I’m not sure if it’s the case any more; many of the young people I encounter in the performing arts these days seem absurdly wholesome. But when I was young, there was the sense that theater was something fundamentally disreputable. That had been its reputation for centuries, of course; in many countries actors were forbidden to be buried in sacred ground. They were vagabonds, the reasoning went, and fundamentally untrustworthy. More to the point, the stories they told – the follies and falls of kings, the machinations of greedy tricksters, all manner of bad behavior – posed a risk to a well ordered society. They presented romance upon the stage, lewd and scandalous behavior simulated for all to see. The American theater-loving public of the mid-twentieth century – aka my parents and grandparents – may have tried to overlook all this, with Golden Age cast albums providing an ideal of wholesome glory. But even so, there were plays that came to prominence just before I was born, whose titles – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Equus, Marat/Sade, were fearfully whispered, as if their content was too profoundly immoral to ever mention out loud. No, the image I always had of the theater when growing up – not necessarily Broadway, mind you, but theater – was something potentially dangerous. Something wicked.
So naturally, much of my professional life has been spent in churches.
The cold reading series I co-host, after two years on zoom, has an in-person location for at least the month of February. We’re at the Center at West Park, which, like many venues in this city, is a converted church space. And I’m not referring to putting up a show in the auditorium which a church might have in its basement – though goodness knows I’ve done that plenty of times. No, this space was clearly meant for holding worship services, before it had been converted to theatrical use. We’re doing the readings under large stained glass windows. Our audience is sitting in pews. It’s just like a church service, except it’s on Tuesday nights instead of Sunday mornings, and the readings are from our own profane scribblings, as opposed to, y’know, the Bible.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. My friends at Theater 2020 have done a number of shows in friendly churches in Brooklyn. I performed in their adaptation of The Mikado there; I also played Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at that venue. Yes, there I was, cross-dressing as Thisbe, in Shakespeare’s great tale of illicit trysts with humans and faeries alike, performing that great carnal dream on a marble altar floor beneath a giant crucifix.
Kinda weird, I must say.
Part of the weirdness stems from the technical challenges of performing in churches. There’s no wing space, no sight lines. Half of the seating is so far back that the performers look like little finger puppets; conversely, the space for the congregation is typically so vast that even a well-attended performs looks distressingly empty. Any lighting equipment you might need has to be lugged in and jury-rigged in place, and there’ll be no scenic elements to speak of – other than the church itself, which may or may not have anything to do with the show you’re performing (see the aforementioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Most importantly, the typical church’s muffled and echoing acoustics, while they do wonders for a choir’s choral singing, reduce spoken dialogue to an indistinguishable smear of sound. Despite their frequent use as performance spaces, churches really are not designed for that at all.
But weirder still is the incongruity of being in this sanctified, holy space, and doing theatre – profane, lewd, derided-through-the-centuries-as-immoral theater. At least for folks in my generation, the transgressive aspect of theater was a large part of what drew us to it. And it’s hard to feel particularly transgressive when you’re sitting in a church office, getting an approving nod from the rector as he’s cheerfully going over venue procedures with you.
But then again, the average church is dedicated to the worship of a transgressive rule breaker who preached through storytelling, and who performed disruptive scenes in sanctified public spaces. So I guess we are upholding an important church tradition of sorts.