Theatre and Religion

Theatre and religion, two topics not to be discussed in polite company. No, wait, that’s politics and religion, but then that’s pretty much being redundant. Ok, here’s what we’re really talking about: theatre and religion are very similar institutions, and both have profound political clout.

Amongst academics, there is an endless debate as to which came first, theatre or religion. Orthodox religiosity claims religion was before existence, but setting that aside for the moment, it’s easy to see why the confusion abounds. Both institutions are wrapped in tradition and ritual, both deal with morality, and both use allegories to make the sale.

The similarities are endless, so what are the differences? The big one is that theatre guides you to a judgment, religion tells you what your judgment should be. The second difference is that, religions, at least with the ones with which I have some familiarity, use the calendar cycle to reiterate the same lessons year in and year out in the hopes we won’t break the rules.  Ancient parables applied to modern life is the answer being fed on  millennia continuum.

Theatre on the other hand looks at the problems it confronts and addresses them in a timeframe relevant to the topic. While theatre may draw upon ancient as well as modern text, the look of each production is an expression of the current artist, and each production is an effort to shed more light on the human condition, not just the right light. While many of the parables used in religion can be molded to address modern life, the continuum of human existence is growth and adaptation, the ability to rethink and re-judge.

Why is this important to us?  Because we are the carriers of the message! We, who visit the various temples of Theatre, are the ones who then proselytize what we have found. When we are touched by a theatrical production, our lives are changed. How we see and treat our fellow man is colored by the plays we’ve attended.

In both religion and theatre, originally man is in direct conversation with a godhead. In time, as populations grew, holy men and prophets became intermediaries between man and god. When societies grew to a point where prophets could no longer touch all of the people, we invented priests, those who told us what the prophets knew or understood as the message from god.

Modern man is now relatively educated, at least passably literate, so our need for interpreters and readers who tell us the purpose of great myths is passing.  We as humans must now don the mantle of subjective decisions. We must engage our own wisdom and our own perspectives upon each challenge that is put before us.

If the function of religiosity is to provide a road map for our relationship with community(ies) and thereby serve a higher purpose than our own existence, isn’t theatre a more direct path to that end? Going to a play can be a religious experience. Even if the only result of our attendance is our entertainment, then we have been spiritually nourished, we have been dissuaded from the mundane and raised to witnessing alternative opportunity and extra personal relationship. We experience empathy.  How much closer can we be to a god-head than empathy?

So when you have those moments, embellish them, pass them on to any that might be interested in hearing about the experience. By doing so you will expand the benefit of your discovery, you will be sharing it.

How do we do that, you may ask? Well, we at Footlights have an answer for you. If you are reading this at a theatre, somewhere in the lobby, there is a poster with the name of the play you’re attending and a QR code.  Open your smartphone scanner, point to the code, and in a couple of seconds a window will appear that will show you the title of the show and five stars. Rate the show on your reaction, and that vote is tabulated so that others looking for a show can get a sense of what you think.

If you want to see the results of your voting, go to our website, Find the show with our search engine, and you will see not just the ratings, but information about the show, and in case you are looking for the next show to see yourself. A great tool.

We are asking for every show in greater LA to participate, whether they use our programs or not.  Here’s your chance to not just spread the word about a specific show, but proselytize the value of Theatre as well. If you can’t find the poster or the code, ask someone at the theatre, let them know you want to express your opinion.

We live in a world where we need to make decisions based upon our understandings.  We have the right and the responsibility to ask and answer questions.  Your future, and theatre’s future is in your hands.  Help.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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