Catholic Theater Is Alternative Entertainment for Believers and Nonbelievers Alike
There are no love scenes in Pope St. John Paul II’s play about divine and marital love called The Jeweler’s Shop, which may surprise some audience members at the Open Window Theatre (OpenWindowTheatre.org, OWT) in Minneapolis who aren’t aware it is a Catholic play.
Still, non-Catholics and Catholics alike are finding deeper meaning for their own lives this fall in the theater’s production of the drama about three couples.
Though physically close to secular theaters, OWT sets itself apart through its mission, standards and plays, while still seeking to attract theatergoers of all backgrounds, said Jeremy Stanbary, OWT co-founder and executive-artistic director.
“What we’re doing is truly alternative theater, and there’s such a need for it,” he said.
Stanbary and founders of theater companies talked about the alternative of offering plays that are Catholic or reflect Catholic values and how they take up the call to evangelize in their productions, not with preaching, but through truth, goodness and beauty.
And as interest in this type of theater continues to grow, the founders reveal how they are inspired by the faith and by models such as Pope St. John Paul II.
Theater has roots in the Church, said Leonardo Defilippis, founder and president of St. Luke Productions (StLukeProductions.com, SLP), a Battle Ground, Wash., company that produces traveling plays and films about the faith.
Like the Mass, theater is a live event. “It’s not repeatable, Defilippis said. “That’s what is so unique about the theater: It’s not a painting that’s always there on your wall. It’s always different.”
Pope St. John Paul II’s background in theater has made him an even greater inspiration for many of the founders, including Stanbary, who produced the playwright-pope’s show this fall partially to honor the newly canonized saint, whose feast day is Oct. 22.
“I think he has brought a greater awareness to this idea of Catholic theater today,” he said, “because of how John Paul II — Karol Wojtyla — saw the benefits and the great need for a Catholic form of theater in modern times.”
OWT hopes to draw believers and nonbelievers alike, so it isn’t described as a “Catholic” theater, Stanbary said.
“We’re walking kind of a fine line, because it’s pretty clear in our mission that there’s a spiritual and even religious component to our theater and our mission and what we’re all about,” he said.
The Storm Theatre Company (StormTheatre.com) in New York City doesn’t publicize itself as a Catholic theater either, said co-founder and artistic director Peter Dobbins. “That would only allow people to have an opinion before they even see us.”
Founded in 1997, the company produces “classical, original and unjustly forgotten plays,” which it stages in the basement of a Manhattan parish, sometimes collaborating with another New York theater, the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre (BlackFriarsRep.com), Dobbins said. Its current play is The Believers, an election-related story.
Secular theater tends to be preachy, Dobbins said, adding that people like to find a play’s message themselves. “Whatever messages we have are subtle and not hitting anybody over the head. We think if it’s presented in the right way, people will get what’s behind it.”
However, a goal is to challenge audiences — including Catholics. “Christianity is like an eternal revolution,” Dobbins said. “It is always trying to shake you up.”
SLP’s traveling plays and other productions always involve Christ, saints and other persons in the Church, said Defilippis. “These are the stories of maybe the greatest people who walked the face of the earth, but their stories aren’t told [widely in society],” he said. “They are in certain art forms, but not in drama.”
SLP produced the 2004 feature film Thérèse on the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Defilippis and other members of the company are touring this year with plays he and his wife, Patti, created about St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Faustina and others. They perform in churches, prisons, nursing homes, American Indian reservations, monasteries and universities, as well as on EWTN. Next year, the company plans to introduce a drama about Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton, the first black priest in the United States and a former slave.
This kind of focus is found in other theaters, too.
Secular theaters tend to focus on musicals and comedies, and there isn’t much room for dramas about heroic Catholics, said Cathal Gallagher, co-founder of the Quo Vadis Theatre Company (QuoVadisTheatre.org) based in San Jose, Calif., and G.K. Chesterton Theatre Company (GKCTheatre.org) in Los Angeles. Both companies produce plays about saints and other well-known Catholics, which they stage in city theaters, schools and churches.
By portraying heroic characters, the theater companies seek to both challenge and entertain audiences. Gallagher and two other writers have written plays about various historic people, including Blessed Miguel Pro, Blessed Mother Teresa and Claude Newman, a converted criminal who is under consideration for canonization. This year, the companies plan to create film versions of their plays to reach a wider audience, he said.
Defilippis said that theater helps make Christ present, and it fills a need: “I find that people are starving for something that’s live and not on their smartphones.”
And this type of art is audience-friendly. It’s possible to show the full human experience without revealing everything, Stanbary said, adding that OWT doesn’t use profanity or nudity. Still, Stanbary said, the theater will show the darkness of the human condition: “We believe that theater and art should have a redemptive quality to it.”
Plays can be compelling without profanity and nudity, which the Quo Vadis and G.K. Chesterton companies do not present, Gallagher agreed.
OWT plays may or may not be Catholic, but they contain redemptive, inspirational and transcendent themes, Stanbary said. The theater’s name refers to a window to the Divine, because theater and art inspire us to something greater, he said.
The thespians’ trust in God is evident throughout their enterprises. “We really operate on faith,” Stanbary said. “It’s a lot of little and big miracles that continue to get us by.”
And they are pleased that they can glorify God in a way that John Paul II loved — he was an actor before he entered seminary.
Theater is about more than teaching principles, Dobbins said: “It’s an actual celebration by the mere nature of people getting up on the stage and being creative in that way. It is a celebration of existence and in its own way a prayer of thanksgiving, whether that’s intended or not.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
- Nov. 2-15, 2014