It's an article of faith that we're a nation of many faiths, guided not by one religion but a belief that we choose the belief system that suits us, with the freedom to try out different belief systems or, if we choose, to have no spiritual life at all. This idea, enshrined in the first words of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"), is a core American ideal.
That freedom is flourishing in our theatre. A random look at shows now playing in New York reveals faith as a recurring theme and source of inspiration.
In this year's New York International Fringe Festival, for example, is "9/11: The Book of Job," a tuner mixing Old Testament verse with current news to ponder that awful day. "Confessions of a Mormon Boy," Steven Fales' solo play, examines the clash between faith and sexual orientation. "Saint Arlecchino" satirizes Catholic saints and holy wars through masks, puppets, and physical comedy. In "Bootleg Islam," comic Negin Farsad uses humor to explore religion in her native Iran. And "Apocalypse!: Book One" turns the Four Horsemen—Death, War, Pestilence, and Famine—into anthropomorphic figures when Jesus Christ, "an unassuming carpenter from a key swing state," runs against President Bush.
Shows outside this year's Fringe use faith, belief, and religion, too. Roger Kirby's "Medea in Jerusalem" is set in the Middle East, making Medea a Muslim and Jason a Jew. In the UnConvention, Stone Soup Theatre Arts presents a version of Elie Wiesel's "The Trial of God" and Bread and Puppet Theatre Company offers "Insurrection Mass with Funeral March for a Rotten Idea," using "secular scripture readings, a fiddle sermon, and hymns [to bury a] recent political-economical event or idea which deserves burial." In September, Theatre Row Studio Theatre hosts "The Mentalizer Kabbalah Show," with expert Ehud Segev coursing through the Kabbalah.
While many of these faith-oriented pieces have political or satiric edges, "Children's Letters to God," in an open run at the Lamb's Theatre, does not. Based on Stuart Hample's bestseller, the piece is a musical (music by David Evans, lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen) that stars five young actors, ages 10-15.
"Stuart Hample went to everything from Catholic schools to yeshivas and asked kids, 'If you could write a letter to God, what would you write?' And when it was published over 10 years ago in the children's actual handwriting, it sold extremely well," says producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland. "Three or four years ago, the musical was given to me and I passed—it was too simple. Now, rewritten, it's authentically simple—a beautiful story of five kids and questions that come from their individual lives. One boy's parents are divorced—who should he live with? One of the girls has a pet turtle that dies—how do you deal with death? Each child goes through an evolution."
More important, she says, each character has a different experience with faith and God. The idea is not to advance religion—Copeland emphasizes how the book and the musical are "nondenominational"—but to ask "really simple but giant questions."
Formerly vice president of creative affairs for Radio City Entertainment and, from 1979-96, producing artistic director of the Lamb's Theatre Company (which she returned to in 2002), Copeland has spent almost 25 years producing what she calls "family-friendly theatre," and if that interweaves matters of faith, she says, all the better.
"Works that I've produced in the past, like Harry Chapin's 'Cotton Patch Gospel' or 'Smoke on the Mountain,' weren't always so well received. Today, we don't have to explain works involving faith. We don't have to say, "No, we're not trying to convert you.' We can say, 'We're trying to do a great piece of work that has to do with faith.' "
And she feels there's a growing need for such theatre. "What I love about 'Children's Letters to God' is it allows tremendous conversations between kids and parents to occur. I have four children, and part of why I'm drawn to this is because, as you raise your children, you know they can't inherit your faith—that they have to choose for themselves. But this allows kids to ask questions so they can start to think about choosing their own."
A Dominican priest, Peter John Cameron, O.P., is the author of over a dozen plays and artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre. Founded in 1940, the group "proclaims the saving power of the Gospels via the theatrical medium," and its next work is Cameron's "The Women Who Served." First performed at the NYU Catholic Center a decade ago and told in "Spoon River Anthology" style, the play, running at the ArcLight Theatre, Oct. 8-31, looks at eight historical women of the Gospels (e.g., Mary Magdalene) "whose lives were completely transformed after meeting Jesus."
"I wrote the play," Cameron recalls, "because I was very intrigued by what moved so many women who met Christ to the point that their lives changed. In reading the Gospels, there seemed to be a unity in that, once they met him, they discovered the meaning of their life, their destiny. The point of the play is to find what I think is a very accessible humanity in these women, one which makes them appear, really, quite modern. What makes their stories classic is how they struggle with their own humanity and how those struggles have their answer in this one man."
Cameron adds, however, that the company does not take a universal approach with regard to the faith of individual actors, but strives to find the universality in the spiritual beliefs of everyone.
"When you look at roles and actors, you begin with the human heart, which is equal in everyone," Cameron says. "There's a fundamental need in every human heart for beauty, truth, justice, and fulfillment. That's the purpose of Blackfriars Rep—we're a religious theatre to the extent that a religious mission guides us. We repudiate moralistic plays, plays that want to be black and white with rule-ish ways of living. The purpose of the theatre and the reason why it continues flourishing in an age when it could become obsolete is because the answer to the questions that the human heart seeks can only be found in the presence of another human heart and that can only happen on stage."
And while Cameron says Blackfriars Rep "certainly will cast an atheist and certainly has before," he concedes that it is often helpful to the actor to have roots in faith. "Key to Blackfriars Rep is that, if you enter into production with us, you enter into a friendship. So if there's someone who doesn't share that desire to bond, they're not going to be happy. The actor has to ask: Can I authentically be with other people and be myself without antagonizing myself or without being antagonized? We pray, but we don't have prayer meetings; this is, yes, part of our method. And we're happy for people who come to us, searching for a chance to find what their heart is looking for."
If one person's faith is another person's source of satire, Maureen FitzGerald's "Moonchild," a Fringe Festival show running at the Access Theater, Aug. 14-28, is a great example. Based on actual events, the play looks at the friendship between L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and Jack Parsons, an avowed Satanist and devotee of cult figure Aleister Crowley, and how these three unlikely individuals all contributed to the founding of one of the controversial "new religions" of the millennium.
"I'm one of those people who spends too much time online," FitzGerald says, "and I found a link to a website with information on the friendship between Hubbard and Parsons—Parsons designed jet propulsion systems used in planes during World War II. They attempted this ritual, "The Babalon Working," which was supposed to bring, in effect, the birth of the Antichrist. Well, I thought this was hilarious, and a fascinating story."
And, one would think, the perfect jumping-off place to poke fun at Scientology, right? Wrong, FitzGerald says.
"I have no particular feelings or even any real knowledge of Scientology, and what little I know is what people have told me, and it's clear that many underlying ideas probably occurred to Hubbard by meeting Jack Parsons. For me, this play was never a question of a temptation to satirize Scientology. I made a conscious attempt not to do so because I was afraid of backwriting historically inappropriate things into the script. The play isn't anti-Scientology, and it's not anti-Hubbard; I simply didn't want to manipulate time. And, as I say, it's just a fascinating story."
But FitzGerald, however, does acknowledge the growing presence of faith in new stage works, perhaps mirroring the growth in religiosity in our society as a whole. As for whether this is a positive or negative trend, she says, "Faith in theatre is like anything else—it's all in how you approach it. If you use your beliefs to proselytize, it's not a good idea. Is it possible to write persuasively, to have characters speak persuasively? If you respect intelligence and an audience's ability to think, then it's something positive."
Speaking more generally, FitzGerald notes that "the presence of faith in our theatre or in our culture, and whether this is a good or bad thing, is not a left-wing, New York intellectual concern. I don't think we can entirely credit or blame, say, the president for the presence of religion in the zeitgeist. It's part of the new millennium as much as anything, and I think there are historical cycles in which people embrace spirituality more so than ordinarily. You had the '60s and '70s and the abandonment of faith. Now we cycle back to rigid conservatism."
During rehearsals for "Moonchild," she says, director Alex Lippard engaged in "no per se discussions of faith—we didn't want to influence actors in their choices. But we did discuss how Scientology, like anything else, has good and bad points—it depends on who is practicing it and what the purpose is. But I will say this: Something causing people to look inward is a good thing. The problem comes when it's less about looking inward and more about looking outward toward some answer man who says he knows 'how to get it right.' Religion and faith should guide your life—not be something that controls it."