Shaking the Foundations
- By gentleguide
- On Fri 06 Apr 2018
Next weekend sees the opening of The Christians. Iowa Stage is presenting this modern drama at the Kum & Go Theatre, looking at faith and belief systems and how they relate to human interaction in our current times. The Christians isn’t about debunking faith, or reaffirming a religion centuries old. It’s about what we believe about ourselves and each other, and how we fit those ideas into a world that’s changing at an amazing rate.
“When Iowa Stage announced their lineup, I didn’t know much about The Christians,” says director Maxwell Schaeffer, “but was curious and did some homework. It was a complete surprise when I was offered the opportunity to direct! After reading the script, I was quick to sign on.”
“The play’s author, Lucas Hnath, is being heralded as one of the brightest new voices of his generation. It’s ground-breaking work and is unlike any straight play I’ve directed. It immediately immerses the audience in the middle of a riveting intellectual debate. It’s the only play I know of that has been reviewed, positively, by the New York Times AND Christianity Today. Non-believers and believers will find something special about this story. And the level of skill among the actors is something that patrons will not want to miss.”
A New Path
The Christians concerns Pastor Paul, played by Jonathan DeLima. Pastor Paul is the leader of what has grown to be a megachurch, and ends up preaching a sermon that causes a schism in the growing church membership. The resultant emotions revolve around questions of changing beliefs, personality vs. message, and the very human responses to having emotional foundations shaken to the core.
As Pastor Paul, DeLima is in charge of his flock, and understands the importance his character holds in the other’s lives. But that literally sacred duty comes with revelations that all may not want to face. “In his role as the spiritual leader he wants to bring his congregation into this clarity, while he also recognizes that it will take some time (and questions) for people to get comfortable with it.”
“At the same time, he is definitely on a journey of discovery in the play: about how this process impacts people in the congregation, how it challenges people’s experience of faith and the church itself, and how it affects his own understanding of relationships with people important to him. I’d offer that he is challenged a few times to step back from what he has introduced, and without being simply stubborn or closed-hearted, he encounters reasons (and sacrifices) why it is crucial to pursue his calling.”
This balanced approach is central to The Christians. “I would not say this play is trying to ‘change minds’ towards a particular viewpoint,” says DeLima. “One of the approaches I think particularly notable is the play’s even-handedness in the presentation of its characters, which it achieves without robbing the piece as a whole of dramatic propulsion.”
Finding the Essence
Director Schaeffer has extensive experience guiding that kind of propulsion, so when he says The Christians is “unlike any straight play I’ve directed,” that covers a lot of ground. And when you consider his last few shows have included big cast musicals like Young Frankenstein and The Little Mermaid, a small-cast drama requires a slight adjustment… but only a slight one.
“The process of developing, rehearsing, and staging a straight play is much less complicated, for sure, and character direction is much more of a team effort in a musical - between music director, choreographer, and director. But providing individual focus for actors in a straight play is no different than a musical, because it’s all about the effort put into the scene work. Actors must understand your vision of the story, and you must encourage them to explore their character within that vision.”
Throughout the rehearsal process, Schaeffer has worked closely to make sure each actor finds their own place. And that means approaching material about faith and religion, which not everyone agrees on. But Schaeffer points out that, although the name of this production is The Christians, it’s about more than just one religious group.
“The Christians operates from a point of reference, rather than a point of view. It’s a story about how a complicated belief system shapes human interaction. It could be ANY belief system, really. It just happens to take place in a church. The conflict in the play applies to every one of us who follows any kind of point of view. What do we believe? How do we interpret the evidence? How do we treat those who disagree with us? Is the concept of faith universal?”
Keeping the Faith
MIchael Clinkscales plays Associate Pastor Joshua, a character whose views are very much in line with tradition and history... and who isn’t the most welcoming of the changes in thought and action that are brought forth by Pastor Paul. He sees how the characters relate to his own life, and what he can bring to the presentation of The Christians.
“I have an abnormally close connection with this show,” says Clinkscales, “as my own father’s life mirrors that of my character in more than a few places. However as a result, my own life and upbringing is much more similar to that of Pastor Paul. It’s been incredibly useful to draw from the experiences and mannerisms I’ve observed from my Dad, other Pastors, and a few bible camp counselors over the years.”
Lest you think that The Christians is simply a dramatized conflict about religious interpretation, let me assure you that it’s much more than that. The real emphasis, and the true revelation, is about how people react when their core values are challenged, and their incredibly human responses to that conflict.
Clinkscales continues, “I think something that is done particularly well in this script is allowing the audience to really parse together their own conclusions from each character’s argument. You really get the chance to see arch characters’ own personal relationship with the conflict as opposed to a certain good winning over evil. One fo the most interesting things I learned while preparing for this show was the playwright’s own refusal to take a side. He wants it to be up in the air and to really explore the grey areas in the situation.”
“This show asks a lot of questions about Christianity and faith as a whole, but it provides little in the vein of answering those questions. What I’ve taken, is the importance of each individual’s personal experience. No one person’s experience is the same, and though our interpretations of each moment and text may vary, those experiences remain and are valid. Faith isn’t about certainty, and neither is this show. Questions rarely have just one answer.”
Schaeffer enjoys the process of finding those answers for the various individuals in The Christians. “The cast settled quickly into their characters and we’ve been peeling back the layers to reveal the complicated, compelling human beings underneath. Because the play doesn’t deliver a heavy-handed point of view, it has been easy and natural for the actors to dig in and discover their humanity.”
“My hope is that potential audiences will remove any pre-conceived notions about the production, and come with an open mind. They won’t be disappointed!”
The Christians is presented by Iowa Stage at the Kum & Go Theatre beginning April 13 and running through April 22. Tickets can be purchased from the Iowa Stage website.