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)

 

 

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Youthwork in the here and now – Theatrical Youthwork

Ive got to admit that in that moment when youthworkers get together and discuss about how films have shaped their youthwork, ive struggled. Probably because until recently i havent engaged critically with film as part of my life, or even that much with young people. Yes ive watched films ( and recently found ‘Jimmys Hall’ & ‘Selma’ very provoking and powerful in regard to working with young people), but havent been as animated about the notion of film and youthwork as others i know are. There was talk in one youth ministry book a while ago which argued for the film theatre to be the new church of society, a place of story, sharing space, critical thought and moral catharsis.

Dont get me wrong, i can see the attraction – but what is it about film that captivates youthworkers ahead of other artistic pursuits that painting, poetry, prose or (you guessed it) theatre?

A few weeks ago i went to the Reduced Shakespeare Co. History of Comedy at Middlesborugh Theatre, and not unlike my previous experiences of Theatre (predominantly panto) there in front of me was not only opportunities for improvisation and creativity, but also the completely unique performance of a cast, a crew and production company. There were suitable colloquial jokes (about the NE), references to people in the audience, and also times of audience participation, where the feelings and reactions of the audience energised the cast.

I can understand that the theatre can be more expensive, or the pursuit of a type of class of people (compared to film/cinema) – yet to explore the nature of theatre in more depth, and to espouse church that looks like a more equal theatre (aka Boal) is, i believe, a better model, that the notion of film or a cinema.

Two of the strengths of the theatre are that a) its always a unique performance by the cast. No two productions can be exactly the same – unlike film, and b) the cast can adapt deliberately to its audience, in real time. Neither of these are possible in film. Yes the writer/director commentates on their current context, literature, politics to create the story, script and production – yet there is a disconnect between the deliberations of the director/producer, and the actual audience of the cinema – in every cinema. Yes a film may be targetted to a market ( disney/families, twilight/teenagers and so on) but each production is relatively the same ( 3D/imax excluded).

In Performing the Sacred Johnson and Savidge (2009) describe the dialogue between theology an theatre, helpfully in the introduction they discuss the epistimology of theatre, and of drama, where ‘Theatre’ comes from the greek word Theatron- meaning Seeing Place, and Drama (Greek word dromenon) means ‘a thing done’, something then intended for public performance and driven by imitation of action.

Thinking of Theatre as Seeing place means that it is impossible to thinking of it as anything other than a physical reality, where people, audience/actor, are visible to each other, a space of dialogue & communication between stage to audience and back again, creating community.  In our locally performed theatres of youthwork , these are real spaces of art at work, places of space, places of communication, dramatic theatre at work.

When Vanhoozer espouses that church is a local theatrical performance (2005:413) he isn’t far wrong, as each local performance is locally set, locally structured and visible to its local audience – yet why do local productions receive gladly the tried and trusted ‘ministries of elsewhere’ as John Drane warned in The Macdonaldization of the church..

Nevertheless – regardless of the church, as youthworkers, being more aware of the theatrical might help us to be in the here and now of every moment with young people, as every production, every moment with young people is uniquely different – we are to be ready to do  and be improvisatory in the space created. Theatre over film – might be contentious for some – yet allows for artistic to flourish with young people in an emerging ongoing space of performance. Its an open performance, where the acting is ongoing – rather than a closed book or film. Theatre happens in the here and now – it may refer to a previous story – but its concern is the audience of the present.

Maybe we should be taking young people to the theatre more? especially as the attraction of cinemas has reduced given the rise of home film rental/large screen TV – what might theatrical youthwork look like, and how might this engage young people in their artistic intelligence?

 

How useful is the metaphor of Theatre for the practice of (christian) Youthwork?

A few weeks ago i wrote about theodrama and Youthwork, as ive been reflecting on this a bit longer, i was wondering ‘what difference does it make?’  to think of (christian faith based) youthwork in Theodrammatic terms. I wonder if there are a number of things;

Firstly, a Theodrammatic view of our youthwork provides us with a metaphor of the theatre, of acting, of stages, plays and roles within which we can also make assimilate comparisions between the stage of the safe space weve created for/with young people, the young person, and ourselves. The scenes of our youthwork are set, often not of our own making, but they are set none the less.

A theodrammatic view, takes seriously the view that Youthwork is an art, performed by artists and philosophers, creating newness of flourished life, in young people in community – not following a scientific/data ridden approach. It recognises that each young person, in the context of their community is an embodied soul that can think, be, reflect, create, and can do all of this educatively in the space of the stage.

A Theatrical view gives the young person the chance to perform on the stage, allows for their performance to be cheered on and encouraged by the stage hand of the youthworker, not that the youthworker scripts their performance, but guides, encourages and provides the tools for an authentic performance. It gives the young person a rehearsal space for the trials and challenges of life outside the space.

A theodrammatic view means that Theologically we take note of the actions as well as the conversations, or the actions/educations within conversation that occurs that causes a new act/action by a/a group (of) young persons. We take a note of the conversations/actions of God as Trinity in the whole Biblical Drama ( which is still unfolding through us), and become church in the space between people ( Vanhoozer 2014).

A theodrammatic view, encapsulates history and future thinking;  i was reminded of Tony Jeffs statement in Informal education (1999) –  That youthwork is future orientated  (and i thank one of my colleagues, John Ristway of this reminder) – and so the action takes place in time, in the current and the future, based and reflected on from the past. This is in some way linked to Barth/Vanhoozers take on the Sacramental vestiges of Christianity, reminders of the past, rehearsals of the future, played out in the present. Yet as youthworkers we interject into the action so that young peoples actions on the stage are not what might have been expected, assumed, that they might have a better future, despite the past that they have already lived, or the expectations of that past.

In thinking about the interactive performance of the young person, we concern ourselves with the here and now, the process of erecting, shaping and cultivating the stage on which the performance occurs, like youthwork, the judgement of the success of the performance is for others to judge. The process of the stage is the concern, the interaction of the actors, the artistic performance in the moment is the space of the youthworker, but to predetermine the outcome of the performance is to dictate the nature of each young person, and hinder the performance itself. I remember being a young person and having to act out a stage production for tear fund ( i think) – it was billed as funny, scripted as funny, but after so many rehearsals, and my own lack of acting prowess, its subjective response did not match the effort, or action – ie its outcome wasnt funny. yet the process of rehearsing was very hard work. Is that not a model of the stage productions we cultivate with young people, they are in and of themselves worthy – but to dictate that they must have outcomes they lose the very essence of the process that might allow the outcome to happen. Better to improvise art, than manage art to fulfil a purpose.

A Theodrammatic gives us reason to find significance in every moment with a young person, there are no ‘extras’ on the stage, though some moments may be fleeting, they are no less significant. The young people who watch us from the edge of a group, or watch how their friends react to us on the streets are being audience to their own friends performance, but are also involved none the less, as they set the context for the scenes being performed. Some young people will involve themselves in the performance and assume leading roles, but the skill of the director is to involve all, regard all as actor-learners, but yet that fleeting moment is part of a lengthier scene, in the same way each act of the overall theo-drama leads to a final moment of completion, yet no one knows the last. As Vanhoozer states: “Theatre occurs whenever one or more persons present themselves to another or others” (2010)

A theodrammatic view provides the youthworker with a philosophy in which to regard their fellow human, as someone also participating in the ongoing stage production, willing to be heard, called and to play a part, and possibly already working towards an understanding of their own purpose in life, connection with belief and identity, its only the beginning stage of a process that we ourselves, as life long learners also confess to be. To quote Vanhoozer here that the ultimate goal of the actor is not simply to play a role, but to project the main idea of the play” (2005:372)

A theodrammatic view causes us to realise that each community performance is unique, as each person, each time, each season and setting is unique, that the regurgitation of same script and programme with new actors wont be a surefire way of exacting the same process let alone unintended outcome. We must do improvisation according the parameters of the stage set before us, young people deserve us to be even more in the here and now, than they are.

The image of theatre, of the Christian Theodrama, and our role as co-actors in the performance may be a useful metaphor for the artistic acts of Christian youthwork, like many metaphors it can be taken too far, however, in thinking about the usefulness of the metaphor im even more convinced it provides a Theological,philosophical and theoretical concept that encapsulates not only the essence, but also the practice of Christian faith based youthwork. The Stage of the act of youthwork is ready, how will you and the young people perform?

 

 

Church as space to rehearse participative theodrama

Last week I wrote about the concept of breaking through the invisible fourth wall when we act outside the confines of the invisible walls of church, which you can read here.  As I have continued to think about the theatre metaphor, I began to think about some of the other trappings of the theatre, not just the audience/stage divide; the expectation of the audience, the community of the theatre, behind and in front of the stage, the community of the audience, however, the main thing I have grappled with is thinking about is the contrast in the orderliness of current performances of theatre, with the messiness of theatres’ historical past.

Boal charts this in his introduction to ‘theatre of the oppressed’ ; stating that “when it was free, the body could invent the dance, which came from inside; free, the body could dance in space and time. (then) The choreographer turned up and chartered the movement, explained the gesture, defined the rhythm, limited the space. The dramatic poet came and wrote his verses. No more freed thought or creative chaos. premeditated order had arrived. dramatic poetry and choreography were great advances, but freedom was over and done with” (Boal 2000) The essence of social and creative control had manifested into theatre, and despite some planned contravenes, was here to stay, the sense of orderliness – does restrict the freedom of the space, the time, the music, the story, the actors, the script – and prevents anarchy or a dischord.  If the production is slick, honed and ordered, then it can be sold as a product. Programmes of the performance, its acts, themes, characters, story and actors can be sold in advance, before the production – and those who want to can follow the order of acts and scenes as they happen in real time.  Aside from the odd momentary slip of the lines or costume, a large % of theatrical performances follow the same trajectory of pattern, even stand up comedy is scripted, as is most TV.

This is all very well, until the crossing of the wall. Before we do ( and i assume i am actually talking to someone) , lets retrace our steps a little, and think about the current performance of church as a moment of theatre, and/or how modern theatre & entertainment has shaped the Sunday acts of church. There are similarities; orders of service, a stage, music and singing that is led by one or many in a band, the main act of the preacher at the front. If there are moments of audience interaction – how do they happen – according to the same script – ie an anglican response – or defined moments of spontaneity. Yet for Sunday morning church are we closer to a programmable, controlled performance of contemporary theatre – or more recent shifts have taken place does interaction between people begin to take a more regular ocurrance – such as cafe church? – and what is at stake? – often it is the orderliness…

Samuel Wells (2004) introduces the role of habit and training in relation to ethics, and by implication doctrine, using the Duke of Wellington as an example, that Waterloo was won on the playing field of Eton. Wells goes on to say that Shared worship and common listening to scripture constitute the character forming habits of action, and that the play within the theatre of church is the training ground, or to use a theatrical model ; is the rehearsal space. Vanhoozer (2014) illustrates that “to do this in remembrance ( in regard to Communion) is to rehearse, it is a matter of doing something in the present that recalls something done in the past in preparation for something yet to be performed in the future”

 Thus, if the performance of church, within the walls, is the rehearsal space for performance outside the walls, what of the current theatrical way of sunday church is helpful or not helpful if the desire is to go beyond the walls during the rest of the week.  Yes as Wells argues character formation occurs as we perform church currently, yet what of the current performance of church is adequate rehearsal for a mission to people outside the walls?

If youth ministry is embedded in local church, could its purpose be that it follows this? To help young people rehearse within the walls what they need for ‘mission’ outside it (ignoring for a moment that according to Bosch every activity of the church should be mission (Bosch 1991:8). Moving away from infanticide, entertainment, consumerist methodologies, but to give them rehearsal space for the great ‘outside’ a place to safely perform, in readiness for reality.

Going back to the theatre analogy, if going beyond the fourth wall means that we have to become less programmed, and more interactive, impulsive and improvised, taking our cues from the streets, the conversations, the schools, the workplaces , then how might church a) create rehearsal space, and b) equip to be in those moments of interaction, and c) validate them.

But what if church is a place to gather to rehearse new formations of Gods Mission? Does this add depth to the question of what the purpose of gathering sunday by sunday is all about?

As Moltman states “the church does not exist for itself or its own sake, any more than Christ came to save himself. It exists to participate in Gods mission to the world” or Bonhoffer “The church must, with Jesus, go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured”

It might be fair to say that for too long the more programmed, packaged and sold versions of christian Mission/evangelism, have followed the lead from the structures of education, or the trappings of church culture within the walls, and the orderliness of modern theatre. To go beyond the fourth wall could infer that within three wall methods might not be appropriate when we go beyond the fourth.

When I go to a football match, and Ive been to too many recently, i also get a programme, however, aside from telling me that the game starts at 3pm, and who the referee is, everything else in the programme is about what has happened in the past to the club, players, matches. The football programme cannot tell me what is going to happen in the 90, 95, 100 minutes of the game – if it did we’d all be down the bookies.  Very often we can say for certain what will happen if we go to the theatre, or if we go to a particular church service regularly – the order, structure, results are generally the same. But football, or sport is less predictable, more improvised action, reaction to a series of new situations on an ongoing basis, drawing of predetermined practiced moves or set plays in the real game. Taking the training behind the scenes into the spectre of the stadium and battling with a similarly well rehearsed opposition. It is more interactive as theatre, than theatre, and in thinking about the training and rehearsal for interactive action of sport is possibly helpful as a metaphor for the purpose of church as rehearsal space for interactive theatre.

But even the contrast between theatre programmes and the theatre of sports is limited as it is only the actors/sportstars that are improvising with a watching on audience and, going back to Boal, true interactive theatre would have no programmes and no separation of the roles, all would be performing and acting the ongoing drama. But if the theatre of football might be conceptually current as a metaphor in beginning to thinking of the rehearsal of interactive theatrical performance, then lets work from here.

 

 

 

Moving beyond the theatrical fourth wall

“It was an act of violence, it was shocking, in a sense it broke the invisible wall between the participant and the spectator,

The way he entered into the arena of the fan, rather than stay in his own environment, he crossed into the invisible line, and i think that was different (to other dramatic sporting events)”

That was the view of the broadcaster, and Man Utd fan, Jim White who reflected recently on BBC5 live, on the incident that occurred at Selhurst Park, in January 1995, 5 minutes into the second half, Eric Cantona left the pitch after being sent off, and being provoked, reacted violently to kick into the chest of an opposing fan. 
When i was 9, my family and I went to the Fairfield halls in Croydon to the Pantomime, a star-studied list of 70’s and 80’s B list celebrities were in action, the one actor that i remember participating was Terry Scott, he of Terry and June fame (ask your parents). At one point after a costume change he’d forgotten to zip his flies and the 1/2 his white shirt was visible in that area, it was funny, but that, here is beside the point. The other thing I remember, that is relevant here is that about 3/4 of the way through the performance, the actors left the confines of the stage to run, dance, holler along the aisles of the spectators, what they also did at that point was select the least likely of willing new participants from the audience to join in with their dance or song (i cant remember what), the reason i remember this is that the most unwilling of performers that Terry Scot chose at the end of the row was my Dad. It was comedic, and we enjoyed it at the time and afterwards, yet there has always been for me a terrifying thought that at a panto id be next, so theres no way id be sitting on the end of the row, ever.
The so called fourth wall is the imaginary barrier that stands in front of a traditional three-walled theatrical stage and separates the actors from the audience, its the invisible window into the world-of-the-play through which spectators watch the action unfold.  There’s something threatening to the world of the audience if the invisible wall is crossed, whether in an act of violence (aka Cantona) or for the sake of Comedy (the Panto), the rules are broken, the playing field is momentarily levelled and improvisation occurs
Vanhoozer (2014) extrapolate from the notion of the potential invisible walls between the actor and the audience to consider the same walls within the church of pastor and congregation , church and the world. Yet originally, it could also be said that that the threatening and subversively violent act of incarnation of the Son into the world, crossed the invisible wall between the creator and his creatures- this crossing, threatened many. Jesus continual crossing of social boundaries broke other invisible walls, such as the woman at the well, the receiving of children, the touching of a leper, the listening to a blind man, healing on the sabbath. It was not a peaceful movement, that brought about change, it threatened the walls that existed, and ultimately curtains were irrevocably torn in two.
To think about the theatrical fourth wall and the invisible separation in the church has largely been created to suit a post-enlightenment, critical distance and abstract way of observing in theatre, Boal ( 1979) describes it as “In the beginning was the dithyrambic song, free people singing in the open air, the feast, the carnival. Later the ruling classes took possession of the theatre and built dividing their walls. First they divided the people, separating actors from spectators, people who act, people who watch, the party is over! Secondly among the actors, they separated the protagonists from the mass.”
Crossing the invisible fourth walls, that have been built, conditioned and lovingly structured in the theatres of the church  might take comedic or violent action, that will threaten some to not only see them, but also break them down. Vanhoozer goes on to argue that the acting of the church in the world, as in improvising with the biblical script will break down these barriers. That collective action whereby not clergy/lay but all people participate in the production, and, that given that the venue of the audience is the watching world (not aloof from it) at that point then another wall is broken down. Stating that “It is Christian doctrine that breaks down the dividing walls of passivity (within the church) and incomprehensibility (btw church and the world) , it breaks the wall of passivity because the word of God demands a response, faith is something to be done, acted out. It breaks down the wall of incomprehensibility to the extent that the world begins to understand what God and gospel mean by watching and interacting with the church (KJV, 2014:37)”
Detached work with young people on the street threatens, as by being in the space of young people, they are threatened to make a choice about their interaction with us, it is a threatening place that crosses the walls of separation of the world of the young people and the world created around young people, detached brokers that wall. When we get questions like “why are you here” its indicative of the threat that we may be being, the walls of separation that are being threatened, a reduction in choice-time that young people have- where to go somewhere is to have power over that choice, but in receiving something in their world they have less power in the choosing, only the accepting of and receiving. Its a threat.
As Ive reflected on Eric Cantona, Croydon Theatre, Jesus’ incarnation and the theatre of the church, it has become clear that common factors are that it is when the actor that breaks through the invisible wall between themselves and the audience/spectator that has the dramatically shocking and threatening effect. At that point the tables are turned, the boundaries of their script are torn up, after all, Terry Scott would have no idea whether my Dad would cooperate- or punch him in the nose, it is a comedic change of fortunes and reduction of control. What place then the performance of interactive redemptive theatre on the worlds stage? Are the gloves off in its improvisation? what walls are to be broken?  how might improvisation occur that takes its cues not from behind the walls, but from the God who goes before us?
 You can hear the Radio 5 documentary of the infamous Cantona Kung Fu Kick on BBCi player. Vanhoozer (2014) is titled ‘Faith, Speaking & Understanding; Performing the drama of doctrine”

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