Not so long ago, a Christian theater group functioning as a full-time parachurch ministry would have been downright unthinkable in many church circles. But in the waning days of the sixties an idea for Christian street theater, and eventually full-blown drama performed by Christians in a professional setting, began to take shape.
An early effort that followed the above script was Lamb’s Players in National City, California, just outside San Diego. Incorporated in 1971, Lamb’s grew out of an experimental group at Bethel College (Minn.), then trooped to San Diego’s warmer climes (where founder Steve Terrell grew up) since street theater does not do well year round in Minnesota. Robert Smyth came on board to start a resident ensemble in 1976 when Lamb’s was operating out of a quonset hut. The group soon located a vacant Christian Science church—complete with theater seats, ticket window, and organ chambers well suited for a light-and-sound room. Converted and given a Spanish look (reflecting the area’s colonial heritage), the building is now “way too small for all that we do,” Smyth said during an interview last summer. Later, touring the darkened house, it is hard to imagine the intimate 150-seat room was ever anything but a theater-in-the-round.
Strike The Original Script
Lamb’s, which has ten full-time staff, is the only professional nonprofit theater organization in the U.S. that does not receive government funds—not only because of potential church/state conflicts, but, says Smyth, who is artistic director, “We really feel the people who see our work, who believe in it, will support it.”
Lamb’s many varied activities have embraced touring companies, an award-winning professional mime company, a dance troupe, and a puppetry company—geared not to children but to collegians. While they perform often in local churches, Lamb’s recently announced a number of touring productions being made available for the 1990–91 school year in conjunction with two other San Diego companies. Those school productions include Heroes, for elementary-school audiences, and I Am the Brother of Dragons, for high-school and adult audiences, which explores the toll chemical dependency takes upon an American family.
On stage this month in National City is a rarely performed Oscar Wilde play, An Ideal Husband. But although the company often performs classic or familiar works, Lamb’s may in fact be best known for its premières of original scripts. Rather than only churches picking up and performing these scripts, they hope regional theaters will increasingly want to do them. A couple have been done in New York, but the company hopes to obtain a small grant in order to gather five playwrights whose work they would like to do over the next few years. “We’d like to bring them together just for a chance to brainstorm, talk, be encouraged,” Smyth says.
A ringing phone interrupts the conversation, and when he turns back, Smyth explains the call was to arrange a phone conference. “We have a support group of other directors around the country who are kind of trying to do what we’re doing, so every two months we do a call to each other.”
Beyond National City
Among Lamb’s many spinoffs are summer seminars teaching churches how to use drama, a kids’ two-week drama camp, and “a kind of study center,” out of which has come a recently published book of scripts for church use (15 Surefire Scripts, World Wide, 1989), a “how-to” book on developing a drama group. “It’s a little more elaborate than just how to put a light bulb in a #10 can,” Smyth says.
Every staff member is encouraged to be involved in a local church. In addition, says Smyth, “We have a time every week when we all get together to pray and uphold each other and the concerns of the company.”
The struggle to legitimize drama as part of Christian ministry is less today than it was when Lamb’s and similar groups began functioning. But it is unusual to find the kind of long-term commitment evident in the Lamb’s Players. “I think some people realized that [our] ensemble was a real calling, … something we needed to make a longer-range commitment to, to make it possible,” Smyth says. Most staff members have been with Lamb’s for at least three years.
Among those who have left, a large number now work at Walt Disney World. One former managing director, David McFadzean, has been head story editor for the hit TV show “Roseanne.”
Given its consistently good reviews, Lamb’s has carved a solid niche for itself in its community. And it continues to offer Christians a consistently positive model for arts ministry.
By Carol R. Thiessen.
Little Hearts of Darkness
Original sin ought to be the easiest of all Christian beliefs to accept. One has only to visit a children’s playground to observe jealousy, vengeance and covetousness running wild. The best apologia for this essential doctrine in modern literature may be the novel Lord of the Flies, by Nobel Prize-winning author Sir William Golding. A group of English choirboys stranded on a tropical island revert to savagery and paganism, shedding the thin veneer of civilization as a snake sheds its skin.
Golding’s novel is a masterpiece of symbolism and irony. The boys predicament is a microcosm of our larger society where adults conceal their savagery behind the façade of politics and national interest. Golding makes no excuses, gives no easy outs, allows no qualifiers. Human beings are deeply flawed.
This is not the case with Harry Hook’s new film version. Hook updates the story, using American military cadets in place of English choirboys. In doing so, he provides an out: Perhaps the rigid hierarchy and bullying of military school has tainted the boys.
Hook also soft-pedals the flaw in Ralph, the novel’s protagonist. Early on Ralph befriends a fat boy, who confides his unwanted nickname: “Piggy.” When Ralph tells the other boys the name we see his capacity for betrayal. In the film, the nickname is simply an impromptu group creation. Ralph remains a pure foil for the Amin-like Jack.
Golding’s novel offers no reason for Jack’s ready abandonment of English fair play as he leads the boys from games to murder. Hook’s film serves up a simple motivation. The film version departs in a number of other symbolic passages while remaining essentially true to the story line. Whether it remains thematically true is another question. But here the film complements the book.
My high-school English students found the philosophical contrast between the book and novel compelling. It allowed them to grapple with the most essential of theological questions: Is human behavior tainted by environment, or is the human heart deeply and irreparably flawed? Education and enlightenment can compensate for environment, but acknowledging the flaw of original sin proclaims our desperate need of a Savior.
By Stefan Ulstein.
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