Christianity playing a role in theater

Times Staff Writer

Wayne Harrel’s new play “Second Bloom” deals with big issues of faith, mortality and forgiveness. In it, a dying woman and her long-estranged daughter reach out to each other while “there is still time for God to work in their lives,” the writer said.

Harrel, from Portland, Ore., infused the play with his own Christian sensibility from his membership in a Covenant church but he said he hopes to engage secular audiences too.

“I try to write for a broad public,” Harrel said. “I hope they feel the way I do, but it’s their call. I don’t want to dictate.”


That pull between the world of Christian churches and colleges and wider arenas of entertainment was a running theme at a conference this week on the campus of Azusa Pacific University. Harrel was among about 100 people from around the country who attended the annual convention of Christians in Theatre Arts, a 20-year-old organization with headquarters in Greenville, S.C.

The four-day meeting, which ended Friday, offered training in many standard aspects of stagecraft, such as writing, scenery, royalties, mime and singing, along with the usual business-card swapping and casting buzz. The gathering’s special focus, however, was evident in the prayers that opened most sessions and in classes about “Staging Christian Classics” and “Theater in Worship.”

Christians in Theatre Arts is a nondenominational organization, said Executive Director Dale Savidge, who teaches theater at North Greenville University, a Baptist-affiliated school in South Carolina.

The majority of members are from evangelical Protestant churches but some are Roman Catholics and from other denominations. The group describes itself as “furthering the kingdom of God by equipping Christians in theater arts” and connecting “spiritual life and artistic vocation.”

The organization was founded to support Christians who felt uncomfortable bridging the two sides of their lives and who may have faced suspicion from fellow churchgoers and secular theater professionals. Now, much of that suspicion has evaporated, Savidge said.

Live theater is incorporated in many church services and activities, even though video and movies increasingly challenge that presence. And the secular theater world, Savidge added, “is very tolerant and that extends to Christians too. We feel accepted on the same terms that everyone is accepted.”


But isn’t there a stereotype of theater life as too liberal or even repellent to some conservative Christians? Most theater socializing is no wilder “than an office party at an investment firm,” Savidge said. All jobs present some conflicts, he noted, and people should know “when to say no and when to say excuse me.”

The conference explored practical and spiritual issues in the classrooms and dance studios of Azusa Pacific, an evangelical Christian school in Azusa. At a session of “Staging Christian Classics,” directors and designers shared tips on elaborate versions of C.S. Lewis’ Christian-themed “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and bare-bones productions of the musical “Godspell.” In other classes, people spoke of the difficulty of sustaining the iPod-Facebook generation’s attention for religious theater or sermons.

Christians in Theater Arts seeks to encourage new plays and movie scripts that have Christian or moral content. Harrel’s “Second Bloom” won this year’s top prize in the group’s writing contest, beating out 30 or so other submissions, and received a staged reading.

Some of the plays had overt biblical or Christian themes, but many tackled contemporary issues without proselytizing, said Joseph Frost, a theater professor who oversaw the contest.

“We are stepping beyond something that is strictly an evangelical piece,” said Frost, who teaches at Belhaven College, a Presbyterian school in Jackson, Miss. “We are trying to nurture good plays but written by people who have a particular view of life that happens to be consistent with the Christian outlook of the world. But the idea is that it is still a good play and not a good play because it espouses this. It is a good play and it does this.”

Some of Frost’s students come from conservative, home-schooled backgrounds and have had little prior contact with modern drama. Nevertheless, he has them study works by playwrights such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard and Tony Kushner.

“You can’t be a theater person and be ignorant of those things,” Frost said.

Those plays, along with Broadway shows he recently saw in New York -- “Spring Awakening” and “August: Osage County” -- may have rough language and themes, but, Frost said, all “raise questions Christians should be wrestling with: What is my position in the world? What is my position to others? How do I deal with struggle and strife?”

Conference participants acknowledged some self-censorship because they work at schools or churches that would not tolerate plays with strong sexual or anti-authority themes. But that doesn’t limit them to Christmas and Easter pageants.

Julia Reimer, who teaches at the Mennonite Brethren-affiliated Fresno Pacific University, recently wrote a modern-dress drama based on New Testament parables that was performed on campus and at area churches. She also produced a stage version of “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about trying to live on low wages. Reimer toned down some of that script’s language without changing its message of sympathy for the working poor.

“I think carefully about selections when I’m thinking about a secular play, and there is always a question of how far I can push things,” she said. “I want an audience to not turn off. I want them to remain open to whatever message the play is trying to communicate.”