Should We Call Ourselves Christian?: 3 (Christian) Theatre Companies Speak

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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4 Comments

  • jfutral says:

    I would say what you _call_ yourself will have less affect (other than stereotypical connotations) than what you actually _do_. Who you _are_ will reveal itself, especially among artists who are often very discerning, just as the Jeremiah quote explains.

    The worst thing that could happen is to be outspoken about being a Christian artist and producing crap for art or having poor work ethics, or worse just no skills. We don’t need that. Some of the worst artists I’ve worked with in the performing arts are vocal about being Christian. Some of the best, like Tom Key or Chris Kayser here in Atlanta, don’t have to be vocal. Not all are called to evangelism. But if you are, it will come through no matter what you call yourself.

    If you are going to pursue a career as an artist your focus should be on being an excellent artist, in whatever fashion that means to you. Whatever you pursue, pursue it as unto the Lord.

    That is also a better way to find safety than finding a Christian arts group within which to ply your craft. Michael Omartian got to put a disclaimer on Rod Stewart’s album and choose which songs he would and would not produce on that album by being one of the best producers in the business. This was Rod Stewart at the height of his come back in the late 70’s. Rod Stewart demanded the very best. So did Michael Omartian.

    There is nothing “safe” about following Christ, nor should there be. I’ll again quote my favourite C. S. Lewis, closing the essay “The Efficacy of Prayer”:

    “If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”

    Joe

    • Cole Matson says:

      Joe,

      Great point about following Christ not being “safe”. I’ll clarify to say that I meant “(relatively) safe from pressure to abandon Christian beliefs and resultant behaviour”. I had in mind the example of a friend who was told in rehearsals that all the women in the show would be performing only in their underwear, and was pressured to go along with it to avoid “making trouble”. I can’t imagine such a thing happening in a Christian theatre.

      You also bring up another good point about both the danger and the opportunity of flying a visible flag. The danger is that if your work is awful, you’ll continue to strengthen the association between “Christian art” and “mediocrity”. Whereas if you are excellent artists who fly the flag – such as Pacific – you fight that association and help replace it with the association “Christian art” = “powerful and superb”.

      And love that Lewis quote.:-)

      • jfutral says:

        That is an interesting point in that the performing arts is less about being individual artists than other art disciplines. This is a point that should be brought up to young artists pursuing this field. We collaborate at many levels. Sometimes we get to call the shots, sometimes we have to follow someone else’s lead. Sometimes we get to alter the lead if we can present a creative alternative. Sometimes not.

        There is always a high risk in this business to be asked, even required, to do something that one might not be comfortable with, even in a Christian group. We can have our own personal boundaries, but we should have no illusions about the potential consequences of those convictions.

        Most productions and producers of consequence, credibility, and experience are more often than not pretty clear up front about potential nudity or underdress. And with these groups, if things change they don’t usually require adherence since no one was warned up front.

        So young artists should do their homework. If an arts group has a history of doing nudity or partial nudity or if the work is known for such and these are issues for the artist, don’t put yourself in that position.

        I don’t believe that a Christian arts group provides any greater safety than a non-Christian arts group. It is just that the issues are different. Nudity or partial nudity or just underwear is not in and of itself “Christian” or “Non-Christian”.

        But the pressure play, I would say, is the deciding factor in this discussion, not just requiring the actor to be in underwear. I’ve actually had more pressure to conform put on me by Christians than non-Christians.

        Joe

  • Steve Scott says:

    Surely, it depends where you are. It may well be that the unbiquitous web means that anyone anywhere can find out what they need to know about you, but the Scriptural advice to `behave wisely towards outsiders’ still obtains when it comes to not going out of our way to burn bridges.In some places like South East Asia the cosmic/spiritual/ethical subtext will be very evident in drama, opera and shadowplay….but I would suggest that a `Christian’ theatre company like `Trumpets’ in the Philippines might approach things a bit differently than,say, Riding Lights in UK. Brechtian Theatre and Street Agit Prop both have the avowed goals of moving their audiences from `consumption’ to critical awareness…..but they go about the task differently, and I think their approach owes a lot to context. If you feel called to theatre then why alienate the audience before they have even come in and sat down? Far from being compromise this is the kind of critical and contextually nuanced thinking that is part of the `transformation of the mind’ that Paul writes about in Romans 12. Conversely, this `one size fits all’ approach suggests generic, context free marketing and `conformity to the world’

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