The Religious Nature of Theatre, the Theatrical Nature of Religion

From the time I could speak, I’ve been involved in theatre. From acting in local productions to studying directing at Smith College, I’ve passionately thrown myself into a life centered on the stage. My other lifelong passion is the study of religion. As an ethnically Jewish woman who has chosen to worship with a number of Christian communities, I’ve learned to appreciate the incredible beauty of religious diversity and recognize religion’s unique ability to create community and inspire change. I am often asked which field I’ll ultimately pursue, and many are surprised to hear that I don’t plan to choose between religion and theatre. My two passions are often viewed as completely divergent fields; however, I see theatre and religion as inherently connected endeavors. By examining the religious nature of theatre and the theatrical nature of religion, I believe that we may enrich both disciplines.

When I call to mind the Christian theatre I was exposed to in my youth, unfortunately I do not immediately think of theatre that captures the creative, revolutionary elements of the gospel story; rather, I think of religious kitsch that prioritizes proselytization over innovation. I picture melodramatic stories, heavy-handed moral messages, and lackluster designs. Within the American cultural context, religion and theatre have not always been combined in a manner that engages spirituality with artistic integrity. Religion sometimes has iconoclastic tendencies or distaste for so-called “secular” rituals. Likewise, the theatre world often limits its engagement with the spiritual to plays with explicitly religious themes. Yet if one studies any amount of theatre history, it will become evident that from City Dionysia to church-sponsored passion plays, theatre and religion have had a more dynamic, reciprocal relationship. In much of today’s mainstream Western theatre, we have forgotten theatre’s relationship to religion or reduced it to cliché representations. Now is the time to reimagine how the theatrical form itself might be enlivened by its connection to the spiritual.

Images of the Transcendent
In my senior year I was invited to propose a play for Smith College’s main stage season, but I struggled to orient my artistic inclinations within the reality of a world filled with suffering refugees, senseless terrorist attacks, and unrelenting inequality and discrimination. Inspired by my faith, I sought to direct a truthful play that engaged the artists and audience members with the reality of a hurting world, while still offering hope. Friends and mentors suggested numerous realistic, political plays, but ultimately, I decided to direct Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman.
 

Two actors on stage
Scene from Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Hannah Sachs. Photo by Derek Fowles.

Metamorphoses is a play based on the Roman poet Ovid’s epic mythological poem. It is a creative retelling of classic myths of transformation and is staged in and around a pool of water. Knowing my passion for social justice and my desire to inspire political change, some in the theatre department were surprised by my choice to direct a mythological play; however, through this production I witnessed explicit preaching or realistic portrayals are not always necessary to engage truth. By carefully constructing and curating artistic images and myths, theatre artists can translate the unseen, spiritual, and even divine into a form that resonates clearly with today’s audiences. When I chose to direct Metamorphoses, I was not opting to direct fantastical stories as a form of escapism; rather, I saw within these mythical stories images that could enable audiences to engage with truth in a more intimate way than realism.

Both religion and theatre often share a common understanding that truth cannot be contained solely within literal facts: we need creative images in order to catch a fleeting glimpse of reality. 

Throughout the process of directing the production, I became convinced that theatre and religion both flourished when they embraced the idea that reality and creative imagery are not so diametrically opposed. As C. S. Lewis, author of the children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, writes, through myths and fantastic images “we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.” And author Madeline L’Engle suggests that, “when we lose our myths we lose our place in the universe . . .the only way we have to grope toward the infinite is through myth.” In Metamorphoses King Midas’ greed compels him to acquire the ability to transform whatever he touches to gold, but this power tragically leads to his daughter’s demise. In the final scene, we witness his transformation and redemption. King Midas comes upon a pool of water and finally relinquishes his materialism and sense of self-sufficiency by dropping the gold he was carrying into the pool and then bathing in its water. As a result of this personal transformation, he is reunited with his daughter. This scene reminds me of baptism and its powerful imagery of new life. Like that ritual, this myth demonstrates how misplaced desire may cause us to lose what matters most, but there is likewise always hope for restoration and abundant life if we give ourselves over to love.

In Christianity, like many other traditions, this groping through myth can be witnessed both in the parabolic content of Scripture and in the imagery utilized in rituals. For example, communion as imagery for Christ’s body and blood, baptism as an image for rebirth, and symbolic acts such the laying on of hands for healing all point to the centrality of imagery as a vehicle of truth. Likewise, in theatre, storytelling is valued as a medium through which intangible truths can be explored and communicated. A play that has no factual basis in history can still inspire audiences towards palpable personal growth and social change. Both religion and theatre often share a common understanding that truth cannot be contained solely within literal facts: we need creative images in order to catch a fleeting glimpse of reality.

Communal Rituals
I discovered another striking similarity between theatre and religion while working as the assistant director for Smith College’s production of Our Lady of Kibeho, a play directed by Nicole Watson and written by Katori Hall. This play centers on the powerful story of three young Catholic schoolgirls in Rwanda who have Marian apparitions prior to the 1994 genocide; however, the explicitly religious themes were not the only aspect of the production that catalyzed my understanding of theatre’s connection to religion.

Many actors on stage
Scene from Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall, directed by Nicole Watson. Photo by Derek Fowles.

From the very first rehearsals, I was struck by how an incredibly diverse group of artists formed a collaborative community in which both the discussion and practice of beliefs was respected and encouraged. Whether actors were sharing theatrical methods or discussing personal faith traditions, there was a profound sense that what each individual brought to the table was necessary for the creative process to exist in its fullest incarnation. Everyone’s authentic presence shaped the work, and when the community strove to create space for each other to shine, the entire show benefited.

I watched the play many times throughout the production’s run and I was fascinated by how the ritual of theatre created a community within the house. Night after night I had conversations with audience members who gave positive feedback, regarding not only the production, but also their experience watching the play with other active, energized audience members. Following each performance, groups of audience members who had never before met could be found in the lobby discussing organized religion, God’s role in suffering, the preventability of genocide, and other themes of the play, along with their own personal experiences. In contrast to a communal activity like a film screening, a live performance is an event that values audience members as engaged participants. A community can develop between both the actors on stage and those in the seats. Each individual’s unique presence has the potential to affect the ritual. Theatre is intended to be both created and responded to in community.

Theatrical experiences that encourage honest communication and engaged presence remind me of my best experiences in faith communities.

Just as not every theatrical ritual facilitates the creation of open, authentic community, so too religion sometimes fails to fully capitalize its potential. That said, theatrical experiences that encourage honest communication and engaged presence remind me of my best experiences in faith communities. I’ve had the privilege to be a part of a number of Christian and Jewish communities that emphasize the relational aspect of faith above all else: first, the relationship between God and the individual, but also the relationships that exist amongst people.

In these loving, dynamic communities, each person is seen and valued—there are no extraneous participants. In every moment of each service and ritual, it is clear that everyone is not only welcome, but has a vital role to play. Leaders facilitate, but every congregant is personally invited to encounter God. At its best, I think religion embraces the diverse identity of each individual and invites participation into egalitarian community. Like theatre, religion is an inherently collaborative endeavor. There is no self-sufficient faith. In both religion and theatre—we need each other.

Vehicles of Prophetic Imagination
Though theatre and religion have much in common, both can be mediums through which we can thoughtfully and artfully engage truth; alternatively, too often we pursue trendy, commercial experiences over authenticity and depth. A play can have a popular script, talented actors, and great production values and yet still fail to be more than an evening’s distraction. Likewise, a religious service might have flashy lights, catchy songs, and even a dynamic message, but still be more like a concert than a true community.

What is it that keeps theatre and religion from being watered down in this manner? Theologian Walter Bruggemann offers up a potential answer in his influential book The Prophetic Imagination. Though originally intended for church leaders, when theatre is viewed through his lens, an interesting perspective emerges.

By studying the role of prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Bruggemann challenges members of modern faith communities to see their calling as necessitating what he calls “prophetic imagination.” In contrast to the empty, feel-good messages of prosperity gospel preachers or the latest self-help trend, Bruggemann suggests that the first role of the prophet is to lead the people in public lament. By offering new images and symbols, the prophet helps communities engage with all aspects of the human experience—including brokenness, pain, and injustice. It is only after this time of lamenting and criticism that the prophet takes on his second task: energizing the people with radical hope. Though their frustrations are heard and validated, the prophet never leaves the people wallowing in them. In spite of the reality of the dominant cultural narrative, the prophet seeks ultimately to evoke an alternative consciousness and vision.

Perhaps it is this dual-sided model that both modern theatre and religion sometimes lack. I have attended many plays and sat through many church services where only one side of this prophetic model has come into play. At times truth is told honestly, but with such a profound sense of hopelessness, that angst and anger are the only possible lingering emotions. Conversely, productions can be so fun and religious services so encouraging that we are left only with cursory smiles and continued passivity.

Theatre and religion are alike in their potential for “prophetic imagination;” however, both are susceptible to the same downfall of irrelevance if criticism or hope exists without its counterpart. As in both Metamorphoses and Our Lady of Kibeho, power and poignancy come not from neat, happy stories or inescapable tragedy; instead, it is the rare combination of both honest sorrow and resilient joy that captivates audiences and inspires the imaginations of communities.

Informing One Another
Some might dare to say that all theatre is inherently spiritual, as there is no such thing as an unspiritual subject. I too question the dualistic divide between the sacred and the secular. Nevertheless, by examining specific commonalities between theatre and religion, I believe that our work in both faith and the arts can flourish in new ways.

In religion and theatre, images encourage us to engage with realities beyond our physical sight. Through authentic community, we then take part in rituals, and if we dare allow ourselves to embrace both the light and dark of the “prophetic imagination,” our work will certainly transcend the bounds of mere entertainment.

Viewing theatre and religion as related will affect the way that we practice, think about, and evaluate both. As all members of a faith community are equal before God and necessary in ritual, so too are all types of theatre artists and diverse audiences necessary for the creation of compelling theatre. When we understand theatre as related to religion, perhaps we will also see it as a sacred endeavor. Through the lens of religion, theatre artists are not just entertainers: they are shamans, who serve as intermediaries between spiritual realities and audiences. From the perspective of religion, by viewing faith through the lens of theatre, stories and images can be appreciated as truthful and vital without the need for literal, legalistic interpretation. When the gospel story is thought about like a play, new levels of complexity and beauty may emerge. The possibilities are endless when theatre and religion are engaged in conversation with one another. 

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I think it’s funny how most people view these two topics as separate when in reality they are some of the truest extensions of each other. Most religious ceremonies have a man speaking to an audience, words that he read from a book, on a stage while making sure to be precise in his movements so his point comes across clear. To me that would be the simplest definition of theater. On the other hand, when a theater company is putting on a Shakespeare play they look at his very old writings and decide to follow everything he says almost to a t, only differing from it when nothing is explicitly stated. Now maybe it’s just me but that sounds eerily similar to religion.

Superb essay! I've been trying to articulate a thought/feeling I had, but I see that Cole Matson has already said what I was trying to say far better than I could. (Kudos!)

I can agree that religion and theatre are very much related, it can be very spiritual and freeing for sure. Picking a religious theatre piece though could be controversial obviously, but that just shows how much we don’t talk about. People get offended over everything and can’t appreciate a different view. You don’t have to agree with it but just be curious about it. They are both still communities, they both are about being honest. Both experiencing human life experiences. I personally admire the theatre at my religion, it’s safe and accepting of my craft and anything is possible. Love this article!

Love this application of Bruggemann's "prophetic imagination" to the role of the artist. Too often the prophetic role of the artist is conceptualised only as speaking truth to power, with a focus on the condemnation of evil. The role of the prophet is also to reveal hope and open a path for transformation and a return to the good.