There are two theaters on Benedictine College’s campus. May’s performances of The Jeweler’s Shop took place in neither.
I saw it in the finished attic space of the 150-year-old original abbey building on campus. Partway through the play, loud knocks and angry Nazi shouting interrupted the performance. The director frantically motioned for a student sitting near me to pull a plug beside him. The room went dark.
We waited for the banging to stop, then the performance resumed — this time.
Welcome to Benedictine College’s theater department. The Jeweler’s Shop production featured several hallmarks of the department: It took faith seriously, brought a surprising take to its subject matter and showcased remarkable student talent.
The department doesn’t focus only on faith-related subjects. Far from it. But it has quietly become a place for students to explore how faith and storytelling intersect.
“I’ve heard some of our actors of deeper faith talk about their performances as gifts from God, and they pray for his guidance,” Scott Cox, the chair of the department, told me. “Our department’s actors, almost to a number, feel a spiritual connection to their art and consider their talents a gift from God to be employed in his service, even when the subject matter is not explicitly tied to religion.”
Edward Mulholland, director of the Great Books program at Benedictine College, has worked with the theater department on several occasions. “I think Scott is doing amazing things with that department,” he said. “The number of declared majors has tripled in the past two years.”
He pointed out that at the 2015 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival for the region, Cox’s original play Pas de Deux was one of only five productions asked to perform a scene at the festival and the only one to receive a standing ovation. Benedictine College senior Clare Nowak of Arvada, Colo., received an “Outstanding Performance Award” at the festival for the production.
As my children poked me and pointed out Nowak like a celebrity at Mass, it occurred to me that something extraordinary is happening in our little town.
Faith and Theater
A week after The Jeweler’s Shop, I watched the production of Doubt, featuring another hallmark of the theater department: faculty involvement. The play starred psychology professor Adam Buhman-Wiggs, past president of the Kansas Psychological Association and a leader at Atchison’s St. Benedict parish.
Its director was Zach Boyer, a senior from Subiaco, Ark., who introduced the play with an announcement: He would enter a monastery after graduation.
The same night, across campus, Jacob Donaldson was discussing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at a Communion and Liberation movement event. Donaldson, a senior theater major from Walla Walla, Wash., had finished a week of performances of the absurdist play he directed.
In March, on EWTN’s Life on the Rock, Donaldson explained how the theater department brought him to Communion and Liberation and his faith.
He was an atheist when his parents told him his college choices were limited to a school with a strong Catholic identity. “I hated that,” he said. “I wanted to study acting. I didn’t want to go to a liberal arts school in Kansas. I went very resentfully.”
A chance meeting changed that. “I met some people in Communion Liberation University, and they were so happy. These people were full of life. They talked about music, film. They argued about philosophy, about everything. I was completely attracted to that.”
Later, at a retreat, he rediscovered God. He says faith improved his acting.
The question posed by drama is “What is it to be human?” he said. “That’s a real question. Not only is that my question in trying to figure out how I’m going to play a character, but ‘What is it to be human?’ is the question I carry everywhere.”
The Pope’s Play
The “underground” approach to The Jeweler’s Shop production I saw sought to recreate what Karol Wojtyla and the Rhapsodic Theater achieved in 1940s Poland during the Nazi occupation.
The approach was the brainchild of director Will Wright of Omaha, Neb., a senior theater major and Gregorian Fellow at the college, and was meant to keep audiences glued to the philosophical play.
No posters advertised the play’s performances. Each day’s location was announced on the morning of the performance.
Yet “the sheer number of people who attended blew us away,” Wright said. “We ended up filling the house, so much so that our actors were barely able to navigate their way to the stage.”
Senior Sydney Giefer was one of the leads. She said the unusual nature of the production became clear at the first rehearsal, when the director failed to show up — instead, actors found a puzzle that formed a message: “We’ve been compromised. Meditation Room 4th Floor Elizabeth. Stick together. Tell no one. You’re not safe.”
“We fled across campus, running three different ways,” she said. “It was an impromptu but great way to start the rehearsals of a show that was supposed to be underground theater.”
Giefer, a double major, says the department has taught her that theater and evangelization go hand in hand.
“Theater is paired particularly well with Benedictine’s evangelization and catechesis major,” she said. “In order to truthfully portray a character, acting emphasizes [a] deep understanding [of] the human person and honing skills of being present in the moment. It is a call to honesty and encounter, much like evangelization.”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
Benedictine College photo: Student director Will Wright at an “underground” performance of
The Jeweler’s Shop by St. John Paul II at the 150-year-old original
St. Benedict’s Abbey building, which is now a dorm at Benedictine College.