Featured Stories, Lutherans in Minnesota

Acting in good faith

Minnesota’s strong theater options include many Lutheran thespians

At the recent 2009 Ivey Theater Award ceremony in Minneapolis, Greta Oglesby won an Ivey for her portrayal of the title character in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Caroline, or Change. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her family and fellow cast members, and then got to the business of the most important thanksgiving: to God. Emily Gunyou-Halaas, a local actor – and winner of the Emerging Artist award later that same evening – leaned toward her husband, Per, and said, “I wish I felt comfortable thanking God.”

One common perception of the performing arts world is that it is not a place that welcomes people of faith; there are not many church-goers and an abundance of people who fall into the “spiritual, but not religious” category. But in the Twin Cities, a place with both a vibrant theater community and a strong Lutheran presence, does this presumption hold true? And, if it does not, what might bring together these two facets of the lives of Lutherans who work in the theater?

Emily Gunyou-Halaas in a scene from "Passage of Dreams," performed in March 2009 at Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis.

Emily Gunyou-Halaas in a scene from "Passage of Dreams," performed in March 2009 at Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis.

Gunyou-Halaas, a member of University Lutheran Church of Hope (ELCA), Minneapolis, is a relative newcomer to Lutheranism, giving her a unique vantage point from which to view the tradition. She finds similarities between what draws some people to church attendance and what initially drew her to acting and continues to do so. “I want to champion community,” she says, explaining that as a child she “saw the profound effect of communities coming together” for the purpose of creating drama. In the same way, the pull of community is something that likely resonates with many people who work in theater, where employment is transient.

The Twin Cities have both a vibrant theater community and a strong Lutheran presence.

Kris Howland (Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, ELCA, Burnsville, Minnesota), public relations director for Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, agrees. In her work with hundreds of performers, technicians, and other creative staff, she has noticed the tenuous nature of making a career in theater and the deep impact that can have on the empathy and compassion of people on that path. Howland, who has worked at Chanhassen continuously for more than 30 years, notes that the theater is a space in which anyone can be “truly human, truly themselves.” Yet at times the constant changes in surroundings can lead some to seek a more permanent community setting.

The liturgy of theater

There are other ways in which the identities of church-goer and theater worker interact and feed each other, as well. Actor and singer Norah Long (St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church, ELCA, Plymouth, Minnesota) finds that her professional vocation informs her approach to liturgy. Just as she must enter each performance “as a brand new experience, as though it is the first time I’ve ever done it,” liturgy must be given the same life, “each time we experience it, no matter how easy it has become.” In a similar way, actor and teacher Mark Rosenwinkel (Concordia University, St. Paul) calls on a concept of “holy theater.” In this understanding, developed by Peter Brooks, the sacramental potential of theater is viewed; theater is the place where “the invisible becomes visible” and the common, uncommon.

Rosenwinkel and Long both encounter the possibility that scripture can become lifeless and inaccessible. However, each looks to his or her performance experience, as well as liturgical and biblical training, to do justice to the “larger than life” stories, ideas, and characters in biblical and theatrical stories.

Norah Long discusses acting as a profession with a group of students at Bethel University, St. Paul.

Norah Long discusses acting as a profession with a group of students at Bethel University, St. Paul.

For Rosenwinkel, the parallels do not stop there. Theater has two particular functions — the first, to teach and expose, and the second, to soothe and entertain. Especially for people of faith who are performers, theater cannot only be about the latter, but serves a purpose similar to that of the Old Testament prophets, working outside of and agitating the religious establishment in the pursuit of properly portraying and commenting on the realities of the day.

This is not to say that both functions are not important. Echoing Ecclesiastes, Rosenwinkel posits that there is “a proper time for agitation and a proper time for reinforcement.”

Playing both ‘weed’ and ‘wheat’

The importance of storytelling within religious and theatrical settings is also crucial in understanding the relationship between these two spaces. For Craig Johnson (Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, ELCA, Minneapolis), a local actor and director, the stories that play out within faith and arts contexts often have much in common. These “core archetypal narratives” of both the church and theater worlds speak to humanity and inform us not only about how we ought to relate to the world, but also how we presently do relate. Gunyou-Halaas notes that her prayer before performances is that she might “be the most open I can be, to tell the story.”

Craig Johnson directs Stacia Rice (left) and Shelby Flannery in Torch Theater's "The Miracle Worker."

Craig Johnson directs Stacia Rice (left) and Shelby Flannery in Torch Theater's "The Miracle Worker."

For Johnson, the ritual importance of story impacts the lens through which he views a text, whether acting or directing. Searching for a potential fallen or Christ figure — or for themes of redemption or struggle — reveals a great deal in terms of how to empathize with characters or situations. This is true whether the character is “good” or “bad” and, more often than not, makes it clear that no one is fully either; that each character — each person — is, true to Lutheran paradoxical tradition, simul iustus et peccator, at once saint and sinner.

Perhaps a background in Lutheran theology can help an actor playing a character perceived as one of the “bad guys.” As Long points out, “somebody has to play them!” In a similar way, involvement in drama can be formative in the faith and life of a performer.

In Gunyou-Halaas’ words, “the arts are important reflections of a community’s values,” what will be passed to future generations. In describing the interaction between her faith and professional vocation, she continues: “It is an act of faith to put ourselves out there, because we might fail tremendously. But we do it for the benefit of the people in the room, and for the community, and for the story.”

Korla Masters is a University of Minnesota senior studying religion and American Indian studies, and is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Minneapolis. She has worked as a stage manager, director, actor, and designer in several venues, including the Holy Trinity Theater Circle.

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