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.

4 Comments

  • Sam says:

    Thanks for this…
    While this is an interesting post as it relates to the practices of the theater, and suggests ways to gain better attendance, I am wondering how your perspective doesn’t just relegate Benedictine spirituality to a certain banality that dismisses out of hand the ecclesial context of the monastery. Also, what sort of community is actually formed between the audience and a theater company in the very temporary situation that is a performance?

    • Cole Matson says:

      Sam,

      Your point is well taken. I share your concern about divorcing spiritual “techniques” from the purposes and meaning behind them. I do think that non-monastics, non-Catholics, and non-Christians can benefit from learning more about Benedictine life and incorporating aspects of that life into their spiritual practice, depending on what suits their state in life and what they find fruitful. And I am not alone in this belief – Christopher Jamison OSB, a monk of Worth Abbey in England, has made it his mission, through his books and through the TV programmes The Monastery and The Big Silence, to introduce the general public to Benedictine practices which he believes all people can benefit from, such as the cultivation of silence, contemplative prayer, and community. However, as he pointed out at a workshop on monasticism in Oxford several weeks ago, introducing people to these practices is only a first step. Eventually, people need to understand that monasticism itself – the living of the Gospel in an intentional Christian community through the Rule of St Benedict (and other forms of monastic life) – witnesses to the world in a way irreplaceable by even an army of laypeople who incorporate some Benedictine practices into their lives. There is no replacement for monks (by which I mean both male and female monastics). Benedictine spirituality is most proper to the monastery, and though those of us in the world can learn from it and benefit from it, we must not forget that it requires “the ecclesial context of the monastery” for its fulfilment.

      On a related note, I believe that a Benedictine monastery can be a fruitful ground for the creation of theatre, just as monasteries have been fruitful in the creation of other forms of art (keeping in mind, of course, that the primary purpose of a monastery is not to do a certain work or create a certain product, but to be a “school of the Lord’s service” that draws a monk closer to God and to his brothers). I only know of one Benedictine monastery that operates a theatre, which I hope to visit next month, and in future posts I hope to explore how a Benedictine monastic community might create theatre.

      To answer your second question, I would hope that a theatre company learning from Benedictine hospitality would maintain a relationship with their audience beyond the single night’s performance (and not just by sending them monthly e-mail blasts announcing shows and asking for donations!). In the movie Of Gods and Men, the viewer sees a group of Trappist monks refuse to leave the Muslim community which surrounds the monastery, and which relies on the monastery for both physical and emotional support. One of the monks is a physician, who provides the villagers with free medical care. The monks celebrate important events in the villagers’ lives (such as a child’s coming-of-age ceremony), and, though you don’t see it in the film, also allow the villagers to use part of the monastery as a mosque, since the village lacks one. The audience members are not simply consumers who purchase a theatre company’s product on that one night; they are the company members’ neighbours and friends, the people they serve and share life with. That’s the sort of community I hope can be formed between an audience and a theatre company.

  • Dave says:

    This post places me in mind of the Applied Theatre movement, in which theatre is used to impact the greater social good and to serve those around us in non-theatrical settings. I think that this moves us beyond the traditional definition of performance, and into the broader concept of performing our faith for those around us in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps the questions and thoughts that are raised in one night of traditional performance can be best addressed as we incarnate our performance into longer lasting community and address those thoughts and questions. I remember a theatre professor during my undergrad telling us that going for coffee after a show and discussing what you had just seen was part of the theatrical experience. Perhaps that’s the incarnational piece that we too easily skip over.

    This is a beautiful post. I had never considered theatrical theology in relation to Benedictine monastic practice. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Dave,

      Thanks for the link. I agree with your professor that the communication about, sharing of, and meditating on the piece afterward is part of the experience. I’m for seeing theatre as the sharing of a community’s stories, not as a marketable product to be consumed.

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