Deadly Theatre Deadly Worship?

I’m aware I haven’t written about theatre for a long time so I want to unpick some thoughts I’m currently wrestling with as I continue the long process of writing the book ‘God of the Gods’.

My placement this year has been focused on being in a ‘creative’ community and seeing what one might look like. (You can follow the placement through the ‘Theatre Church’ stream by searching this site.) My reflections have concentrated on the capitalist mentality that flows through both the process of theatre and our understanding of Christian community. I have written extensively on this theory but thought I might share aspects of it as it relates to thoughts on theatre from the man himself, Peter Brook.

The act of creating a piece of theatre should be a journey of discovery for all involved. The current economic climate, however, forces the focus away from the search for discovery to a mechanical, predictable process aimed at achieving the highest income for the lowest cost.

A producer, who holds the finances, in order to increase that potential investment, funds a startup productions in the hope of building both a portfolio, artistic clout and financial capital to further that aim. In order to gain the most income they need to produce a sellable product, something popular and so they invite ‘creative’ directors and/or writers to invent a concept or write a script that will meet those criteria. These ‘creatives’ are therefore conditioned to develop concepts or write scripts to pitch to a producer who decides whether it will make a return on their investment. Theatre is, therefore, often driven by the marketability of the product rather than the necessity of the expression itself. The creative act is done by a solo agent and is completed before the pitch is made in order that a clear ‘vision’ is communicated to the financier. The process to construct the product must be planned carefully in order that it is the most successful (success being both how well it embodies the original concept and the amount of people who consume it.) Auditions are held to get the right people for the right job/role. Actors are tested and interviewed to see who has the right skills to undertake the role in the shortest period of time. Rehearsals are characteristically one sided. Directors ensure that the actors are doing what needs to be done to create the product as the director/writer see it. The actors ask for clarification and performing the role as prescribed and not participating in a journey of discovery; they’re cogs in a machine.

Peter Brook notes,

…a theatre where a play for economic reasons rehearses for no more than three weeks is crippled at the outset. Time is not the be-all and end-all; it is not impossible to get an astonishing result in three weeks…But this is rare… No experimenting can take place, and no real artistic risks are possible. (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

‘Deadly Theatre’, as Brook calls it, is one that lacks life. This, he suggests, is not as easily discerned as you might expect. For something dead can be dressed up to look alive like the lifeless puppet manipulated to imitate life. Can our Churches experiment? Can they, what theatre practitioners call, ‘play’? Can they take real ‘artistic’ risk? I’d argue ‘no’. If every Sunday, or what ever day the community worships, is a ‘performance’ to lure in seekers then there is no space for risk. If something ‘fails’ then it will impact potential clients. If we can begin to call the seeker-friendly service a performance then our ‘rehearsal time’ is one week! Brook continues,

The artistic consequences are severe. Broadway is not a jungle, it is a machine into which a great many parts snugly interlock. Yet each of these parts is brutalized; it has been deformed to fit and function smoothly… In such conditions there is rarely the quiet and security in which anyone may dare expose himself. I mean the true un spectacular intimacy that long work and true confidence in other people brings about – in Broadway, a crude gesture of self-exposure is easy to come by, but this has nothing to do with the subtle, sensitive interrelation between people confidently working together. (Peter Brook, The Empty Space)

This kind of theatre is like a disease spreading through our culture. The big West-End musicals are all veneer with no substance of necessary expressions of human beings. Audiences are fooled into thinking that the more jolly, colorful and expensive the design the more ‘theatrical’ it is. No one questions this shallow performance style which has seeped into classic works such as Shakespeare making words that have so much potential life become boring. We have all become accustomed to it and so no longer crave the pure, life giving theatrical art.

In churches, regular congregations have become accustomed to the lifeless worship that is dressed up to imitate life. These imitations take on may forms depending on a particular tradition. The pentecostal inspired charismatic services need only to increase the volume and emphasize the rhythm to bring on their ‘spiritual’ highs. Watchman Nee says,

We have heard people say that…the moment they hear the sound of the organ and the voice of singing their spirits are immediately released to God’s presence. Indeed, such a thing does happen. But are they really being brought to the presence of God? Can people’s spirits be released and drawn closer to God by a little attraction such as this? Is this God’s way? (Watchman Nee, The Latent Power of the Soul)

What are we aiming for in community? In Christian community I’d suggest that we are aiming to share the fruit of the Spirit in the character of Christ to be reconciled to God and one another. In our worship, therefore, we need to be praying and living in the power of the Spirit. That Spirit will then go out from us to the others and unite us all together and bring us resurrection life; life that will not end. In theatre community I’d suggest the aim is similar. We are looking for a life that inspires each person to express themselves in a communal expression. Our self expressions can be affirmed as holding ‘truth’ by inspiring something within the whole community. Thus, that which is life to the individual participant is shared and encourages the other to experience life themselves. How do we discern whether a piece of theatre or an act of worship has ‘life-giving life’? Watchman Nee distinguishes between the life of the soul and the life-giving life of the Spirit,

“The first man Adam became a living soul; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Cor 15:45)… The soul is alive. It has its life, therefore it enables man to do all sorts of things…The spirit, however, is able to give life to others and cause them to live… “It is the spirit,” says the Lord, ‘that giveth life; the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63) (Watchman Nee, The Latent Power of the Soul)

Here it is important to state, one can perform a piece of theatre with life but it stops at self expression if it does not hold life-giving life or that which brings life to the observer/ the rest of the community. We are not searching for self expression but self expression within communal expression.

Christian community should pay attention to Brook’s warnings to theatre. We must discern carefully whether our self expressions don’t stop at the self but give life to others. We must be careful that our worship is not resuscitating our dead bodies for a moment but rather giving resurrected life. We can achieve this, I’m beginning to believe, by ‘playing’ constantly, feeling comfortable with others to experiment and to reject crude self expressions and aim for the self expression within communal expression that marks life-giving life to all. Feeling comfortable with others can only be achieved if we create space for vulnerability and commitment to community as a verb and not as a noun.