As an actor and theatre producer, who is also a Christian, I’ve repeatedly gone over a dilemma in my head. Do I call myself a ‘Christian artist’? Or do I purposely demur, and refer to myself as ‘an artist who is also a Christian’ (as I just did above)?
The problem grows more urgent with my goal of starting a theatre company (probably in New York City) in the next couple years. Do I fly the ‘Christian theatre’ flag, to alert other theatre artists with a similar faith commitment that my company will be a ‘safe space’ for them to engage in their craft? Or do I fly under the radar, so as not to alienate audiences or artists who aren’t interested in Bible skits (as well as to keep from attracting potential collaborators whose idea of Christian theatre is limited only to said Bible skits)?
I’ve found three companies in particular which display slightly different approaches to this problem:
- Pacific Theatre (Vancouver): Pacific are very clear about their Christian commitment. The mission statement on their website says, ‘Pacific Theatre exists to serve Christ in our community by creating excellent theatre with artistic, spiritual, relational and financial integrity’, and their company history starts off by saying that they were founded by Christians as a ‘non-propagandist professional theatre’. They are also one of the most well-respected theatres in Vancouver, and have received over 100 award nominations. Pacific has definitely taken the ‘flying the flag’ route.
- The Lamb’s Players (San Diego): The Lamb’s Players were founded as evangelical street theatre, but have since chosen to move from evangelization to professional theatre for the general marketplace, and do not refer to themselves as a ‘Christian theatre’. The company is about 90% Christian, but does not require Christian commitment for membership. On the other hand, the way the company operates is clearly based on Christian faith – they’re comfortable praying for each other, for example – so non-Christian actors who aren’t Christian-friendly will naturally self-select out. However, their mission statement is not faith-specific: it is simply to Tell Good Stories Well. The Lamb’s Players seem to have taken the ‘fly under the radar’ route, while leaving enough hints (including their name) as to their values.
- Firebone Theatre (New York City): Joshua Alan, Firebone’s Artistic Director, made it very clear to me in a 2011 meeting that Firebone’s purpose is to evangelize, that they want their audiences to experience Christ. A clue to this purpose starts with their name, which comes from Jeremiah 20:9 (NIV): ‘But if I say, “I will not mention His word or speak anymore in His name,” His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones’. Their mission statement also hints at their spiritual intent: ‘Firebone Theatre creates quality theatre experiences that confront the timeless questions of human mortality (bone) and divine immortality (fire)’. But, even though their aim is more evangelistic than that of the Lamb’s Players, their hints are more subtle. Nowhere on the website, for example, is the Scriptural basis for their name mentioned. Firebone is also intent on becoming a top Off-Broadway theatre, and earning the respect of the professional New York theatre community based on the quality of their work. Firebone, a relatively new theatre, is right in the middle of wrestling with the problem of how visible their Christianity should be.
I find value in all three levels of ‘flying the flag’, and am interested in further analyzing how the language each theatre uses to present itself actually affects its audience and artistic collaborator demographics. But I’m honestly not yet sure which approach to take.
Which approach most resonates with you – or is your approach entirely different?
Cole Matson is a second-year PhD student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts, studying the ethics of the artist-audience relationship in the theatre. He is the Guest Contributions Editor for Transpositions.