Theatrical Performance as Evangelism and Spiritual Discipline

Embodying Sacred Texts through Stage Direction, Character Interpretation and Relationship Building with Actors

The world of the theater has always been an important part of my life, whether it be acting onstage, working backstage or sitting in front of the stage. As a biblical storyteller, I can integrate my skills and talents as a performer into my vocational life as a minister. But beyond the sacred embrace of this creative hobby, it has also become a spiritual discipline for me.

“Twelfth Night” at Playhouse South, Dayton, OH

Growing up as a questioning gay teen, relationships with my family became more distant as I got older. I found myself working a lot and participating in as many extracurricular activities as possible in high school. During this time I discovered my love for art and drama. My experience of the stage was both exhilarating and exciting. Embodying different roles in the theater helped me forget the tension of living my awkward life, and wearing a “Christian” mask that was at odds with my identity. My first role on the stage was in the musical “The King and I,” where I played the character Simon Legree who wore a real mask on stage (an irony that I didn’t recognize until very recently!) This play followed with leading roles in “My Fair Lady,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and regular performances on the high school drama team. My passion for acting and singing became a journey to express outwardly how I felt on the inside, and embody the life what I was desperate to experience. On stage I was someone special. I was a talented and creative artist. I was able to attract attention and intimacy, something that seemed lost or unattainable at home.

“Grease” at the USAF Dept of MWR, Berlin, GE

After leaving home post high school, and while exploring Europe during my military service, returning to college to finish my undergraduate degree, working professionally, and then pursuing ordination…all the while the theater remained a part of my life. After my first clergy call to a new church start closed due to insufficient funding, I was advised by my post-ordination ministry team to take some time to heal. I spent the next few months performing in a production of “West Side Story” at a local dinner theater. I was amazed by the energy that emerged from this endeavor; performing in ten shows a week. Even though the pay was minimal, I enjoyed the time away from the Church, and the toll that full-time ministry can sometimes take. Yet even in the midst of my performances, I began to develop pastoral care relationships with other actors in the show. These interactions nurtured my soul and confirmed my continued call to the creative community. And now I’ve been able to use the tools of the theater trade to assist me in a biblical storytelling ministry.

I teach workshops for biblical storytellers on using theatrical forms of performance preparation when learning scripture by heart. We focus on embodying the sacred text as an actor would learn lines and blocking. In the world of theater we call this, “staging.” The purpose of staging is to trigger the emotional life of a story. Staging is perhaps the most powerful, non-invasive, non-improvisational directing tool available. Staging (or blocking as some refer to it) is simply the movement and placement of characters within the appropriate setting during a story. In everyday life, we move through our world in relationship to each other, our environment, and ourselves according to our needs physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We also move in response to our environment, other characters, and ourselves. In short, we “stage” ourselves according to our needs.

As we “stage” our lives, we make assumptions about people’s attitudes and feelings as we observe their movements in relationship to each other and the environment. We make assumptions about others based on their physical behavior. And we can assume that an audience would see these relationships in very much the same way. Our physical behavior directly reflects our emotional state, and the reverse is also true. Physical behavior and body language can trigger specific emotional responses.

“Gifts of the Magi” at The Human Race Theatre, Dayton, OH

In the theater, staging involves reflecting and triggering the emotional life of a scene. We allow the emotional dynamics of the scene to suggest specific staging. Then we create staging that will stimulate and support the interplay in the scene. It is the same when interpreting sacred texts. The development of doctrine often tends to be the result of traditional interpretation. But for the creative pilgrim, it can be a means to forming and growing a progressive faith. This kind of spiritual journey may be just what the creative community is searching for.

I feel called to experiment with this model in different congregational contexts and mediums. During my doctoral program a peer suggested that I am an evangelist. That was fun for me because my father was an evangelist. As an evangelist to the creative community, I want to connect the church and the theater by designing an epic scripture telling that we would perform on Sundays while engaging the stories from a performance perspective. We regularly do this when the Network of Biblical Storytellers meet for our annual biblical storytelling festival. Directing an epic telling by professional actors is evangelism. I see the theater community as the mission field, and the cast is the congregation. Empowering these actors includes encouraging them to explore the experience of the biblical story for dramatic emphasis. This process is yet another subversive model for spiritual exploration. Teaching and directing that kind of production could be innovative for the theater and would provide another connection for those “creatives” who have been alienated from the church.

As I search for a congregation that might embrace this call, I am encouraged and energized by the work that I continue to do within the theater community. I just finished Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and am starting rehearsal for the opera, “Carmen.” And one thing I do know…that God can always use me to nurture relationships with my fellow actors and singers. It may be the only way that they experience God’s love, grace and embrace. And that is evangelism!

If you are interested in learning more about biblical storytelling and this ministry, please contact me through my website: www.ExperientialJesus.com.

Brice ThomasRev. Dr. Brice Thomas is the Director of Alumni/ae Relations and Adjunct Faculty at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also called to bi-vocational ministry at Harmony Creek Church in Dayton, an emerging congregation.

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2 thoughts on “Theatrical Performance as Evangelism and Spiritual Discipline

  1. Kudos to you, Brice, for writing this! I am amazed at all the rich connections that exist between the theatre and the vocational ministry: Ministers and priests who wanted to be actors; actors whose parents were clergy or who themselves studied for the ministry; and women and men like yourself, functioning creatively in both worlds. The intertwined connections between drama and the church go far back in church history and in theatre history. And of course, the theatre got its start inside the medieval church, before being expelled into the church yard.

    Theatre has always been so incredibly spiritual and healing for me. Years ago, during my seminary days in Portland, Oregon, I remember one spring in particular when I was utterly lost in my academically and in my sense of call. I hopped on a southbound Greyhound bus and got off in Ashland—home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. I caught a matinee performance of The Winter’s Tale, and was utterly transfixed. In the final act, when the statue of Hermione came back to life, it reminded me that God is in the business of doing the impossible. It spoke to me in a powerful way of resurrection—Jesus’ and my own. In Ashland, Oregon, my sense of call was restored.

    Since then, I have had many spiritual epiphanies in theatres–while sitting in the audience, working backstage and in the lighting booth, and in rehearsal and during performances as a plodding actor. I’ve also experienced spiritual conflict somewhat on the order of the intense Salieri-Mozart relationship in the Peter Shaffer play, Amadeus, while sharing scenes in acting classes with Terence Knox (who later went on to star in the 1980’s TV series, Tour of Duty) and other remarkable actors. I did not kill them, and I did not go mad, but I felt very much like Salieri–astonished and awed by the scope and breadth of their talent and inventiveness, and troubled by my own ham-fisted acting. I walked away from that experience accepting who I am, and praising God at being able to interact with, and have a front-row seat in watching, such talent.

    My acting and directing have been at the amateur community theatre level, but one of the highlights of my life was playing the King (the Prince’s father) in a Hurrah Players (Norfolk, Virginia) performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella. My singing and dancing were entirely mediocre, but I found the show to be joyful and transformative, and its main storyline—the idea, also evident long ago in The Winter’s Tale, that “impossible things are happening every day”)—to be utterly redemptive.
    So again, Brice, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amen, Chris! Thank you for affirming the article, and expressing your resonance with my experience. The Network of Biblical Storytellers, Int. is an amazing group of fellow actors and storytellers that have integrated their love of theater into ministry. The network has been an important part of my ministry evolution, as well as providing a supportive community and resource. There are biblical storytelling guilds all over the country, and one in particular around Rochester called, “Women of the Well” that travels to churches presenting workshops and performances. Our annual storytelling festival is in the DC area every August. You should attend! Learn more at http://www.nbsint.org. And blessings in your own ministry!

      Liked by 1 person

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