Perspectives: On coffee, conflict and 'The Christians'

'The Christians' in Denver
Photos from Perspectives, a free public discussion of  of Lucas Hnath’s play ‘The Christians’ by the DCPA Theatre Company. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 

Kent Thompson, director of the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming play The Christians, has experienced the play’s central conflict first-hand.

In Lucas Hnath‘s celebrated story, “Pastor Paul” is the founder of a huge evangelical megachurch who creates a deep schism among his congregation when he announces a ground-shaking change in his personal opinion regarding eternal salvation. And the fallout will be enormous.

The Christians Quote Kent ThompsonThompson is the son of an influential Southern Baptist minister who went through his own personal and not entirely popular epiphany back in the late 1950s. 

“When I was only 5 or 6, my dad was at the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., when he decided to change his message and address what he perceived was the growing racial tension in that community,” Thompson said at Perspectives, a series of public panel discussion held just before the first public performance of each Theatre Company offering. 

“He was not considered to be a liberal or a progressive by the Southern Baptist Convention, although he would be today,” Thompson said.

“He changed his message to this: ‘We are all human beings, and Jesus tells us to love one another, therefore we have to respect one another, and find a way to talk to one another.’ ”

Thompson still can remember a large number of congregants yelling at his dad and walking out. “But after two or three weeks, there were more people coming to his church because of what he said.”

Here are five more pearls we picked up  at Perspectives, hosted by DCPA Theatre Company Literary Director Douglas Langworthy along with members of the cast and crew.

Join us for the next Perspectives at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, in the Conservatory Theatre. Topic: Tira Palmquist’s Two Degrees. It’s free.

NUMBER 1 The Christians. John MooreThompson has seen most every production of The Christians since it debuted at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2014. And he can assure any potential wary audience members of faith that the play does not subvert anyone’s core spiritual beliefs. “No character is ever made fun of. No character’s viewpoint is undermined by satire,” Thompson said. “That was really my fascination with it.” Louisville, Ky., is the home of the largest Southern Baptist seminary in the country, Thompson said, and his own father studied there. “That town is deeply religious – and also incredibly Baptist,” Thompson said. The Actors Theatre of Louisville, he added, was concerned if the play would prove problematic for the Christian community – or the local theatre community. “But actually both sides were drawn to the play, because of the way it brings up meaningful questions about faith and belief,” Thompson said. “The story is about a pastor, but it could be about almost any political or spiritual or cultural leader who changes his or her mind about a core issue. What happens to the movement as a result?”  

Five things we learned at first rehearsal for Two Degrees

NUMBER 2 Dramaturg Heidi Schmidt says the Denver Center invited dozens of local religious leaders to read the play and then participate in something of an ecumenical council to discuss it. “We asked them what they recognize about their own congregations, and many of them said these fractures are very common within any church,” Schmidt said. “Pretty much every pastor we talked to said, ‘Oh yeah. That’s exactly how it plays out – even if the scale is a little bit different.’ They all felt it was very true to their experience.”

NUMBER 3The creative team is testing a post-show program called “Coffee & Conversations.” As audiences leave the Stage Theatre, they will notice tables set up near Jay’s Cafe to encourage anyone who wants to discuss the play, either as individuals or as a group, to stay and do so, with complimentary coffee or tea. These are unofficial conversations, not talkbacks led by a moderator. “At the invited dress rehearsal, there were members of the audience who didn’t even make it as far as Jay’s Cafe because they were already stopping and talking to each before they even got out of the theatre,” Thompson said. “The play stirs up discussion. It’s not provocation, because the playwright doesn’t tell you what to think. But it really makes you think about how you stand on all of these issues. So if you want to stay and talk afterward, please do so.” The experiment will continue at all preview performances this coming week leading up to Friday’s official (Feb. 3) opening. The creative team will then make a determination whether to keep it going through the run.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

NUMBER 4The audience enters as if walking into a sermon at a large community church. Every performance features live music from a praise-and-worship band made up of four musicians and eight singers. “It is so exciting because there is actual dancing,” said Caitlin Wise, an actor and member of the choir. “It’s not choreographed dancing. I call it ‘feel-the-spirit’ dancing. I just think music is so special in churches. It really is a gateway to feel love and welcomed and connected to everybody else in the room.” 

NUMBER 5The bones of the play, writer Lucas Hnath has said, are secretly those of Antigone, Sophocles’ Greek story of Oedipus’ rebel daughter who defies her uncle’s law to bury her brother. A Classics teacher in the Perspectives audience saw a greater parallel to Norwegian master playwright Henrik Ibsen‘s play Brand (which means “fire”). Brand is an uncompromising and harshly judgmental young priest who believes Christians have become slack. Perspectives host Douglas Langworthy totally agreed. “Talk about plays about religion – that is one of the great ones,” Langworthy said. Thompson added by comparison An Enemy of the People, another Ibsen rant with a protagonist who feels everyone around him is essentially absurd.  

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

The Christians. Perspectives. John Moore.

From left: Douglas Langworthy, Kent Thompson, Caitlin Wise, Robert Manning Jr. and Heidi Schmidt of ‘The Christians.’ Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. 

The Christians
: Ticket information
The ChristiansA new play by Lucas Hnath about the mystery of faith and what happens when a doctrinal controversy shakes the foundation of a large community church.
Through Feb. 26
Stage Theatre
ASL and Audio-Described matinee at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12
303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Selected previous NewsCenter coverage of The Christians:
The Christians is ‘a pathway to empathy
Composer Gary Grundei on music to move the masses
Five things we learned at first rehearsal 
2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics
Meet the cast: Robert Manning Jr.

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