Written by Tom Emanuel (CARe Grant Recipient and Pacific School of Religion Mdiv Student)
It is Fall 2016. My playwriting partner Aaron Eaves, a ministry candidate in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, and I are touring the Encyclical Gallery, a pop-up exhibition on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA inspired by Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality. Aaron and I are there because the gallery curators have commissioned us, as co-founders of the Mythic Theater, to write, direct, and produce one of our signature musical worship dramas for the gallery, exploring the intersections between ecology, spirituality, and the arts. As we imagine the staging for the new work, “I See Fire,” our curator tells us: “I can’t tell you how excited our artists are about this exhibit. People keep telling me, ‘Wait – you’re a religious group and you want to feature my artwork?’”
In 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) published the report Creativity Connects: Trends & Conditions Affecting U.S. Artists. They found that the arts landscape is changing dramatically. Student debt and widening income inequality have made it harder for artists to make a living at their craft, and fewer of us are able to find jobs in our field. Social media and the Internet are transforming how we create and share our work, and training and funding programs are not designed to meet the challenges of the new economy. Tellingly, however, in surveying the communities and organizations—governmental, cultural, educational—that might support artists in the twenty-first century, nowhere do NEA and CCI mention churches and spiritual communities.
This may be an oversight, but I see it as evidence of a trend that troubles me deeply both as a Christian minister and as an artist. If anybody in our society should be positing alternative values, working for economic and cultural justice, and creating supportive community for world-changing, vision-broadening artists, it should be our churches – and yet we don’t even merit a mention! This is all the more to be pitied because the religious impulse and the artistic impulse (I believe) spring from the same source: the human capacity, indeed the human need, to create and make meaning.
This is the foundational belief on which Aaron and I ground our work with the Mythic Theater. Blending ritual, liturgy, music, and drama, the Mythic Theater seeks to bring the best of theater into the church and the best of Church into the theater. As Bay Area playwright Father Harry Cronin pointed out to us in his “Preaching as Theater” course, offered through the Center for Religion & the Arts (CARE) at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), theater first emerged in the Western world in the context of Greek drama. It was all about bringing stories of the gods to life – that is to say, as an explicitly religious project. We at the Mythic Theater want to bring that ancient storytelling power to contemporary communities, creating and curating experiences that are not only aesthetically nourishing but spiritually nourishing too.
Some of our plays reimagine stories from existing religious traditions; others seek to incarnate new myths that speak to our time as our ancestors’ myths spoke to theirs. “I See Fire” is one of the latter. It tells the story of a young woman, Shae, in a world not unlike our own. She grows up in a tiny village on the slopes of a great Mountain, where she and her people live in harmony with—and at the mercy of—the natural world around them. When they discover how to shape Nature for their benefit and security, however, they learn the hard way how little we can actually control. It is a creative reimagining of the story of humanity’s relationship to the Earth: how we got here, and where we might be going.
Starring Shannon Eizenga and Lori Gitanjali Rivera, the play had its successful first staged reading at the Encyclical Gallery on 22 October 2016, with a second staged reading at the Pacific School of Religion’s Chapel of the Great Commission on 6 December 2016, also in Berkeley. This second performance was co-produced with Sanctuary for the Arts and supported by a generous grant from CARE, which paid our performers (including Bay Area pianist Andrew Jamieson) for their time and talents.
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Tom Emanuel is in the final year of his Master of Divinity program at the Pacific School of Religion and a candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ (UCC). He currently serves as Associate Minsiter for Worship Arts at Mira Vista UCC in El Cerrito, CA.
Photographs by Eddie Klyce