A Christian Theatre Manifesto Part 1

black box theatre

by John Ellis

Earlier this week, I wrote an article for PJ Media about the Erwin brother’s latest project called Kingdom, a collaborative Christian filmmaking company. If you’re unfamiliar with Andy and Jon Erwin, they’re the creative force behind the movies Woodlawn, Mom’s Night Out, October Baby, and this past year’s smash hit I Can Only Imagine which grossed almost $90 million at the box office against a budget of only $7 million.

On the strength and financial windfall provided by I Can Only Imagine, the Erwin brothers hope to create a Christian filmmaking company that will be able to rival Hollywood’s secular studios. It’s an ambitious project, and I wish them well. While writing the article, though, I couldn’t help but remember my own desire to see a collaborative theatre a la the Group Theatre of the 1930s. The big difference between me and the Group Theatre, of course, is that I want to see a theatre rooted in a Christian worldview and populated by Christian theatre artists striving to tell stories that we believe in.

After finishing the article, inspired by thoughts and desires I haven’t felt in a while, I pulled my Harold Clurman books off my dusty bookshelf hidden away in my basement holding my theatre library. There was a time when Clurman was one of my gurus; a theatre voice and theoretician who captivated me and provided me a loose blueprint for my theatre vision. He wasn’t the only voice, of course, but an important one in my evolution as a theatre artist. Along with Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, he was also the co-founder of the famed Group Theatre and was the Group’s driving artistic force in its early years.

Apart from our worldview level ideological differences, I share Clurman’s belief that, “A real theatre exists when a group, united by a common aim, works together to give the most complete dramatic expression to the ideals that inspire it.”[1]

The problem is that although I believe Clurman’s wisdom to be true, I’m not sure that it’s possible. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to see it attempted.

The Group Theatre was notoriously undone by clashing visions that grew out of clashing egos. I guess, or, rather, I would hope that a collective of Christian theatre artists who are committed to serving God first, serving others second, and thinking about themselves last would have a greater chance for success than secular artists still dominated by the sinful desire to serve self. I don’t know. I didn’t really get the chance to try it long enough to find out.

The Group Theatre didn’t exist in a theatre aesthetic vacuum, its founders and principle actors having been greatly influence by the Moscow Art Theatre and the teachings of the MAT’s founder Constantin Stanislavski. He, in turn, had been influenced by the great 19th century Russian serf director, actor, and theatre teacher Michael Shchepkin. And on and on, through Francois Delsarte and continuing through an evolving line of influences until we reach Thespis, the original actor (unless you count the prophet Ezekiel). A tradition that spans two and a half millenniums.

Although Christian theatre artists stand in the larger theatre tradition, there is sadly no distinctly Christian artistic through-line-of-action formed and reformed in the stream of distinctly Christian theatre companies. Even sadder, at least in my opinion, over the years I have heard many professing Christians dismiss even the notion that it’s possible for artistically excellent Christian theatre companies to exist. For them, using the word “Christian” as an adjective describing an artistic endeavor is a synonym for bad art.

It’s true that the most obvious representations of Christian theatre (Sight and Sound, for example) are little more than campy, overly didactic and glittery productions that feel as if they belong on a cruise ship or in a theme park. But the absence of a Christian theatre tradition that tells stories in aesthetically excellent and compelling ways does not mean that it’s impossible. It does mean, I think, that the artists involved in such an endeavor have a lot more initial heavy lifting to do while weaving together a robust orthodox Christian worldview with theatre theory.

Setting aside for the moment the all-important theology aspect to briefly focus on theatre theory, my experience tells me that collaborative efforts demand a ground-level unanimity. Unless those in the company who shape the direction agree on the core theatre theory, the whole endeavor is doomed to fail. Clurman, who knew a thing or two about how collaborative theatre can collapse in on itself, warned, “The theatre is a collective art, which is not the same thing as an accumulation of artistic contributions.”[2]

I’m afraid that true collaboration the way many define it isn’t possible. What’s probably needed is an individual with a strong understanding of theatre theory, a distinct vision growing out of that understanding, and a personality that can challenge, teach, and lead others without wounding them. Shaping and guiding the collective work needs more than a guiding philosophy. It needs a guiding hand, too.

For what it’s worth, I also believe that the audience shouldn’t be treated as consumers but as collaborators, too. That requires humility, a trait frequently lacking in theatre artists.

The vision must include more than a philosophy of how to make theatre. A clear vision of what the company wants to say is a must. To put it another way, a clear vision of what kind(s) of conversations the theatre artists want to have with the audience is a must. And this is where theatre theory and worldview (theology) intersect. For example, Christology shapes the nature and communication of a church’s worship service. To use more technical terms, form and function are not just guided and shaped by theology, they’re intimately connected. And, frankly, vice-versa.

This means that for a Christian theatre company to work well, or at all, for that matter, the principle artistic voices must swell in unbreakable unison as the company works through those aesthetic decisions that are guided first and foremost by theology. I don’t think that requires unity over certain denominational distinctives. I do believe, however, that it requires non-negotiable unity over the fundamentals of the faith. For me, agreement over the Five Solas would be a good starting point.

This has been just the tip of the iceberg. Having studied theatre theory, thought through all this, and having put many of my thoughts into practice, I have fairly strong beliefs about how a Christian theatre company should operate and what its guiding principles should be, both theology and theatre wise. To that end, there will be at least two more posts, maybe three. In the next post, I will deal specifically with the worldview of a Christian theatre. The third post will deal with theatre theory. A fourth post may be needed to integrate the two and articulate a concise vision for Christian theatre. In the meantime, if you’re a theatre artist, I hope this current post inspires you, even if you have points of disagreement. If you’re not a theatre artist, I hope this current post causes you to be curious about the ancient art of enacted storytelling and how Christians can better utilize that art.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Harold Clurman, The Collected Works of Harold Clurman: Six Decades of Commentary on Theatre, Dance, Music, Film, Arts and Letter ed. by Marjorie Loggia and Glenn Young (New York: Applause Books, 1994), 144.

[2] Clurman, The Collected Works of Harold Clurman, 329.


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