The Power of Theater
by Chris Heagle, technical director
This snapshot of a performance report from Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis has been floating around my Facebook feed. Created by the stage manager following every performance, it’s usually a pretty mundane document — a basic communication tool for people working on the current production to let everyone else in the company know how the show is going. This one, though, is remarkable and speaks to the power of art and story to reach beyond the edifice of our everyday. It reads:
"It was generally agreed by all that the show was ‘kind of rough’ (tech wise). But after the show we learned that there was a 5 year old autistic child in the house. He had never spoken. But as the lights went down, he began to talk. In full sentences. He called the teacher by name. She had no idea he even knew her name. He was engaged in the show — at one point commenting to the teacher that if there is a dragon then there will be fire. And there was fire. He talked all throughout the show. When the lights came back up — he quit talking and returned to his world. So, yes, I could list all the little things that wrong today but that is not what this show is about. And that little boy certainly didn’t see those things as he sat talking in the dark theatre watching Harold and his Purple Crayon."
And of course, I couldn’t help think of our interview with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder in "Autism and Humanity."
French Christians Protest Provocative Play about Jesus, Religion, and Consumer Culture
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A woman holds a banner reading “Touche pas à Dieu!" ("Don’t touch God!") during a demonstration in Paris, France this past Sunday. The Institut Civitas called on Christians to gather and denounce “Christianophobia” and Argentine-born author Rodrigo Garcia’s play Golgota Picnic, which the fundamentalist Christian group judges as “blasphemous.” Thousands of Catholics took part in the demonstration and stopped at the Théâtre de Rond-Point on the Champs Elysees which is running the play, which contains a stage littered with hamburger buns and scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion with biblical readings.
Golgota Picnic is a hard-hitting critique of consumer culture and religion in which, Garcia said to the BBC, “depicts the life of Christ through shocking images of contemporary consumer society.”
Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images.
Tuesday Evening Melody: “I Know” by Cynthia Hopkins
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Cynthia Hopkins is a Brooklyn-based musician and performer whose voice taps a quiet, deep well of emotion. If you’re looking for catharsis, find a private chamber and and try belting out one of her songs when no one else can hear you.
"It’s an homage to him. It’s a portrait of him. And it’s also an attempt to make peace with him and to portray the evolution of my perspective on him from anger and frustration to celebration."
In this song, Hopkins suggests that we don’t really know our parents in their fullness. Like the bigger cosmos, these people who reared us are beautiful mysteries. No longer saddled by anger or disappointment, Hopkins makes peace with her father’s indirect expressions of love. There are other lovely songs to explore from her play, including “”Love,” “Resist the Tide,” and “The Answer” — all of which can be downloaded for free from Gloria Deluxe, the website of Hopkins’ band.
Remembering Juliano Mer-Khamis and His Theater of Hope and Resistance in Jenin
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Young Palestinian men mourn the death of Juliano Mer-Khamis (poster) outside The Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank a day after unknown gunmen killed the actor and director in his car. (photo: Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)
"I have no hope for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not in my lifetime. You ask for political, practical, local hope. Like it’s going to be solved. Jews and Arabs are going to kiss each other and hold hands and go to the beach. This is not going to happen. I have hope as a human being, yes. Oh I have big hope as a human being. I believe in humans. I believe that people are good.”
In a land splintered by contested physical borders and deep wells of distrust, Juliano Mer-Khamis described himself as “100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.” The 52-year-old actor and activist was slain last week in Jenin, where he ran The Freedom Theatre, an arts program and cultural center for local youth in Jenin Refugee Camp.
The son of an Israeli-Jewish mother and a Palestinian-Christian father, Juliano Mer-Khamis refused to choose one identity over the other. As an adult, he kept a residence in Haifa, on the Israeli side, as well as in Jenin. Even his funeral transcended borders; pallbearers carried his casket across the Jalama checkpoint from Israel into the West Bank so that Palestinian mourners could participate.
In 2006, Juliano Mer-Khamis described his work with The Freedom Theater as a kind of artistic intifada:
"…we believe that the strongest struggle today should be cultural, moral. This must be clear. We are not teaching the boys and the girls how to use arms or how to create explosives, but we expose them to discourse of liberation, of liberty. We expose them to art, culture, music — which I believe can create better people for the future, and I hope that some of them, some of our friends in Jenin, will lead … and continue the resistance against the occupation through this project, through this theatre."
Mer-Khamis was a controversial figure who seemed to be a clear-eyed realist about his life and work. In fact, he embraced this. “Lucky me,” he told PBS’ Need to Know.
"To be a theater and not controversial, then you should go open a clinic. Or be a dentist. We are a factory for controversy. We are the factory of ideas, of arguments of disputes. We are the factory where people should not like it. Otherwise, what are we doing here?"
When the play [“Waiting for Godot”] was first performed, one of the early productions was at San Quentin and those prisoners really related to it in a very deep and profound way. Because so many of us are in this kind of limbo, whether we’re behind bars or not, we’re waiting for something to happen in our lives.
Science, Religion, and Splitting Infinity
by Eric Nelson, guest contributor
Serving as a spokesperson for Christian Science, much of my time is spent correcting inaccuracies and misconceptions about my faith that appear in the daily press and, rarely but occasionally, the entertainment media. In one particular instance, however, I was pleased to find that few such corrections were necessary thanks, in no small measure, to the performance of one woman in Jamie Pachino’s stage play, "Splitting Infinity."
The play explores the apparent conflict between science and religion; between those who rely solely upon mathematical and empirical evidence as a means of understanding the physical universe, and those who turn to prayer to connect with the infinite Divine. The characters employed include a Nobel laureate astrophysicist, her lover, a rabbi, and a devout Christian Scientist.
It would perhaps be tempting (if predictable) to pit one side against the other in this cosmic quest — the rational empiricists against the irrational religionists. And it might be equally tempting (and equally predictable) to create and cast stereotyped caricatures of the respective viewpoints presented. But this is not what I found in “Splitting Infinity.” Instead, I found that these characters actually had a lot more in common than not.
As I watched the play — paying particular attention to how Christian Science was both presented and portrayed — I was surprised to see a balanced, if not entirely accurate, presentation.
Sure, the scripting could have been better. For instance, none of the Christian Scientists I’ve ever known are categorically opposed to the medical profession, as was implied in the play. No Christian Scientist I know would ever knowingly allow their child to suffer. And no Christian Scientist I know would ever sacrifice their child in the name of religious dogma. That said, the woman who played the Christian Scientist did a commendable job of presenting a sympathetic character — thoughtful, intelligent, and caring.
What I saw in this character was a woman acting in consonance with her highest sense of right; a woman whose decision to rely solely on prayer for healing — and her expectation of healing — was born of her personal success in keeping her own diabetes at bay; a woman not unlike many of those in the audience perhaps facing similar challenges, similar crucibles, similar decisions.
The end of the play leaves the audience considering two symmetric if unanswered questions: Was the Christian Scientist betrayed by her faith in God? Was the astrophysicist betrayed by her quest to discover a Godless universe?
I won’t give away the ending (or my bias) by saying whether I agree or disagree with the answers presented, but I will say that I’m glad that Christian Science was at least included in the discussion. Rather than proliferating the idea that science and religion are absolutely and eternally incompatible, its practice has proven for me and countless others that, in the words of Albert Einstein, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
Eric Nelson lives in Hayward, California and serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. He also works as a Christian Science practitioner, helping those interested in relying solely on the power of prayer for healing.
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Going to “Church”
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
While much of the SOF staff was in D.C. last Thursday for Krista’s conversation with E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, a few of us went to “Church” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The “Church” I’m referring to is a performance of experimental playwright Young Jean Lee’s play, which the New York Times’ Jason Zinoman described as “an unorthodox contemporary worship service, complete with sermon, praise dancing and a gospel choir.”
It was definitely an engaging experience — at times funny, thought-provoking, stirring, even just confusing. Lee’s parents were converted evangelical Christians, but Lee struggled with her parents’ faith: “I was not a religious person. I resisted and fought through my entire childhood and adolescence.” Writing “Church” was a challenge to herself to create “the last show in the world that [I] would ever want to make,” and what resulted was an ambiguous adaptation of a church service — one that refused to be completely earnest or ironic, but fluctuated somewhere in between.
After seeing the performance, Nancy — who’s been filling in for Colleen during her maternity leave — tracked down this conversation between the creator of “Church” and playwright/director Lear Debessonet. The two women touched on how Christianity is often encountered in contemporary theater:
Ms. Lee: Most of what I’ve seen up until this point has been critiques and making fun. Christians are just not taken seriously at all, which is what my show came out of. But I have a feeling there’s going to be a big wave of theatrical stuff dealing with evangelical Christians over the next year.
Ms. Debessonet: I think the downtown artistic community is realizing we don’t really have the option of dismissing [evangelical Christianity] anymore. This is a force in our world. There are so many millions of people that do believe this, and for us not to even attempt to engage them or understand what’s driving them seems irresponsible artistically.