Journal of a Choirboy

Reflections on Performing in The Christians

Please bow your heads in prayer. 

The Associate Pastor reads his prayers for the sick, and I think of those who are unwell, or those I miss and can no longer see. When he finishes, we lift our heads and offer an “Amen.” Shortly after, it’s our turn to stand and sing: “Farther along we’ll know more about it, farther along we’ll understand why. Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine, we’ll understand it, all by and by.” The song is buoyant and bright — so much so that it feels like Sunday morning, like I’m back at my hometown church. But I’m actually on a stage, not an altar, performing in The Christians where the sacred line between church and theatre often blurs.

I’m fortunate to sing in the choir on a rotating basis for Lucas Hnath’s riveting new drama at Playwrights Horizons. The 150-person rotating choir for The Christians features everyone from NYU students to local church singers to Off-Broadway theatre administrators. Audiences are used to seeing Christians portrayed on stage as unwavering zealots often paralyzed with religious guilt, such as Kate in Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel, Luke in Next Fall by Geoffrey Naufftsand even Margaret in Carrie: the Musical by Lawrence D. CohenIn The Christians, however, Hnath’s characters are three-dimensional humans who are merely seeking homes for their faith.

a choir singing on stage
Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell, Philip Kerr, and ensemble choir in The Christians. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I was raised Roman Catholic; I still hold onto those beliefs and attend mass even if my view of Christianity differs from the person praying next to me. How do we sustain a communal house of worship when faith is so individual? Can theatre also be a home to discuss varying beliefs? I certainly don’t have the answers and Hnath doesn’t try to resolve these questions in The Christians. Instead, he uses his play as a medium to probe at faith after the pastor of a mega church changes his views on Hell’s existence. 

I grew up in an Irish-Italian Catholic family in New Jersey, so Hell was never fictitious. It was kind of like being perpetually stuck on Christmas Eve where one false move meant presents or coal the next day. Hell was not inevitable but always possible, making my prayers more of a plea and less of a conversation with God. My prayers took a similar shape when I realized I was gay, the first time I questioned my religion.

I decided to attend Boston College figuring its Catholic ideals would jive with my own narrow beliefs. Instead, I was in what my favorite sociologist Émile Durkheim calls anomie. An anomic state is one where the norms you expect are no longer existent. Boston College, despite its conservative roots, educated students who were often tolerant and even openly gay. We were surrounded by Jesuits and their contagiously open-minded look at God. I worked for the school’s campus ministry, and I remember being surprised by how many other LGBT students also worked for the campus’ churches. When I brought this up to a friend, she offered: “Doubt is the father to faith.” 

I’m more comfortable in my beliefs now, a year out of school and four out of the closet, but they’re still never settled. The Christians continues to push the boundaries of my faith. I wish this play were available to a younger, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine-attending version of myself. It might have taught me that attending mass is not so different from seeing a show. Depending on where you sit and how you react, your interpretation may not be the same as your neighbor’s.

How do we sustain a communal house of worship when faith is so individual? Can theatre also be a home to discuss varying beliefs?

In the theatre you are more often a minority for being religious than gay. Playwrights have never shied away from such taboo topics — just as they have helped advance LGBT awareness, Lucas Hnath helps illuminate faith through The Christians. Every now and then, I hear our audiences giggle or sigh at elements of a mass’ tradition that Hnath incorporated into his play. I’ll admit, it was shallow of me to think Agnostic or Atheist New Yorkers would be less moved by The Christians, so it is humbling to hear how discussion buzzes after each show. Those vocalizations and reactions from the house remind me how theatre allows for a shared, enriched bond between differing perspectives.

This doesn’t change the fact that I feel immensely welcome and proud each time I prepare to sing in the choir. Our sense of community reminds me of when I performed in Hairspray at Berkeley Playhouse. Before Sunday matinees, a group of us would circle up off stage right to ground ourselves, be still, and pray. Whether it’s reverent actors praying before a secular show or secular actors singing in a reverent show, the pulses are the same. 

I show up to my half-hour call and begin warming up. I put on the choir robe and something comes over me, some kind of marriage of all my beliefs and practices, of my love for theatre and God. I’m not sure how the lead actors will feel that night, or how their monologues will sway my own thoughts, but I’ve learned to just sit with that uncertainty. The thoughts are often hard to write, and maybe that’s why beliefs are best seen in action. They’re messy to articulate but easy to feel, and I think that is a bit like faith.

I bow my head.

Tune in for HowlRound TV’s livestream of The Christians Symposium, moderated by Playwright Lucas Hnath this Saturday, September 26 at 4:30pm EDT / 1:30pm PDT.

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Fantastic post - theatre & worship makes for powerful combinations. I sang in the choir for a site-specific play in a Church of Ireland sanctuary - 'Belfast by Moonlight' by Carlo Gebler & Kabosh Theatre in Belfast (http://www.kabosh.net/blog/.... It was a collection of choral sections & monologues, more about the city than religion, but the form & music borrowed from Anglican services & chant. Spookily moving; more going on in the space than pure story, certainly. I hope 'The Christians' makes it over this direction.

I'm very intrigued by this play and hope to see the production. And perhaps present the play at my own theatre. Which leads me to a question for Playwrights Horizon and Actors Theatre and whatever other theaters have presented it: what is the financial arrangement with the choirs/choir members? Are they paid for their services? Are donations made to their churches?