Theater as Church: The Search for Community

I’m not the first person to compare theater with church, and I know I won’t be the last. The similarities are too obvious. And I also know I’m going down a dangerous road here. Church can make some people squeamish. I’ll be the first to admit that the topic makes me squirm a bit. There are so many of us who are not accepted by churches. There are so many of us who have given church our best, like affection to some crazy lover, and despite the fact that we tried and tried, it just didn’t work out. And it makes us kind of sad to finally admit it, and close that door.

But again, the similarities between the theater and the church are just too noticeable. The stage as an altar. The audience as congregation and the actors as celebrants. Vestments become costumes and the rituals, well, become the rituals: On one side you have a clanging bell telling the congregation to get its sorry self together, it’s time to gather, and on the other you have flickering lights in the lobby.  And then there’s the script—the story that never changes is no different from the liturgy.

And who of us in the theater haven’t at least once (having been the first to arrive or the last to leave) paused, and did nothing more than listened to the quiet of the space, and for some reason felt something touch us inside? Like you might in a church.

So, with all the talk lately about how local theaters need to build community, I wonder if we shouldn’t ponder the church a bit more. Just recently I was at the Provincetown Theater for its playwrights’ festival. Again, all the similarities that I noted before were there. Plus one. A very important one. Not three minutes into the first offering (oh boy, there’s another similar word) the lights went out. This was a big blackout, covering all of Provincetown. And while electricians threw switches and spliced wires somewhere out in the night to restore power, the little community comprising both theater professionals and their friends and family in the audience that was gathered in that darkened space tapped into something I can only describe as love. They sang songs (including This Little Light of Mine), joked amongst themselves, and one realized that this moment was just one of many more to come that bonded them all together.

It was eminently clear they weren’t there just for the plays.

And I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I think so many of us go to the theater for more than the play. The play is like the communion that we all share but we also like the whole event, from breaking bread before the performance to seeing friends.

What we as theater professionals have to do is figure out how to convert. Figure out how to save souls. Churches advertise salvation, sure, but I’ll bet three-quarters if not more of the people on their knees every Sunday are not much more than Fish on Friday Catholics. They cherish belonging to a community of like-minded people as much as anything.

I guess what I’m saying is theater companies have to start thinking more like churches, giving more to the community than just Sunday service. Club Passim in Cambridge is an arts organization that is successfully doing this. It’s not just a music venue, but also a music school offering a wide range of classes and workshops, and it’s also an archive and library. I think theater companies have to open themselves up more to the community, and think about what it needs, rather than what we have to offer. Then there’s a better chance that our audience base will grow.

John Greiner-Ferris is an actor/writer living in MA.

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