I find that this is completely unacceptable to me. Having previously argued that I believe religion to be personal, I refuse to accept such notions. I accept that what I believe to be the right approach to such things for me, may not work for you; AND THAT’S OKAY! If we happen to agree, that’s great, but it’s NOT mandatory, at least to me.
Now, I accept that this probably disqualifies me from fitting into (being a member of) any of the established religions, denominations, cults or practices, that I know of, and probably most (all?) which I don’t, as well. Therefore, if I wish to attempt to provide MY personal religion with a name, it appears that such a name would have to include the idea that it is “non-denominational.”
Now, I am perfectly willing to allow you to believe whatever you want, as long as it DOESN’T include the idea that I have to at least pretend to conform to YOUR ideas. I INSIST on the right to be allowed to have my own beliefs, as long as they don’t interfere with your right to have yours, and as long as we both obey the law. I would state that this as an idea with universal applicability. Therefore, whatever my religion is, it also seems to be “Universalist” at its core, since “Universalism is the philosophical and theological concept that some ideas have universal application or applicability.” Since I also accept the “Golden Rule” as a “universal” truth, the “Universalist” denotation is even more appropriate, since: “A belief in one fundamental truth is an important tenet in Universalism.”
So, what IS it that I believe? While I was thinking about this, I ran across an article called “What Theaters Learned From 2020” in a recent issue of the Shakespeare Plus newsletter published by the Folger Shakespeare Library. In it, Ty Jones, the Artistic Director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, was quoted as having written:
What have I learned during the pandemic? That the power of theater is real and the people who make it
are heroes. We have shifted to Zoom/online platforms to continue to tell stories that give meaning to our
lives. We as theater people have been conditioned to improvise, adapt and continue to shine light on the
human condition. I continue to stand in awe of my brothers and sisters, who despite the terrible conditions,
make art that moves us in profound ways.
Now, THERE is something which I know I believe in, the importance and power of theatre.
Therefore, stealing a notion from the Reduced Shakespeare Company, I am hereby founding St. Genesius’ Non-denominational Universalist Church. While this is my personal church, all are welcome to be members who believe in the power of Theatre. So, what do I mean by “the power of Theatre?” There are probably a lot of ways to describe it.
First, it acknowledges that theatre is a form of art which can, as Mr. Jones said, “… shine light on the human condition.”; it can move us in profound ways; it can help give meaning to life. As a part of this, I would suggest that, among other traits, those who practice theatre may be, at least generally, more accepting of social, religious, sexual and cultural differences than some other groups in contemporary society. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that this acceptance is not always present among all theatre people, nor has it always been present. But I would suggest that theatre people today, as a rule, don’t give much of a hoot about what you are, or do, in your personal life, as long as you contribute your best efforts to the success of our joint theatre project, whatever that may be. I admit that some people who work in the theatre have had exclusionist attitudes and behaviors for various “reasons” and some probably still do.
A case in point, which I think is appropriate, is that of Ira Aldridge, “the African Roscius,” who performed with the African Company in New York in the 1820’s to some acclaim. It is sadly true that racism in American society forced him to spend most of his career in England and Europe, where he played many roles (especially Othello) and achieved considerable fame. But he was accepted as a member of the Theatre community! In fact, he is the only actor of African American descent among the thirty-three actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
I confess that I DO believe that he would be widely accepted in the US theatre community today, as he WAS accepted in the European theatre communities which were at least somewhat less attuned to the racism which was common in the USA. In any event, I would suggest that, in spite of occasional cases of racism, prejudice, and bigotry, theatre people today, generally, just want someone to demonstrate his/her competence to do the job assigned to her/him every time, and for every performance to achieve acceptance.
Progress is even currently being made on Broadway in the various areas of technical theatre which have been behind the curve in this area for far too long. Therefore, while there is still much to be done, I still believe that it is generally true that most people can find acceptance in the theatre no matter who she/he is or what he/she believes, provided that they demonstrate competence on the job. I won’t argue that theatre people are perfect-I know I’M not and I don’t expect it from others. But my observation suggests that, generally, theatre people seem to look most seriously at their co-worker’s competence, not their race, sexual preference, or other unrelated criteria. I suspect that that MAY arise out of the fact that real theatre people understand that theatre is a group art which pursues perfection, while knowing that it will never be achieved, but the dedication of ALL is a major factor in any success we all achieve.
So, what makes theatre special enough for it to form the basis of my religion? I think it may begin with my notion of Art. Historically, the five Fine Arts were painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry. Note that the performing arts of theatre and dance, are not included. I would suggest that this is because Theatre (and Dance, which I would argue is a form of theatre) essentially combine all of the historical fine arts in their existence. To explain: Architecture provides a place for the performance; Sculpture is based on the human body and the human body is an essential part of theatrical performance; Painting provides the decoration of the performers (sometimes as costume) and the performance space to contribute to the impact and meaning of the performance; Poetry, which includes all forms of literature, provides the structured words and ideas which establish the specific actions and words used; and Music is created by the voice speaking and/or singing those words (along with accompaniment, if present). Theatre (and Dance), I would argue, do not exist without all of these.
In the School of Stage and Screen, we used to say that “We are storytellers.” That’s not a bad start in explaining this concept more completely. The theatre, as I see it, is a place (similar to a “church,” if you will) where people gather to share ideas. In the theatre, these ideas are usually presented in the form of a dramatic performance, and that performance has a PLOT (see Aristotle), which is, most commonly, built from a story, in much the same way that many religious teachings often tell a part of the story of the “sacred.” The performance includes the presenters (priests, ministers, shamans; the storytellers) and the audience (a congregation, the observer/participants). While traditional folk/religious stories may contain ideas to explain the origins, beliefs, etc., of a specific tribe (group, people), the theatre, l would suggest, goes further than just telling (reciting) the story, it interprets it, encouraging contemplation and debate as to the ideas and questions which the story presents. I believe that this allows us to participate more fully in those questions of existence which “religion” often attempts to explain. But rather than providing the specific answers often stated by religions, l would suggest that it is fairly unusual for good theatre to provide specific answers to the questions it arouses. Rather, the theatre usually raises awareness, suggests alternatives, and encourages thought, so that one can arrive at a more personal solution.
It may be worth noting that theatrical performance most commonly, perhaps even definitively, is created as a celebration of a PLOT (a sequence of events, of which a story is a common form). I begin with Aristotle because I was taught to do so throughout my education in theatre. It’s also worth noting that Aristotle states that theatre, at least to his knowledge, began as a part of religious worship of the lesser god, Dionysus, in Ancient Greece.
Personally, I think it’s probably true that what could be called theatre predates Dionysian worship, especially if you will accept that ALL ceremonies are, fundamentally, theatrical in nature. AND all ceremonies are ritualistic by definition, as Wikipedia points out:
A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed in a sequestered
place and according to a set sequence. Rituals may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, including
a religious community. Rituals are characterized, but not defined, by formalism, traditionalism, invariance,
rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance.
Rituals are a feature of all known human societies. They include not only the worship rites and sacraments
of organized religions and cults, but also rites of passage, atonement and purification rites, oaths of allegiance,
dedication ceremonies, coronations and presidential inaugurations, marriages, funerals and more. Even
common actions like hand-shaking and saying "hello" may be termed as rituals.
Thus, rituals are common in human society. If one looks at this definition, however, I believe it becomes obvious that theatrical performance clearly fulfills the characteristics of ritual. But that only focuses on practice, be that practice religious or theatrical.
As it seems to be traditional to name a “religious” organization in honor of a major idea considered to be essential to it, or a person or deity being honored by it, I have chosen to include St. Genesius as a part of the name of my “church.” So, you ask, “Who or what is this “St. Genesius” that you should name your church for him?” Well, having been (sort of) raised in the general Christian tradition of much of Western Civilization, I trace my religious roots back to the early Christian church of the Roman empire, which was the most dominant of the early sources of Christian power. Now, it is said that Genesius, was an actor in Rome who “converted” during a performance intended to mock the Christian practice of baptism. He is/was(?) considered by the Roman church to be the patron saint of actors, lawyers, barristers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, people with epilepsy, musicians, printers, stenographers, and victims of torture. His feast day is/was August 25.
Now, from what I read, we can’t prove that Genesius actually existed and, in any case, I confess that I have no belief in his “holiness.” I vaguely remember that he may have even been de-sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church, which had made him a saint during the Fourth Century C.E., although I’m less than sure about that. In thinking about founding a church based on theatre, however, I was drawn to The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged), which I saw performed here in Omaha, a few years ago. That play, is about a Christmas Show being performed at “St. Everybody’s Non-Denominational Universalist Church, where all faiths are welcome because we’ll believe anything.”
So, in that spirit, and acknowledging that I am NOT really into “Organized” religion (see #’s 78 and 196 in the archives), I decided that my church of the theatre should be called St. Genesius’ Non-Denominational Universalist Church and that the motto of that church should be: “Where all who believe in the importance and power of Theatre are welcome.” I believe that this statement agrees with the stated principles of the Universal Life Church that “Every individual is free to practice their religion in the manner of their choosing, as mandated by the First Amendment, so long as that expression does not impinge upon the rights or freedoms of others and is in accordance with the government’s laws.” (see archives #196), so I’m probably not being heretical to my ordination.
So, how do I practice this “religion?” Simple. By participating in the rituals of the theatre. Those include participating in the creation of performances (sadly rather limited to me at this time of my life); seeking out and attending performances; and even viewing movies and theatrical television programing; reading plays; and supporting theatre and theatre workers as I can.
Theatre is, I believe, a ritualistic act, just as worship services are. Western theatre, as we know it, apparently began as part of the worship of Dionysus in ancient Greece, but we know that something closely resembling theatre has existed in Asia, Africa, South America, literally all over the world and in a wide variety of different cultures, probably for as long as there have been people and cultures. The specifics vary considerably, but the ideas of exploring questions like: “Who are you as a part of a greater people?”; Where do you fit into a greater universe?”; How do you define right and wrong?”; How should you relate to others?”; and all of the other “religious” questions that I can think of have been among the subject matter of the Theatre, I believe, for as long as human beings have existed.
As I said when I started this journey, I have yet to discover THE answers to these, and many other such questions. I have come to believe, however, that the value of such questions MAY lie in the SEEKING for the answers, not necessarily only in the finding of them. I find this to be parallel to the idea that we SEEK perfection in our theatrical endeavors, but we know it will never be achieved. As the recent Super Bowl Michelob ULTRA ad called “Happy” asks; “What if Joy is the whole game, not just the endgame?” Or, as Jennifer James suggested: “Success is the quality of the journey.”
It’s just possible that the answer lies in the attempt, not only in the achievement. Achieving perfection, if that’s possible, doesn’t leave you anyplace else to go. But the fact that it may never (can’t?) be achieved doesn’t make the seeking less meaningful. I would suggest that that is what gives it value.
So, what I’m saying boils down to the idea that, at least for me, my work in Theatre (especially including my work as a teacher of Theatre) has been much more than just an occupation, a way to earn a living. It’s been a cause for me to work for and which has provided considerable meaning (and happiness) to my life. Bonnie jokes that she understood early on that the Theatre was my “first wife” and she was my second. I suppose that’s true in a way. Without Theatre, I don’t think I would be who I am, for better or for worse. I suspect that I may not be the only one who feels this way, at least to some extent. I hope those who feel as I do will join with me to keep St. Genesius’ Non-denominational, Universalist Church strong. I think it’s something to which it’s worth dedicating one’s life.
As I close this, consider the picture below from the Universal Life Church:
So, there you have it, my statement of MY religion. Anyone who believes with me in the power of Theatre and its value and importance, is welcome to be a member. And, lest you think that this is leading up to some sort of plea for money, as suggested below:
However, if you don’t feel right about “joining” a “church” without putting an offering in the plate, make a donation to one of the many groups trying to provide support for all of the theatre workers who are currently without work due to COVID; or make a donation to your local community or educational theatre (or BOTH). Theatres, even non-profit theatres, REQUIRE income to pay their bills and continue to exist. Whatever we can do to help assure the survival of these theatres is needed at this time, so that the larger theatre community can continue to make its contribution to human existence.
I plan to be back in a couple of weeks, with a return to more usual fodder. I thank you for allowing me to indulge my personal traumas in these last couple of posts. I think I needed that…. Perhaps you found the ideas worth some thought, as well.