“Church & State” at SLCA is Preaching to the Choir, 10/4-10/13

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The following is a column written by the Director of “Church & State,” Patrick White. Patrick is a regular contributor to Nippertown, and here lends us the unique view of the Director in his powerful new production of James Odell’s original script.

I’ve heard the phrase used more often than I’m comfortable with. “Preaching to the choir.” Sometimes used by people who are reacting to the subject of politics being dealt with explicitly in theater productions. The thinking goes that theater and theater makers are left leaning by nature and their audiences would be as well so that there would be no argument with a political play. You are merely making a case that your audience has already bought into.

Paul McDermott Murphy
Photo by Adam Wilson-Hwang

That’s not quite the case in my latest production, “Church & State” by Jason Odell Williams which is a terrific comedy about a Republican Senator from North Carolina who is three days before his reelection vote when he attends a victim of a mass shooting’s funeral and responds to a reporter’s question about his faith with “How can you believe in a God that allows this to happen and keep happening again and again and again?” His last campaign event is tonight before the polls open Tuesday. What will he say now that his quote has gone viral on Twitter? This is being produced in Averill Park which comfortably voted for Trump and you can still find signs looking to repeal the Safe Act. 

Elisa Verb, Dianne DeSantis, Paul McDermott Murphy
Photo by Adam Wilson-Hwang

I am really grateful to the Circle Theatre Players board and Sand Lake Center for the Arts (especially Brian Sheldon & Valerie Kavanaugh) for scheduling this production. I hesitated to commit to it because it was not a Capital Region premiere due to another company beating us to the punch. Congratulations LAGS on your great production this past Spring! I was very impressed and humbled with CTP’s commitment to wanting to do this play.

Through the course of the last three years or so I’ve seen play selection titles that were overtly political criticized because they “preach to the choir.” We are cautious to a fault and deathly afraid of offending or alienating a perceived playgoing opposition to politics. Often these opinions come from people who have these hunches about their customers but zero statistical evidence or even much playgoing experience to back it up. Some of the most agonizing hours of my life have been spent in play selection committee meetings listening to people’s opinions on what “their audience” wants to see from people who have never held a theater subscription in their life.

One of the critics of these choices of subject matter and material was a character from Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” who describes the audience as congratulating itself for its refined sensitivities. “So, it’s that favorite lefty pastime: preaching to the choir! They sit there, weeping at the injustice, and stand at the end shouting ‘Bravo!’ congratulating themselves for enduring such a grueling experience, and go home feeling like they’ve actually done something, when in fact all they’ve done is assuaged their liberal guilt!”

My question is, what exactly is wrong with preaching to the choir? Doesn’t the choir need sustenance, inspiration and uplift? They are artists who work hard to contribute to the services and show up week after week producing art and forging community. Don’t they deserve a sermon in which they see themselves, identify with the struggles and gain strength from the story so they can sing another day? If it’s good for the choir why should that exclude the congregation or potential congregants?

Of course, I don’t think the critics of plays that “preach to the choir” mean that. I think they’re saying that the play doesn’t provide a balanced argument. That it’s bad art because it doesn’t provide a conservative viewpoint. While “Church & State” certainly does not argue that there is no mass shooting problem in America or that nothing needs to be done ( Is that the opposing argument?), I feel that the entire play is concerned with offering opposing viewpoints to why Senator Whitmore should NOT speak out about the horror of these murders. His conservative Christian wife and liberal Jewish campaign manager banter with him for most of the play about what he should say and how he should say it. In fact, the opposition to him speaking from his heart is exaggeratedly strong to emphasize the comedy in the piece.

I asked the cast in a questionnaire to come up with an example of socially engaged art that helped them see things in a different way. In the ‘80s when I was living in NYC and AIDS was leaving a trail of corpses throughout the city and the country, there was a spate of gay themed plays and writers enjoying enormous success in the theater. “Cloud 9,” “The Normal Heart,” “Falsettos,” “Torch Song Trilogy,” “Baltimore Waltz,” “Bent,” “Burn This,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” the list could go on for another couple of dozen titles.

These plays about gay love, loss and community played in front of huge audiences and were supported overwhelmingly by gay patrons who were never shy about supporting theater in the first place but came out in droves for these plays in a way that I have not seen since. These plays changed theater, art and the community that attended. They fortified Act Up! And the other organizations that had to fight tooth and nail for AIDS research and support services. It almost seemed like the buying of every ticket was a political act and indeed even now, 20 years later, you can still find months devoted to fund drives in theaters for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids.

So, when I’m asked what I have discovered about “Church & State” it is that theater asks you to live and see the world thru another’s eyes. As Harper Lee has Atticus say “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Every night in rehearsal we worked on a Republican campaign for Senate and asked ourselves what do you want and what are you going to do to get what you want. I tell you, I would much rather spend my rehearsals talking about that then figuring out how to manage the drinks cart or sit at home tearing my hair out watching CNN or “The Masked Singer.”

Dianne DeSantis, Paul McDermott Murphy
Photo by Adam Wilson-Hwang

Why is it important that you attend and what will you get out of seeing “Church & State?” Contrary to Mr. Margulies’s character, I don’t think this is assuaging guilt over inaction. You are doing something! Even if it’s just a choice of entertainment for the evening, you are doing something. Attendance is my most sacred and essential activities, it actually comes right after breathing, eating and sleeping.

When I saw “Angels in America: Perestroika” with my friend Sal who was THE funniest waiter I ever served tables with, I never imagined I would be living in a time that celebrated gay marriage or trans rights (even if they are currently on the ropes after being targeted and trampled) or that Sal would not make it another couple of years. I was watching a play that had a scene set in Heaven in the Council Room of Continental Principalities and two men marrying each other was beyond my imagination.

“Church & State” is a great night of theater and ideas and it’s time we gather together, rise up, sing out and fight for our lives…again.

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