Riding Lights Theatre Church? (part I)

I went to Riding Lights Theatre Company’s Members’ Day yesterday. I have been involved in Riding Lights for many years after attending one of their summer schools. It was at this summer school that I reaffirmed my faith and re-engaged with God (it was also the place where I met my wife and many of my closest friends.) I became a member and have continued to give money to their ministry because I consider their work, both theatrically and spiritually, important. They have an amazing way of communicating the gospel that is not ‘preachy’ and predictable but real and direct. They continually look to produce work that is prophetic and beautiful and they are able to do this because of the support, financially and prayfully, of their members.

At this day, which happens once a year, the company tell the members what has happened and the plans for the future but more importantly it is a time to get together and talk and dream. This year they themed the whole day ‘At Home’. It was interesting listening to the staff talk about their dream to make Riding Lights a community through their membership. The language being used was very similar to how churches speak of their congregations; lots of emphasis on how the member’s really made the ministry, the desire to network and use the gifts of those members, etc. It made me think about how a theatre company can be a church.

The acting community is a transient, nomadic tribe, always moving and touring and home becomes a very fluid concept. Actors are needed anywhere there is work and so they spend long periods of time in ‘digs’ with their company. Where do Christian actors make their ‘home’? Where do they get fed spiritually when they lack any community support? Where is the actor’s parish?

The Northumbria community is a network of Christians dedicated to exploration of life. They do this in remote and diverse places. They don’t tend to meet for big worship events on a weekly basis but rather teach a life commitment and your membership is in the way of life you lead rather than where you lead your life. It’s part of a wave of communities studying new monasticism and calls itself an order and speaks of their ‘Rule’. This kind of community really does speak into our transient lifestyles of the 21st century and, in particular, the life of a touring thespian.

I reflected, as I sat in Riding Lights’ base, Friargate Theatre, how this company could feed someone; people who struggle to find a spiritual home in their local parish for what ever reason. Actor’s touring around could be directed to fellowship, through this community, to like minded people and participate in worship that they recognise. Riding Light’s could distribute material that united all those wanting to be part of this community and so, when you’re on the road you can feel part of a community, be worshipping in a place that you feel comfortable in and always feel, wherever you are, there is someone close to pray and support you.

Riding Lights are grappling with how they can involve their members, build this network, utilise this amazing support structure. They spoke of getting members to communicate with each other to go out and do creative things; to get together and be Riding Lights. It was 1 Corinthians 12 all over!

We were asked to write our story with Riding Lights on some paper. At the end of my testimony I found myself writing “Riding Lights is my spiritual homeland” and its true. Their summer school worship is a place where I connect with God. Their approach to liturgy and worship is creative without being forced. Ian, the chaplain (and my father-in-law), does a brilliant job of constructing services using theatrical language and concepts and leading people into the presence of God (You’d think I’m saying this to keep him happy but he doesn’t use the internet much so won’t read this!)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between church and theatre. So often when people discover I’m training to ‘be in the church’ after a life of working in the theatre they jump to the conclusion that I’ll be trying to see how the church can do theatre, how to get the church structures to appeal to theatrical types by doing sketches, etc. I want rather to see how theatre can do church. The issue actors who are investigating their spirituality face is; the church, as a concept, is alien. It uses weird language and structures and doesn’t speak their language. They understand the spirituality and love the teaching of Christianity but when it comes to ‘church’ they get suspicious. People talk about the ‘drama of the liturgy’, whatever you call it it isn’t touching the right buttons. A workshop or rehearsal room, there’s somewhere actors feel comfortable. They understand what happens and why. They also understand community, vulnerability and all that goes along with that. A theatre company is so like a church!

So what does a theatre service look like? It’s amazing at the interesting and exciting thoughts and connections I’ve made when you think of a workshop or rehearsal as an act of worship, or even as a worship service.

The greatest discovery I made when trying to write out a potential theatre service is the engagement with the issues. Giving actors room to create and wrestle with themes from the Bible and with life. The rehearsal room is a place of testimony a place of engaging with life, of expressing things in a safe environment. The issue I find when people talk to me about the supposed similarities between church and theatre is that there’s a lot of language used about performance, costumes, and atmosphere. They talk as if it is pretence, a forced situation where a large group of people sit and watch, possibly engage, with a few people prance around and offering them things to consider. It makes the minister and worship leader more of performers who have rehearsed these things that they don’t have to believe in. If church is a performance then it’s not fully real. In a rehearsal room, however, there is genuine engagement; there is a creative energy that leads the participants into deeper knowledge.

It’s all rather exciting, as you can tell! My next task is to collect together a small group of theatre practitioners and Christian brothers and sisters to throw ideas about, to pray and consider.

I’ll finish on something that Paul Burbridge, Artistic Director of Riding Lights, said about creativity (he nicked it from someone else!) He suggested creativity starts with weeping (or any kind of emotional response to the world around us) then it leads to prayer, then to thinking, then to creation. I have had the experience, now comes the prayer and the thinking and onto creating something that God is dreaming of.