Never-Changing Message, Ever-Changing Methods
What’s wrong with putting the Bible on stage? From a Christian perspective, nothing, although from a theatrical perspective sometimes we do more harm than good. When Biblical dramas are used for Christian edutainment, drama directors often rely on the spectacle to keep the audience (who is already familiar with the content) entertained. Churches can fall into a pageant mode where each year the quality of the show becomes less about the content and more about the function of the budget. Likewise, when these dramas are used for outreach to our biblically illiterate communities, the intended audience often rejects the content as preachy or moralistic. So what’s the solution?
Tom Key, co-creator of the 1981 off-Broadway musical hit Cotton Patch Gospel! says, “We can’t change the message, but we can change how we deliver it.”
Perhaps the most successful theatrical presentation of the gospel ever, Cotton Patch Gospel! is the winner of two Dramalogue Awards for Outstanding Achievement in theatre and was released as a movie in 1988. Key offers fresh tips for peeling back the scales of your audiences’ eyes.
Change the environment
“I think taking the familiar and putting it in an unfamiliar context can give people another way of looking at it,” says Key. He gives the example of Michelangelo’s David. We are used to seeing it in the same way, in the same place. However, says Key, “if you put it next to the Grand Canyon or just outside in the park and look at it, you can appreciate it in a whole new way. That’s what Cotton Patch does. It takes the same story and puts it in a different place so you can see the same thing in a new way.”
Seeing the old in a new way is important for an audience. “If an audience knows how it is going to turn out, the dramatic tension decreases,” says Key, who suggests several alternatives to traditional biblical storytelling. “One option is to take the same story, and put it in a different context. You might tell the story in a setting that is particular to that church, or you might take the same characters and loosely rewrite it, change the context so that the form can be used in a fresh way.” For example, Key suggests the story of Gideon going after the Midianites with his ever shrinking army might work as a contemporary piece about downsizing.
Simple can be better
Key has performed in churches for many years and is amazed to see the changes in church drama ministries. “I think churches are getting many more resources for drama ministry than ever before. It is just phenomenal to me what has gone on in the last 20 - 30 years in this realm.” But despite the increases in budget, Key suggests simplifying as a way to reach an audience. “There might be a way to dramatize the Christmas story, or the Easter story, or a classic Easter story like Dorothy Sayer’s ‘The Man Born to Be King’ as a radio drama,” says Key who notes that when you have excellent actors available, radio dramas are very effective in a church.
Know your purpose
Just as a pastor preaches many sermons over the course of a year, don’t look at drama as a one-shot opportunity. It isn’t necessary to give the entire gospel in one setting. Your pastor relies on many opportunities throughout the year to communicate the message. “Sometimes the minister has got to prune and challenge, and I think the drama ministry has to do the same thing,” says Key. “Sometimes you do dramas for celebrating and affirming where you are, but sometimes it is also for challenging and making you think.”
How can you help an audience to think without cramming it down their throat? Conflict is the answer according to Key. “I think it is great to let the audience get extremely nervous that this might not work out well.” Key says an audience feels like something is didactic when they have no reason to watch because they already know how it will turn out. He compares it to sports. “It’s like watching a football game where one team is ahead 75 to nothing. The blood pressure is just not the same as when it is 6-6 with 15 seconds left to go with one team on the 40-yard line, it’s fourth down, and they decide to kick.” To get that sense of conflict, Key suggests reading the material and asking yourself, “Do I feel like the good side, the God side, is ahead 75 to nothing?”
In Cotton Patch Gospel, the story remains exactly intact but the setting has changed to Gainesville, Georgia, where Key asks what would Jesus do in that setting? “Basically Cotton Patch was the first WWJD, and part of the reason I had in doing that was I wanted the audience to experience the gospel story as if for the first time. In that way, they’ve got their shocking story – which it is.”
By not knowing what is going to happen at the end of Cotton Patch, Key puts the audience in the same position as the disciples who didn’t know what would happen after Jesus died on the cross creating a startling moment when he comes back from the dead. “We can see the ecstasy of him coming back from the dead. It is very, very, vivid in that play,” says Key, “which is the point of the whole story.”
While the gospel message doesn’t need a fresh awakening from us, sometimes the audience does. Novel methodologies can help your audience to see more than just a pageant; it can help them to experience the Bible in a very personal way.