Can any works of lasting value come from the film or theater industries these days? Some critics might answer that question with a resounding no! Indeed, many have. But have they heard of the New Harmony Project?
It is eight o’clock on a cool, spring morning in the former utopian community of New Harmony in southwest Indiana. In the early 1800s, people flocked here to be a part of an experimental, harmonic society. Today a company of artists is seeking its own harmony: that of truth with theater. For over two weeks, almost 80 actors, writers, directors, and others have been putting in ten-hour days producing a film and rehearsing three plays.
But time is running out. The group now has less than two days before this annual 17-day theater and film workshop culminates with final play readings and a movie premiere—and their work is far from over.
But that does not seem to bother the handful who are heading to daily worship in the small, cylindrical Waddam’s Chapel. What happens in this chapel on a small scale is but a taste of what happens at the New Harmony Project on a much larger one.
Like most of the interiors around the 175-year-old town, the chapel is stark. It contains a few Shaker chairs and some pads for kneeling, offering small glimpses of the town’s past.
Attendance is at 20, a bit higher than usual. The group begins by singing “Be Thou My Vision,” “Psalm 5,” and a few other songs. Then author Walter Wangerin, one of the project’s directors, reads from Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians: “Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”
He speaks of performers’ temptation to see themselves not as vessels of truth but rather as possessors of it. “People sometimes worship, obey, and serve stars—they deify them,” he tells the group. “But when your acting is right, you shine a light on truth or beauty—not on yourselves.”
When he finishes, an actor named Angelina teaches the group a new song: “Me and Jesus, We Got a Good Thing Going.”
“It’s pretty easy to learn,” the young woman from Los Angeles says. Few have ever sung it before, but by the end they are clapping and singing in fourpart harmony and rounds, and when they run out of verses they make up their own. Within minutes they have taken a few simple verses, added their trained voices and creative minds, and crafted a sweet song of praise to heaven.
The New Harmony Project is not a distinctly Christian endeavor, though there are a number of Christians, including Wangerin, on the board. Established in 1986, the project is a resource network that encourages development of scripts that explore positive human values.
In order to pass muster with the board, a submitted work must, in Wangerin’s words, “name, celebrate, honor, and praise order in the midst of chaos; life in the midst of death; atonement in the midst of separating hatred; liberty in the midst of oppression; sacrifice in the midst of vanity.”
And if a work meets those criteria—and is chosen through the project’s screening process—it is brought to this small town, where in 1814 a group of Lutheran separatists first settled to await the millennium, and where later a secular, utopian community was attempted. Here, for two weeks, selected works are read, critiqued, revised, and then staged by some of the industry’s most talented professionals.
The project’s Christian element is not worn on anyone’s sleeve, but rather it is delicately woven into New Harmony’s fabric—in the plays themselves and in the way they are produced.
One of this year’s plays, The Truth About Charlie, is about to be rehearsed in the Parish House, around the corner from the chapel. Written by Dolores Whiskeyman and set in the 1950s, the drama explores an American family’s struggles to come to grips with the difference between true faith and mere religiosity.
“Can I say how I feel about this line?” asks actor Michael Gross (Steven Keaton of “Family Ties”), who plays the father, Gus. “There are too many can’ts in it. Can I cut some?… And I don’t think my character would say ‘all right’ here.” The director and writer consider the requests and agree to make them.
Each of the works that comes here goes though several rounds of changes like this. And, as on this occasion, the changes happen in a constructive, supportive way.
“This is a place where people do not have to bite each other’s backs,” says Wangerin. “And they nevertheless do very, very good work.”
Many plays that got their start here—Opal, Mama Drama, and Johnny Pye and the Foolkiller, to name a few—have gone on to successful runs in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities, some winning multiple awards. Another play, The View from Here, by Margaret Dulaney, opens off-Broadway this month.
Says writer Buzz McLaughlin, dramaturge for another of the project’s plays, “This is not a showcase for stars seeking contracts or pumping up their own careers. It’s about giving.”
Meals are served buffet-style in the local inn’s large banquet room, where the famous and yet-to-be-discovered and on-stage and behind-the-scenes participants alike eat together, egos and laurels shed at the door. At lunch, Buzz’s wife, Kris, reflects on what she will take from her second year at New Harmony: “Some people live on this experience for the whole year, just knowing that there are others out there who stand for the same things.”
And because nobody gets religion crammed down his or her throat, even nonbelievers working at the project do not seem put off by any of its Christian elements. Some are even drawn by them. “I don’t look at my experience here from a Christian point of view,” says one student actor, “but this is like another world. There is such a deep spirit of cooperation.”
The curtain calls
The following evening a steady downpour of rain does not seem to have dampened anyone’s spirits. All make their way to an auditorium for the final reading of another of the project’s three theater productions, This City of Dreams.
As the audience files in, Walter Allen Bennett, Jr., the play’s writer, sits quietly and somewhat pensively in the middle of a row not far from the stage. Asked about his experience at the New Harmony Project, he says, simply, “It has been far greater than I could have expected.” And it shows in his work.
Set in New Jersey in 1965, his drama examines the relationship between parents and their adult children in a working-class, African-American family. A very real fear of failure, Bennett’s work suggests, can drive parents to place unrealistic and sometimes destructive demands on their children.
Afterward, Wangerin solicits comments on the play’s progress. “I thank you,” one woman, obviously moved, says to Bennett. “I really got a sense of the true grief parents feel when their children do not realize their dreams. I didn’t see that in Death of a Salesman; I didn’t see that in Fences. But I see it tonight. Thank you.”
And on go the comments—a word of praise from a writer sitting on the left, a criticism on pacing from an actor in the back. “You eliminated a lot of the predictable,” says one. “There were a lot more surprises,” offers another.
As diverse as the statements are, they each hint at the same thing: Something has happened to your play here. That something has made it richer, and it has helped me see what I have not seen in other places. And each remark captures the essence of what happens to just about everyone and everything that passes through New Harmony.
By Thomas S. Giles.
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