O Be Careful, Little Eyes, What You See

Combatting Censorship as a Christian Theatre Artist

Acclaimed actress and acting teacher Stella Adler wrote in The Art of Acting: “The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.” Theatre artists utilize the stage in a pursuit for truth¾the truth of the human condition, of existence, of the realities, triumphs, tragedies, and perhaps, the iniquities of life. Playwrights, directors, and designers use theatre to create worlds, teach lessons, and most importantly, to tell stories. Actors bring these stories to life, manifesting redemption or justifying its absence. Nevertheless, theatre always invokes a response, be it visceral or cerebral, hopeful or hopeless.

As a theatre artist of Evangelical Christian faith, I hope to illuminate these same ideas with an added element: to share the truth about God and His message through the art. However, as a Christian working in an environment that often explores “secular” worldviews, I am expected to discern my moral responsibility and the thematic appropriateness determined by my faith, despite the truthful depiction of humanity portrayed in potentially controversial pieces. Many Christians opt to censor themes that contradict or challenge biblical text; Christian actors occasionally decline roles for content that challenges their religious beliefs. I disagree with this decision. If theatre is foremost a means of using the element of story to reach out to those who need to experience and learn from real-life situations, then censoring a story’s content as a result of Christian moral obligation contradicts the art’s primary purpose. Thus, censorship is a dangerous option for those who need to see this truth.

I use theatre to remind people that they are not alone. This goal cannot be achieved by censoring real life, or by “playing it safe.”

While I was a student at a Christian liberal arts college, class discussion and theatrical season selection were often filtered by what was deemed appropriate from a “Christian” point of view. Rarely were students challenged to think about “secular” perspectives on topics such as human sexuality, divorce, and sexual orientation. Performances that contained homosexual themes or trajectories were deemed unacceptable to produce as part of the theatre department’s official season. In a progressive American society, our nation’s political climate expects liberal arts institutions, such as my undergraduate school, to adapt their views on homosexuality and become more inclusive and accepting of various lifestyles. However, the college’s administration, as diverse and progressive thinking it may be, found itself in a culture war: how does it honor the institution’s traditional Christian roots, appease financial constituencies, and at the same time, progress in a postmodern society?

This is the debate that often informs the shows that the school is allowed to produce. For my senior thesis project, I wrote a one-man show that follows a young boy “coming out” to his conservative Christian mother. The play portrays the struggle of these two characters in a discussion relevant to many young, gay Christians around the world. However, unlike many of my fellow theatre seniors, I was not given a slate to perform the piece during the department season’s Senior Showcases due to the apparently controversial homosexual themes. Instead, I was forced to give a staged reading during a scheduled class period without department funding or marketing. I did not have the chance to tell this story although my professors taught me that truth is depicted through art. So, why was I censored from the right to explore this truth as a Christian artist?

a man reading on a blank stage
Joseph D’Ambrosi reading his one-man play, Bloodlines.

There are many arguments that both support and deny the cases for theatrical censorship from a faith-based perspective, most of which stem from the concerns of Christian actors who are expected to portray acts that the church considers inappropriate from a dogmatic standpoint, such as premarital sex, or drug use. As a theatre artist of Christian faith who must make these choices often when acting or directing a piece with controversial themes, I remember the following: first of all, I am not my character. I am acting. I do not have to adopt the worldviews and behaviors of a character as my own to effectively act the role. I am portraying another individual and not my personal beliefs or ideals. As for controversial content on stage, I remember that Christian ideology, morals, and lessons can be demonstrated through any story. You never know who may need to see the piece of theatre you are presenting. If truth is embodied honestly and respectfully, it can illuminate the steps to redemption for an audience member. Never underestimate the power of the work.

When Jesus interacted with people during biblical times, He embraced them for who they were. He understood their realities and loved them despite their flaws. He knew that change does not come from within the four walls of the church, but that those within the church needed to foster change outside. This is why I do theatre: I see the needs of the people in the audience and I want to promote change in them. I use theatre to remind people that they are not alone. This goal cannot be achieved by censoring real life, or by “playing it safe.” A misrepresentation of the trials and tribulations of life may do more harm than the trials themselves. Just like Christ understood the need for redemption, I recognize the possibilities of redemption for the audience and I hope to articulate this in the theatre.

In John 8:32, Jesus says “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Allow unadulterated truth on stage to comfort those who need to see their story immortalized. Use theatre to connect to those who feel isolated by church, family, or community. Honor the truth by portraying it accurately. This is the only way to see the light in dark places; this is how to use theatre to change lives.

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Christians should be sensoring their art.

As an obvious example, a local theater did a performance with the topic of sex trafficking Yet,everyone kept their clothes on, and not a single profane word was used. Of course, it would be a more realistic depiction if actual sex acts were performed on stage . But, our Christian standards would forbid producing or attending such a show. Real life doesn't have to be depicted in a way that requires Christians to do anything wrong. Art does not require an exact reproduction of an event to be able to portray an event.

Another way that Christians artists should sensor their work is in the overall message. The above show's message certainly did depicted the sex trafficker as a bad man. And while you can't make a show that fully dives into a clear message judging the goodness of each peripheral character and their acts, it would be wrong to have an overall message saying that sin is a good thing. That's Satin's job, not the job of a follower of Christ.

Regarding foul language, I am still wrestling where to draw the line. But, the specific area of taking the Lord's name in vain seems to be in its own catetory. God felt it was serious enough to include in the 10 commandments. Perhaps this may be in the category where the act itself is in the same category as depicting sex acts on stage. It may not be possible to depict it directly, without committing the sin.

Another motivation to stay away from being profane, is in regards to one's testimony. I found a story on another web site (sorry I can't find it again) where a man described how a Christian co-worker's testimony was significantly hurt in the eyes of the non-Christians in the area, when he used profanity. So if the world considers some language to be wrong, you can expect them to label Christians as hypocrites if they use that type of language. Of course, this sort of standard is context based, but it is at least something to be considered.

Here is a link to another web article, which discusses some of this.http://thecripplegate.com/b...

Thank you Joseph for writing and sharing this. As others have mentioned it is a topic I hardly ever read or hear anything about, and it is important for enlarging and deepening our awareness of the interface between religious practice/belief and choices of engagement within theatrical offerings.

One of my favorite quotes--it actually hangs on my wall in my office--is historian Paul Johnson's view on the theatre: "Those who want to influence men's minds have long recognized that the theatre is the most powerful medium through which to make the attempt." I am a professor of theatre and the current Chair of our department of theatre and dance. I am at a state, liberal arts university, so there is no censorship of material or subject matter when planning our season. And yet, we are aware of a mostly conservative outside community surrounding what is a very typical national trend among our youth and faculty: a very progressive and left-thinking campus on the inside. The juxtaposition of our campus thought life compared to our community thought life does have us at least aware of how our choices can resonate at the box office.

For me personally, I am a dedicated follower of Jesus, and as a professional actor and teacher, I have felt the tension when addressing material with language or content that feels risky. As my philosophy, wisdom and understanding as a Christian has grown, it has had an impact on how I look at specific theatre from which most Christian artists might run. Very simply summarized, the bible is rife with language, scandal, heinous evil and redemptive majesty. And the human condition of all peoples saved and unsaved make up the tapestry of the biblical narrative. What we get in scripture, is unadulterated truth; the good, the bad and the ugly grace the pages of the Word and teach us redemptive lessons as we study equally the disobedient with the obedient, the unfaithful with the faithful, the evil with the good. And each of us individually can have any particular story of the bible effect us differently as we stay sensitive to what the Spirit is teaching. If we are all made in God's image and all under the common grace God offers to humanity, then I believe any truthful story can produce fruit, because it IS truth, irrespective of whether it is beautiful or ugly.

I have three basic rules I try to hold myself to when thinking about what I will direct, or what I will act in. 1) Is there any note of redemption in the script? This one is pretty easy actually. There are hundreds of plays that have no mention of God, but depict characters struggling for what is ultimately a common good. And because God made everything and he puts his law in our hearts and minds, I believe unsaved playwrights can tap into truth and redemptive themes by God's grace all the time. And I think they do. And those stories I can find worthy of telling. 2) I don't want to direct or be in anything that explicitly defames Christ and dishonor's God out of hand. That DOES limit SOME plays, but not many. And I am okay with that. 3) I am married, and I never want to be in anything that dishonors my wife or makes her uncomfortable to see her husband do--especially when it comes to romantic moments in plays. I have learned that even when I can make the separation and be completely professional about an onstage romantic moment, that it means very little, if the woman I love struggles to watch it. And she will always be more important than the opportunity at hand.

If I can safely navigate those three criteria, I can find myself directing and acting in a multitude of secular plays that I think have powerful messages and shed even an implicit light of God's truth on the stage. Theatre can and should influence mankind's individual and collective heart. Living the human life is brutal and beautiful, and equally so for the saved and unsaved. Who better than the harbingers of truth, us followers of our Lord and King, to be the ones in the fray, mixing it up on the stage and in life to present stories to a world hungry for critical thought, and sometimes just a good old fashion guffaw.

Thank you so much for writing and sharing this article and this perspective.

I went to a Christian liberal arts university and majored in Theatre and ran into almost exactly the scenarios you've described here. My university had (has) a "Theatre Advisory Board" that receives and reviews proposals for shows each season. When it came time for me to propose a senior project, I chose a one-woman show I'd read in a script analysis class that had moved me deeply: My Name is Rachel Corrie, edited by actor Alan Rickman. The play has a controversial history because it is a piece of political theatre that deals with the controversial death of a 23-year-old American activist who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood in front of a Palestinian family's house. When I proposed the show to the Theatre Advisory Board for our Main Stage season, however, it was immediately rejected--not because of its political connotations at all but because of 22 swear words in the play. In the theatre department we were constantly pressured to write to the playwrights and publishers and ask if we could alter the language in their scripts to accommodate our institution's demand for "clean" language, or simply to choose and propose scripts that did not contain obscene words. As you can imagine, this is a tall order in the theatre. And, in the case of My Name is Rachel Corrie, the script is comprised of Rachel's own words from her letters, journals, and emails. When I proposed the script to the Board, I refused to contact the publisher to ask to edit the language. It would have felt disrespectful to Rachel's memory. Instead of letting it go, however, I decided I was going to perform the production anyway. After talks with one of my professors, we devised a way for me to go "off the radar" and produce a sort of clandestine production not attached to our Main Stage season. As it was still the fall semester a year BEFORE my senior year, I went to several professors I knew in other Divisions--Communication, Modern Language and Literature, Sociology, Art, and Intercultural Studies--and proposed a trade: they'd supply me with an audience and I'd supply them with a performance piece around which they could craft an assignment (or assignments) to include in their syllabi and which they could fit thematically and pedagogically into their semester. Almost every single one, after reading the script and my pitch for the play, agreed enthusiastically.

The only catches were: 1) I had to find and reserve my own performance venues. I was extremely fortunate that our school's music recital hall had an opening in the fall semester and our Black Box performance space was open for a tiny window after our final Main Stage performance came down in the spring. In my initial inquiries, I actually asked a couple of local pastors if I might use church spaces as possible venues but that ended up backfiring--after reading the script and my pitch for the show, one of the pastors went over my head and contacted the vice president of the University without my knowledge and tried to shut down the production entirely. Fortunately, his request was dismissed after a couple of meetings with our department and the production proceeded unhindered. 2) I had no budget. Fortunately, it's a show that can be done minimalistically--which we did, and the play was none the worse for that artistic choice. To my enormous good fortune, the chair of my department and the dean of the school of Arts and Humanities--both of whom were extremely enthusiastic about the project--agreed to absorb the cost of purchasing educational production rights. I purchased simple costumes and props with my own money and borrowed what I could from our theatre department. 3) I had no crew. The artistic director of our theatre department had expressed interest in directing the piece even though it was not a Main Stage production, and she did end up directing the production outside of regular school hours as a volunteer project. I created the rehearsal calendar and we worked steadily on the piece over the summer and over the course of the year. I recruited a volunteer stage manager from among our theatre students. I also recruited another senior--who needed an idea for his senior project--and talked him into creating the mixed media elements the script called for as his senior project, which he did, and aside from a few technical difficulties (of course) that caused some semi-frantic problem-solving, everything came together.

Almost miraculously, everything ended up working out even better than I could have hoped. The performances were successful. The student audiences engaged with the work and it generated enlightening discussion and conversation both in talkbacks and in the different class assignments their professors assigned surrounding the project. My story ended happily and, as a result of how I went about my production, our theatre department has created a sort of "Second Stage" season that is more flexible in what they produce.

Every artist must decide for him or herself what they are willing or unwilling to do by their own standards. Your faith will inform your personal as well as your artistic convictions. A quote by Pablo Picasso that has always informed how I think of what we do as theatre artists is "Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth." And a director, professor, and mentor of mine is known for saying that "When you tell the gospel story, someone has to play the devil." And a Christian guest director who came and spoke to our department once told us, "These are not your words. And this is not your play. This is the playwright's play. And he had every right to write what he wrote. Don't hide from it. Tell the truth of this story." The truth is important. The warts-and-all truth. Redemption is everywhere, and we do people a disservice when we refuse to tell a story filled with redemption and truth because we're afraid someone will be offended by the words the playwright used to tell it. Keep doing what you're doing courageously, because it is important. The story you're telling through your art is important, needs to be told, needs to be heard, and I'm sure has already touched many people deeply.

Thank you for writing this piece - I think it can take a lot of bravery to exist in this field where religion is often looked at with sometimes healthy skepticism but also even with aggressive attacks. It's important for theatre professionals who are not religious to remember that this is yet another aspect of diversity that we often overlook and that insights from people of all religions add a valuable voice at the table. I've experienced a lot of similar internal debates when approaching various plays.

What I have found even more complicated than tearing down that high wall of censorship that was instilled in me from an early age is the next step: an attraction to pieces that directly contradict or push against Christianity and/or it's morals. I can go to a church service on a Sunday morning and then head directly to a matinee of a show with characters who perform actions I identify deeply with, actions that I've just been told are sinful mere hours before. And the reality is that there can be truth in both of those experiences. It may require some of us to live in areas that seem contradictory, in a gray space that isn't defined by black-and-white thinking. I've found that freeing and healthy. I'm sure others have as well. There's something exciting afoot when it doesn't all make sense - conflict, internal or otherwise, often feels more truthful than clarity.

As a Christian theatre actress, I greatly appreciate this article. This is a topic that is not discussed enough. I also went to a Christian university for theatre and we were also censored in what plays we could produce for audiences. As a professional working in this field now, I am intentional about the types of shows I participate in and often portray characters that have moral boundaries that are very contrary to my own. It is nice to read that other Christians feel similarly to me in the role theatre can play in shedding truth into the world we live.