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:, 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)




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