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The Sacred Theater of the Future
by Dr. Richard Kirby, May 29, 2001
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A conversation with Jim Lewis by Rev. Richard S. Kirby, Ph.D.

An approach to the definition of the tasks and joys of the Sacred Artists of Tomorrow

This interview is with Jim Lewis. Jim, a family man, is a practicing Episcopalian at St. James' Episcopal Church, Wichita. Jim is a Christian aesthete or a scholar of the arts; he has considerable expertise in supervising theatrical work with young people. Jim lives in Wichita KS, where he teaches drama; and for many years was a mass media manager.

1. Jim, what do you think are the really important things in seeking out a spirituality in contemporary drama and theater?

Probably the key thing--there are a lot of key things, Richard-- is the need for a community of actors who can incorporate within themselves a vision which they then, as in Paul's words, pass on as a tradition to the community of the audience.

And the second thing is the nature of the act between the two: so that the presenters becomes almost indistinguishable in function from the viewers, the onlookers.

Or to put it another way, we need to transform the audience to help them become an equal participant with the presenters. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, action is re-action, and re-action is action.

2. Do you think that there is any room for experimentation in the creation of a Christian or sacred drama group? Could there be, in your view, almost a cybernetic quality as the troupe would learn from experience?

While the classical repertory of drama is something that would provide an excellent teaching and training foundation for the actors and for the audience as well, I think the major thrust should be in the experimental side. Because that is the living tradition that one is working within and it is the living voice one is speaking, by one I mean the communal voice of all involved. The experimental side is really the raison d'etre, the whole point of the activity, not the reverse.

3. Can you imagine a situation where a particular place, a well-established place, like St. James' Episcopal Church, which has a church hall and a stage and so on could become a magnet or a gathering point for sacred actors and dramatists, not just those in the congregation?

Absolutely, but I really wouldn't think that this is something that would really emerge directly out of the congregation, other than individuals from the congregation. I see a repertory type company using St. James as its home base and serving the specific needs of that community first and then the larger community as well second. But not necessarily something that draws the majority of its resources from St. James. By resources, I mean human resources. There are several people there who could be instrumental in something like this. But I just can't imagine that the scope that would result from this, nor the effort that would go into it, would be justified by confining it to any one single congregation. St. James, in so many ways, is a seed bed for a lot of things that would fully develop elsewhere and this would be an example of the same kind of thing I would think.

4. Jim, we live in an age of, not only experimentation, but of multimedia, not only of multimedia but n-dimensional multimedia. Do you think there is any scope for a group of these spiritual thespians, for want of a better phrase, to be flexible. For instance, make videos or go further, perhaps to be cyber-thespians and to do things on the Internet that would in some way express the muse of theater?

Well, the technology is now present for all that to happen and perhaps even more. For example, Apple's I-movie provides an extremely interesting and high quality professional way to transfer images into the Internet, both fixed and moving. But the performances themselves to me would seem to require a mixed media approach so that we are not just doing stage plays nor are we just presenting video programs or still photo essays. But a mixture of all is required by the nature of the work because this really, in a very important way, reflects on the reality of creativity and the spirit of God within it. Because all these media are potential vehicles, that's what they really are. What is at stake is the spirit not the vehicle so the vehicle can vary but the spirit is the same.

5. Jim, let's talk about some recruitment possibilities here in Wichita. I know that as an experienced drama teacher you meet people of many ages. Let's look at this in terms of age groups initially. Do you think that there are enough young people, that you know of, who are interested both in the practice of the Christian life also in becoming a part of an ongoing drama group to form a quorum?

Sadly to say there are few young people with great talent, or potential talent, who would consider themselves Christian artists or see themselves potentially as that, although I may be overly pessimistic. But, there are a number that might form a quorum. On the other hand, one has to realize that these young people are extremely busy today, it is very hard. An enterprise like this requires a more than just casual attention - it's an all-consuming thing. It is a way of life. If anyone who listens or reads has any experience producing or running a repertory theater company, it is something of that order. It consumes one's entire working day so it is hard for young people to participate but I have a number of young followers who will go with me wherever I go, do whatever I want to do because we trust each other and they love to do wonderful things. So there are some but that is merely to say that the challenge of recruitment of creative artists is not easy, it's unique.

If it was easy it probably wouldn't be worth doing.

6. I have been associated with some people who are interested in picking up where the late Maggie Kuhn left off with her Grey Panthers movement, maybe you will remember that movement, I'm sure. It could be a launching pad for a thespian group of older people, seniors is some definition. Do you think that such a thing might attract people in Wichita?

I certainly think it will attract people at St. James, and very likely elsewhere as well. Yes, I think that is a fruitful area and, of course, one which is never explored because who could possibly think that we are to have old people participating in a creative enterprise.

7. I teach, among other things, strategic management so you will hear a lot of strategic management ideas from me - that is just an aspect of problem solving of course in one way.

One strategy, I think is a potential winner in this field we are talking about. It is to advertise through the AARP for older people who know older people who are interested in this and can contribute in many ways.

In fact, I would like to see the predicament and glory of senior citizens brought to a higher state of awareness and consciousness raising through the theatrical arts.

8. I want to make it clear I personally have a lot of resources to bring to bear on this in fact this will probably be, in some shape or form, a manifestation of my Institute - the Stuart C. Dodd Institute for Social Innovation of which I am the Executive Director. And to give you an example of the kind of thing we do, I think one of the easiest ways that people can understand this program called Youth Against Road Rage.

This is based on a website out of Hawaii, the University of Hawaii. The work of 'Dr. Driving,' Professor Leon James. And if we distinguish between a drama group or a troupe, or a group of minstrels, or theatrical types who are trained to do anything, go anywhere on the one hand and particular works on the other hand. It would seem to me that a group that had some fluency in act anything at the drop of a hat, which is good training for a drama team, could very easily produce for cities and states and the National Highway Safety Transportation Association and so on. Theatrical dramatic representations of some alternatives to road rage, something which you can read about on my website Youth Against Road Rage, by the way. So, what I am thinking here is that with a little bit of startup energy put in by myself, and some of us, I think we would attract civic, corporate and other sources of funding, especially if we are willing to train artists to put their spirituality in the service of what I call the political arts.

Well, I think it is a mighty vision, one that has not been tapped, to say the least, by anybody else. In a way you know, Richard, it harks back to the earliest roots of western drama. The expression of the spirit of a Greek City in the earliest drama, a drama which speaks politically but in the broadest and greatest media of politics, that is the engagement of citizens in creating a better life...Particularly the Oreistian Trilogy which is still the only extant Greek trilogy. This is the kind of classic work that fits right into this,perhaps not into the Department of Transportation but certainly in the broader sense of civic reenactment. It's the story of a community which is disrupted by blood, corruption and violence. And the whole drama is about how do we heal that through the sacred.

9. That is wonderfully said. It really makes my point, I think. Our conversation seems to be moving in the direction of the nature of sacred theatrical community. I think that is a reasonable way of putting it. Perhaps not the height of fashionability but I think 'sacred theatrical community' as a fellowship of spiritual artists is a coherent mission concept; and a widespread, though submerged human desire; and a project of the people of God that would be supported by church leaders such as the bishops, right up to the pope.

As we think about that, I am reminded about some of the axioms of living 'the spiritual life.' Spiritual growth is a matter of progressing along the spiritual way, the Path, sometimes called the Spiritual Path, the mystic way, mystic path. You may know Evelyn Underhill's book Mysticism. Actually I wrote a sequel to that, called The Mission of Mysticism, of which I will give you a copy some time. One of the points I made in that is an analysis of what I call the general topography of spiritual paths. And there is a strong relationship between mysticisms and monasticisms so that the mystic way has as its analog the rule of life of religious order. And if we were to postulate the ideally effective or ideally devout, pious or whatever group of Christian thespians they would be guided, not only by a mission statement but by a concept of spiritual development which would include things like a way of prayer, a commitment to intercession, studying and that kind of thing.

There is a serendipity in these matters that goes beyond mere happenstance I think. I have finished a paper laying out the possibility of reproducing, in a contemporary faith community,the spiritual development of a Celtic monastery as manifested particularly in the great Life of St. Columba by St. Adomnan. It is absolutely fundamental to what we are talking about. As in St. Patrick's great prayer when he says "God's way to lie before me." God's way is not null and fixed. It is potentially future so that the reproducing, in a contemporary vein, a contemporary idiom, of the Benedictine type rule, or the Columban Rule, which was instrumental in disseminating the Benedictine Rule around Western Europe in the 600s is eminently justified. That to me is even prior almost to the formation of the spiritual players; because spiritual players then emerge out of that with practically a physicianless childbirth.

10. In other words, the formation of the holy community really begets the sacred artists who come from it. It seems to me Jim that would almost be a recursive quality in the early works performed by our sacred drama groups. By this I mean, and it kind of amuses me to imagine it - that one of the earliest dramas that could be produced would be the drama about the birth of a sacred artists group out of a community; and you know what the birth pangs might be.

Yes, indeed, and that itself emerged almost as a reflection, a mirror-like reflection of a contemporary office, the Divine Office.

11. I want to come back to what you were saying about Aeschylus and the relationship between the arts of the city and the life of the city and the soul of the city in a way. And I'm feeling that the group, as they are in Wichita, could play a very important part in the city becoming aware of itself and this act of consciousness-raising would come about through dramatic explorations into the history of the city and its present; and then some of the possibilities of its future.

It has a pretty dramatic history which would lend itself easily to a montage of scenes and meanings, reflections from various angles, not that there is only one interpretation of the history of Wichita. Craig Minor, who is the leading historian of the city and of the state with the University of Kansas, an author of many, many books on Wichita history and the history of the State of Kansas would be a marvelous resource for this. He has helped me as we explore the meaning and spirituality of the Old Testament.

12. We have to do justice to the post-modernist era we are in and the kind of world we live in. I have a sort of twinkle in my eye when I imagine a kind of recruitment poster. I remember in England in the first world war there was a poster of Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. It showed him complete with twirling mustaches. He was saying: Your country needs YOU. [Sign up for war-time military service now.] But I would like to see such a recruitment poster for sacred drama teams. It might, for example, be something of a collage - maybe more than two dimensions. It would show a group of these spiritual, theatrical types gathering, meeting each other and going forward. Maybe in a cartoon strip type thing or a series of tableaux. It would be or would contain a kind of invitation to people to join up for themselves; or for them to encourage people whom they may know --- their children or friends, or their grandparents. It would not be very difficult to do if we set some of our more artistically minded students, to work up a poster like this.

Yes, right.

13. Let's talk a little bit here about how such an idea would be wrapped, in a marketing sense, I really want to stick with a name I chose a long time ago. It is the "Star Dawn Company". This is a name which alludes to the description of Jesus as the bright star of morning. Also, this name speaks to the fact that we live in a space age - we need some flying churches and so on. You were not around earlier when I was talking about my idea that in a present day church - the steeple should be able to sprout fins and turn into a rocket. And the belfry should have an astronomical telescope on it to represent looking beyond itself and so on. But, I think that perhaps we have reached the point where we and other potential sacred thespians should exchange ideas in a cumulative way about what this rule of life, a mission statement, the work as a whole might be. John Bell's house could almost be the epicenter or the innermost circle rather like the primaries, secondaries and tertiaries of the Franciscans. St. James could be a slightly outer concentric circle and Wichita another one. But, of course these people, if only through the Internet, would without doubt have a national ministry: because a part of it would be a redemption of the Aristotelian poetics.

I think that is a good beginning. I would honestly say, from my own experience in marketing and management, that before the marketing comes the concept, comes a vision. And a sense of buying into what this is all about. Once that is done, maybe even on paper and committed to, almost as a monastic-like Order, then the vow becomes important. Then the marketing, I think, flows right out of the organization - everybody is a marketer, one person doesn't do the marketing; everybody does.

And, obviously, I think you share the concept that what this is all about is an attempt to provide in the deepest sense what the customer wants and needs. Because any enterprise that doesn't do that is not worth the doing.

14. I think this is indubitable that this is a religious order or part of one. At this point, I should probably disclose my hand and say that for decades my personal inspiration has been St. Ignatius Loyola and the founding of the Jesuits. My question has been: what would Anglicanism do if it was to form something similar, that was dedicated to scholarship, science, education, mission, civics and so on. The program I devised in Oklahoma, as I said, has expressed itself in a somewhat rudimentarily organized order called The Order of the Sacred Artists. This is ripe for development into its next stage. It is an Order that derives an anterior authority from an actual registered religious order, The Order of the Academy of Christ, which has been intermittently registered in four countries, to my knowledge - England, The States, Pakistan and India. There is a good lively presence of it there. And so we have a substantially ecclesiastical infrastructure - this would almost be like a special regiment or a battalion or squadron, or something like that, within a larger or a 21st century innovative religious order.

The City's 'Higher Self' is a fascinating idea. I, myself, have the same inspiration, the same harking back: but to a different order - The Bardic Order of Ireland and Celtic countries which is not militaristic in its structure but derives itself from the inspiration of the spirit. It might be interesting to see how those two concepts could work together.

15. I want to make it very clear to everybody that hears this or reads this interview that what I am not talking about is taking a plant, namely the Society of Jesus, and putting it in Anglican soil. What I am talking about is rethinking what the Jesuit impulse might look like if it is expressed through Anglican theological method.

What I have in mind is some of the following differences. Whereas the Ignatian impulse tends towards the codification of dogma, and kind of counter-reformation type mission, the Anglican way is more about opening up thought and creating particular new things, particularly new works of art, new forms of worship, new liturgies and so on. And fresh approaches to history and historiography and many such things. Urban T. Holmes in his book "What is Anglicanism?" talks about the Anglican penchant for thinking with the left hand - I call this the elvish mysticism which is about the only kind of thinking I really understand. So, I'm not wedded to any particular structure at all. As far as I am concerned a thousand flowers could bloom in the spring. I think the important thing is that we make it known that there is an ethos of religious order that embraces the arts down to its very roots, its deepest roots, and that it can express itself in a community of radically innovative creativity.

The thought occurs to me, as I listen to you Richard, that there could be this recognition: that the arts are not just another means for the expression of the creativity of the spirit but perhaps the primal vehicle for that to happen. Certainly harking back in an anthropological sense to the earliest days of human society, it is the arts that have always been the channel, if you will, for the Grace of God to find its way, to the community to forge its destiny. And even today, the sacred ritual of the Eucharist is in itself a form of sacred drama that articulates that same vision.

16. Jim, I do want to say that I am at least as interested in the Bardic tradition as I am in the Jesuit tradition. But I am interested in the 'wildness' that the Anglican thinking with the left hand permits.

I am interested in people singing their way from town to town. Ingmar Bergman's medieval Swedish minstrels in the Seventh Seal movie. I am deeply interested in pushing to the limits what itinerant minstrels can achieve for the Church; and the idea of people singing their way from city to city, singing the city into wakefulness, is something very, very powerful and meaningful to me. Olaf Stapledon [died 1950] felt this man-as-music theme powerfully. At the end of his book "Last and First Men" [1930]he says something like this for his peroration. "Again and again man has sought the music of the spheres but he has never been sure that he could even hear or that it existed for him... But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least IS music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompanying matrix of storms and stars; so we shall, after all, go forward with laughter in our hearts, and joy; for after all we shall make a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man."

And this idea of music as ontological, as the essence of social being, is a very, very important part of my thinking; and that implies a philosophy of civic development is really intrinsically and not accidentally musical. And that is why I propose that the piece I would write, as following my Legend of London play, would be called the Song of Wichita.

And a while back I wrote a song called A Song of Seattle about a city finding its own voice.

Our community that would be theatrical down to its fingertips, so to speak, and would be making up its own song and dance act as it went in adapting it city to city.

What is attractive in that vision is not only the arts side of it but the idea of the wandering minstrels, so as to speak, which really hark back to the earliest Christianity in the British Isles, the peregrinatio, the pilgrimage where leaving home and family and kindred to march in God's way into the unknown. And in the process helping to retain and even to grow with the cultural, spiritual and religious heritage of the past and leading into the future. This is what the great Celtic saints did.

17. This is something very valuable too for cross-cultural purposes. A while ago I was visiting a fellow in some part of England - his organization was called CAFE - Christianity And the Future of Europe. And he gave me an article about the concept of the wanderer in Taoist thinking. The 'wanderer' is highly esteemed in this aspect of Chinese mysticism.

It makes sense. 'Tao' means so much about letting go. We could almost depict these wandering minstrels as blowing with the breeze of the Zeitgeist. As the spirit of the times wafts them into the place where they are most needed.

Singing is important for the healing of cities. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote this book about the pygmies - it's called the Village People. When the forest succumbs to some sort of natural disorder - drought, famine, flood, hurricane - the pygmy people sing to the forest until it is restored to sanity.

And, Jim, that is what this is all about: sacred arts restoring civilization to sanity. Sacred drama for the healing of the world, the reconciliation of the world to God. Thanks for this conversation!

Copyright 2001 by WNRF.

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