Why is The Greatest Showman is providing joy to young people?

Whisper it quietly, there is a new ‘youth obsession taking over’ , as every week since Boxing Day, 1,000’s of young people in the UK  have been hearing a story of hope, of life, of inclusion, dance and controversy. No they haven’t been attending churches, or signing up to ‘old labour’ , it is not a superhero film, or Pixars latest, no, many young people in the UK are in the throngs of a ‘Greatest Showman’ obsession. More young people (i think) saw this film on its opening night, than go to church in the UK – probably.

Maybe it is the ‘High School Musical’ Generation finding its feet again with a new outlet, that was satisfied with repeats of Glee for a few years, maybe its that the film has managed to pitch itself delicately in the middle ground, so that fans of Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron go home happy,Related image

maybe as a film it has developed its own rise above the ashes and beaten back where critics ahead of its release were casting doubt on its success. What i do know is that for the first time a film has gone back to the No1 in the ratings (we 9/2/18), in its 6th week of release, something unheard of. What is also known is that the soundtrack has been nominated for awards, but also downloaded and streamed in its millions. And the sing a long showings have sold out.

 

 

Image result for the greatest showman

So – What is it?

What about The Greatest Showman that has thrilled and delighted. It has (and I have seen it) many redeeming charming features, yet at the same time, where critics have labelled it as fake or hollow , because in an age of authenticity i guess, we have become used to the failings of lead men trying to sing ( Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, or Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman (again) singing in Les Miserables (2012)), and be authentic in doing so – The Greatest Showman is instead slick, and gives off much more a whiff of a series of music videos. So it is not that it is in any way authentic that gives reason for young people to be attracted to or love it so much. It isnt as real, and that, actually hasnt mattered.

Image result for lines from the greatest showman

For all its fake-ness, it doesn’t lack charm. But also doesn’t lack edge. The flawed genius making something against better odds or judgement (or his wifes permission), who used the weird and wonderful in humanity to initially be pawns in his business, yet through the opportunity find themselves strong together, and with abilities able to delight and provoke reactions in an audience. The class war that ensues pits the view of art from the upper class against the lower class, yet those who perform for the bourgeoisie are shown to be more needy, fake and hollow, that the genuine band of ‘freaks’ clumsily assembled in PT Barnums Theatre.

At this point the line, made by PT Barnum to the theatre owner up the road is key; ‘You sell virtue to the burgoise, whilst we provide joy to the poor‘ was a particularly apt one, and one not as popular in the craze of turning movie quotes into pictures (see above, left).  And, for young people, joy is what they find in the greatest showman itself. It is unabashed, it is loud, proud and confident. (NB what is it churches offer…? )

It would be sniffy and patronising to say that young peoples attraction to this movie is because it a popcorn veneer of real life, an escape of caleidoscope images and sounds, and Zac Efron. This misses the point. It misses the point because young people are cleverer and smarter than this, yes even those who have seen The Greatest Showman 8 times. For what it is is as much as story of inclusion, of hope and fulfilling dreams, that many many young people are not finding elsewhere.

It would be easy to rail off where young people have lost hope in the world today, The Greatest showman isnt just an escape, it is a place of hopes, of dreams, and where many people who had been written off for their ‘weirdness’ found a space to dream, be united and redeem their weirdness into abilities and dance in the faces of those who scorned them.

The Greatest Showman is a story of liberation, it encapsulates some of Augusto Boals Theatre of the Oppressed and challenges the order, masks, and hypocrisy that entertainment and theatre became. In the current climate, it gives hope to the young person seeking to develop their own music ability (but told repeatedly that it wont amount to much), it gives hope to the young person afraid of what people think of them, that it isnt just the establishment that dictates the dream. It is a story about the risk taking required to cause something to happen, the imagination that goes against comfort, risk taking that is sometimes misguided. Image result for lines from the greatest showman

It is a story of inclusion, in an era where young people, who are growing up more inclusive than ever before, where those who are lost are included, where it is more than just the one talented person who gets to stand on the stage, but the many, the downtrodden and those who dont fit. And more and more, young people are not able to fit, not fitting for many reasons, through being misunderstood, maligned, politically, sexually, socially or spiritually.

The Greatest showman has given young people the opportunity to sing ‘This is me’ and be defiant, be confident and be brave and so it might be the song of the young person is more sure of who they are, rather than the questioning song of culture that wants young people to be afraid of themselves and sing instead ‘Is this me?’.

Is there something about Theatre, about Joy, about Community and about inclusion that The Greatest Showman that is delighting and encapsulating the imagination and dream of young people across the UK and beyond, yes. Might this be something that in youth work & ministry and the church that is reflected on? – this is not just a craze for young people, it is a revelation of what kind of community and world that they might just be hoping and dreaming for.

This is from the BBC, in its 11th week, TGS is still very popular! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-43385034

Advertisements

Learning to improvise within Christian Youth work & Ministry.

One of the Key stereotypes of a youth worker is their underpreparedness. Turning up late for meetings, with no notes. Planning the youth group on the way there in the car, so that no one knows whats going on.  In the following video, there are a number of youth worker stereotypes, the ‘tardy’ youth worker is often the one that most people relate to.

On a good day the youthworker might be able to ‘get away with it’ and there are those who view this kind of approach as one that involves ‘where the Spirit leads’ – however, you dont need me to say quite how many issues there are with this. Yet, the stereotype exists because its still common. What an under-prepared youthworker might say is that they are improvising within their practice. I completely disagree. It is not improvisation to hope something happens just because you turn up into the space. Thats almost just lazy. Under-preparedness might lead to a form of spontaneity, but it does improvisation a disservice.

In thinking about Improvising in youth work & ministry, and its something I have written on before,

this post explores the churchs future as one that requires it: http://wp.me/p2Az40-B3 ,

and the following post talked about making the transition from scripted and programmed to improvised youthwork , and how this occurred for me in a personal way.

What I havent explored further is the notion of what improvisation is, what it isnt, and how this is helpful in developing work with young people. especially as it is something that it might be worth taking a short detour into the world of theatre, for this is obviously where Improvisation comes from. The following I am going to look at improvisation and what it reveals to think of it theatrically,theologically and sociologically, hopefully it will be of insight to you in youth ministry and working with young people. Some of this is from my dissertation which explored this theme in more detail, at least it looked at Performance as a metaphor for Youth Ministry.

Theatrical Improvisation

Theatrical improvisation recognises that maintained within every live performance, the actor is completely free in how they perform. For, despite knowledge of the script, directing by the actor and awareness of their cues of others- they can put the entire performance, from Shakespeare to Mamma Mia! in jeopardy should they in full freedom ignore all of these, make a rude gesture and storm off. Or if they do not make the proper preparations. And this is in a relatively tight performance – the actor will have cues from other actors, music cues, stage and lighting ones. They would need to be obedient to the director, and also raise their performance to accomodate the live audience.  Even with all of these, they are still free. Free that is within a relationship between themselves, the script and the director. One that they to maintain a performance adhere within, normally.

Jerzy Grotowski, amongst others, re-develops the notion of a poor theatre, not unlike the original interactive and community theatres. Saying that in a stripped back existance, theatre is just about an encounter between persons. He makes the claim that putting actors onto a stage with a scenario they have created, then their performance will be as good¹.  What Grotowski argues for is the development of skills for the actor so that they are able to improvise within this kind of open space of the stage. He uses the picture of the sculpture and the block of stone, saying that the rock already contains which is needed, it just need to be shaped. Rather than the artist and the empty easel. What improvisation is about is the revelation of the person within the situation. The real self. The actor in this type of ‘poor’ theatre who undergoes the processes of self discipline, sacrifice presentation and moulding throughout the improvisation process, and not afraid to take risks, attains a kind of moral authority and inner harmony and peace of mind, as opposed to the ‘rich’ theatre actor who maintains working through pretence.

For Augusto Boal “Improvisation is life” ², and though he does not reference Grotowski, he describes the interactive theatre as a space for the oppressed to protest, provoke and picture a new way of being. And suggests that there are series of games that can be played to enhance the skills of the actors as they improvise. He also recognises that interactive theatre breaks down the walls between stage and audience, all are potential performers, restricted only by personal choice, not social convention. (2008 edition , p111)

To improvise on the stage, there must still be a story, however it is created. Some kind of source material. And the persons involved must have some knowledge of it. The Audience may participate when they understand enough to also participate. If they have no idea of how to contribute, they remain passive. Often this is the young people bewildered by not knowing what is going on.

Theological Improvisation

As you might know (if youve been a follower of this blog for a while) the links between Theatre and Theology have become common, and a number of references to this are below. Both Samuel Wells, Wesley Van der Lugt and Kevin Vanhoozer make references to Improvisation in regard to the ongoing performance of Theology in the everyday. For Wells, Improvisation means to be on a continual process of accepting or rejecting the offers that are made by others within each interaction. For Vanhoozer, improvisation is what the church needs to do to be faithfully different and respond in each context. On an individual basis, to improvise is to use the cues and prompts in each context and faithfully act performances that are fitting to the context and the overall story of the Theodrama – that is the narrative of the Bible in 5 dramatic acts. These cues, include the  knowledge of God, the theodrama itself, the trinity, mission and ecclesiology – as well as the in the moment speaking and prompting of God – all given to the Human person in complete freedom to be obedient to the many cues. But what is also required is knowledge of the context, creation of a suitable stage/place in which audience participation is likely because trust is given.

Sociological Improvisation

Erving Goffman³, in thinking about persons in their interactions as akin to Theatre suggested that in the presentation of ones self in situations that ‘persons act better than they know how’ – that people because they have complexity have the capacity to act into a situation even if they have no knowledge of being in the same situation. Improvisation is possible, and needed. What is interesting about all of this, is that in 1967, youthworkers were saying something similar. For what George Goetchius and Joan Tash discovered is that they had to develop strategies of working with young people from the point of interaction, they improvised youthwork within the conversation. And so, this brings again to the fore the skill of the youthworker, to be aware of possibilities, questions, space and for the environment to be created in which, in interactions improvisation occurs.Image result for improvisation

No doubt it necessitates great skill to be able to improvise in the moment – but this is possible if in the space there is capacity for genuine conversations. Wesley Van der Lugt uses the term ‘Disponibility’, it means to be formed at the same time as performance, its not too dissimilar to ‘experiential learning’, and be attentive and ready in each moment to receive new information to make an action. It is a call to be ‘fresh’ in every situation. But it means that in the moment of improvisational acting that learning is occurring through the process. We might in youthwork say that we are disponible in the moments of interactions as we learn ‘in action’ reflection and act accordingly, but beyond this, in faith we might also act guided by a faith story that might be constructive, provocative and challenging as it suggest not just reactionary responses but ones that challenge societal status quo and other stories, and help young people become participants in a whole other drama, one of the way and movement of Jesus.

In the example above, in the clip, it all looks hurried as the teaching style is one of formality, one unrecognisable to the maybe more conversational/open style of many youth clubs, in that situation being unprepared is shown at its worst. Though an open session still needs preparation, maybe theres a theme, or opinions to be sought, maybe there’s something put in the environment to draw attention, a picture, notice or artwork. Items in the scene can affect the performance, as they act as stimulus for the improvisation, might as well make the most of them.

So, improvising in youth work and ministry – its distinctly better than under preparedness. It involves being formed to hone in on the cues and being obedient in the midst of the interaction, to ask questions, take risks and explore with young people in the space. Being courageous to go to a new place where they might lead in conversation to where neither have been before. The young people become the key actors in the scene we may have created, and we take a step back to watch and learn, listen and guide them to be attentive to the same cues.

There may be some offers we reject, some we accept, it depends on what kind of performance each session of improvised youth work might take. We need to be skilled and prepared to improvise, being led by young people, directed by the Spirit and the Story and free to be obedient to the voices of God prompting in the midst.

Instead of under-preparedness, an improvising youth worker might need the following ‘skills’ in the toolkit for performing youth work in this way.

  1. Creating the right kind of space – think like jazz- a space where young people can ‘riff’ themselves in conversations, and where interjections by us are acceptable
  2. Having a bank of questions, and tools for conversations, that allow for tangents and flow
  3. Being able to pick up cues, being discerning, and aware than there are competing motives.
  4. Have thought ahead to creating possibilities that questions often ask of young people – so if we ask ‘if 4 of you were in a group to do something to change the local area’  its worth thinking ahead with a ‘bank’ of resources that might help the process, or space for young people to lead it,  resources that may or may not be needed. Its like having a full picnic of goodies, but not necessarily needing them all.
  5. It is building the discernment to be able to accommodate offers of young peoples interruptions into the overall ‘play’ (of Gods redemption and reconciliation- not just ‘this youth group’) – and having the skill to be accommodating and use it as a marker along the way. This takes skill. Not every interruption by a young person is meant to be disruptive, often its a misguided cue of someone who might want to join in the action. Think audience to actor.
  6. Trust in conversation – but as informal educators we should know this already – believe that young people are shapes fully created that need moulding, not empty vessels to be filled.
  7. Go to each conversation fresh with possibility, each moment with a young person has meaning, and life.

As Vander Lugt affirms, Improvisation is a culture making endeavour, culture making is an ongoing process of implicit and explicit actions, of crafting and enacting a script for the drama of existence, it is what we all participate in in daily life. We create culture with the space of youth work, in every interaction, session and moment, and this requires us to be disponible, and ready to improvise.

References

¹Grotowski, Jerzy, Towards a poor Theatre, 1968

²Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed, 1974

³Goffman, Erving, The presentation of the self in everyday life, 1970

George Goetchius, Joan Tash ; Working with the unnttached youth; 1967.

Wesley Van der Lugt – Living Theodrama, 2014,

Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Samuel Wells Improvisation , 2004

8 Reasons for youthworkers to watch La La Land

This blog will inevitably contain spoilers! You have been warned, so if you are heading to go and see La La Land, look away now. However, if you want to know why you should go and see it, and dont mind hearing a little about what its about then read on.

This week, as a bit of a celebration for getting a part of my dissertation completed I went out on a 2 for 1 deal at the local cinema to watch the multi oscar nominated La La Land. Outside of a High school musical (3) it was the only the second musical I have seen at the cinema, having been to see Evita in 1996/7… (hmm) Anyway, La La Land it was, and it served up a distraction of colour, vibrancy and music compared to the events in the world right now. But here are 8 reasons why youth workers should go and see this film.

  1.  Because evLa La Land (2016) Posterery now and then go and see something that might be different, a change from the normal might provoke something, an emotion, a reflection – Musicals probably wouldn’t have been my thing up until recently, then probably undergoing many many repeats of High School musical and Disney films with my daughter, then the films with music like School of Rock, Rock of Ages, Les Mis, and the magnificent Sing Street (sadly overlooked at the Oscars) , musical films have become family favourites, and personally something uplifting, poetic and yes emotional. That’s not a bad thing. Doing something a bit different is good for us. Shakes us up a bit.
  2. La La Land isnt meant to have Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers as lead roles, but two ‘ordinary actors’ uplifting themselves to these parts, as if ‘normal’ people being enveloped by song, and dance, they arent meant to be perfect in every routine, and this is refreshing its a reminder to us in the roles that we have with young people. They take what they have and work and practice and develop their skills and gifts.
  3. La La Land required months of rehearsals, but theres a number of ‘one take’ scenes. Youthwork is like this, in the present moment there might be only one opportunity to ask the right question, do the creative thing, in effect perform, but that ongoing reflections and rehearsals are important for the active live moments.
  4. At the heart of La La Land is a story about Jazz, about improvisation and so its only appropriate that there were some long ‘takes’ which had the freedom of the actors acting with the music and the scene. Improvisation is part of being a youthworker, it is part of theology, as Benson says: ‘in the beginning, there was improvisation’, we need to reflect on reacting and hearing the music from the context we are in, on responding to the cue of God in the midst, of improvising from being prepared. To offer into the space our piece, and to receive from others. (Wells, S, 2005)
  5. ‘The reason you can’t be a radical, is that you’re too much of a traditionalist’ was a line from one musician to another in the film.  When it comes to enabling young people to be radical and take risks – how radical are we going to let them? What traditions of our own practice, heritage, faith, culture might cause us not to take radical steps in youth work ?   Do we hold on the beautiful things and miss the heartbeat of a new walk, a new tone, a new colour.
  6. It was a story about creating music, about creating theatre, about performing and sharing creativity and not always worrying about who will see it, but doing it because it is a vocation, our youth work practice is an art, unpredictable creativity a performance of our vocation. How might we help young people develop their creativity or have space to play their 8 bars in the jazz performances of youth groups.
  7. It had all the hall marks of an old film, the dance numbers, the technicolour, the music – the story in itself was not revolutionary or modern, but it connected because it was played authentically, the characters weren’t flawless, or perfect, but real. Their relationship wasn’t Hollywood, but had ebbs and flows, their career choices weren’t without disagreement, they had stony silences over the dinner table. It evoked something authentic about real life. Something old wasn’t made relevant, it was made authentic. As youth workers, the faith story we help young people navigate within is to be made authentic through us.
  8. Just watch it, it was good enough without it being all these things as well. Take a night off being stupidly busy, get yourself some decent food and have a night to yourself.

Apologies for the spoilers and for anyone who knows far more about theatre and Jazz than i do, there was much that resonated with me in it, is it deserving of the oscar nominations, hmm not sure about that one, definitely some very good performances in its, and it was a positive, bright distraction – but hey this isnt a movie review blog…

 

Life in the scenes – not just in the journey.

A couple of articles have prompted this reflection. The first one is here, a slightly typical Guardian article posted at the end of the Olympics and the start of the football season. It highlighted that the Olympics, and most sports apart from Football, and probably Cricket and Golf; there is the need for the Sport to educate, to reflect for us, the audience to be inspired by the journey of the athlete, for the athlete, usually still dripping with sweat to tell us their story;

“These days, fewer and fewer sporting moments are permitted not to be a learning experience, as though enjoying them purely sportingly, and for their own sake, would be a waste of time or a lesser experience. There must be hugging. There must be learning. Post‑event interviewers are always effectively asking the person who has provided the sporting moment what we’ve learned from it. We get the long view while the athlete is still out of breath.”

The need for the Olympian to be narrated into having a journey- or a back story- has become a priority for the broadcaster, the sport might not sell otherwise- unless it can be a personal narration. Life is a Journey- and individual sports – and even individual athletes in team sports ( like the womens hockey for example) are key to drawing us into that journey.

Did the phenomenon start with Big Brother? – In the broader sense of ‘Reality TV’ the journey of the individual became/is the story. Every Big Brother contestant was asked to reflect on their Journey, every X factor contestant gets asked the same. And if they dont get asked – then they’re told “what an amazing/incredible” journey theyve been on, by the presenter. Are we still interested about what people bake on bake off, or sew in the sewing bee – as much as their back story?

Life has to be a journey doesnt it.

Has to be ‘moving forward’ – has to be ongoing progression – and whilst there is always growth – is Journey always an appropriate way of thinking about life?

The second article i cant find, i did read it, it is somewhere on the excellent Threads website (www.threadsuk.com) and posed the question: ‘Whats wrong with thinking about life as a Journey?’ A race of sorts with a beginning, a middle and an end. Does Journey – do life a disservice?

Is it not easy then to think of speed when thinking of journey – of life ‘in a slow lane’ – or feeling like ‘life is passing you by’ – If we consider life to be a journey – then it would be easy to use the analogy to make those comparisons of others, and then naturally ourselves. What if we become motionless or stuck, or struck down by illness- how does this metaphor measure up? and does it promote winning and participating?

Maybe as Christians- we have the apostle Paul to thank – when on a number of occasions he uses the word ‘race’ as a metaphor for the Christian life –

You were running a good race. – Galatians 5:7,

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race- 2 Timothy 4:7

The Christian life as a race, as a physical movement, a Journey. Maybe this had something to do with the culture of the day, the pastimes of sport, of olympia, of shows of strength in battle, of winning, of achieving:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. – 1 Corinthians 9:24.

Image result for life as a race

Achievement does play its part, as rewards in heaven are described. But what does the grand race of life consist of? And the predominant narrative – via the media, and often becoming of the church, of life as a Journey, is it fitting for the purpose of conceiving our place in the world, our place as humans in discipleship, in relationship with God or is there a different way?  Where is God in ‘our’ journey? in ‘our’ race?

In the beginning of existence a voice acted upon the empty space, a word broke the silence, a universe created ; the world dawned. The stage was set for the action to occur.

To be or not to be is not the question, it is not our choice. We are “thrown into existence” (Heidegger) We are Here on stage with many others (Vanhoozer, 2005). We need guidance to play parts, prompting as we grope for the next lines, being cast into a context to play a particular scene. But we are on the stage, principally actors with scenes to play.

Instead of the Journey – what of the scene?

For Shakespeare: “When we are born, we cry that we are come, To this great stage of fools” (King Lear)

It is difficult to conceive of every moment in life as part of a journey – but they are scenes in and of themselves, a scene in the home when washing up, a scene in a lift with business colleagues, a scene in the supermarket, a scene at Church, a scene in the youth club. Not only are we thrust into the scenes of the place, but we play alongside others too, in that same scene. Taking cues from the moments, combining them with our memories of actions, our emotions of actions, the voices, values and attitudes. Scenes that we thrust ourselves into, scenes that others are thrusted into by surprise – like the new person at the checkout, the visitor at the door.

But in the scene also contains the voice of God – known or unknown – prompting the action – God incarnate on the stage (John 1:14) drawing us into the action,  The God who speaks in the Earthly space (Exodus 3:12-20), who prompts the action with Humanity (Genesis 18: 22-33), and who cues the action, and knowledge of action by the Spirit (Luke 4). These are scenes already enacted, yet it remains a relational drama that is played out – between the divine and the human.

In a way, it is less of our Drama that we continue to play as Christians, but Gods Drama – a Theodrama. This, it could be argued, is somewhat more of a conversational construct – than to see life as our Journey that we choose to involve God in- or that he is the destination. Does the Journey represent a monologue where we take the reigns – and Drama an ongoing conversational dialogue? (Vander Lugt, 2014) – I suppose it depends on who does the speaking and listening as the ongoing scenes are enacted. But collective drama, that involves God in the ongoing scenes that we are thrust into during our every day, every 10,000 scenes of every day are part of on overall Theo drama.

Being on a Journey – and Pilgrim and his Progress, the Chronicles of Narnia all narrate the importance of the journey – or at least they might do – but the journey would be nothing without the scenes. Not every day feels like a journey – but today , tomorrow and the next we are thrust into action upon the stage of the world – in Gods ongoing drama, and how do and should we play our parts?

 

If the church’s days are numbered, is its future Outnumbered?

Outnumbered was a ground breaking BBC family orientated Sitcom. Its contemporaries were the then starting to date ‘2 point 4 Children’, which like many sitcoms, relied heavily on scripted, rehearsed dialogue. Outnumbered was different. It gave space for the children to act, and perform, and everyone else in the scene reacted to the moments of improvisation by the children. Yes themes were set, yes the scenes were created, like being in an airport, or talking about sex around the dinner table, or school, or talking about old age when Grandad starts to be ill. Not only did it give space for children, and the young people who played them ( who were near teenagers) , space to be creative, it also meant that the other actors, albeit in the role they were playing, had to improvise in accordance with their character, their role and the overall plotline – which was known.  Even if each episode had a beginning and an end, or a theme, and a direction, especially in regard to time scales. Many scenes were of people being given the space to improvise.

The writers use improvisation in order to achieve convincing performances from the child actors. Dennis commented: “In most sitcoms all the lines for children are written by adults. So they are speaking the words of people 30 years older. And you really want kids to have their own voices, and say their own things.”[2] Jenkin (Producer) added:

You rarely get the feeling that children in sitcoms are real. They tend to be the same type of character – the smartarse who says adult things – and they are rooted to the spot, staring at the camera, because they’ve been told to stand in one place and say the lines. We decided to attempt to do something that hadn’t been tried before, bounced some ideas around and we got very keen on this idea of involving improvisation very quickly.[11]

Details of which are Here

Church, says Healy is in the form of a “Never ending experiment” ( Nicholas Healy, 2001)

“Be Imitators of me, as I am of Christ , Says Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:1)

“Local Theology is a matter of congregational improvisation, in which the people act “naturally” as benefits of the City of God as they play out new scenes of the one continuing Theodrama” (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2005, 456)

Not a week goes by without a conversation on social media about the numbered days of the church, i wrote about it last week, after the Guardian presented 6 flourishing congregations in their articles. The secularisation debate goes on, and relative small scale samplings of congregations have been asserted as indicators of secularisation, and a church deemed in decline. However, the title of this blog, is ‘If the church’s days are numbered..’  Becuase in some places, as the Guardian article testifies, and especially larger churches in suburbia might also lay claim to, their days dont seem numbered when they amass audiences for their local productions. Especially in University Towns and cities where a residual faith of successful evangelical Christians survives – like Durham & York.

In reality,I dont think it matters too much about whether the church’s days are numbered or not, at least not for the sake of the future turn of the church in the space of the world. 

What has been noticeable, in all of the new initaitives, in the Guardian Article, and also the rise of the Fresh Expression movement, is that new spaces of church are being created. From Cafe Church to Messy Church, Alpha, Youth Church, and House groups. The question I have is to what extent are these expressions attractional for the not already involved in the church, or just another expression for the same christians to find somewhere else to go. And in regard to the opening question, if there are spaces that are opened up for faith, and exploring faith with new explorers, how much of that space is open for community exploring.

I wonder if the underlying process of any space creating form of church is to consider itself as an interactive, nee street theatre approach. Often some of these new expressions are just the same method and format in a different space, a different space with a new title. For After school activity club, read Messy Church. For youth group, see Cafe church. Street Theatre has a different approach:

The Members of the street theatre group go to the people bearing the gift of theatre with them, and despite their undisguised political intentions and the difficult and trying conditions under which they work, their shows are entertaining, instructive and unpretentious. They induce the formal distance between performer and audience. Their style is polyglot – dance, song, grotesques, straight dialogue, spicy asides. Nearly every tool in the actors repertory is employed. The cutting edge is sharp ( Gunawardana, 1992)

In the interactive theatre, the overall destination is known, but the process of getting there are guided by principles of collective creation. A step further than Outnumbered perhaps, but that, not unlike the church, starts from a culture of tightly scripted performances, programmes and high regard for control. Though the church isnt making TV shows, and what is at stake if the service, the group, the messy church, is actually messy. Critically – where is God in the space?  in the conversations & the pre programmed – in the art of the process or the fulfilment of activity?

What if the church in its mission, went about creating open spaces of community, call them what they are collectively called, and trusted in the gifts of the actors, and the exploring of the guests. Maybe the challenges of the local church arent the same as those who ply the art of street theatre, ie the political and trying situations, does the gravitational pull of the church to programmes, to ‘leader-led’ to conference style, and more specifically to ‘fill the space’ mean that the street theatre actors find the scenario as trying. It is a political movement, political as it might challenge these status quos. challenge a ministry mentality, a leader mentality. Yet – interactive street theatre amongst the forgotten communities of the UK is probably the sure finest way of enabling faith exploration to begin. Everything else is inviting people to spectate the same performances.

Opening the spaces trusts in the skills of the actors, and the humanity of the guests. In the interactive theatre of the Gospel all are performers, not just as in outnumbered or in the once a year youth service, the children, but not only children who are prepared and part of the culture, but all are invited guests to perform. The challenge is to be amongst people to create those spaces, let the Theatre of the Gospel, and the performances of improvised, interactive churches begin.

What if church really is the ‘Theatre of the Gospel’ ?

” The Church is a theatre of the Gospel in a double sense; the space designed for the performance of plays (place) and the lived presentation of dramatic action (people)…. The Mission of the local church is to constitute itself as a theatre of the gospel, walking the way of Jesus Christ across the stage of the world” (Vanhoozer 2014; 170, 172)

So what you might say, well, what if this was actually true – what would it mean if Church was the Theatre of the Gospel? We would have to ask what kind of theatre – and what kind of Gospel?  – and then – what kind of church.

Church is big conversation at the moment, theres every incarnation of church from Messy church, cafe church, youth church. Mission was the big conversation before church became the big conversation. But Where is God & the gospel in either conversation?  What of the relation between God and the world, and the purpose of the church in the world in that relationship? Without leaping too far – but if the purpose of the church (and i mean church in the thin space of people) was about being local performances of the Gospel- might that change the questions and the conversations?

This might be the first of a series of reflections over the next few weeks, focussing on Church as the Theatre of the Gospel, and what that might mean for aspects of church such as working with young people, mission, new church expressions, and being individual & collective performer. As it might be that by thinking about the church in this way there is the grasping hold of something more profound about the world, the church’s involvement in it, and improvising performances of a theatrical gospel church.

Though first its worth thinking about the first questions- what kind of theatre? , and what kind of Gospel?

Theatre, not unlike the church, occurs in particular spaces, it is more concrete than abstract.  It is uniquely only ever one presentation, one performance at one time, it is bound to its locality – yet every local performance represents something of the universal. The Space of the theatre, and the church only becomes dramatic when what is acted takes place, it is otherwise space, and not place.

For Augusto Boal, redemptive theatre is a space of equal performances, where the wall between audience and actor, between reality and mask are diffused in one collective performance, that redeems all to the role of ongoing actor.  (See Boals Theatre of the Oppressed)

“The Church is local in that whenever the community gathers it does so to demonstrate in its embodied life a particular way of being in the world.. the church is the place where scenes (parables) of the kingdom are enacted” (Vanhoozer 2014)

Local performance of the Gospel ( as church) enact the subversion of the parables, as Ricouer suggests, the over-abundance of God in the beatitudes, and the fruitfulness & faithfulness of the Spirit – in Christ. To be Eutopia in the place between the scenes of Act 4 (Now) and the coming Act 5 (not yet).

The Gospel that the church is charged with performing as it enacts the parables, as it communicates to culture (prophetic) as it speaks truth in love, calling for justice, forgiving rather than judging and creating a place for undistorted communication by lifting up every voice.

If Church is the theatre of the Gospel, then as well as prophetic, it is also practical, it is tangible and real. It is reactionary, interactive and improvisatory. It is active and lived.  It is enacted with God acting along with the church as part of Gods world. Mission might be to bring more of God into the action where the world hasnt realised him yet. Yet as Church which might gather to rehearse, it is also the process and the goal of the drama.

If the stage of the world is the space where the church performs, then the role of the church, as people is to follow the way, follow the shepherd, follow the cloud in the sky that liberated the Israelites. One more step into the future.

The Church is a showcase neither for moralism nor for civic religion, much less for technology or for individual personalities, but a theatre of the strange new world of the gospel- a theatre not of ethics or entertainment, but of edification and eschatology” (Vanhoozer 2005)

What might Church as Theatre of the Gospel mean for new expressions of Church i wonder, or for working with young people, for mission, for the organisations also acting theatrically as part of the world – what kind of performances might ‘para-church’ be?

What does thinking about church as theatre of the Gospel mean for church as we know it as it is now. Does Church as theatre open up the need for performances in front of live audiences, where many can become part of the action, interacting live.

Might performances that enact the Gospel include less adulation of Christ, and more enactments of Christs way in the world- Justice, love, mercy and Hope for all. I wonder.

 

 

January journal 1; first week back

It’s a bit of a late one this; Saturdays blog is written and its one that im a bit nervous of. Sometimes thats the adrenaline of writing and sharing thoughts, waiting for reactions or feedback. Thats what the world is now isnt it, a lengthy diatribe of opinion and im as much in that world. Anyway this week is nearly ended, first week back at work,  first week of the year, first week trying to write a blog every day.
It’s definitely been a good discipline so far. I’ve probably not been at my most articulate best,  but put that down to post Christmas alcohol.
Ive confessed before that I’m not much of a film person, but this week ive watched 4 movies;  the blind side,  skyfall, alien and Amy. A bit of a mix. Some tragic, inspiring and very different genres at some of their best. I went to the sporting theatre of the riverside stadium last saturday , took the boy to the boro match. 81 minutes of tense dramatic visual action, then 2 goals, delirium, relief, and a spectacle of celebration between team and audience. Unpredictable theatre.

I managed 3 days of study,  planning a presentation on the subject of youth ministry management in churches. It keeps growing arms and legs as I consider power, roles, identity and the methodology of the theological reflection. However studying, reading and thinking is just wonderful,  a space where I feel alive.
Not so good was our old house not enjoying being rained on for a few days, the old girl might need serious roof repair, just hope theres no more heavy rain for a while, count my blessings though as many have had more serious problems with actual flooding this week, especially in my former city of Perth. 
Next week detached starts again, itll be great to be out in the streets chatting to young people, it feels like it’s been a while with the Christmas break.  Ive caught up with a few Nomad podcasts this week on my commutes, theyve been challenging and also a good reflection on my reading on emerging church for my other module. I can’t sometimes keep up with the thoughts in my head and I suppose thats why im wide awake now. A late coffee, choc chip panetone slice and watching ‘Amy’ and realising that the world of opinion, speculation and invasion has victims, victims where there is no escape. Amy Winehouse, tragedy. Yet my mind is awake. So this week ive kept up with some of my promises.  Next week ill get out in the bike. No I will. I must. Ill let you know in a week…

A night with Milton Jones, and reflection on interactive Theodrama

Last Friday night as a very late Birthday present (my birthday was in March) I went to see Milton Jones at Middlesbrough Town Hall on his Temple of daft tour. The first time I have been to see live comedy. The first time I have been so close to the front of a live show (fourth row) and in the middle,  the first time I have got to my seat with some trepidation, thinking that the likelihood of being picked on by the performer.

Fortunately I escaped, the people that returned from the interval late, weren’t so lucky.

However, what struck me, and the reflection I have of the evening takes me back to my thinking about Theatre, performance and the ongoing stage enlargement of the redemptive gospel.  But first I contrast this performance with a musical I saw only 8 weeks ago, at Edinburgh Playhouse. It was a performance of ‘The Bodyguard’ which I bought tickets for my wife Lynn, as part of her Birthday.

This isn’t the space to critique the show, its performance, style, music. But the role of the audience was minimal, and the role of the stewards, was to inhibit the involvement of the audience in the process of interrupting the live performance, maybe rightly so. Aside from the ‘sing along’ of a dance tune at the end- where incidently no men participated, sitting mostly uncomfortably as their partners danced to cover versions of Witney ( well what did i expect>!)  , the audience participation was as staged and controlled as the performance itself.

Thats not to say it wasnt real, a distinct performance, in the present tense. But the actions of the audience, especially after alcohol were somewhat more dramatic.

Fast forward to last friday. A night of live comedy, a night where the vastly talented Milton Jones’s script was interjected and interupted by the audience, and actively done so, even encouraged at times. It was a managed collaborative comedy night, where lack of laughter, pauses, and contributions were reacted to. A night where a script was changed to be made contextual (yes there were gags about Hartlepool & Newcastle), a night where reactions to the contextual were acted upon.

And yet the drama of being present was that at any moment there was a possibility that to stand out in the crowd would invoke a response, so, mobiles off, and blend in. But that doesn’t mean that the audience wasn’t involved, shaping the performance, adjusting the script and direction, and causing new actions and improvisation.

So, the question is, how is does the role of the audience affect the ongoing script of the church in its performance? are there times when ‘the show goes on regardless’ , like a tightly performed musical, or where audience involvement in local theatre production is actively sought and encouraged?

To dance the tune of improvised mission, and improvised church in community surely the scripts should act as openings for audience and community participation, and the community beyond the walls.  As Vanhoozer suggests; “The Missionary (as opposed to the crusading) task of the church- the discipling of the nations, playing Christ’s in ten thousand places- is essentially a matter of interactive Theatre” (italics mine). (Vanhoozer 2014: 183)

Let just hope that it can be comedic, creative and life giving.

 

Theatrical Conversations on the streets

“Each conversation is like a small piece of theatre, and within it we acquire a role” (Wardhaugh 1985)

“Theatre happens when someone offers something- word or deed-to another” (Vanhoozer, 2010:43)

I have a small confession to make; over the last 3-4 years i have developed a routine when I train detached youthworkers, volunteers or students even, when it comes to thinking about detached youthwork, especially the aspect of Cold Contact – or the conversation between the detached worker and the group of young people.  In developing the training since starting thinking about detached with the Sidewalk project in Perth in 2007 and the first training session, right through to training a group of volunteers in Byker the other week, I have tended to think slightly scientifically or deconstructively about those conversational moments, and thus I have encouraged discussion on;

The feelings, surroundings and first impressions

The first sentence – what do you say?

All the broken down aspects of a conversation, which we often take for granted, both verbal and non-verbal cues

Different ways of responding to questions, and what those questions may be

Tone, Humour, asking questions

Listening, Empathising and Values

As I’ve thought about the above quotation from Wardheugh, I’ve been challenged to think about whether I have had a tendency to de construct or scientificise natural conversations – and in so doing inhibit the pure theatre of improvised conversations.

Within each conversation – Smith goes on to describe we do embody an acting role. Its often the perceived leaders who make the first moves. Yet roles we can fulfil on the stage of the conversation can be to WD40 the conversation by maintaining the flow, or keep the scene going. We could be someone to illuminate the scene by drawing out the character of the young adult to perform, we could be the scene director who moves the scene to somewhere different – changing the subject, asking a question. Yet what role do the young people play in the scene? – are they merely actors in our performance?  What roles might they play?

In detached – they have the choice to be present in our stages, and choice to act authentically (without hypocracy – a term meaning false acting – cf Vanhoozer) , choice to leave, or perform as the context allows. They provide the context of the play, the focus is determined by them- as the detached youthworkers seek to utilise the context to draw out the improvised script.

Not unlike Jazz, or like interactive theatre, the performance of the conversations is improvised. But unlike either of these, there is skill required to maintain the play of the conversation in such a free space, where both parties can enter or more-so exit at any time.  The skill of the detached youthworker is to encourage the young adult to want to perform in this small space of theatre, to trust the others in the performance, whether each other as friends, or the youthworkers themselves.

Does the metaphor of conversation as theatre help a further artistic creation of detached youthwork performance? – it might do – as in thinking about roles of the scene, the drama that the young adults are encouraged to perform can take centre stage – after all- youthwork is about the young person as primary client in their social context (Sercombe) – maybe it is more like the young persons (s) as primary actors in their co-created stage with adults enabling them to perform.

Not unlike the world of Drama – there are cues, behaviours, actions and skills to rehearse – and thats where the training might still be very much valid, the Jazz musician still needs to know how to play the instrument, just that in the band there is collective improvisation.

After all theatre is a present activity, performance is affected by the audience and actors alike no two performances are ever the same.

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: