Is there a place for God in the theatre?

Convener(s): Katherine Maxwell – Cook

Participants: Really sorry – I forgot to get names of everyone who came! Around 20 in all I think. Do let me know if I’ve misinterpreted anything and make changes if you want to!

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

I sat by myself for a while and pondered on the question….

Then realised I was not alone at all and found some friends. Here is a summary of what we talked about. 

What sort of God are we talking about? I said that I was coming at the question as a Christian but am interested in the place of any kind of faith or spirituality in the theatre. Partly inspired by the faith in theatre session last year I have started to make a site specific show in a church.

We discussed that ‘coming out’ as a person of faith at an event like this was very hard because there is an assumption that we don’t ‘do’ faith and spirituality.

Shows about faith are almost automatically given bad reviews. Should reviewers declare their views on faiths at the start of their reviews?

Is there a place for the presence of God in the theatre? How can/Can we use that energy/power to help create something in the production?

There are things in the world that some people would interpret as God – skin tingling, electricity in the air, something mystic/magical – we might not have words or interpretations to these things.

There is a place for didactic theatre – some people wouldn’t mind if it was preaching. Things should be permissible.

Union between performers and audience – sometimes something happens spiritually.

Creating a moment where you feel that thing, grace, spirit – feeling what you might perceive to be.

Is this similar to invoking the Greek gods before performances?

The rituals that companies do - charging a space with energy, warming up etc – this can be sacred. Sacred pluralism.

Theatre is a ritual – as a ritual.

Difference between general spirituality and specific faith.

Churches are charged spaces – holiness. Sense of being set apart. Is this culturally constructed?

Reaching a holy state.

Katie Mitchell has taken the gods out of The Women of Troy and has received some criticism for this for dishonouring the roots of the play. Does she have a right to do this?

Using theatre as evidence for existence of God.

Is there room for didactic theatre? Riding Lights was mentioned as a professional Christian theatre company who are semi evangelical but have been refused funding from the Arts Council.

Is didactic theatre relevant to today?

Is religion relevant to people today?

Is there a place for theatre as an evangelical tool? Yes it has a right to exist. Is there an audience for this type of work?

Is it more interesting to ask questions? Create space for people to think.

Sometimes this is more accepted in film.

Differences between seeing things as an outsider and an insider. Even as an ‘outsider’ you can be drawn into something.

People don’t want to talk about religious beliefs in certain contexts – Tony Blair has only just converted to Catholicism.

Chief Executive of a theatre who was in the session has just appointed a chaplain to the theatre at the request of some of his members of staff. An Anglican minister working with a culturally diverse staff team. He will look after pastoral needs – look at things with an outside perspective. Provide confidentiality. Similar to Portsmouth football club who have converted their washroom into a chapel and have services on match days.

Could religious plays be subversive without being offensive?

A lot of fear is generated about some plays/shows – but it is good to continually challenge.

Portrayal of God in Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell more offensive than other shows that have generated more criticism – ie Jerry Springer because they make out to be something that they are not – almost presented as accurate portrayals when they are not really.

Should we allow nativity plays? To Christians it is more than just a story – it’s real.

What meanings do we put on stories? What meanings do other people put onto stories? These might converge with different faiths not always intentionally.

Didactic can kill drama.

Audiences need to be allowed to make their own interpretations.

Life of Pi is a great didactic tale – also made into a play – would be great on stage even though it is didactic.

Moment at the beginning of Complicite’s Pneumonic with each audience member holding a leaf – was this spiritually didactic? 

Improbable’s Coma show – shadows on the wall showing the internal monologue/landscape of a dying man – this felt spiritual. Something that made you feel there’s a whole bigger thing out there. Can be wonderful.

Does theatre give you a response with awe like nature can? Do we come out of the theatre thinking the world is wonderful/miraculous?

Theatre – comprehensible. Nature – incomprehensible.

Crack in Tate Modern – everyone participates in it. The Sunset installation felt spiritual.

Theatre looks at what it is to be human – the human condition. It can challenge beliefs – look at crises of faith.

Difference between being touched and wowed. Being touched goes further – there is a sense of community/humanity. Being wowed can leave you feeling dizzy and small. What you experience depends on the starting point of the audience members and the theatre makers.

There is quite a lot of theatre out there that seems to be expressing quite a lot of anger at faith/religion/God – seems quite aggressive – seeking to shock. Sometimes is quite cheap.

Is there existential theatre? Theatre that explores the bleakness of the soul? Beckett/Waiting for Godot. Theatre that looks at living without God. Sharing the human condition.

Is there a good Christian play about God?

Would be interesting to see people in theatre expressing their individual experiences of God.

If you do a show in a church does that automatically mean that God is involved?

Charlie mentioned that he is currently performing in a show about prison reform that has been performed in Quaker meeting houses. The exploration of silence has been important in this.

There was a stillness when Phelim rang the bells this morning that changed everyone’s attitude – the shuffling and whispering stopped.

Ritualistic techniques can touch something in you.

Origins of theatre are ritualistic.

Bringing in your own theology – that is your own conceptual space.

Important to have your own breathing space – people can bring whatever they want to into that. Something that provides space and stimulus but not necessarily a resolution.

Sometimes hope is offered in a play – if it’s God that’s ok.

How much do you steer someone in a particular direction? Depends on how passive they are. You can give nudges/hints but not lay out the answers. Audience needs to make its own choices on the journey. Don’t want to feel like you’re trying to be converted.  This could be a different kind of experience.

Church – exclusive because of the rituals – more so than theatre.

I explained about the installation/experience/show that I am making in a church that will involve a story, images and meditation time. Audience will be given time by themselves and possibly time together. It will be quite reflective. It will allow the audience to experience churches in new ways – go to places that we tend to think of as ‘off limits’ or too holy. It will break some of the preconceived notions of church. Specifically this piece will look at the role of the outsider/insider.

Anyone interested in this or has any further ideas of what they’d like to see can email me on [email protected]

The closing point was that if God can’t get into the theatre it doesn’t say much for omnipresence!