(As it first appeared in FaithWriter's Magazine Acting Up! column April 2005)
By David Ian
In the thirty years that I have been involved in Christian theatre, I have seen it steadily grow into wider and more diverse applications. From holiday productions such as Christmas and Easter, recreating and celebrating Biblical stories, to the contemporary edge traveling shows for youth, encouraging students to say "no" to drugs and "yes" to abstinence.
In the middle, Christian theatre has often been used in church services by means of a short drama to present a "message", or even as a short-short to introduce a subject with an open end, later to be addressed by the sermonizer. Interactive or presentational type theatre has been very effective for Sunday school settings; keeping the attention of younger kids and having them interface with the drama to better grasp its underlying lesson.
All this shows Christian theatre’s strengths in a couple of key areas. It is very good as a medium for disseminating information, ideas, concepts and Christian truths. The other strength is being able to portray the human experience in a way in which its audience can make a sympathetic connection. Note that these two different methods serve both sides of the brain: food for thought and instinctual empathy.
One other strength that Christian theatre has is that it uses a media form which is friendly and comfortable to a "non-churched" audience. This allows an opportunity for those who normally wouldn’t enter into a church and listen to a sermon to get exposed to a Christian message via the dynamic medium of theatre. As I mentioned last month (March issue Acting Up: "Truth in Advertising?") utmost care needs to be taken under these circumstances that we do not "pimp" a production in order to trap unchurched people into listening to a sermon they wouldn’t otherwise wish to hear, or undermine the effects of the theatrical experience by boiling it down into sermon points after the fact.
But what is at work with "the theatrical experience," and why is it so vital to preserve this experience? Having just gone through the Easter season, let’s take a Passion play and go through some "virtual" processing.
Different people will identify with different aspects of a complicated story such as the last days of Christ. Christians may identify with the disciples who followed Jesus, only to abandon him. Or perhaps examine themselves in the role of the Pharisees -- do I love my religion and its trappings more than Jesus? Perhaps even as Judas -- could even I be capable of betraying Jesus?
Those not saved by Grace may find themselves in a totally different world, however. What would it have been like to have met this Jesus, and how would I have reacted? What if I was the "adulterous woman" dragged out to a kangaroo court to be saved by this enigmatic man and his words? What if I was a Roman Soldier under orders to beat and crucify an innocent person? What if I was in Pilate’s position and had to choose between conscience and politics? What if I was Herod -- too caught up in sensuous living to recognize Truth as it passed by under my nose? What if I was the mother Mary and that was my son hanging on a cross?
There are many ways to respond to a full length theatrical production, avenues that people ultimately make as a personal journey for themselves when they identify with certain aspects -- and only they can make that connection, it can’t be made for them. Sometimes it takes time for the feelings and thoughts to bubble up to the surface; for either side of the brain to sift though, process and give personal application and meaning to a theatrical experience. Important inroads of the Spirit can be stolen away if it is announced the only thing people are expected to carry away from an Easter production is "Jesus died and rose again for you." While certainly this is an important aspect, others may be struggling with the nature of Jesus in general before attempting to process what he did.
Christian theatre of this kind, then, is strongest when we are not in a hurry; when we can work in concert with the overtures of the Holy Spirit who is constantly calling to the Lost, and perhaps, just perhaps, the Holy Spirit can use even the least likely detail of a production to strike a chord in an otherwise inattentive or unsympathetic heart.
I recall the story of an Easter production in which the father of the actor who played Jesus had come to see the show. He wasn’t a believer, and life had pretty much lost meaning for him on many levels. After seeing the production, he approached his son, and after a short pause said, "This is the first thing I have seen in a very, very long time that was worth doing." Something had struck a chord with him: the fusion of theatrical art and quality production values, along with the story of Jesus and his message. It was a beginning.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a great place for message-oriented drama designed to compliment sermons and direct address to the audience. This is the strength of short length dramas or dramatic sketches. Its length necessitates that much exposition and character development is economized, but this is not necessarily a drawback in the hands of a well-crafted script. Some of the best writing comes from the necessity of succinctness demanded by the time constraints of short sketch drama.
This is the importance of understanding why some types of drama work better than others in different applications. A main stage production can appeal to a wide range of people on many different levels, but must be allowed to work itself in its own way on its audience. Shorter productions, like one acts or road show productions, can be single theme oriented and still carry the weight of well-developed script and characters, or be broader in their scope but simply not explore as much as a full length production. Sketch dramas are very good at bringing a single point or issue into laser focus, and are quite useful for message applications, but should not be expected to carry a multiple platform of ideas.
A good understanding of the different forms of theatre, then, can mean the difference between making a connection with your specific audience for its intended purpose, or missing the mark.
Next month we’ll take a look at the concept of Christian theatre and the Audience of One. Until then, blessings. ~ David Ian
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