By Tim Takechi
Mitchell Thomas, '95, was walking home from his new job at Westmont College when he ran into the husband of another faculty member.
Thomas introduced himself as a new theatre professor.
"Ah, so you're the new skit-master," the husband said.
Thomas was not amused. It bothers him that some Christians just do not take the art of Christian theatre seriously.
Christians in the performing arts often feel pressured to produce plays with an overt evangelical message that works more like a sermon than a piece of art, Thomas says. As a result, "Christian theatre" develops into the stereotype of Sunday morning church skits instead of an actual art form.
"The controversy surrounding the church and theatre is based on the following two ideas: that Christians should make Christian art, and that Christian art should be explicitly religious," Thomas says.
The desire to eliminate the preachy nature of Christian theatre requires addressing a number of concerns: Christian performing artists can create art that explores the other facets of God; artists can explore the dark side of human nature without glorifying it; Christian theatre can convey God's justice and love through means that do not involve mention of religion; and a Christian can use his or her faith as a guide in professional life.
As a theatre professor at a Christian institution, Thomas encourages his students to think actively about these challenges when incorporating their faith into theatre. He also discusses the importance of producing quality theatre that reflects positively on Christianity.
"The idea of religious theatre is something that has explicit theatre in it," Thomas says. "If it is bad Christian theatre, it can hinder people's understanding of God."
In the classroom, Thomas' students discuss how Christian theatre should approach evangelical outreach and what kind of audience will hear this message. Without considering how faith and drama can successfully mix, Christian theatre could draw audiences away from rather than toward God, Thomas says.
A Historical Perspective of Christianity and Theatre
Historically, the relationship between the theatre and the church has not been friendly. The violent and explicit sexual content of Roman drama drew early Christians away from going to the theatre. Mitchell says the first- and second-century church had no concept of religious art.
"Christians refrained from portraying God or Christ and didn't emulate the pagans in creating idols," Mitchell says.
During the Middle Ages, the church debated the nature of religious paintings, statues, mosaics and other art pieces. Medieval Christian art depicted biblical stories and respected saints. Some church leaders feared that people would worship these Christian icons instead of God. This movement, known as the "Iconoclast Controversy," added a stigma against early Christian artists.
Later, the Anglican Church in England used theatre as a means of social discourse and dissent. The Puritans objected to the theatre's portrayal of immorality and made an effort to explaining why Christians should not participate in or attend the theatre.
Puritan preacher John Northbrooke published A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays, and Interludes in 1577; he argues "in their plays you shall learn all things that appertain to craft, mischief, deceits and filthiness, etc. If you will learn how to be false and deceive your husbands, or husbands their wives, how to play the harlot … shall you not learn, then, at such interludes how to practice them?"
How Should Christians Approach Theatre Containing Sinful Material?
Northbrooke's words still resonate in today's world of professional theatre. Christian actors may shy away from modern plays that require them to play sinful characters or to simulate sinful acts on stage.
Even William Shakespeare was censored in his day. Shakespeare's Henry IV was deemed inappropriate because it included Christological references that Elizabethan church leaders found profane.
Portraying immorality on stage can be an uncomfortable experience for Christian performers wanting to set a good example for moral behavior, says Kevin Brady, '96. Brady found that working in a secular theatre environment allowed him to grow as both an actor and a Christian.
"When I was a young actor, I worried about performing controversies on stage. Now, what's important to me are the themes of a play," Brady says.
Brady says Christians who play immoral characters do not glorify their actions; rather, they depict their actions for what they are. Characters who steal, lie, cheat, murder or commit sexual sin can be presented to an audience without the playwright or the actor approving of what they do. Through the ideas presented in a play and exploring the nature of a character's immorality, Christians can communicate what it means to lead a moral life.
"Christians need to recognize the importance of subtlety and nuance in thematic elements," Brady says.
Part of that subtlety involves not delivering a sermon through theatre. An audience that feels as if it is receiving a Sunday-school message might be turned off to the larger picture of what the artists are trying to say, Brady says.
"I think it's very easy for Christians to be propaganda pushers. That's not the best way to evangelize; it's more like street preaching," Brady says.
Brady regularly performs with Taproot Theatre Company and other Seattle theatre groups along with doing television-commercial jobs and an independent film project in Vancouver, B.C. His work with Taproot Theatre Company taught him that exploring all sides of humanity can bring an audience closer to understanding God; a play can, without becoming too preachy, help an audience explore the meaning of life, Brady says.
Sharing the Nature of God
Chelsea Globe, '05, believes she can use her theatre talents for Christian outreach. She teaches elementary, middle-school and high-school students important life lessons– lessons about bullying, verbal harassment and dealing with child sexual abuse – through theatre. All that without ever picking up a Bible.
Globe performs with the Open Door Theatre, a nonprofit organization founded in 1983 in Everett, Wash. The group travels to school districts across western Washington putting on shows aimed at teaching children ways to deal with social problems at school and at home.
While Open Door Theatre is not a Christian-based performance group, Globe says that educating students about ways to protect themselves from danger is a great way to demonstrate God's justice.
"We teach kids about sexual-abuse protection and how to talk to others about it. It's a great to be a part of social-justice theatre. It really can make a difference in people's lives," Globe says.
Her form of Christian outreach never quotes Scripture or uses biblical stories. Rather, she performs with a non-Christian theatre group as a means to spread a message of hope and justice to those who need to hear it.
Using Faith as a Guide in the Classroom
Chrystal (Cook) Helmcke, '91, uses her Christian background in the classroom as a guide for her curriculum.
"My faith informs how I run my classroom," Helmcke says.
When Helmcke worked with first- and second-graders in Seattle Children's Theatre's summer drama program, she and her supervisor discussed what theme the theatre classes should follow that year. When her boss suggested a "murder" focus on their "mystery" motif, Helmcke decided that would be an inappropriate subject for children.
As a teacher in a secular environment, Helmcke believes it is essential to conduct her classrooms in a way that does not make anyone feel uncomfortable.
"It is important to set up an environment that is safe for people of all faiths, backgrounds and skill levels," Helmcke says. "Other studios are not as friendly."
Instead, Helmcke and her boss decided to follow a "mysteriously disappearing objects" theme, which was a more camp-like adventure setting.
Helmcke teaches under contract with Seattle's Taproot Theatre Company as well. Her experience with Taproot showed her that she can teach in a non-Christian environment without compromising her faith.
"I prefer to think of it this way: There is an art form of Christian theatre, and there are people who are Christians in theatre," Helmcke says.
Currently Helmcke is a graduate student at Western Washington University, where her thesis project involves working with teachers in the Shoreline School District. She holds a series of workshops in which she teaches how theatre games, improvisational work and character-development exercises can be used in the classroom for educational purposes.
Theatre as a Way for All People to See God
Mitchell Thomas believes that Christianity in theatre can work. He knows that there is more to faith-based drama than being the "skit-master" for a church. Christian theatre can rise above that level if the performers involved commit to what the Bible instructs about stewardship.
"God calls us all to excellence in all that we do," Thomas says.
He compares Christian and secular theatre to two skilled landscape painters, one who is a Christian and one who is not. The painting by the Christian artist will look no more "Christian" than the other painting. However, both artists can enjoy the beauty of the landscape in their own way.
"It is as possible for me to encounter God in one painting as in the other," Thomas says.