Yet here I am, safe in Northampton, Massachusetts where night after night I sit for hours in a dimly lit theatre and direct plays. Have I missed my calling? How can I keep on creating art in a world where ISIS exists? Is making theatre simply a distraction for the privileged in these times of great brokenness?
As much as these are honest thoughts, they may not be the right questions. As author Shauna Niequist points out in her book, Savor, this pragmatic approach to addressing the world’s needs may not actually save us. After hearing work as a musician criticized she writes:
How many bands does the world need? Yikes. That’s the wrong question…The general world population will survive without one more stage production and one more gallery showing. This is the thing, though: you might not. We create because we were made to create, having been made in the image of God, whose first role was Creator. We were made to be the things he is: forgivers, redeemers, second chance-givers, truth-tellers, hope-bringers. And we were certainly, absolutely, made to be creators.
Even though directing plays may not always seem like the logical choice in the midst of so much need, perhaps to do anything else would be to deny the creative aspect of my God-breathed identity. If I flew to Syria tomorrow and spent all of my strength in that context, would I be doing more good than directing a play? Or could it possibly be that God has a different plan to save the world than simply using our most pragmatic work. Perhaps his kingdom coming requires artists, poets, and even theatre directors--just as it needs humanitarian workers, pastors, and politicians. Perhaps we might to do well to allow the Spirit to expand our imaginations so that might see the many mediums through which our creative God brings about redemption.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann has written extensively about what he calls the “prophetic imagination”--God’s prophetic, poetic truth in a world marred by broken prose. Drawing from the Psalmist and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Brueggemann describes imaginative, spiritual work that is able to “cut through the numbness, to penetrate the self-deception of the present” while boldly declaring the promised beauty of the future. He explains, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” He presents modern prophets as leaders who are able to see through the presiding narrative and offer a different story.
It wasn’t until I reread The Prophetic Imagination while directing Mary Zimmerman’s METAMORPHOSES that I began to see how directing plays could be a prophetic endeavor. This concept of the prophetic imagination is not just for pastors or poets--it’s a lens through which any creative, kingdom work can be viewed. The director is in a unique position; one could choose to simply present the “empire narrative” and showcase the world through what Robert Brustein calls a “distorted mirror,” or the director could choose to prophetically embrace the high calling of telling the truth.
Brueggemann believes that “the task of prophetic ministry is to hold together criticising and energizing,” and by fully engaging in both dynamics, learn to see and create new possibilities. As a director, this calling looks like intentionally presenting both the light and the dark through theatre. It looks like creating space for injustice to be seen, uncertainty to be voiced, and public lament to happen--and then, importantly, refusing to leave the audience there. Prophetic imagination requires the honest recognition of brokenness, but it clings to hope for redemption and transformation beyond what we currently can fathom.
Walter Brueggemann expresses this when he writes, “A newness has begun. . .Invited to join are all those who have groaned under the ways of the old kings. The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate energizing for the new future.” The hope for redemption that ultimately opens our imaginations most fully for new possibilities is Jesus. This exhortation has convicted me, even when the gospel is not overtly present in my theatrical projects, to always pursue glimpses of Jesus’ heart. No matter how authentic my storytelling is, if it is utterly devoid of resurrection hope, then there is nothing truly radical in my work. There is nothing that will expand our imaginations and our futures more than the possibility that, despite our shortcomings, we have been given new life as heirs in our father’s kingdom.
Sometimes theatrical productions are criticized if they don’t fit with the parameters of our true lives and history; however, as a director, while I strive to tell stories that paint authentic pictures of the human experience, I also want to be brave enough to show what is not yet, but could be. In The Prophetic Imagination we are told, “We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. . .we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” Theatre directors are in a unique position as audiences come and sit for an extended period of time, ready and willing to be caught up in whatever story is offered to them. I don’t want to focus my work solely on artistic renderings tragedy or solving pragmatic problems--I want to engage in the deeper work of inviting audiences to step boldly into realities that have not yet even been imagined. I want audiences to confront the truth of the world’s condition and then be empowered to confidently walk forward in love and creativity.
This imagination is not only empowering, it can be a powerful force of resistance. While studying abroad in the Czech Republic I learned that under Communism, all art, music, and theatre had to be approved by the regime and fit within the ideals and worldview of the Socialist Realism movement. In an interview, Dr. Tomaš Vrba told me that “it was a declared war against beauty,” and underground artist and activist Jana Hradliková explained, “Socialist Realism wasn’t true--it wasn’t realistic. The Communists just saw life in grey, and so in their art, it was. They called it realism, but it’s not the reality we underground artists chose to imagine.” Brueggemann points out a very similar idea when he writes, “Imagination is a danger thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination to keep on conjouring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” As a director, I have the choice to simply communicate the official messages of our culture or to creatively choose to embrace an alternative reality. Like the courageous Czech theatre directors who dissented through their illegal productions, I too want to draw upon the concept of prophetic imagination in order to create work that subversively challenges the status quo.
The director, like the prophet, can potentially empower the people by offering new symbols and images and revitalizing the language through which the people interact with the world. “The prophet is engaged in a battle for language in an effort to create a different epistemology out of which another community might emerge,” and in a world inundated with shallow language, it is hard to even grapple with reality when our vocabulary is so limited. Theatre can open up new ways of thinking and living simply by expanding how we are able to communicate.
When I’m praying and God gives me a word or I’m singing and God shows me a vision, those are clearly prophetic moments, and it would absolutely an imaginative work if I directed a classic, feel-good play, even if it didn’t say anything particularly deep. As believer, however, we are called to live a life beyond shallow compartmentalization. Prophetic imagination transcends everyday creativity when it engages fully with God's truth in the world and is guided by the workings of the Spirit. In Walking on Water Madeleine L’Engle describes her experience seeking this imagination: “All my life I have been requesting the same thing--a baptized imagination that has a wide enough faith to see the numinous in the ordinary. Without discarding reason, or analysis, what I seek from my Muse, the Holy Spirit, are images that will open up reality and pull me into its center.” A theatre director can potentially serve as the prophets of old by first becoming open and willing to listen to this truth. Then, as an intermediary, the director is able to create images and stories through which the community is empowered to collectively engage with life and imagine new possibilities.
Just as Madeleine L’Engle believed there was no inherent difference between the secular and sacred, so the director’s work is not necessarily broken down into the prophetic and the ordinary. God can speak through any vessel and shines through anything beautiful or good, even if the artist is not a believer. That said, as a Christian theatre director, Brueggemann’s books can inspire a specific, intentional directing approach. In the midst of so much tragedy, this lamenting and energizing prophetic voice is desperately needed to cut through the stories and worldviews marred by prejudice, selfishness, and despair. By viewing directing through the lens of prophetic imagination, work can emerge that is marked by its willingness to criticize the dominant narrative and recognize tragedy, as well as its ability to create new symbols and images through which hope may be imagined. God has always spoken to his children in imaginative ways, so in the midst of such brokeness, what a privilege to open one's work up to this prophetic voice of love.