The Christians: 'The play is a pathway to empathy'

In this video interview courtesy of and conducted by Playwrights Horizons, Lucas Hnath talks about his new play The Christians, which will be staged by the DCPA Theatre Company from Jan. 27 through Feb. 26, 2017.

According to the Pew Research Institute, 70 percent of Americans identify themselves as persons of faith. Yet they remain a largely underserved audience group in the American theatre. And when companies do take on stories about religion, Alissa Wilkinson wrote last year for Christianity Today, “The New York theatre scene is not noted for its religious acumen or open-mindedness.”

The DCPA Theatre Company has bucked that trend by regularly and responsibly addressing complex questions of faith in a variety of recent plays spanning Two Things You Don’t Talk About at Dinner, Shadowlands, Benediction, The 12 and now, Lucas Hnath’s The Christians.

The Christians Quote Kent ThompsonProducing Artistic Director Kent Thompson doesn’t think of the local trend as overtly serving the faith-based. That’s because any compelling drama must, in some way, question an audience’s core beliefs, he says — whether the subject of the story is religion or not. That’s the cornerstone of good storytelling.

“What is intentional for me is that I am always interested in looking at moments in our lives where events happen, and your beliefs are profoundly shaken — and you have to figure out how to move on,” Thompson said. “Maybe that means within your faith. But you don’t only find faith in religion. Faith can be in all kinds of movements, whether you’re talking about civil rights or the environment or otherwise.”

Hnath, like Thompson, is a Preacher’s Kid (or “P.K.”). Thompson’s father was a well-known Southern Baptist preacher and, his son says, a mesmerizing storyteller. Hnath’s mother is an evangelical minister and he thought he might follow in her footsteps until playwriting lured him away. Although The Christians didn’t pull him too far from the world he knew.

“I was having a very difficult time thinking of other contemporary plays that took on the subject of religion, and specifically Christianity, that did so without satirizing it or prompting us to roll our eyes at ‘those Christians,’” Hnath told The New York Times. “It seemed to me that there was a lack of effort to try to understand what’s at stake in those beliefs.”

The Christians takes place in an evangelical megachurch that serves a flock of nearly 20,000 followers. Thompson likens the leaders of these institutions to mayors of small cities. The founder of this church is Pastor Paul, who creates a deep schism among his flock when he announces a ground-shaking epiphany that has changed his personal opinion about a fundamental belief regarding eternal salvation. The theological fallout within his congregation will be enormous.

“The thing I love about this piece is that we are all human beings, and it’s all so very complex,” Thompson said. “All theatre is about conflict — but then you have to figure out the path forward, either as a group or independently. How do you deal with events that challenge your core beliefs?  It’s the hero’s journey, and that has really become my obsession.”

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Thompson said audiences who do not attend megachurches might be unfamiliar with their institutional structure. These churches are essentially independent businesses and are often not affiliated with traditional denominations.

“There might be a series of beliefs that these churches share,” Thompson said, “but each church hires its own pastor. It’s not like the Catholic or Episcopal church where you are appointed by an established religious hierarchy.”  

In Pastor Paul’s case, his changing beliefs are his own. “But this is how he now perceives God’s word to be,” Thompson said, “and he believes profoundly that this is where he must take this community for the next step in its spiritual development.”

In doing so, Thompson insists Hnath is not making a playwriting statement about anyone’s religious beliefs. “That isn’t about pointing the finger at these Christians and judging them in any way,” Thompson said. “It’s about watching these dynamics play out that are intensely personal and very human.”

Lucas Hnath. The ChristiansThe bones of the play, Hnath says, are secretly those of Antigone, Sophocles’ play about the daughter of Oedipus who defies her uncle’s law to bury her brother. In the end, Hnath says, The Christians is “a pathway to empathy.”

He describes the play itself as “a kind of sermon.” Sometimes it’s a literal sermon, he teases, “and sometimes it’s made up of scenes that use the formal elements of a sermon.” In addition to Pastor Paul, the audience will be introduced to his wife, an associate pastor, a church elder and a younger congregant.  Every performance includes an on-stage praise band made up of eight singers and three musicians.

Hnath admits his play is made up of intentional ambiguities and contradictory opinions. No single argument “wins.” There’s no resolution.

“A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see,” he said in an interview with Playwrights Horizons. “A church is a place where the invisible is — at least for a moment — made visible. The theatre can be that too.”

Thompson had an opportunity to speak with Hnath about the commonalities in their upbringings, and what the playwright thought was most important that Thompson get right.

“First, that we present every person on stage as a fully developed and complex human being,” Thompson said. “And to really ensure this is dramatic and emotionally engaging and moving, and not only for what we would call a Christian community, but for any community. Whether that’s theatre-lovers who don’t go to church or those who do, or the public at large. Because the journey here is core to the human endeavor. That makes The Christians a story for everyone.”

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:
Ticket information

The ChristiansAt a glance: Pastor Paul inspires faith in the members of his growing congregation through his preaching. But when he brings up unexpected questions during a sermon, his changing perspective may ask too much of his followers. Featuring live music at every performance.

Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
Written by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Kent Thompson
Jan. 27-Feb. 26, 2017   
Stage Theatre
ASL Interpreted and Audio-Described Performance: 1:30 p.m. Feb. 12
Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Making of The Christians: Photo gallery

Making of 'The Christians' Photos from the making of ‘The Christians at the DCPA. To see more, click the forward arrown on the image above. More will be added as the process continues. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

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