Received like Christ: Benedictine Hospitality in the Theatre

I’ve written elsewhere about the idea of a Benedictine theatre company, that is, a theatre company which operates according to the values of Benedictine monasticism. One of the key values of Benedictine monasticism is hospitality: ‘Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ’.[1]

In his Rule, St Benedict instructs his monks to adjust their normal routines, as long as they maintain their monastic integrity, in order to serve the needs of their guests. Guests are to be greeted with bowed head or full prostration upon the ground, ‘in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons’. The Superior (or a suitable deputy) is to join them and share a meal with them even if it is a fast day (unless it is a major fast, such as that on Good Friday). In addition, both the Abbot and the community members are literally to wash their guests’ feet – a practical sign of hospitality and humility, which has become largely symbolic for those of us who travel in air-conditioned cars and wear Nike trainers on paved roads.

In a theatre company, the Executive Director and other company members take the place of the Abbot and his fellow monks. The guests are the audience who join the community for a short time, to be served by them. A Benedictine theatre company’s artist-audience relationship is that of a host with guest, a relationship in which the host humbles himself to serve the guest.

One of the ways a host serves the guest is by making sure the guest is comfortable, not only physically, but also socially. If the guest is unfamiliar with the household’s customs, a good host will instruct the guest, and guide him through unfamiliar rituals. This responsibility is one reason why Benedict has the Abbot meet the guest immediately, lead him in prayer with the community, dine with him, and wash his feet. The leading member of the community personally guides the guest through these possibly unfamiliar routines.

One example of hospitable care for the audience is dramaturgy – providing the audience with information about the play that will help them understand the show, such as background information about its symbolism or language they might not have, but which is necessary if they are to enter fully into the work. Other forms of hospitality are simple and practical – making sure the theatre is sufficiently warm or cool, and that warnings are given about stage fog or strobe lighting (which can be dangerous for patrons with asthma or epilepsy).

Finally, a Benedictine theatre company will practice hospitality by actively welcoming audience members into the company’s home, treating them as friends instead of as ‘butts in seats’ (a dehumanizing but common marketing phrase). This hospitality requires a basic respect for the audience as fellow human beings, deserving of charity and dignity. Extending hospitality through courteous and caring reception of audience members can strengthen the bonds between the artists and the audience, so that they grow together as one community.

I’ll leave you with one example of Benedictine hospitality in action:

During the first decade-plus of Long Wharf Theatre’s existence the House Manager was a retired vaudevillian named Jasper Burr… Jasper took tickets, greeted audience members (many by name, and there were more than 16,000 subscribers in those days), inquired about the health of patrons he had not seen for a while, etc., etc. He was a one-man welcoming committee, treated the audience with tremendous respect, and I understand that attitude extended to his staff…[A]n audience survey showed the number three reason for attending Long Wharf in those days (happily “the quality of the productions” and “choice of plays presented” were numbers one and two) was “seeing Jasper.” I honestly think we’d see audiences grow if all theater employees and volunteers adopted Jasper’s approach… – David Mayhew[2]

If, like Jasper, we artists receive all our audience members like Christ, we may receive the pleasure of their company more often.

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1. All quotes from Chapter 53 of Saint Benedict’s Rule of Monasteries, trans. Leonard J. Doyle, OblSB, Saint John’s Abbey. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001.

2. From comment #15 by David Mayhew on Howard Sherman, ‘Do We Respect Them in the Morning?’, American Theatre Wing Blog, 6 Dec 2010.

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