“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:1, 14)
These verses hold precious theological truths about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They tell us that He was the in the beginning with God, that He was God and that as the Word of God He became flesh to dwell among us. The fullest expression of God’s Word was the visible manifestation of it in the incarnation of Jesus Christ (Harris 2). The incarnation shows God’s respect for the physical, for the invisible being made visible (Litfin). Truth was given progressively in the revelation of Scripture but the complete manifestation of truth descended and was physically incarnated in Jesus Christ. We also have a responsibility to incarnate truth, to make invisible beliefs a visible reality.
Holy theater is the act of making the invisible, visible (Brook 42). Holy theater imparts genuine truth to it’s audience because it mirrors life. When the church misunderstands the ability and bent of drama to represent life it fatally misunderstands the medium and limits the ministry potential. Life offers us many general truths, like the fact that humans love and desire to be loved contrasted against the truth that we are all selfish and self-seeking. This is one example of the many invisible realities that accompany the human experience. Drama means ‘to do’ or ‘to act’. ‘To do’ or ‘to act’ honestly is to portray the human experience with integrity. A play portrays a window into the lives of a set of characters. For the playwright, this means developing your characters and then writing truthfully. For the actor, this means taking the invisible thoughts and ideas of the playwright and giving them flesh.
Theater in Culture
Theater also requires the real presence of the actors to dwell among their audience (Johnson 102). The best kind of theater is the kind that must be experienced in a group setting, the kind that requires community (Hatcher 187). Theater It is a communal experience, requiring actor and audience to share real time and real space; it is also an interactive experience requiring wholehearted participation of the actor and the audiences willing ‘suspension of disbelief’. The willing suspension of disbelief is the unspoken acknowledgment of the audience when they enter the theater to forget that what they see before them is an act. The willing suspension of disbelief allows the audience to become attached to characters, to intimately identify with their struggles and hope that they accomplish their goals. It is this element that sets theater apart from other art forms. It is this process that makes theater an active art and not a passive one. Paintings are a passive art form, and very rarely can they become active. That is because they are finished and they are fixed. People view a painting and what they see is complete, there will be no changes or additions to it because of their presence. Film is also usually a passive art form; again because it is finished. Films do not change or mutate in reaction to their audience, and most audiences generally view films to be entertained.
Theater, though it is a form of entertainment, is still unique from film because it is live. There is no film separating the actor and the audience, they share the same space and air. This communal aspect causes them to feed off of each other. An actor can hear the shocked gasps of audience members when the play takes an unexpected twist, they can also hear the sighs of relief when the protagonist solves a dilemma. Audiences suspend disbelief and react to the action in front of them; actors in turn feel the energy of the audience and feed off of what they are given. The intimacy between the audience and the artist is also the distinct property of the theater world. The other mediums discussed do not possess the ability affix creator and consumer together in such a profound way.
This participatory environment allows theater to have a unique affect on the audience. Because the audience feels participatory in the play, the play also has a participatory role in speaking truth into the lives of its audience. The role of the playwright is to honestly write about these characters and the current situation they are facing. The role of the actor is to honestly represent those characters and their reactions to the situations they are facing. The role of the audience is to suspend disbelief for a period of time and allow themselves to believe that they actually have a window into the lives of the characters onstage. The reason audiences can connect with characters is most often because they can identify with what they are facing. In Henrik Ibsen’s, Hedda Gabler an audience member may not relate well to Hedda’s specific situation of being trapped in a boring marriage, but anyone can resonate with Hedda’s desire to be in control of her life and destiny. Even though Hedda is an awful, selfish and manipulative person the audience will still have pity on her tragic end because they see their own struggle for control manifested in Hedda. Life offers us some hard to hear truths; a well-done play that is portraying accurate life circumstances has the ability to do the same thing. The hard to hear truth of Hedda Gabler is that despite all our planning or manipulating we can never have complete control over our life or it’s outcome.
Theater in the Church
Though the actor plays a vital role in this visible representation of truth the responsibility of articulating truth in a strong communicable way rests with the playwright. It all begins with the script and if your script is weak the truth it offers will be weak as well. Within the church drama has a tenuous relationship. There have been periods where churches have shunned theater altogether. There have been other periods where it has embraced and perhaps overdone. Most recently in the 1990’s theater saw a revival in church culture thanks to the mega-church sketches that were so excellently produced. However, if these dramas were so technically and visually stimulating (and they were) there must be a reason they have faded to the background leaving such little lasting impact. I believe that despite the technical excellence (solid actors, impressive lighting) and visual stimulation (detailed sets and costumes) the real problem lay within the scripts. Most of the church dramas that I have encountered have had one of three fatal flaws in their scripts. The problem with the script may have been that it really said nothing at all. Another issue is scripts that said too much making the dialogue forced and preachy. The worst problem with a script is when it says the wrong thing, offering either a watered down message or flawed theology to its audience. With these errors so common it’s no wonder the relationship between the church and drama has been so strained.
When the Script says Nothing at All
Scripts that say nothing at all tend to be produced simply for spectacle and entertainment some examples of such scripts maybe found here. Senior theology major Emily Joy Allison reflects on her own experience of theater in the church saying “At my old church in high school and junior high I just thought it was silly and cheesy bad acting and not always on the point of the message” (Allison). Far to many youth groups employ this type of obnoxious satire in hopes of holding the attention of their students. While they may succeed in catching that attention, using such ridiculous methods will undoubtedly cause students to tune their leaders out when discussing anything serious. Using these types of skits also means that the leaders have misunderstood the incredible potential drama has for imparting truth. If the options are to keep your students uncritical attention for fifteen minutes or hold their hearts and minds for forty-five minutes the church should see this as a no contest. Use drama to reach your students with truth, not to amuse them.
When the Script says too Much
Scripts that say too much tend to be the type that are most often found in churches, it is this type of drama that makes people who understand the medium cringe when they see it. The most telling sign that someone is lying is when they are saying too much (Kammerzelt). Scripts that offer answers or solutions that are too easy, neat or too contrived fall in this category. It is incredibly imperative for any playwright to remember that drama is capable of imparting truth, it does not suit giving answers. The reason for this is that drama is mimicking life. Life does give us truth, but life rarely steps forward declaring an answer. Answers are to be struggled with and fought for; even a biblical solution often causes us to wrestle with our flesh and spirit. Our spirit is willing to heed it; our flesh is not, this causes an intense struggle within us. This fight is never easily solved or completely won as long as we are on earth, we will constantly be wrestling with our flesh and we will continue to find new strength to face it. Christian dramas rarely portray this intense struggle realistically, if at all. Drama within the church has the potential to portray this struggle, instead it tends to give answers to the struggle, answers that may sound nice but rarely stick offstage in the real world.
Christians are in love with messages. “Contemporary churches are full of more or less artful delivery mechanisms for (no doubt important) messages” (Taylor 38). The contemporary church wants messages that are relevant, messages that pierce and are profound. The problem is they become so concerned with communicating this ‘message’ that they spell it out in unrealistic language and dialogue instead of letting situations and characters speak honestly for themselves. Senior Pre-Counseling major Carina Restrepo says about church drama “I feel entertained more than anything else, I also feel like they are always trying to get something across, almost like an advertisement” (Restrepo). The Willow Creek association has an example of such a drama that is meant to entertain but also has a clear agenda, it is called Character Test, this drama is about 10 minutes long, it deals with the idea of acts of kindness. In it is a man who receives a nervous call from his brother who is about to take his PhD oral exam, the man is surprised to hear his brother so nervous and is unable to find the words to comfort him, he manages to at least tell his brother ‘We’ll be praying for you’. Upon hanging up he immediately declares to his wife ‘I said the wrong, I know what I should have said’. The first problem with this is the immediacy of that realization and the absoluteness of it; it’s also the fact that in the span of thirty seconds he has also discovered the correct words for such a situation. He tries calling back, literally instantly and there’s no answer. ‘They’ve already left’ he declares to his wife. The next scene is one of him in the office on the phone with his wife asking her to get him directions to the college his brother is at so that he can go meet him before the exam. He of course arrives just in time to give his brother a long speech explaining that he can do this and he was born to do this. He then goes on to break character and narrate to the audience that in this situation he realized actions speak louder than words (just in case we did not catch that). You can watch the full clip here by clicking on Character Test. This script said too much. It would have been stronger if there had been less talk and more action. Instead of breaking character to tell us your brother’s voice is haunting you and you can’t focus, show us onstage and in dialogue that you can’t focus. Rather than telling the audience that actions speak louder than words, show us that actions speak louder than words through your interactions with your brother onstage when he realizes you showed up for his exam. In these scripts, playwrights (or the creative team) can be so concerned with the audience getting the message that they spell it out in uncharacteristic ways, breaking the suspension of disbelief. Dramas of this type sound preachy, cheesy and they solve dilemmas inaccurately. Nicely put, these dramas are unrealistic. Honestly put, these dramas are lies. They do not portray life in an accurate manner and they absolutely do not impart truth effectively. Saying too much and spelling out answers at best leaves people unaffected and at worst it makes them feel lied too.
When a Script says the Wrong Thing
The worst kind of drama that the church can produce is drama that doesn’t speak truth at all or is theologically and existentially weak. Freshman Liv Roskos on drama states “I think that they are not realistic enough and don’t truly display to the fullest extent… what kids are dealing with, I think that they tend to be watered down, its to safe…it tries to cover up the hurt, pain and realness of it” (Roskos).
There is a very subtle difference between scripts that give too many answers and scripts that are inauthentic. Scripts that fall into the preachy category of saying too much to their audience may have a truly authentic and applicable message that is existentially genuine. However, because of the how the media and culture relationship of theater works, imparting truth and not answers, these scripts fail to connect with their audiences. Scripts that are existentially or theologically weak are more dangerous because they depict a false reality. Plays that have an incorrect view of the fallenness of man and the universe have a tendency to present humans as better off than they truly are, they do not mimic life and they serve no purpose in furthering the kingdom (Johnson 109).
One script that was particularly frustrating was another Willow Creek drama called Boxed In this was another ten minute drama about a man and his wife and how they were dealing with the loss of a neighbor who had taken his own life. In this clip very little happened, but you may watch the full clip here by clicking on Boxed In. In this script the husband and the wife did ask one another some legitimate questions but in the end they both just went back to bed upset and hurt. Following the black out the band began to play some sort of song about God allowing you to stand firm. This was disappointing but alarmingly this was also wrong. The script depicted an awful situation with a fear that couldn’t be resolved onstage and then attempted to resolve it through a song. Grief and fear are not eradicated by one song. Pushing your audience to emotional vulnerability and then trying to have a song neatly tie everything together is wrong, manipulative and will not produce Christian character that deals with suffering biblically.
Creating Scripts that Resonate Truth
Biblically there is indeed a grand metanarrative and redemptive salvific theme in Scripture. But God chooses throughout salvation history to outwork His message through people. At Asbury Theological Seminary Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer discussed the drama of the Gospel, he stated Scripture makes it clear that throughout salvific history there are Acts, there are roles, there are actions, there is dialogue and there important entrances and exits depicted. A playwright works with all of these elements as well, dividing his play into Acts, creating characters that will become roles, giving these characters actions and speeches, and having them enter and exit as the plot moves forward. Modern playwrights agree that this whole process of playwriting begins with the character (Hatcher 21). When Christian playwrights begin with a theme or message they have set themselves up for failure. “Every dramatist must learn to write stories that come from the characters and their situation, rather than starting with a theme or message and imposing it on to those stories” (Brand 162)
“Character is the fundamental material we are forced to work with,so we must know character as thoroughly as possible” (Lajos 32). Marsha Norman, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright claims that she always begins with character, she writes from the desire to understand action of one person (Hatcher 188). By beginning with a character and allowing the script to flow from their life the playwright ensures a script that reads more honestly, accurately and truthfully. “Story that is convincing and compelling comes from the characters’ deepest inner motivations” (Brand 162). A story that began with a theme that was superimposed on the life of a character will feel superimposed upon your audience as well, breaking the suspension of disbelief and shattering the ability to make the invisible, visible, fracturing truth. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the audience sees the invisible struggle to balance justice and revenge, this struggle is given flesh by the character Hamlet. Thornton Wilder’s Our Town tenderly addresses the veiled feeling of always being rushed, never quite being there, and not being content. The character Emily experiences visible consequences of this invisible reality and at the end of the play very honestly and humbly asks whether any humans actually appreciate life as they live it. Tennessee Williams also addresses a suppressed reality of the human experience. Escaping reality is an unseen desire that all human beings struggle with, whether it’s through porn, literature or the internet. The characters of Tennesee Williams The Glass Menagerie all grapple with the seeming need to avoid the reality of their difficult situation. How they choose to escape affects those around them and has lasting consequences, some good and some bad. These plays give the audience the truth of the way things are and how things can be dealt with, they don’t offer us answers or nice solutions. In Hamlet everyone ends up dead, even though Prince Hamlet sought justice. The narrator of Our Town tells Emily that people truly don’t appreciate life. Tom, of The Glass Menagerie abandons his mother and sister because he refuses to accept the responsibility as head of the household and he escapes. Invisible truths becoming visible messages with powerful implications, but not answers. Truth also arises directly from the characters and their situations, not from the theme in each of these plays.
“Christian playwrights don’t write in a vacuum, apart from their faith, their audiences and their dramatic tradition. These considerations are buried deep inside the writer and are reflected in their plays without conscious servitude to them” (Johnson 106). After developing a strong character the Christian playwright will be able to represent them with honesty and integrity. Devoting oneself to the creation of unique characters causes one to know them intimately and become attached to them. This intimate understanding will not allow the playwright to superimpose anything on the life of the character, but the problems and struggles of the character will be inevitably manifested in the most raw and authentic of ways. The beliefs and convictions of the playwright will also be exhibited in a legitimate manner. Strong characters with honest dialogue will embody invisible truths in a visible way, as words become flesh.
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