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?
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.