Newsletter Archive And Articles

Why Theater at Church?

by Bill Speed on March 11, 2020

Why does First Church Guilford put on stage productions in our sanctuary? In the past decade, we’ve staged Godspell, 12 Angry Jurors, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Fiddler on the Roof.  Right now there is a cast in rehearsal producing “Working — the Musical”, with music by Stephen Schwartz, Lin-Manuel Miranda, James Taylor, and others. But why?

There are a lot of parallels between playing on a sports team and getting on stage for a musical.  Let’s say you love playing basketball, and there’s a team being organized by Parks & Rec. You get together a couple of times a week with other people who like basketball, some of whom are really good, and some who need some work on their 3-point shot or keeping the other team from penetrating the middle and forcing them to the sideline. You listen to advice from each other on things you could be doing better, and from a coach who helps the team work together, using each person’s skill set to put together a good offense and defense for an upcoming match against another team. You might end up making some new friends in town, and find yourself grabbing lunch together after practice to talk about last week’s game.  You might also find yourself feeling better from the exercise and the social interaction, instead of sitting at home watching Netflix or political commentary.

Musicals try to work the same way. There are a lot of great musicians in Guilford and Madison who love musical theater. We’ve actually had several people join our church after being part of our productions.  During our rehearsals, community happens.  New friendships are made. People work together, and sometimes disagree, but together we learn how to resolve conflict while working on a common goal.  There’s a lot of opportunity for people to work together: a musical involves people who make posters and do interviews for publicity, who paint backdrops, who construct sets, who play in the pit, who direct, who choreograph, who do lighting and sound. We’ve had people aged 7 to 75 in our shows; musicals are often intergenerational.

Does it sound a lot like church? Lots of different people, learning and growing together, working together towards common goals. We sometimes disagree, and learn how to be community together with all our differences. Together, we are able to be so much more than we can be individually.

But what’s the goal of a musical (or, you might ask what is the goal of ‘church’)? For each musical at First Church, we try to put on an entertaining show, one that inspires and tells a story and may make you think about some broader issues. Fiddler hopefully made us think about anti-Semitism while also entertaining us with “To Life! L’Chaim!”; we’re hoping that you might think about what a living wage would mean for laborers depicted in Working, while also being entertained by singing truck drivers and dancing waitresses. We try to put on a professional show, but our goal isn’t perfection. Similarly, our choir on Sunday morning tries to provide a variety of music as best we can, but we don’t audition people and choose only the very best to sing.  In fact, we really celebrate everyone who sings with us, and in our musical, we try to give everyone a chance to participate, whether it’s on stage in the lights or behind the scenes. We could use this production as a fundraiser: we could hire the best Equity talent, and sell expensive tickets, and rent the best costumes.  But that wouldn’t align with our goals.

Our goal is the process: the process of building of community.  The sharing of talent with others through song and dance to give them joy and hope.  The sharing of our church resources – our musical staff, our large sanctuary, our congregation – with the wider community, welcoming them into our building and offering them something Netflix and Hulu will never match. Helping the cast to find out more about themselves and each other while they learn to be someone else on stage. Connecting with people in the pews, inviting them to hear new stories that will inspire them. Together the audience becomes a community, and is sent forth humming a tune or thinking about Freddy the fast-food delivery boy or Terry the flight attendant, and how these stage characters can also be found in the workers of Guilford and Madison: the people we see each day living the complicated life of American labor.

If you’re not a part of producing the musical, we hope that you come to be a member of the audience April 24th – 26th, to be a part of building community. 
Bill Speed

Click here to read the Steeple Newsletter for March 11, 2020.

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