With the Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing, and green bean casserole settling in our distended stomachs, we headed down to the unfinished basement of my Uncle Jack’s ranch-style home in Jenison, Michigan for a holiday game of pool.
Two months into my junior year in college, I was beginning to feel the pressure to do something to justify all the tuition paid on my behalf; that is, to find a vocation, so I could get a good job and make something of myself. I was also acutely aware that close relatives want to be assured that one is making sound decisions in this area. As Uncle Jack, the eminently practical, decorated World War II veteran and ninth grade science teacher lined up a rather simple shot at the side pocket, he casually asked, “So, what are you studying at that college these days?”
Having just recently decided to pursue the one thing I could see myself doing for the rest of my life, the one discipline that truly made me happy, the one area of the creation that had chosen me rather than I it, and the only profession I felt called to, I proudly blurted the word, “Theatre!” just as my uncle’s cue contacted the ball. He missed the shot by about three inches. As he straightened up from his shot, in a combination of frustration at missing the shot and disbelief of what I had just exclaimed, he said something I will never forget: “Huh! Theatre?! What are you gonna do with that?”
Now, I had prepared in advance for several variations on this inevitable question, but the simple, direct way Uncle Jack asked it caught me off guard. I tried to stick to my script and weakly offered something about the fact that the “Back To God Hour” had recently built new television studios in Palos Heights, Illinois, and they would need trained people to work there, and . . . my voice trailed off. My dad picked up the theme and said that what I really wanted to do eventually was teach (which I did not), but this appeased Uncle Jack, and the conversation turned to other subjects, now forgotten. In fact, I don’t remember much about the rest of the day, only the feeling that I was being called to something of which, deep down, my family did not approve.
I can’t say to this day if I was actually being divinely called or if I was just set on pursuing a career in the theatre to stick it in my uncle’s eye. I graduated with a theatre major and went on to earn a graduate degree in theatrical design. Despite the apparent better judgment of my family and the reigning attitude in the conservative Reformed denomination in which I had grown up, I was now a theatre professional, a designer by training, but faced with a less-than-hospitable job market.
I hated to admit it, but perhaps Uncle Jack’s skepticism was well grounded. I turned to, of all things, jobs in education. Lo and behold, I was hired by my alma mater into a professional support staff position and I have been at the institution ever since, now on the faculty and the director of the theatre program (yes, I’ve already added that to the list of things my dad was right about).
Over the years I have tried to give advice to students who were feeling the same call I felt but wondering how to square their feelings with their sheltered upbringing, a feeling I know well. If gifted with these talents and abilities, how can one not develop them? Wouldn’t that be like burying them in the ground? If truly a gift from God, talents must be used for God’s glory. But a secondary question has always remained, how can we be effective professionals in the unholy world of the theatre without being of that world? I was nagged by this question. How is it right and good to train students to do something that has such potential to make them stumble? How is it right to teach them to “work with their hands, the thing that is good” in an industry that is often so bad, so fallen? Then something happened that helped me begin to see the light, and I learned it from my students.
A few years ago, a group of our former theatre students, three married couples as a matter of fact, moved to Columbus, Ohio and formed an arts collective called the “Wild Goose Creative.” They acquired a storefront building where they host arts events and provide a space and the time for local struggling artists to hone their artistic talents, everything from music to poetry to culinary arts. I was skeptical at first. After all, how would they support themselves, and who would give them work?
Intrigued by their project, I invited “the Geese” to come back and talk to our current students about their journey since college. The story they told both surprised and humbled me. They said they were doing what they were doing as a way of exploring what it means to live in community—how community is created, how it perpetuates itself, and why it is important. They went on to say that everything they learned about community formation, they learned as undergraduates in the theatre company right here where the current students sat. It dawned on me that all I had said in giving career advice over the years was far less important and likely far less effective than what my colleagues and I had done, almost without knowing it. We had built a community, and what’s more, we had built a Christian community that sent students out into the world to form communities of their own.
Theatre, by its very nature, forms community. Whether the unique bonds that are formed between members of a production team as they work together “in the trenches” or the bonds that are formed between actors and an audience on opening night, the theatre is all about community. Who better to lead the way with theatre that builds community than Christians who truly understand the meaning of the word? We were not left on this earth to be faithful all alone. We are called to live together, as a vague picture of what the kingdom of God may look like someday. We can prepare our students for graduate school, or an internship, or an entry-level position in the industry, but we do them a disservice if we do not prepare them to live and work together, to a greater common goal. This is why Christians must study the theatre and work in the theatre to redeem it from its unholy reputation, because this art form, used properly, brings us ever closer to God’s shalom, a heavenly community where all things are made new.
As I listened to the eulogies at my Uncle Jack’s funeral last summer, I calculated that it had been just about thirty years since his Thanksgiving Day question, and I realized that I had never really given him a proper answer. So, to answer your question, Uncle Jack, I’m gonna do just what I’ve been called to do: redeem the little corner of the world in which I work, and at the same time I’m gonna train the next generations to take it from there, together, in community.