Monday, March 05, 2012

Church and Theatre: Laughing Matters?

When I mentioned to my 7th grade writing workshop that I've been at work on a comedy - murder - mystery - dinner - theatre piece for my home church, some were aghast.  A play, in a church?  About  murder?  And it's a comedy?
rehearses the "interrogation scene."

I understand their reaction.  When I was an acting student who viewed the world through fundamentalist lenses, my conscience used to bother me, because plays seemed always to be about misbehavior and unhappiness.  Then I discovered Flannery O'Connor's observation that "Christian novels" about good people doing good things depict a world of false innocence.  "That strongly suggests its opposite," she drily added.  O'Connor and others asserted that any art that shows the world as it truly is will also show God.  

Years later, I heard confirmation of this view from an unlikely source.  I attended a dinner party where my mentor Frank Boggs interviewed an actor / director from London who runs an evangelical retreat for actors there.  This evangelical actor surprised his Christian audience by saying that his favorite play was WAITING FOR GODOT.  Yes, its creator Samuel Beckett was a confirmed atheist, but his humanity, humor, and despair take us to the heart of the world as we experience it, as do Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms.

Still, to make light of murder at a church for a fund-raiser also raises eyebrows and questions for people who don't know what acting entails. 

To them, I say two things.

First:  Not only is play-acting a legitimate activity for church members, it is essential activity for church members.  

In an article at Belief Net,  "Acting is a Form of Prayer,"  actor Liam Neeson explains how the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola prefigure by centuries Stanislavski's "method" that all trained actors know today.   Jesuits are enjoined to "study scripture by taking the part of a character in a Bible story, such as a shepherd in the stable and Bethlem, and employing all the senses to imaginatively enter into the scene."

To my own middle school drama students, I add that we actors practice radical empathy, working from externals (spoken words, actions, stances, costume) to comprehend the spirits of characters.    

So, when a group of novice (and nervous!) actors first met with me at the church to begin the process of creating our play, I began with Neeson's observations about acting. 

Creating characters led us to another theological lesson:  Artistic creation is a form of discovery.  Failing to appreciate this point, some believers scoff at the arts as mere entertainment or, worse, as inflated lies.   But the same point was made just yesterday by a physicist on Krista Tippett's radio program "On Being."  This scientist lives by Einstein's saying, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."  After years of puzzlement, the physicist realized that imagination is our route to new knowledge.

So our little group experienced creation in a way that non-artists don't "get":  The Creator may begin with a notion of an endpoint, but the characters and events can go off in unintended directions.   Nonetheless, when our creation hits a wall, we can redeem it. 

That happened at a meeting in my living room a few weeks ago when the actors and I got tangled in our own plotlines.   It began to look as if there was no "who" in our "whodunnit."  Then one of our actors, Laura, pointed out a simple connection that we'd all missed, and we had found the truth, built into our work as if it had been planned!

Now, to address that other issue, making light of murder, I cite C. S. Lewis's brief discussion of dirty jokes.  The fun in them isn't in the subject matter, but in the incongruous images they conjure for us.  Like a joke, the murder - mystery - dinner comedy is a form that generates delight from the ingenious and incongruous mixing and matching of familiar tropes -- jealousy, venality, cupidity, and fatality.  There's also the simple pleasure of seeing grown - ups behaving like cartoon versions of ourselves.

So, here's to DESPERATE CHURCH LADIES.  The script is in the hands of the director and the actors who created from scratch the characters that they will portray.   I'm eager to see this creation living and breathing, April 20 and 21.

No comments: