Church and Theatre

Recently, a theatre company looking to enlist new members put out a promo piece which included all the usual attractions that a company offers to bring in new members. However there was one additional point, “build spiritual awareness”, which raised a cry in the theatre community . . . Is theatre church?

Why is this even a question? Church is for worship – spiritual fellowship, and the theatre is for entertainment and exploration. Yet to ignore the comparison would be, well, a little disingenuous. For in a very real sense each often treads into the world of the other. Aside from the rituals in a church, many religious institutions are bringing in multimedia presentations and jazzing up the services with contemporary music and modern pomp. Theatre on the other hand has always challenged the wisdom and wit of its audience, a path which can indeed lead to spiritual growth. So why worry, why ask if theatre is church, or church theatre, when on the surface the easy answer is yes to both.

If we cling to orthodoxy in either camp, in organized religion, or in the “entertainment” field, each would make a case for why they are not the other. The religious camp would undoubtedly argue that theatre is secular and profane, and the entertainers would eventually cry out that artistic freedom and expression should not be squelched by the dogma of religion But the reality is that theatre and organized religion are so closely interlocked, so interdependent at root, that to discern which came first or how each institution was created fills volumes.

At their core, the essence of each is to capture the hearts of men, to inspire and move society to better, safer places. So each in a very real sense is about creating social power. Both strive to guide a culture to improve without first falling to anarchy. This aim arises from the need of individuals to work in harmony with others to form a community, fulfilling common goals, as common needs are more easily met if there is cooperative effort.

Even in the earliest days of man, when we were primitive hunters and gatherers, we banded together on some level to accomplish a common good. As we can still observe in primates, even primitive societies organize themselves, assigning tasks, community roles, and power structures, including choosing leaders which they are to follow. Leaders prove themselves worthy either by demonstration of skills, conquest or show.

In conquest, there is a lot of energy expended and the costs can be high. Not only is there the danger of not winning, but the victor may be injured, and the vanquished will be left potentially less valuable or dead, thereby diminishing the overall strength of the community. Even in so-called lower orders of animals, mock combat is the preferred method of conquest. And mock combat is theatre. The values and strengths of one being challenged and tested for the benefit others. It happens in every herd, in every pack. So theatre, the demonstration of power, is inherently within our genetic code; it’s a tool of survival, superseding the rule of survival of the fittest.

If theatre is a means of demonstrating power, than institutionalizing theatre is the effort for the retention of power. When theatre is performed as ritual and is presented as ceremony with solemnity, it becomes religion. The December 19, 2011 issue of New Yorker Magazine included a piece titled “The Sanctuary” about an ancient site in Turkey that features large, ritually placed carved obelisks that resemble abstract men, decorated with symbols and animals. By all evidence, these obelisks were constructed about 11,000 years ago.

Nearly 5000 years before anything that looked like modern man, or recorded history, or written language, or institutionalized culture, there was this site. In reading the article one is struck by the fact that this was a place where ancient peoples went for some occasion. There’s no evidence that it was a place of residence, or sacrifice; it appears to have been a place of gathering. And when men gather, what is the purpose?

Was it that man, still undeniably in the hunter-gatherer stage, found a method to come to collective understanding? Were there demonstrations of skills and tales of conquest? Was this the forum that allowed for multiple tribes to institutionalize their theatre?

Today, more than ever before we have opportunity to see and understand cultures and peoples that heretofore were unknown to us. We can dip into the well of humanity’s experience to learn the collective lessons of all peoples and come to understandings that may in fact contradict our own beliefs. The world is shrinking and consequently the potential for wisdom is expanding.

Theatre can be church; it can show us all of humanities lessons, it can present positions and attitudes and judgments that are out of our normal frame of reference. But unlike most religions, which are the beliefs behind churches, theatre is not about the dictate of belief, hence retention of power, it is about the presentation of possibilities. Theatre is the best forum for the mock battles, the demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of men. Theatre is the opportunity to envision alternatives and then draw conclusions.

The roots of religion are in theatre. And, as we live in a world that is secular and profane, perhaps it’s time for theatre to claim its place. Theatre is the religion of possibilities, the opportunity to meet the needs of modern man to learn, to grow, and most importantly to co-exist.

Theatre is and should be about hope, exploration and acceptance. If that is church then we should all find a place at the altar.

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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