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