Playing Religious Roles in Theatre

Brad Pontius

No, before you get your knickers in a bunch. This is not an article telling you that you shouldn’t have religious stories or allegories in Theatre. In fact, anyone out there that tells you whether or not you need to have religion in whatever you do needs to shut up and walk away. Theatre is a medium that anyone can reflect humanity through any lens and should never be restricted in its attempts. However, we are going to be discussing the role it can play and when it might perhaps go too far. Or whether it even can or not.

Let’s start off right. We are examining the role of any spiritual or religious sect, not just the big ones (such as Christianity, Islam or Judaism and their various branches). Other than that, we are going to be prodding subtle and substantial Theatre experiences alike that incorporate some form of spirituality in their execution. And the only judgement here comes from the quality of the theatre, not the belief. Keep things civil. Cool? Cool.

So one of the first big ones that comes to mind is the farcical Book of Mormon, one of the most popular and least reverential musical theatre pieces ever. It teases every aspect that, to an outsider of Mormonism, might be strange. The musical refuses to apologize for anything it makes fun of and gives off an air of pride that it isn’t proud. It takes the cheap shots on everyone, not just Mormons. And that is precisely why it works so fantastically well. There are no punches held back and, more importantly, they mock everything. The focus of the actual story might be about the Mormons (shown both in positive and negative lights, but always comical ones). And even when it makes fun of anything you can tell that care and dedication went into the research. They come off as dumb jokes, but you have to know about the material to make the jabs.

But then we can jump to the exact opposite end of the spectrum. Now the company I’m about to discuss might sit well with some and ill with others, but it’s just my opinion. So if you hate me for it… Good for you? “Sight and Sound Theatre” is a unique creature in its own right. It has combined, according to their website, ‘A ministry with a business, and a business with a ministry’. In layman’s terms, their shows are exclusively Bible Stories. And to be fair they are massive, and it’s very impressive. One of their bigger successes that this humble writer has experienced was Jonah. And your obedient servant and chronicler must also admit… It is one of the worst shows he has ever seen. The saving grace is the amazing technical prowess the Theatre has, being able to field live herds of animals and a full-sized mechanical whale. However, the story and acting is just… so bloody dull. It is so boring! So what’s the difference?

To me, it is because Book of Mormon and Jonah are attempting two distinctly different goals, but their audiences are different. Mormon wants to make you laugh while also presenting a mirror for you to look at your own life. It is also open to having literally anyone watch it so long as they can handle a dirty joke or two. Or three. Or ten. Jonah is a church service. You know what the twists are. They wouldn’t dare change the story to reflect a more interesting take because it’s already a story ingrained in their religion. Changing it will make the target audience upset, because the ones they want to see the show are exclusively Christians who want to hear the tales they’ve heard a thousand tales.

Personally, I find that immensely tragic.

Theatre, even revivals, seeks a new way to tell an old story. Chicago might tell the same story of sinful sex, drugs, booze and murder… But at least the way they tell it through costumes and sets changes each time, even the movements have to constantly change with each production because you want to keep the old story spiced up with new ideas. Even if you make a precisely faithful reproduction of anything, the actors change and gain new motivations for the new character. Jonah runs into the problem that a lot of the material is inflexible, and so is the audience they want to pull in. So, of course, they’re successful, but that doesn’t mean it’s a ‘good’ performance.

Alright, but what about other more subtle examples? The two we’ve covered so far are bombastic by nature. So what about other shows that work or don’t work with a general theme of religion? (No, I will not be talking about Jesus Christ, Super Star. That feels like cheating.) Much of Shakespeare’s work has strong religious ties but doesn’t really deal with overt religious themes… So what about Corpus Christi? If you haven’t heard of it, it opened in 1998 with the Manhattan Theatre Club… and sparked such a massive backlash for portraying Jesus and his apostles as gay men in Texas that they were forced to make audiences go through metal detectors. No, probably still too much.

What about Fiddler on the Roof? Okay, hear me out. Being Jewish is more than just following the faith. It also has deeply cultural roots. So the show is not really about religion. It's about tradition, being a family, and what happens when the world throws both of those things a curve ball. However! We see some truly ingenuous ways of expressing religion in Theatre here. Sabbath Prayer tells us a lot about Sabbath. The wedding scene and most of the instances where Tevye’s daughters leave to be with their own lives tells us a lot about the way it occurred at the time. Ultimately Fiddler is not about Judaism, it’s about family and tradition. However, it also weaves the heritage and tragic story of its people and religion in perfectly to the human side of it.

And then there are shows that dip into ‘less mainstream’ religions. Witches of Eastwick obviously deals with some Christina ideas, but could also be seen as the growth of wiccan belief despite others’ protests. The Frogs is exclusively about Hellenistic beliefs and Greek mythology, even if it’s just about the epic journey of one of its key players rather than the actual mythology. Lion King, even though it came from an animated motion picture first, depicts many religious undertones (from rebirth, featured in many religions, to a savior figure fleeing before returning to save everything.)

I think the humanity is paramount in any production. It should always be about us. Because we are human, and that’s what we relate to. I think ultimately that having religion or religious themes is perfectly fine. In fact I personally say go for it! Express your faith on stage. If it drives you that hard to create something entirely new from scratch, then it deserves a place on the stage. However, making the production with the singular goal of conversion or bragging about your beliefs seems… backwards. That’s not why we flock to the stage. We come to see ourselves reflected in the best, the worst, every way we can.

We come to grow, not to preach.