When the community gathers to witness words becoming flesh, when stories get up onstage and live and move and be, something is happening which has a lot to do with the incarnational essence of the Christian faith. So it is a sad irony that for many centuries Christians have ignored, suspected and even opposed theatrical performance.
To this day I retain powerful sensory impressions of the first professional play I ever experienced, some twenty-five years ago: an adaptation of "Great Expectations." I had seen my share of television, movies, amateur plays, but nothing had prepared me for the transporting immediacy of the professional theatre. A bookworm, I had no idea of the power of the senses to make a story live.
A man lights a pipe onstage, and the blue-gray smoke unfolds and undulates upwards through the stage lights, not a photograph but a real, unhurried, three-dimensioned dance, expanding and dispersing through the space until, most astonishing and un-movie-like of all, that sweet rich tobacco smell reaches my nostrils in the fourteenth row, aisle seat, house right. Six dark men in Victorian crepe brush by me, bearing an ornate coffin through the audience and onto the stage. I see them shake with the palpable weight of that terrible, heavy box, and I too feel the weight of its contents: a human body, death.
Two years later Christ brought the whole world alive to me in a life suddenly abundant with feeling, love, passion, sense. And in some ways, I look back to that first encounter with the heightened reality of the theatrical world as a foretaste of the new life I was soon to experience in Christ.
It is the very power of theatre, and in particular its sensual power, that has led some Christians to be suspicious. When a false dualism splits the spiritual from the physical and distrusts the body, when we forget that scripture uses "the flesh" to refer not to our sensual selves but rather to our anti-spiritual tendencies, when a Word-centred religion forgets that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, then passion and feeling and the senses become suspect.
But to the biblical Christian, our bodies bear the image and likeness of our Maker, and they are to be celebrated and used to His glory. The creation itself is God-made, and should delight us as much as it did our Creator, who kept on saying "Look at that! Isn't it great!" at the end of each day's creating. And so theatre, that most physical, sensual, immediate and incarnational of arts, is to some Christians the most thrillingly divine of them all.
The theatre artist is fascinated by the particularities of human life, with people and the dynamic of their relationships, with the human heart and the way it reveals itself in choices and action. By shaping this fascination into a story on stage, the artist performs a priestly act of oblation - a sanctifying act of thanksgiving, an offering up to God. (Capon, pg 79)
Theatre is an ultimately collaborative art form, welcoming every kind of artist to work together to make something greater. The storyteller, the composer, the visual artist, the dancer and the carpenter work together in an intentional community with a mission of service to an audience - a simulacrum of any kind of community, of the church, of the body of Christ. The actor dare not say to the stage manager, "I don't need you." And except the electrician run the dimmer up on cue, who will see the truths conceived in the heart of the director and expressed in the bodies of the players?
When our God took on flesh and became a man, he was a man who mostly told stories. And in this, theatre artists have much in common with Jesus, because the art of theatre is above all else the art of storytelling, elaborated.
In the twentieth century, literary fiction has shifted its emphasis away from plot toward point of view, narrative voice, other things. But that is one thing its crowd-pleasing cousin can never do: without story, what happens on a stage becomes something other than drama. It may be dance, it may be music, it may be poetry or circus, but it's not a play.
And like Christ or the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 12), whose stories got inside people and revealed their hearts, these stage-stories too have a way of getting past rational defences and straight to the listener's core. Hamlet knew it: when he needed to test his step-father's soul, he hired a band of players to put on a show. "The play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."
In our world there has grown up a terrible misconception about the nature of the actor's task. We think it is all about ego, about putting the actor forward, about showing off, about wanting to be centre-stage. (Isn't it interesting how this mistrust of acting has crept into our language? We're paying no compliment when we say people are making a spectacle of themselves, feeding you a line, doing their same old routine, putting on an act, acting up, showing off, making a scene, playing a role...) But many Christian actors find something profoundly spiritual in the discipline of setting their own persona aside, submitting themselves to the task of so identifying with another human soul that they can take on that person's way of speaking, moving, feeling, thinking, wanting. Like John the Baptist, they must diminish so that the other might be manifested.
Far more apt is the comparison to Christ himself, who Paul describes in Philippians as one who, having the form and nature of God, didn't consider equality with God a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself, taking on the character of a servant, the physicality of a human being. It is a poor actor indeed who simply pretends to be another character: who settles for seeming to be, rather than identifying with and imaginatively becoming that character. The actor builds this new person out of a miraculous confluence of two beings: the character who already exists in the script, created by the playwright, and the actor's own self - feelings, desires, history, body, soul. The resulting character is neither fully fictional nor fully real, but mysteriously both fictional and real. The actor aspires to think the thoughts of the character while in the scene, not to know more about the play than the character would in the moment: even so, the actor never actually "becomes the character" - always the actor remains himself, living out an expression of some aspect of her own self within different circumstances.
How reminiscent of Christ, fully man and yet still God. Not that the actor does exactly what Jesus did in his incarnation: only that, in emptying ourselves and taking the character of another, we taste at least a little of the divine humility of our Lord.
And what a concrete lesson this is in our common humanity. Knowing that, in different circumstances and with different choices, I could be a disciple, a Nazi, a hooker, a sage or an accountant. If you are going to embody someone, you cannot hold yourself above them, hold them at arms' length: you have to climb into their body, taste their food, imagine their childhood, fear what they fear and want what they want. A profoundly spiritual act, an act of identification, an act of love.
In recent decades there has been a tremendous explosion among Christians of interest in theatre. When in the 1960s evangelical Christians became less separationist and began to experience the culture around them, that whole subculture began to realize that such a powerful medium might just as well be used for the Kingdom of God as against it.
In recent years, as Christian theatre artists grow in their craft and become more sophisticated in their understanding of it, many turn from this utilitarian approach to a more incarnational, story-telling aesthetic, believing that the theatre speaks most powerfully, and is most transcendent, when it is not harnessed to a pragmatic purpose. The Christian playwright who in her early career sets out to teach people things by using the stage eventually comes to the conclusion that her focus needs to be on telling a tale, not manifesting a moral. And that in the process of creating that story, the creator's image will be seen. In writing a play from the heart, the playwright's heart will be made known: by the choices she makes, by the choices her characters make and by the consequences they experience. If that heart is filled with God's Spirit, then the play will be similarly filled.
We go to the theatre to have experiences which are not our own, to be made larger. We identify with characters we might never otherwise meet, we see worlds we will never live in. In a highly concentrated, artistically rendered universe, characters strive and make choices and live out consequences before our eyes in the space of a couple hours, and sometimes that experience takes us outside ourselves so profoundly that we leave the theatre changed: knocked off our "onological treadmill," we are suddenly open to new ways of seeing the world. And, possibly, we find ourselves in "a position where we may more easily contact God, or be contacted by him." (Baron)
Some theatre artists are quite intentional about this. By creating works which challenge our complacent and conventional assumptions, while refusing to "explain themselves away" by offering interpretation, they force us to do our own wrestling with fundamental assumptions. This can be a prophetic act in the Old Testament tradition. "What art does is to reorient and repattern perception, creating the conditions for a new epistemology. What the prophetic does is similar." (Fetcho)
Humans learn, change and grow mostly through what they experience. In theatre, we experience vicariously a great deal that our own lives will never bring about. With the Holy Spirit working in us as we come to terms with these experiences, the theatre affords an extraordinary opportunity to grow and become more human, to become wiser and more compassionate as we are transformed by our experiences - whether actual or vicarious.
from "The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity" (1997), ed. Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens
Gerald Baron, "A Crisis Encounter: Can Art Make It Happen?", Christianity Today, June 6 1980.
Robert Farrar Capon, An Offering Of Uncles: The Priesthood Of Adam And The Shape Of The World (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
David Fetcho, "Art, Action, And Revival", Radix, Summer 1985.