At the end of the play the lights came up and the actors took their bows, and I was ready to leave. I had come to see a friend perform and he had done quite well. He had asked me to read the play beforehand: a totally decent script; nothing earth-shattering but, I thought, well-crafted and entertaining and with a great role for him. I was looking forward to the production, and my friend did not p. But, as we all know, there is only so much one actor in an ensemble of four can do to save a bad production. I saw him attempting to adjust to the flailing performances of the two actresses, trying to temper their shouting and offset their strange overacting which brought out faults of the script that could’ve/should’ve been hidden. I was much less patient with the play’s three endings than I had been when reading it because I wanted so badly for it to be over.
So imagine my annoyance when the associate artistic director / director of the production came out–accidentally interrupting the final bow of the curtain call!–to explain (at some length) why the cast would now be passing offering plates around the theater: “Remember,” he half reminded, half scolded, “Theater is church.”
Interestingly, I actually went to church this morning for the first time since high school and, I can tell you with great certainty, theater isn’t church. Yes there are similarities. Both have an audience and a stage-area. Churches often present performances: a choir and musicians; the church I went to this morning presented modern dance to the reading of a poem (ah, Unitarians! I don’t care what Garrison Keillor says!). Both institutions are strongly community-oriented and, arguably, at their best offer an insight into the human condition. But theater is first and foremost an artform and entertainment. Church, on the contrary, is primarily about personal, communal, and spiritual health. Saying theater is church is like saying a eating at a good restaurant is equivalent to meeting with your support group (where there might or mightn’t be cupcakes).
A performance theory theorist could expound on many other overlaps between worship and theater. And I hear what this dude was saying as he guilted us with some higher obligation to donate, as if one visit to his theater made us a member of his congregation (Churches don’t charge $20 a ticket at the door, buddy!) I too, as I assume most theater practisioners do, acknowledge that theater is not just an entertaining artform because the communal elements of being in the same room with the other viewers and the performers (and all the risks the performers are taking) sets it apart. Many of us do replace church with theater. I’ve done so for almost a decade. But after almost two years working in professional theater in some capacity and committing myself to the local theater communities of two great cities, I still found myself in church this morning at 9am. And when they passed that collection plate around, I was happy to take out my wallet.