This post was written for the blogsite LDS Plays:
The Theatre as a Temple
by C. Michael Perry
Owner, Zion Theatricals
When we put up a play or a musical, whether in a Church setting or elsewhere, our testimony is evident in our work. As actors, directors, writers and production staff, we immerse ourselves in the text and the performance and cannot help but leave a bit of what we ourselves believe on the stage for others to witness.
That is a key thought — Witness. We must stand as a witness at all times to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not just for the eternal truths of the gospel itself, which cannot be denied, but to those truths as they apply to the world around us. The truths of the Gospel when applied to the problems of the world are a euphoric solution for the strife and moral decay we see around us.
Every time I see The Diary of Anne Frank, The Miracle Worker or even Les Miserables (the musical) (and many other works of great value) I am lifted up. Some works, whether by Latter-day Saints or not, have a certain Spirit about them. As a performer or member of the production staff, you can add your testimony to whatever you feel the author was trying to say. Yes, Les Miz is difficult in places and will never be produced inside the Church organization. But it’s message of forgiveness and redemption, of doing for others, is vital, even central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Everything that is put up on the stages of the Church, at any level, must reflect the Spirit of the Law. Brigham young himself said,
“Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it.”
We can (and must) talk about the thorny issues. A Theatre is not a place to sit back and pat ourselves on the backs for being Mormon and congratulate us in our efforts for trying to choose the right. In a Theatre, which can be compared to a Temple of entertainment and enlightenment, we should come away from a performance understanding a little more about this life and the life to come and the inter-relationships between the two spheres. Our minds and hearts should be opened, and through the Spirit we can divine changes we must make in our own lives, principles we can embrace, actions that we can see, through the vicarious experience of the theatre, that are both good and bad for us. The theatre is a great place for that: presenting all sides of an issue, not just a polarized vision of one point of view. The theatre is the best place for the exploration of belief. On a stage we can see ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’, both portrayed with sympathy and understanding, without an agenda, struggling and overcoming obstacles, or not overcoming them. We can come to realize who we are and why we are content to believe in what we do. We also come to understand the positions, opinions and actions of those around us. Especially if they differ from our own. We may not like those opinions, or actions, may not want to take them upon ourselves; but we understand them and understand each individuals right to make their own decisions. The theatre fosters love, of a sort.
There is a lot of “Mormon” theatre that compliments us on our “Mormon-ness”. That also is an important effect, but can never be the sole reason for theatre to exist inside the Church. If all we ever do is compliment each other for being Mormon, for living LDS Standards, then, most often, we never ask the questions that will lead us to a deeper understanding of who we really are; in this life and the life to come – and how to successfully navigate our way through all the pit-falls, traps, detours and alternate pathways that besiege us.
For example: if we paint Joseph Smith as a perfect individual, never doubting in himself, never striving for his people’s understanding, never making a mistake, then we suffer, because we can never be perfect in this life and all we see is perfection before us and we say, “That’s nice.” We don’t emulate him because we cannot.
Joseph never did doubt that he had seen what he had seen, that he was foreordained. His doubts centered in his humanity – his own abilities. Just like us. If we come to understand that even Joseph Smith, God’s Chosen Prophet, had imperfections; that he was like we are — then we can understand his example, because he is more like us that he is not like us. That is what allows us to perceive that change can be effected in our own lives because the examples we look at, those who have succeeded, are people like us. We can succeed.
The most important ingredient in any theatre experience is The Spirit. I have sat in a theatre many thousands of times in my life and received a feeling or an impression, usually for the good, that something right and good was flying off the stage and asking to be let into my heart and/or mind. It is just like that ‘aha’ moment that you receive in listening to General Conference when some speaker says something that just can’t be refuted, denied, or questioned, because the Spirit comes over you so immediately and so strongly in the act of confirmation and affirmation. Those are my favorite types of theatre experiences (and my favorite types of Church experiences, too).
This is the kind of theatre that we must create in and for our membership. It is the type of theatre that we can invite our friends, whether members of our faith or not, to attend with us. Theatre is one of the greatest missionary tools ever invented. Minds are enriched, hearts touched and spirits enlivened through the power of the spoken word on a stage. Seeing — witnessing — the experiences of others on a stage brings us closer to understanding, empathy, and compassion in a non-threatening atmosphere. It is all a fiction. Nobody is in real peril. There is no danger, immediate or otherwise, of someone really losing their testimony, or life, or principles. The stage is a supposition. The actors are players in a match of wits and wills. They are imitators of life, not life itself. This is the loving atmosphere we can create within the walls of the second type of Temple — a Theatre.
Let’s look at the Temple itself. You sit and watch a performance – a carefully constructed lesson-plan, but a performance none-the-less. This was especially true when the sessions in the temple were done with live workers.
The theatre, in the days of the Egyptians, and the Greeks and the Romans, was a place to worship the Gods of Comedy and Tragedy. Our Temples today are places to worship the One True and Living God, Jesus Christ. Let us look at all the religious pageants all over the world. What form do these pageants take? Theatrical form. From the Passion Plays of Oberammergau to the Hill Cumorah — it is all theatre; theatre that teaches and expounds just as Jesus did at the age of 12 to the Elders in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Theatre began as a need to express man’s relation to God. It is still that way in many areas of the world. However, even though Western Culture has slightly diverted that purpose, you still find works of great spiritual strength in a theatre; things that bring you closer to God; cause you to think ON Him; about Him. It can be a Holy experience, even though there is no Priest presiding. Remember, wherever three or more are gathered in His name, He is there. What more of a Temple experience is there than an audience seeking enlightenment, even if it is through the means of an entertainment?
© 2014 by C. Michael Perry ALL RIGHTS RESERVED