Rev. Michael Johnson
Thank you Chris and good evening every one.
I have some affection for this building because this is where I conducted my first wedding as a new priest. I am really glad to be back here. My first parish was just up the road at St. Georges in Westcombe Park and this feels like coming back to my first ministry.
I am not going to theorise at all. I am just going to give you some examples of the ways that I have tried to apply ideas about spiritual development in what I am doing as a priest and also as a theatre practitioner and in particular in this organisation which has grown up called ‘Stage Fright’. A lot more of the theory will come later when Ann speaks. And Andrew who is a friend of mine and has been part of the Stage Fright programme for a number of years is going to talk about his own experience of it as a participant.
So let me fill you in a bit about the background of what Stage Fright has become. When I started as a priest, I had been weighing up the possibility of working in the theatre or the church, opting for the church in the end, not absolutely sure that I had made the right choice, until I arrived in my first parish at St Georges. Malcolm Torry (who I think is still the rector there) was my training incumbent. The first project he asked me to get involved in was a theatre project. I don’t really believe that God has a plan for every aspect of our lives but I might be wrong on that.So I started working in the Anglican ministry on a theatre project right here in Greenwich and that was remarkable in that it was a mechanism for getting all sorts of people to come into the church and work on some aspects of performance where they would think about faith and belief even though they weren’t regular churchgoers.
That was the spark of an idea which grew later.
I had been part of CPAS summer residential for a number of years. It is a fairly evangelical organisation where children and young people go away for a week and are introduced to ideas about Christian faith and encouraged to think about their own responses. And about ten or eleven years ago the opportunity came to start a new camp. I brought together a small team of people who were interested in using theatre as the main activity of the camp. The rationale for that (and this relates to the idea of how we can effectively help young people to assume spiritual values without them realising it) was that on previous camps there had been a whole series of activities intended to help children and young people think about aspects of faith.
They enjoyed it and came back the following year. So when we asked them what they remembered from the previous year, we found that there was very little, except for certain activities. One of those activities was the drama workshops which were not necessarily faith based or related to any aspect of spirituality. If you said to them ‘do you remember what we did on the drama workshop?’ more often than not they would start to repeat the entire exercise or the little play that they had devised over the course of an hour, word for word - even after a year. So something had been internalised through that process and stuck with them in a way that nothing else on the residential had done.
So the spark of an idea was beginning to grow at that stage and we made theatre the main activity of these residential ’camps’, which were intended for spiritual development. They have now been running for ten years.
Here is the younger group, aged eight to eleven years and next is a photo of the older group – who are aged between 12 and 16 years.
So in 2005 when I moved to Wokingham in Berkshire the summer camps were already going and I was asked to have a go at a Passion Play which would engage people of all ages. We publicised this play with a rather dark and mysterious image which attracted people from a number of different churches and different age groups to come and join in as participants; not just as audience but to actually participate and to devise a play in about six days. We didn’t start with a script. We started with the basic stories that we wanted to tell on Easter eve 2007. In six days we devised a way of telling those stories and the participants were encouraged to think and work out their own ideas about those stories and then to tell them. We never wrote any of it down; it was all in their heads. I could not repeat that play because none of it was ever written down. It was all in the heads of the participants, the youngest of whom was about eight and the oldest was in their late seventies. At the end of that week, on Easter eve, they all said “What shall we do next?”
So we continued to organise activities and out of that sprung a couple of groups for teenagers and then some more occasional activities. In 2009 we received funding from Wokingham Borough Council to open some after school clubs in four schools in Wokingham aimed at ages 9 to 11, and we still run those after school clubs even though the local authority funding has run out. Here are some photos of the after school clubs so you have a sense of what they are like:
The girl on the right is often very shy but clearly something has happened and she has decided that she can express herself more than she had been - and that’s great.
This is a picture of when all the
schools came together at the end of the year and they are holding up words to
express something about their feelings and how they imagine their lives to be
in the town where they live. This represents something of what we are trying to
do; we are trying to get them to articulate their thoughts about their own
lives and their own experience of life, their feelings and emotions, and portray
those in some way for other people. So these are words that they have all come
up with themselves – very varied.
And this is a photo taken at the end of the performance.
And in the teenage groups: we have discovered that while engaging in a physical activity we can even cut out words, using only expressions and contact.
following pictures are of teenagers
performing in an empty shop window in the high street in Wokingham, exploring
ideas about Christmas. One of the features of our work is that we don’t
necessarily tell the stories in traditional ways. We allow participants to explore
different aspects of what Christmas might mean. Here you have got three kings
wrapping the gifts that they are going to take on their journey and they are
The shepherds are herding the gifts together into the corner of the shop. I am not entirely sure of the meaning behind this as these are thoughts that have come out of their minds, relating the traditional stories to modern experience.
With the teenagers we have also explored lots of current issues that have caught their attention from the news so last year we were commissioned by the Children’s Society to produce a play on the issue of child detention centres which became a hot potato for the new government. We did a play called ‘Outcry’ to support the children’s society’s campaign. And I was alarmed a week ago to hear that it is still not over despite various pledges that have been made. So we often pick topical issues which teenagers have noticed and chosen to say something about.
Sometimes we choose quite abstract themes as well. We did a play on the theme of ‘Silence’. Not an obvious thing for teenagers to explore but one which challenged them to think about a different way of experiencing life.
The teenagers as well as people of all ages from our Wokingham community have got involved in a Passion play every good Friday for the last four years so here are one or two pictures from the Wokingham Town Square –right out in the public space. We have lots of participants. You can see the people just gather round and pack into what is quite a small area. This performance, from a couple of years ago, was in the pouring rain and the image of the cross that we had planned became even more dramatic when the rain took it.
The theme from last year was water and inevitably we had bright sunshine. So telling traditional stories in a very obvious way in the market square is something that we do.
This picture is from a theme that we chose to engage women. We had girls as young as 8 and 11 who engaged in a project about the life and person of Mary, the mother of Jesus and as the image suggests, we were trying to explore her character from many different perspectives. And so we had about 24 participants in this project and they all brought something of their own experience to shed light on the character of Mary. We called it the Virgin Monologues and we had twenty two different Mary’s, often on the stage at the same time to show that we were not trying to give the impression of a unified story of Mary but to allow different people’s experiences to relate to a rather extraordinary life.
So – projects for all ages - for adults, for teenagers, for children. We are still running the summer residentials and we are training young leaders as well.
The next picture represents that. We are not trying to produce super heroes, we are just trying to help younger adults to become facilitators of the programme having been recipients and participants. This tall figure at the back is Andrew; and here he is.
So that is just to give you an idea about what we have been doing.
I want to say a few words about why I think that theatre may be useful in this process of spiritual development.
I have taken up a new course of studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama to supplement my experience in theatre with some good background knowledge to try and improve what we are doing and I have been quite surprised to discover that there are many resonances in the history of theatre with the idea of spiritual development
The first drama school in this country was RADA which was founded in 1904. What I was surprised to find is that the earliest students were not all there to learn to become actors expecting to make a profession of it - a career. Many of them were young women who were sent there to study as a kind of finishing school. It was thought that the things they might learn at a drama school would be useful in life and not just on the stage; and a couple of reports for graduating students read along the lines of saying that these particular students developed a keener interest in all things around them. Not the kind of thing you would expect to read in a drama school report. Another student was described as having a brighter, more hopeful personality as a result of her studies. So there were thought to be useful lessons that could be learned from studying acting and theatre; and not just for the stage.
The ‘godfather’ of 20th century theatre is Stanislawski who talked in no uncertain terms about the spirituality of theatre. He rather disguised those thoughts during the Communist regime but those who worked with him and knew him were aware that he was very much talking about engaging the spirit through theatre. A couple of things that he said:
He said that unless the theatre can ennoble you, make you a better person, you should flee from it. If you open yourself up, as an actor, to the possible existence of the human spirit and combine that belief with your acting instrument (by which he meant the body and the voice) you have unavoidably engaged in spiritual life.
He also said ‘the essence of Art in general is not in its external forms but in its spiritual content’ and he talked about theatre as not something which only took place on the stage in the theatre; he saw it as very much connected to all of life. He said that actors are not really able to perform effectively unless all of their art was in order.
So there was a continuity for him between the art that he was producing and every aspect of life. That meant the people who were employed by the theatre from the cleaners to the box office staff and the directors and the back stage crew – and also families and people in the local community. He said that if the actors were not in communion with all the people in the community, they could not perform effectively on the stage, So there is continuity between the art and everyday experience of life at least in the origins of twentieth century theatre.
These are just a few ideas about why theatre might be effective for the process of spiritual development. Now how do we try to interpret the idea and make use of the theatre for spiritual development in what Stage Fright has been doing?
One of the things that we aim for in everything we do is to find what the Celitic christians used to call the ‘touching places between heaven and earth’. So in the old fashioned dualistic view of heaven up there and earth down here there might be touching places where those on earth experience something of heaven. I rather like it as an image because it seems to me that the stage might be that touching place and so in everything that we do with Stage Fright we are trying to give opportunities for those who are putting on some piece of theatre on this small touching place of earth on the stage, to find connections between things spiritual and things temporal. That is what we are looking for especially with the participants in mind.
But of course theatre doesn’t really come to life until the audience is also there and you need those things to be communicated to the audience as well. We very rarely come to our rehearsal workshop with a finished script. The idea is that if we encourage and enable the participants to explore their own ideas around a theme then something will happen in terms of their own development rather than simply putting across other people’s ideas.
So whether we are exploring a faith story, even a biblical story, or whether we are exploring some experience from the participants’ own mind we are looking to give them a chance to voice and to develop their thinking on particular issues. In so doing we have found that we can engage with people who are not ‘churched’ participants. Those who never set foot inside a church are able to engage with the idea of exploring their ordinary lives through stories that come from a spiritual tradition even though they may not consider themselves to be spiritual or religious in any way. How do we do that?We talk about life values. We encourage the participants to bring their own personal experiences into their contributions rather than forcing the views of a particular religious tradition and provoke and encourage more questions than answers. We encourage the participants to play with the stories that they are telling; to find what truths they can in their own verbal physical and emotional language, any way that they can portray their ideas in performance.
We try to run with the participants’ own ideas rather than presenting them with a fait accompli. We ask them to listen to other people’s ideas and incorporate those ideas in the whole performance.
We insist that they work with everyone in the group and not just the people who they came with or their immediate friends and to try to appreciate what another perspective might bring to the overall experience. And we also try throughout the whole process to give them a feeling of what we are exploring, not just for the sake of the performance.
For example, one year the theme was freedom and at the end of it there was a play which was very obviously about freedom and also lack of freedom.
On one particular day we tried to give the participants a very clear experience of freedom as part of the other activities which had nothing to do with the theatre workshops. So we set aside a substantial period of time in the afternoon when there was complete freedom or as much as we could offer. There were fifteen teenagers and we gave them a budget of money that they could use and we gave them offer of lifts to wherever they wanted to go.
They had freedom. There was no programme arranged for that time. Some of them embraced that with alacrity and made good use of the money and resources that were available to them. Some of them decided to do nothing all the time, and some of them were very unnerved by the whole experience and begged us to stop and arrange a programme for them. So we tried to give them a true feeling of what we were exploring.
This year one of our themes was giving and we encouraged the participants to come up with ideas of things that they might give to the local community in the town where we were staying and they came up with a number of ways of giving to people on the street in the local village. So we are not just trying to do something in the theatre; rather like Stanislawski said we are trying to make something continuous with their everyday experience of life.
Just to finish with the thoughts of one parent who appreciated what their child had experienced through one of our clubs. She said that this was the first thing that had captured her son’s imagination and she said that she had been sending him to all sorts of different activities after school to see what would really engage him and this experience of being able to explore his own ideas and express them in some way had captured his imagination and being.
I tell you this not because I am saying that we are doing it particularly well, but just that there is something about the process that we are engaged in with young people which seems to have that effect and to give them an opportunity to develop their imagination and their being - which in my mind is an important aspect of their spiritual development.
I hope that these are all useful examples of different kinds of activities that can be done with a view to promoting spiritual development using the arts.
Andrew now will give us a few thoughts from his own experience of such programmes and also some thoughts of his own.