Why Theology and Performing Arts?

Why theology and performing arts, that’s a strange mix isn’t it?

A question I get asked a lot. Perhaps when you first think about the two cohabiting it may seem strange. The unsuitable sin saturated art that we see on our TV’s and on stage performed in the Church? And the cheesy church sketch, where God is played by Graham the church elder with a beard, on a stage in London? Never!

Well before we get too dramatic allow me to suggest that theology and performing arts are a much better fit than you might realise. Not only do they have a long turbulent history together[1] they are as important to each other now as they have ever been.

So firstly what are they really?

  • Well theology is the study of God, we all knew that, and the bible is the account of God's interaction with his people. Performing arts, I will suggest, is the study of ourselves; as Boal says “...in its most essential sense, theatre is the capacity possessed by human beings – and not by animals – to observe themselves in action.”[2]

  • Theology is concerned with truth; Jesus stated he was ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6) and a theologian’s purpose is to better understand this truth so they can better know this truth. Performing arts is also deeply concerned with truth. Sanford Meisner, an American acting teacher, defined good acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”[3] because the actor's purpose is to believably portray true human reactions to the events on stage. As an audience we are entertained by this but also gifted the opportunity to observe ourselves as we sympathise with the characters and attempt to place ourselves in their shoes, a process that dates back 300 years before Jesus and that Aristotle called Catharsis.[4] Some trends within contemporary performance remove things like character and imaginary circumstances (as these things have been increasingly viewed as mere representations) and instead facilitate a live encounter and conversation between performer and audience; yet all in the search for truth something real and alive and believable.

Perhaps you can already start to see why these two things might not be so far apart.

  • Theology is interested in words particularly the word: the logos. God created with words (Genesis 1), God wrote his commands down for us (Exodus 31:18) and God became the word to establish relationship with us (John 1:1). Words are important. Obviously performing arts, specifically forms like poetry and theatre, also value words. Choosing the right words is very important. Remember the old saying your parents told you to scream at the bullies ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ We all know it’s not true. Words are powerful. Encouraging and insulting words stay with us. The performing arts use words to stimulate emotion and as an actor you must connect emotionally with your script, with the words of your character, if you want to be truthful on stage. Theatre tries to make the play, the words in the script, come to life on stage. Its gives its actors words and asks them to make these words believable and true, words that an audience will remember; words that will move us, make us laugh and cry and words that will have an impact on us.

So theology and performing arts share similar interests but why are they so important to each other?

The term Holy Theatre was made popular by a director called Peter Brook. He believes like many other directors, performers and practitioners that theatre can touch on something transcendent. Holy theatre is “...The Theatre of the Invisible – Made – Visible.”[5] Brook isn’t talking about God here but whether he knows it or not I think he is talking about something spiritual.

You see our society needs something to believe. We have been told for years now that there is no truth and we have been lied to by so many people and organisations and governments that we are starting to believe it. We need truth, something strong, alive and believable. We need something beyond ourselves, something spiritual. God is that truth, God is that transcendent life. God is believable, trustworthy and real but for many God seems untouchable, unreachable and unknowable. The performing arts have the words to change that, they have the means to move people and allow them to discover this truth.

The performing arts need theology, they have the ability to be Holy, transcendent, but without theology without an understanding of God there is nothing worthwhile beyond the normal, nothing worthwhile beyond human experience to touch. The performing arts need something to connect people with, a dynamic and powerful truth. The study of ourselves is meaningless without the presence of our creator.

And theology needs performing arts; it needs the right words, the right space to connect to an audience, the right medium to share its truth. Jesus taught in parables but somewhere down the line we have forgotten this and we don’t seem to tell stories anymore, or at least the stories that really matter. Theology is the study of God and God’s primary concern seems to be people. Theology needs to reconnect with God’s people; it needs the means to create a transcendent moment so it can share the truth that it knows.So why theology and performing arts? Because not only do they share a number of interests but without theology performing arts is lifeless and without performing arts theology is being forgotten. Why theology and performing arts... because stories change lives!

- Ollie Ward


[1] See Richard Hasnip, The Mystery and the Passion (Milton Keynes: Authentic Media, 2009).

[2] Augusto Boal, Games for Actors and Non-Actors (London: Routledge, 2005) 11.

[3] Sanford Meisner and Dennis Longwell, Meisner on Acting (New York: Random House, 1987) 15.

[4] Aristotle, The Poetics (London: Penguin Classic, 1996).

[5] Peter Brook, The Empty Space (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) 42.

#church #performingarts #thepurposeoftheatre #theology #story

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