Peter Dobbins knows what it’s like to be thrown overboard and to spend time in the belly of a whale, at least figuratively speaking.
He is the artistic director of The Storm Theatre, an “off-off-Broadway” nonprofit company in New York City. Dobbins’ career, however, was not always so successful.
In fact, 25 years ago he was kicked out of theater school.
Soon thereafter Dobbins — who was raised Catholic but fell away from the faith during college — stumbled upon G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
“It almost felt like a bomb went off in my head,” he said. Dobbins not only returned to the faith, but began to dream of using his artistic talents to pass on the truth and beauty he had rediscovered.
The idea, however, remained dormant for more than a decade.
“It was like Jonah when he’s talked to by God: He runs away and is swallowed by a whale,” Dobbins said. “You know you’re supposed to do this, but you’re afraid of it.”
Twelve years later — in 1997 — he joined a group of colleagues to create The Storm Theatre.
Dobbins admits the initial partnership consisted of primarily lapsed Catholics looking to counteract the increasingly “director-centric” nature of theater at the time.
“The founding principle was that the script was sort of sacred,” he said. “So often somebody tries to make a name for themselves by giving a bizarre twist to the script. We wanted to put the actors at the center.”
Although Dobbins’ associates didn’t necessarily share his thirst for exploring Christian texts, they didn’t oppose it either. Storm’s first production featured “Murder in the Cathedral: The Passion and Martyrdom of Thomas Becket” by T.S. Eliot.
Subsequent shows included a wide range: from the plays of William Shakespeare to a musical adaptation of the 1984 science-fiction adventure film The Last Starfighter. Storm later presented “The Jeweler’s Shop” and other lesser known works by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II).
Dobbins said Storm has attracted additional Catholic artists over the years, but he considers a mix of personalities and backgrounds crucial to its success. Likewise, while the company’s productions tend to feature religious themes, he said they are rarely overtly Catholic.
“I don’t want to scare anybody away,” Dobbins said. “If you’re Catholic, you can’t miss it, but if you’re not, you’d think, Hey, this is interesting.”
For Monica Weigel, a graduate of New York University with a master’s in educational theater, who is an occasional theater critic for First Things, this approach works well.
“Because they don’t present material in a preachy kind of way, it continues to draw not just the ‘Catholic audience,’ but audiences of all different backgrounds who are treated to material that doesn’t hit them over the head with Catholic doctrine,” she said.
Weigel noted a very thin line between art and propaganda, an issue which she said all theaters need to be careful of and Storm handles well.
“They have a wonderful way of finding the deeper spiritual themes in a production and treating them very sensitively … in a way that’s artistic and thought-provoking,” she said.
Storm’s spiritual awareness, however, in no way avoids the harsh realities of life.
For example, coming in October, Storm will partner with Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, an off-Broadway company sponsored by the Dominican Province of St. Joseph, to produce the final play in a three-part series from French poet Paul Claudel: Claudel’s “Noon Divide” tells the story of the playwright’s own extramarital affair.
“[Claudel] did not question the sinfulness of that,” Dobbins said, “but he believed that somehow God had put her in his path to lead Claudel to him.”
All of Claudel’s plays explore what Dobbins called “the mechanics of grace,” the mysterious ways that God draws men and women to himself.
“Ultimately, they’re about ‘crazy love,’ which is what grace is,” Dobbins said. “That’s what God’s love is.”
When choosing which plays to direct, Dobbins rejects the idea of producing a poorly written play merely to convey a particular message. Instead, he looks for artistic “celebrations” of both love and life.
“Every play is a prayer of thanksgiving for being alive,” he said, comparing the entire process — from first rehearsal to final curtain — to a two-month party.
“Doing a play is like giving that perfect Christmas gift,” Dobbins said. Even though a friend may ask for a particular item, he said, “what’s the most fun is to have something that you love but you know they’re going to love, and they’ll be surprised by it.”
Dobbins hopes theatergoers will come away from a show with a greater perspective on their own lives.
“You ask yourself, Could this in some way lead somebody to heaven — in a really fun way?” he said.
Dobbins’ passion for life, theater and God drew Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, founding artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, to collaborate with Storm on several shows in the past two years. Due to the expensive nature of theater, Father Cameron said that pooling resources just makes sense.
But, that’s not all.
“We have a shared vision for the good that theater can provide for culture,” Father Cameron said.
For Michelle Kafel, an occasional Storm actor, stage manager and assistant director, this potential for good hit close to home when her boyfriend — who is a nonbeliever — came to watch her perform in Claudel’s “The Satin Slipper” last spring.
“He was so completely blown away by the depth of human experience that this play went into that it moved him almost to tears,” Kafel said. “These works may be difficult to get into sometimes because they are so full, but they make people think, and not just accept the status quo.”
A native of upstate New York and a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Kafel said she also finds plentiful opportunities to share her faith with fellow cast members.
Dinh Doan, an actor from California, appreciates the unique atmosphere Storm Theatre provides to discuss matters of faith and even to attend Mass together on occasion.
“As artists and actors, we think we’re on the edge of liberalism — anything goes and it’s all right because we’re ‘artists,’” Doan said. “Around other actors, it’s hard to talk about being Catholic, because it’s old-fashioned.”
Doan said that performing with The Storm Theatre, however, grounds him in his identity as a Christian and provides examples of how to incorporate faith into a successful acting career.
For Dobbins, such experiences of the cast and crew are just as crucial as the impact on the audience.
“It’s like the idea of a storm,” Dobbins said. “It can be powerful and scary, but it also regenerates.”
The current forecast predicts the next “Storm” to hit the Church of Notre Dame in Manhattan on Oct. 29.
Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.