Did Jesus do Holy Theatre?

In thinking about street based, or should I broaden this and say public theatrical performance, I’m drawn again to the remarkable theatrical performances of Jesus in the stage of the public arena. His audience wasn’t the gladiatorial amphitheatre, but it was the crowd from the boat, the crowd of the mountain, the baying crowd, the small group, the moment of conflict with religious leaders, or the individual. There is no sense that I’m saying that Jesus acted, in a hypocritical way, ie masked a real action (ie played a part whilst pretending to be another) but that the scenes we re told about we dramatically theatrical.

Imagine the scene of the frightened disciples, and Jesus stood on the tossing boat to calm the storm, imagine the moment ina crowd that a woman touched him, he stopped and initiated the commotion, the woman who was accused, he bent down and wrote, the man who asked how he could live, and Jesus told a story about the compassion of the mortal enemy. Pure drama, pure improvised theatre. In addition, Jesus made new things holy, bread, sheep, gates and doors, now carry metaphors of truth, Vanhoozer (following Barth) states how that sacraments act to remember the past and rehearse the future, in the present (Vanhoozer 2005:412) , but Jesus made these things newly dramatic, often in the public sphere, giving new meaning in the present to the objects, that had some reference to the past, and will now behold and rehearse a new reality.
Was it fully Improvisory? Did Jesus initiate these circumstances? Or at least did he initiate them anymore that putting himself in the situation where the moment of action had to happen. Yet there were equally times when his drama was set in his own private conversation with his Father, away from the public stage, away from the audience.
It is not clear whether Jesus was ‘theatrical’ at all, theres no reference to him attending public spectacles, as these may have been evident – though theres equally no evidence of Jesus endorsing other artistic works ( books, music etc) The stories he told, whilst having dramatic quality – were not acted out bodily, yet were acted out through the act of speech and verbal description, and possibly in a more dramatic way than the pulpit may do so nowadays. Yet there is one exception, to the criticism that Jesus remained true to his actions, and didnt put on a performance with which to deceive.  It occurs in Luke 24:28, back on the road to Emmaus- Jesus, we are told “acted as though he were going on” – it is one of the only occasions where Jesus, it could be argued, created a falsehood of intention, to prevent himself being revealed in this instance.  Did Jesus deliberately deceive them, or was that just the recollection/interpretation of the two disciples on the road?
Either way it caused them to beg him to stay with them.
Does Jesus deliberately act as though he’s about to leave right now? Maybe he does play at playing his own staged play of which we are part – playing the comic who acts to appear and disappear, for our own good to actively beg him to stay.
Its not just a physical enacted Drama that Jesus performed in the here and now, in his incarnation, but as Vanhoozer argues, as there is communicative activity, there is Drama within the Trinity, sharing the act of perfect communicative agency- for the Son, the Spirit and the Father – all most notably in Johns Gospel. As the Scottish Minister said “it is most true of the blessed trinity each of us is to the other a theatre large enough” (Vanhoozer 2014;76) Going on to say that the sendings/missions of the Spirit and the Son are the acting out of whats been going on in Gods triune life eternally. Jesus not only acts in the world incarnately, but enacts Trinitarianly.

Reclaiming the dramatic

‘The Incarnational quality is essential to a theatrical performance’ ( Johnson & Savidge 2009)

Over the last few weeks I have discussed the differences between Theatre and film, as an event (by the way i was quite numbed by the experience of watching Jurassic world at the cinema over the weekend), but in thinking about Theatre, it got me thinking about the comparisons between live theatre and live local church.

The following phrase from Performing the Sacred (2009) has framed some of my thinking in this discussion : “Furthermore, for both the church and the theatre, the text is the centre of their reason for existing. Everything these communities perform is rooted in a text that has life only when enacted”(p93)

In a bygone age, the difference between the performance of local church and theatre may have been small. Before the printing press, there was a clamour for the live action, the live story, the hearing of the live text, a connection with a text through the actions of those set to perform it, whether this was Romeo & Juliet (in the theatre) or Daniel and the lions den (in church).

The culturally relevant dramatic enactment of the text on the stage of the theatre still remains, whether it Shakespeare, Hardy or Hollywood. As people go to the theatre, yes they may be given a programme, but the narrative and story of the performance is transmitted so that the audience can connect, empathise, receive and invest in – sometimes cathartically. Without actors there is no performance, without stage there is no seperation, without scenery/costume and music there is no contextuality or drama, without text there would be chaos, or at least no framework with which to improvise from.  Yet the point being is that within the confines of 2-3 hours at the theatre, a story is told, we the audience are transported to a world, interested in people-as-actors, and are taken on a journey of the characters, the plot and the climax. As a difference to the world of sporting theatre, the action provides its own commentary, with sport the commentary provides the narrative of the players, the situation, the meaning.

A friend of mine has no interest in sport, I have alot of interest in sport- however if we both went to watch a football match without any knowledge of the meaning of the game ( league/cup/promotion/relegation) – any knowledge of the players, the venue, the history – it would just be an act of live sport, 22 people exercising within the confines of rules, pitch and time, could live sport leave you numb, if there is no connection to the meaning of the game and its narrative? albeit it might be that the audience could have more impact on the game ( hence home/away matches, and the players have more licence to improvise/make real time decisions see discussion here:  https://jamesballantyneyouthworker.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/church-as-rehearsal-space-for-improvised-theatrical-drama/, on the point of the story there is this difference.

Yet theatre is this respect is different, the action of the acting provides the story, the script has been worked on, re written, made contemporary, and it is then enacted.

So even though I might have a copy of a Midsummer nights dream on my bookshelf, even though i studied the text of the story at A Level (quite a few years ago) to see it enacted is to see it come alive. When i go to the theatre, i dont expect someone to read me the text, i want it performed. When i go a football match its to feel the live action & atmosphere, not someone to to read the action to me, or even read last weeks programme to me.

So, why does church feel less like an enacting of text, but a re-reading of the text?  What if the minister said, instead of telling the meaning of a text, but asked for “how well did you re-perform last weeks text during the week?” surely a moment of silence would follow, or ‘lets enact this now’ what would that look like? In Johnson and Savidge (2009) they bemoan the reduction in live amateur theatre during church, saying instead we transport the experts in via video screen (maybe ‘Youtube killed the amateur church drama star’), and the aspect of live – becomes the banal – watching a screen. again, something we can all do at home.

I asked via twitter this week – what do you think the difference is between church and theatre? – a youthworker i know responded with ” an artist friend went church, said the only way she could make any sense of it was as a really out-there piece of performance art” (thanks @daveRJClose) –

So if we can all read the text at home, what can church do to perform it live? make sundays dramatic? making it real? How is church less an explanation of the ancient text, but the re-enacting of lived performance of the text-in-context, whilst remembering that the lived performance is as worship to the author of text, creator of stage and director of the play, as singing also is. If church is inspire and exemplify good performance, surely it should allow for rehearsal time, time with the director, time to embody the script.

Also, if the narrative of the theatre is told via the actors in a theatre, and the commentators (outside the action) during sport- who narrates the story of the live action of church- and who should? When i take my son to the football, the players dont explain the rules, they play – i talk with him as the action unfolds – but could you take a visitor to a church, provide them with ‘commentary’ from a source they trust and do so without causing a scene?. Then meaning is given, but what story, what plot, what drama is the story of a church service seeking to enact, and how might the local performances of audience be part of the drama.

“Drama’s show rather than tell ( in contrast to stories) and are physically enacted in the first person and the second person, the language of personal interaction (You shall be holy as i am holy 1 Peter 3:16) , dramas are more suitable than narratives as they insert us into the action, and demand that we say or do something. Drama is the story made flesh.” (Vanhoozer 2014;252)



Poetic reflections from the streets

Last night one of the detached volunteers, after a session where we spend a good length of time in one space, with a couple of groups penned this as her reflection:

We walk into your space:
see if you’ll have us,
greet us, meet us,
as you are and as we are.
No swearing for eight year olds
OK for twelve year olds
I hate/ love/ (don’t) believe in God
we’re told, we all hold
onto words and dance moves
and pieces of laughter and
everything moves faster with your splits
and flips and swing dancing,
blue tongues, japenese phone makes
(I have problems with pronouncing things)
and conversations slipping into honesty
and love being offered
without some tick-box policy,
probably forgot all my theology
when I told you I’m out here
because I want to love you all
but that’s where it all started from,
just some longer words say less
than the non-thought out sentence
you spread out from me
-doesn’t have to be-
but here we speak naturally,
you are you, I am me

– with wind raging through us
and rain around our faces,
the rainbow in the sky, I said,
reminds me of God’s promises.
You remembered Noah’s ark, but for you
the rainbow is God’s smile,
an unhappy happy smile we laughed,
whilst wondering at the simplicity
of a child’s 7-coloured-arch,
actually a million colours live up there,
more than we can count, we need a child’s perceptivity
to appreciate the complex simplicity,
to identify the individual shades
like Durham indigo and Top estate grace green.

You, gracefully, welcomed us
into your space,
share your stories, share in faith,
we whisper, watch and run and wait and pray,
a privilege to share some of your day.

Written late after a detached session by Claire Ewbank. You can see more of Claires artist work on her website http://claireewbank.wix.com/create

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