Reflections on Revival: Meetings for Theater

We have been steeped in process, without regard to result, and this has been liberating. We were free to wallow in the unknown, and as we became more comfortable with following leadings to ministry, we traced pathways into the process that others could follow and deviate from. From a carefully nurtured collective trust, we began to witness how much our process could hold, and it held anything we brought into it. Even with a constantly changing group, with no two sessions having the same people attending, there was a gathering energy. This I believe speaks to the spiritual nature of the work: something that was beyond our bodies was at play and flowing through us. We carried that Something into our explorations, and it was witnessed by the people present who recognized it and welcomed it.

The language we use to describe what we do has a direct effect on what we do, and the quality of our participation in it. It mattered that we tried to call our gatherings “meetings for theatre”, and not “workshops” or “classes”. It mattered that we spoke of “leadings” as opposed to “impulses”. It mattered that we wrestled with “discernment” and not “choices”. It mattered that we “offered ministry”, rather than “improvised” or “performed”. And it mattered that we were willing to speak of God, the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Inner Teacher, the Inner Light, the Inner Director. It mattered that we invited holy language into our work. Using this new language forced us to carefully consider our actions and words in a way we are not used to as theatre artists. And it gave our work a Holy Implication which was both baffling and provocative. I believe it led us to a deeper place than we are used to going as actors, a place we tend to stumble upon through a curious combination of circumstances in class or rehearsal, a place we long for. We were led to the place our souls speak from.

In Woolman’s journal, he describes meeting for worship with Native Americans in their tribal dwellings. There was an interpreter there, who translated the English ministry offered for the tribe’s understanding. But the chief told the interpreter this was unnecessary. When Woolman asked why, the interpreter related what the chief said: “I like to feel where the words come from”. And Woolman understood, and I think we have witnessed in Revival, that true ministry travels on something other than words; that words are seeds, but the revelation of ministry is the flower, and it comes to life not through any intellectual understanding, but rather through the sunlight and water of the Eternal passing between us, which is experienced as something more than a thought. It has powerful feeling in it. This same opening led George Fox to preach against “head learning”, and to de-emphasize Biblical interpretation in Quaker worship. And so with Revival: we used a text (Nathan The Wise) as a source of inspiration, but were free to receive the Holy Spirit through its continuing revelation to us in the very moments of our existence.

Mary Beth pointed out that, unlike conventional acting classes, it was the sharing of our experience which was the priority, rather than having the experience itself. We spend a great deal of time as actors “squeezing” – trying to have an experience on stage that feels authentic. But what we so often overlook is that we are having that experience in order to give it away. This is why understanding acting as a kind of ministry is so transforming. A minister serves something to a congregation. Paradoxically, when the actor shifts her attention from the effort to generate an experience, and instead witnesses something flowing through her to others, that authenticity is born without effort, and the artifice so often witnessed in “squeezing” actors is avoided. Here is one way in which our work may have pedagogical implications. In ignoring the vital, symbiotic relationship we have to audience, have we been teaching our young actors to rehearse, but not to perform? In other words, have we been keeping the circle closed, when we should be looking for ways to open it, so our students can offer their work to strangers, and perhaps feel Stanislavsky’s Rays flowing through them? Here is a word Peter D. instructed us on: entertain, which comes from two French words which mean “to hold between”. For the ministry to be real, it must be held by both speaker and witness.

We began our research in Quaker stillness, and this had enormous implications. We began as seekers, waiting to receive something rising up within us, or to receive something offered to us by another. This receptive state opened us and calmed us, and – for me at least – showed us the degree to which we are used to charging in to creative situations like rehearsals full of choices to share, and points of view to express. Quaker worship allowed what was essential (another important Revival word) to rise up and find expression. And what rose up seemed to come from something that was held, and then released, collectively, finding expression through the minister most ready to give it life. The stillness also generated surprise. We never knew what was going to happen. The unplanned aspect of our meetings led us to a tingling expectation. When I am well prepared, this is how I feel when entering first day meeting for worship. Can we make room for more stillness in our lives as theatre artists? This is one of the many ways our research is almost oppositional to contemporary theatre practice, driven as it is by tight schedules and the need for financial efficiency.

Revival offers an interesting investigation into the ways in which both the theatre and religion use ritual, repetition and spontaneity. The Religious Society of Friends was founded partly in reaction against the ritualized customs of the English church of the 17th century. Fox and his followers wanted to do away with “empty forms” , and he and his followers went to the opposite extreme: an absolute abolition of anything planned, read or prepared in any way. If ornate church liturgy represents the well-rehearsed musical, then Fox’s liturgy represents spiritual improvisation. To borrow a term form the ‘60s, he created a kind of holy “happening”. So the very notion of introducing something theatrical to Quaker worship is, on the face of it, contrary to original intent. When Stefan described Revival to his undergraduate Quaker theatre professor, the professor replied wryly, “You know, don’t you, that this is heresy”.

But what was Fox really objecting to? When I began coming to Quaker meetings in 1995, I was instantly struck by the theatrical tension of it: the waiting, the dramatic rise to one’s feet, the speaking to the hushed congregation, the sitting down and reflecting, sometimes in the midst of tears. I think Fox was under the common misconception that “theatrical” means “fake”. It’s the same today. Tell someone you’re an actor and many will assume you’re a good liar. Wrong – the best actors are lousy liars, because they are trained to tell the truth. Secondly, I think Fox wasn’t really objecting to the “performed” aspect of ministry at all. He himself was an astonishing speaker, if we are to believe the accounts of his ministry which have come down to us. Here is a man who burst into churches to debate the priests holding services there. Don’t tell me the man wasn’t theatrical. So what he objected to wasn’t the theatricality of ministry, but its lack of truth, its hollowness.

Some believe that the reason actors have been so reviled by so many religious traditions is that the priests felt threatened by the power of the actor’s art. The priests knew the power of performance, indeed they embraced it, and actors represented a skilled level of competition the priests wanted to eliminate. Almost all religious liturgy is theatrical in some way. Catholic mass is high theatre, and it is no wonder that many Catholic universities also have thriving theatre training programs, with priests teaching the classes. Protestant services employ theatricality and pageantry to various degrees depending on the denomination. The call and response portions of much Jewish and Christian liturgy is akin to the protagonist and chorus in a classical Greek drama. In both traditions, Jewish and Christian, music is used as means of generating spiritual energy. These are theatrical devices and create a “congregation-minister” bond analogous to the audience-actor bond described earlier. At a Unitarian Christmas service I attended, the minister sang as part of his sermon. It was moving, not in spite of his unpolished singing, but because of it. He became exquisitely human and vulnerable, and I felt the tenderness of the Advent sweep over me.

But the problem Fox identified remains. When too much attention is paid to the spectacle being made, and not on the truth being administered, you have a hollow form. It is as true in the church as it is the theater. The evangelical movement has turned some its services into productions clearly meant to entertain on a mass cultural scale. Some use Christian rock bands during the service, and anyone who has witnessed a Baptist or Pentecostal or Charismatic minister in full throat is surely witnessing performance of the highest degree. The televised services of many evangelical churches are, perhaps, the apotheosis of performed ministry in a 21st century context.

As one not raised in any faith, in any liturgy, I always felt embarrassed by the religious services I infrequently attended as a child. I felt a fraud for being there at all, and I felt that what was happening had nothing to say to me. One remarkable exception to this general experience was a Christmas service I attended with Kate, the former girlfriend I wrote about very early on. We went to her Episcopal church for Christmas Eve service while on break from college, and the minister read A Child’s Christmas in Wales aloud from the pulpit. I had never heard a work of fiction read aloud like that in a church, and it affected me deeply. Having a bit of Welsh in my blood and being an alcoholic, I have always felt close to that that magnificent disaster of a poet, Dylan Thomas. After reading, the minister asked each of us to embrace the person to our left and our right. A tidal wave of emotion swept over me and I was convulsed in sobs. It is one of my first memories of the Holy Spirit sweeping through me. It left me wiped out, and Kate’s Mom a bit distressed. It was a precursor to Revival, and the Unitarian minister I just witnessed a parallel: performed art as spiritual ministry, lighting extraordinary feeling in me.

What sets unprogrammed Quaker worship apart from much contemporary liturgy is that it does not rely on thought as much as feeling to propel its ministry. This may reflect my own bias, and I must quickly add that some in my Yearly Meeting do not share this view. In fact, my beloved meeting, being attached to a college, has long been known as a place where Quaker professors may come to meeting for worship with something thoughtful selected to read and then reflect on. To me, this is the heresy. I am perhaps extreme in this, but I regard any preparation to speak in Quaker meeting for worship as a violation of the worship itself. Preparing in this way eliminates the possibility of the intercession of the Holy Spirit, for a person has taken it upon himself to decide what will be heard in worship that morning. I believe it was Fox’s position that only God should decide what ministry is heard in meeting, a point of view I agree with.

Liturgy that uses repeated forms and customs does not need a felt experience to propel it. Let me be clear: those forms and customs may be filled with great feeling, but it is not a requirement. One can execute the stations of the cross and be thinking about lunch, if one has done it many times. In ideal Quaker worship, the felt experience is the touchstone which begins the discernment process leading to the expression of true ministry. Without feeling something quickening inside, an experienced Quaker will sit contentedly in the quiet, waiting and listening. Paid clergy, on the other hand, must show up each Sunday with something to say whether they feel like it or not. The best are able to connect to the Holy Spirit regardless, and there are many rabbis, priests and ministers who are able to make themselves available to Divine light regularly. But Quakers have traditionally felt wary of “hireling ministry”, worrying that the genuine nudge of the Inner Teacher must inevitably give way to the grind of obligation. What Revival did was remove the obligation entirely, and what we were left with were only leadings urgent enough to send us into ministry, leadings which lifted us over the obstacles of our lives, our weariness, and our fear.

That grind of obligation is an ever-present challenge for the professional actor. Towards the end of Jason, Peter turned to me one night and said, “I just don’t have it tonight”. What he meant was he had lost the joy that night – he was punching the clock. Luckily for the audience, Peter is one of many actors who has the craft to perform well anyway, and I’m sure no one in that audience that night leaned over to their seat mate and whispered “What’s the matter with that guy?” Actors fear “phoning it in”, a kind of automatic recitation of a learned pattern devoid of inner life. We are always faced with the possibility of participating in a hollow form, simply through the naked fact of doing the same play eight times a week for four to six weeks (That’s an average regional theatre run. A Broadway or touring contract can go on for years. There were actors in Cats on Broadway that were in the chorus for as long as five years.) The actor doesn’t have the Quaker option of waiting in the quiet until he feels like performing. So how can Revival help the working actor?

For me, it gets back to Mary Beth’s observation of the ministry offered in Revival – we have to connect with the service of it. As I noted before, I am a notorious audience peeker. I used to be embarrassed about this, because it used to be more about trying to see if there was someone in the audience that night who I really wanted to impress. If there was, I usually stank up the joint that night, being much more concerned with what a certain person might be thinking of me, than with the artistic life in front of me onstage. It is a mark of my spiritual evolution to report that now I peek because I dearly need to witness the assembly of the ones I am serving. It’s like gassing up before a long a road trip. The audience has always been the fuel for me: first for my vanity and ego, now for a sense of spiritual connectedness. I imagine that the best ministers in any church feel the same way: you can’t be a good minister without a congregation. And sometimes, when you’re sure you don’t have thing to offer, they show up and – woosh! – you become the faucet, turned on and pouring.

Revival reminds us that that the community being served should be the locus of our attention. Revival helps us become more and more sensitive to the divine nudge: the same one that launches into that sparkling moment on stage, the same one that lifts us to our feet in meeting for worship. Revival wards off “me acting”, since it is the sharing of it that matters. Me acting breeds the kind of fatigue we all feel backstage some nights. Me acting relies only on me to generate the effect of my performance. The theatre reminds us that we have a job to do, even when we aren’t “feeling it”, but Revival reminds us that there is still an act of spiritual exchange taking place, and if we feel that exchange happening, sometimes the Spirit will catch up with us a few minutes in to act one. Revival clarified the necessary differences between what I do for a living (act) and how I worship. I like the way the two worlds remain separate, while deeply informing each other.

And I do think the theatre, as explored in Revival, may change the way we worship. Revival showed many of us Quakers in the meetings for theatre that we hunger for a more expressive way to transmit our ministry. We hunger for a ministry which is not exclusively language-based, which lives in the illogical, in poems, symbols and movement. For so many of us, divine experience defies articulation, and feeling that with our ministry we must somehow rise and speak clearly about it relegates some of us to perpetual sitting. We might as well become Buddhists. We discovered in Revival how fully the Spirit can live in the body, and express Itself through movement. How we thrilled to full-body ministry! How deeply felt it was, both in the giving and the receiving. There is a great worry in my Yearly Meeting about attracting and keeping younger members. I have a vision of theatrical ministry, of the kind explored in Revival, being embraced and nurtured by a younger generation of Quakers. I have a vision of Quaker meetings alive with ministry both spoken and performed, glimpses of clarity and waves of mystery in a sea of continuing revelation, Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

Most fulfilling for me was the way Revival confirmed the lineage of the spiritual actor. This is the tradition of the ancient Athenian performances – equal mixtures of civic dialogue, gripping drama and corporate prayer – and of the medieval passion plays. This is the tradition of the tribal shaman and radical street performer, who’s art transforms the culture that witnesses it. True, the actors who shared Revival with me self-selected as ones who were interested in our proposition: that there is a link between spiritual exploration and actor creativity. But that does not diminish the way that exploration unleashed both rich theatrical ministry in the form of the spiritual improvisations shared during meetings for theatre, as well as the soul-searching worship sharing afterwards, in which the participants bore witness to the life of the Spirit as it had manifested itself during the meeting.