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Treasure in Clay Jars: Christian Liturgical Drama in Theory and Praxis

From: Theatre Symposium
Volume 21, 2013
pp. 90-103 | 10.1353/tsy.2013.0000

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Over the course of the 2011-2012 academic year, the authors began to develop a form of liturgical drama for the context of Christian worship that combines humor, "reverent irreverence," confessional storytelling, intentionally Christian theology and biblical study, and contemporary theatre technique. In collaboration with Maggi Dawn, the dean of chapel at Yale Divinity School (YDS), and the chapel staff, we continue to produce dramas anchored to the liturgical setting that engage the lived experience of the community and the scriptures.

In this essay we will reflect on the early days of this experiment in worship art: the development of a rehearsal methodology that arises out of the combination of Christian community and theatrical technique. Then, addressing questions of ritual function and the ways actors represent communities, we will explore its theoretical underpinnings. Lastly, we will consider one possible transformative impact on the worship community: the power of an embodied, multivocal liturgical drama to foster a greater sense of communitas.

The Methodology of Liturgical Drama: A Case Study

Our liturgical drama project arose from the particular context of Yale Divinity School. While YDS admits students from a variety of religious backgrounds, the institution intentionally maintains a progressive Christian culture. At the heart of the community's worship life lies Marquand Chapel, which offers ecumenical (interdenominationally Christian) services each morning. Most Marquand Chapel services are assigned to a student liturgist, who then coordinates the details of the service with the preacher, musicians, and the chapel leadership staff. The seeds of our liturgical drama project took root over the course of a few days in September 2011, when members of the Marquand Chapel ministry team asked us to perform a brief improvisational drama in conversation with a student sermon. We were chosen because of our previous experience in drama (both academically and professionally) and our work in a YDS student theatre troupe. Additionally, we had performed a short prewritten scene as part of an Easter service the previous year. This time, we were charged with preparing a framework for an improvised scene based on the day's scripture and performing it during worship as a lead-in to a student preacher's senior sermon. The sermon, we were told, would explicate 2 Corinthians 4:7: "But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us."

With no more direction than this, we met to develop and rehearse our drama. We began with a collective exegetical study of 2 Corinthians 4, reading and discussing the chapter to find some way to dramatize it. This passage lacked a strong narrative thread, however, which made it difficult to translate into a scene. Further, and perhaps more worrisome, we felt a pressure to perform well, and we allowed this to sideline any commitment to an honest embodiment of a scriptural interpretation. We believed our drama could bear real liturgical potential, yet we worried that some congregants would not accept improvisational theatre as a "legitimate" mode of worship. We were anxious to win "converts," so to speak, with an exceptional scene. And what, did we think, would make a good scene? We clung to a few standard improvisational strictures to guide us and additionally assumed our scene must (1) draw its particularities from community life; (2) include audience/congregation involvement, in the form of suggestions; (3) have a clear beginning, middle, and end; and (4) be funny.

Striving to adhere to these guidelines, we settled on a preliminary framework for our improvisation. It would be set during coffee hour, a period of fellowship and refreshment that immediately follows Marquand Chapel services each morning. At the scene's opening, three characters would converge on the last cup of coffee, squabbling briefly over it. Each would argue that he or she deserved it based on the number of urgent tasks (e.g., school assignments, work, internship requirements) each needed to complete that day. These "tasks" would not be products of our own imaginations, however, but would come from the congregation: at the start of the service, the worshippers would be invited to detail actual stressors weighing on them that day and...

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