Religion, Diversity and Theatre Audiences: What happens when we take faith seriously on stage?

I’ve been thinking about how little we take contemporary faith seriously on stage, whatever form of religion or spiritualism that takes. Does that absence have something to do with a secular, atheist and agnostic make up of our arts organisations? It’s a little piece of the diversity debate that I think we’ve been lacking. And I think it’s important because when we do take religion seriously we draw in new audiences and open ourselves up to manifold world views.

Many through the ages have riffed on the similarities and origins of drama resembling faith and religion.

Clearly, it’s not on the same level as accepting a wafer as body and wine as blood, but drama similarly dismisses immediate sensory perception in favour of psychic conviction. There are other similarities, too – costume, lighting, performance, that both drama and a religious service ask parishioners to put their hands together, in prayer or in applause. So is theatre then a competing creed, one that the appearance on stage of another belief system might render shaky? Drama, it seems, demands its own kind of worship. – Alexis Soloski

But what about theatre that actually presents us, seriously, with well-researched and compelling stories of what it’s like to be a practising Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Hindu [insert other world religions] today?

Most of theatre that explores religion is written (like Shakespeare or Greek classics) or set way back in the past (like Jesus Christ Superstar). A good few of the hits that have depicted contemporary religion have been comedies or poked fun at the religion presented: The Book of Mormon Jerry Springer: The Opera, Carrie and Hand of God. Theo Hobson raised this point in a piece last year: Why does drama always end up sneering at religion? I’ve nothing against a good bit of humour and satire! But I’d like to see that weighed against poised reflections on what it’s like to be religious now.

That being said there have been exceptions and some significant progress in recent years. A good few years ago, in 2012, Alexis Soloski wrote a Guardian theatre blog: Right now, religion in theatre doesn’t have a hope in hell. Since then there have been some dramatically excellent pieces of theatre about religion, or if not brilliant pieces of theatre at least subtle considerations of their theme. Examples that come to mind are Temple at the Donmar, The Christians at the Gate Theatre, Perseverance Drive and Disgraced at the Bush, Another World: Losing Our Children To Islamic State at the National, Paradise of the Assassins at Tara Arts.

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If we want to reach new groups of audiences surely theatre that reveres the experiences of those who live a life of faith in this way would attract those people? This happened in a way that quite astonished me with The Screwtape Letters at Park Theatre. It’s a play about a morally inverted universe that honestly exposes the Christian battle with temptation and dramatises spiritual warfare. I managed to take a friend who down right HATES theatre. As in, she texted me before saying she was kind of dreading going because theatre is not-her-thing. But she wanted to go because she’d read the CS Lewis book and was interested to find out what they’d do with it on stage. And she enjoyed herself while we were there, engaging afterwards with a boy behind us who’d also read the text.

That night, we bumped into six others from our church – completely a coincidence – and between the two of us recognised a few other Christian acquaintances in the audience. That was just on one night. We heard of dozens of our friends – cultured, city people of faith – who most likely wouldn’t have booked for anything else at a fringe theatre like the Park who had been to see The Screwtape Letters. The post-show talk with Max McLean elucidated that well over half the audience had read the text and many of those who asked questions did so from a perspective of Christian faith.

And it’s wonderful too that the other half of the audience were treated to theatre from a religious world view in the safe space of the theatre and introduced to a dramatisation of an influential, best selling piece of writing about the experience of that religion. One that David Foster Wallace said was his favourite book.

Got thoughts? Seen something that challenged you? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

Photo: Ray Shell and Derek Ezenagu in Perseverance Drive at Bush Theatre, Richard Davenport.

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