When envisioning drama in the church, some recall moving depictions of the human condition, others relive interpretive dances that were far from angelic, and some remember toddlers in bathrobes doing pageants. What’s the right way to consider drama as it relates to the church?

Here Tom Key, playwright and actor, considers the role of drama in building community. Key is best known for award-winning performances off Broadway and in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Dallas. He authored the Cotton Patch Gospel (with singer-songwriter Harry Chapin) as well as various theater pieces from the works of Truman Capote, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor, among others.

BF: How do Christians need to think differently about drama?

TK: People are made to live forever, not books or plays or dances or buildings or nations, but individuals, human souls. I understand using “Christian” as an adjective. But when it’s used in terms of the arts as an adjective, it usually is really referring to plays or movies or paintings that are about subjects in Scripture …. Even though it might be [Christian], it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s art. It might be a play about the apostle Paul, but whether the playwright succeeds in scripting a text that engages and convinces the audience of its reality is another question. It’s like if I get on an airplane and the pilot tells me he’s a Christian, I’m glad to know that, but I really want to make sure he can fly the plane.

BF: How should the theater transform us?

TK: I think art is always entertaining in that it engages; it might make us laugh or be thrilled or wonder or confront or affirm. But entertainment is not necessarily art, and I think the difference is a residual effect. I think that art always leads the person to slightly or profoundly more than change, whereas the entertainment that is not art will not experientially, existentially affect the recipient.

I think we need the gift of art in order to perceive reality. The Bible, besides being the Word of God, is well-written. It’s good literature. It’s wonderful poetry. It’s ecstatic praise and lyrics. It’s story, history. That provides a lens for us.

BF: Do you bring a philosophy of language to your work?

TK: If art is capturing … [and] illuminating the truth, then I believe Christ is present and will minister through the Holy Spirit, particularly with the theater, since it is the art form of language…. I mean, that’s what’s happening center stage: people are talking for two hours. By talking, we run the greatest risk of alienating one another, or connecting. It’s how marriages are made, or nations are unified, or how divorces begin, or wars start. It’s all in language.

It’s not for nothing that in a totalitarian society, one of the first things you want to do is prevent people from assembling with language going on. Athol Fugard, the South African playwright, during apartheid in South Africa, could not write. He had to teach his plays to his actors in rehearsal, because if the police burst in and found the script, that could be recorded as evidence [against him].

It’s very risky to take people to the theater. …You sit down to listen to people talk for two hours, and it’s either going to go very badly, or it’s going to connect people in a way in which we are most profoundly connected. We understand through language most profoundly what we share as human beings. We might leave these public events that are religious, political, or special interest in nature better Republicans, better Christians, better advocates for our special interest. But we leave the theater better citizens, better human beings.

BF: And you also have some thoughts about symbolism?

TK: Walker Percy in Message in a Bottle talks about what happened when Helen Keller connected w-a-t-e-r being spelled into one hand with cold, wet stuff in the other. She made that connection and could symbolize, not just signal, for her needs. She at one level entered the human race. She went around like a two-year-old or someone who begins to think in another language, naming the universe like Adam and Eve. She entered the world.

What does this mean for a community when the theater is alive in it? I actually think America is America in a large part because of the theater. I think the same ancient culture which gave us the idea by which we govern ourselves—democracy—couldn’t have given that to us unless it was also the same culture that gave us theater. In the Greek ancient theater there was a fee for every citizen; it was thought of as central to the community. It is the art form of language.

BF: When delving into the deeper human issues of biblical characters – you might say putting words in their mouths – is that an offense against the sacred Word, or is that a liberty that a Christian artist has?

TK: I think it’s a liberty that the artist has. When I did the Cotton Patch Gospel, I realized that you can do a direct quote from Scripture, but the way you say it is offering an interpretation. I think one of the great obstructions to artists was when the apostle John, on the island of Patmos, had the vision of the One who had died and was alive forevermore and held the keys to death. The vision said to John, “Write down what you see.” Not what you want to see, what is going to sell, what’s going to necessarily make people feel good, but write down what you see. Period. I think in that sense the artist is like a prophet ….

BF: Can some elements within a theatrical work completely corrupt that otherwise good work? Do you have limits?

TK: My only limit is telling the truth. I have turned down things in my career because I thought they didn’t tell the truth. They were either sentimental, …or I thought that they were presenting reality as we would wish it to be, but like it’s not. Or, it was nihilistic, the world without grace.

I just did this play, Keeping Watch, by a playwright who is a Christian, Thomas Ward. There’s adult language. At a callback one night afterward, we were talking about the language. And [the actors] said, “It’s not the profanity that I have a problem with; it’s when one of the people in the course of the play makes an inappropriate racial joke.” What was interesting was that some nights, some people in the audience would laugh. Now that is offensive.

I think it’s kind of a red herring to summarize all bad language and say that if you say these 10 words, you’ve done something wrong. You look at the language that’s used in Holy Scripture by prophets and Jesus—it doesn’t get much harder than that. Truth tellers name things what they are.

BF: How do we nurture actors and artists?

TK: It really is critical to learn how to deal with having the gift of art. You don’t just go in and handle radioactive material in ordinary clothing and without some protection. If an artist tries to create and practice that gift away from the church, it’s going to be difficult. We can’t do this alone.

–Nat Belz