If not church drama, how about dramatic church?

I’ve written before (and at length) about how bothered I am by the fact that most church drama is terrible.

The reasons are many—there is a dearth of quality scripts, plays take more time and more people and more logistics than most other artforms that we see in church, and the people who are in the intersection of expertise and availability are few.

One thing I was thinking about recently is that maybe the problem is how I define and think about drama. When I teach theater history, I give my students the semester-long assignment of creating a definition of theater for themselves. Everyone’s definition is a bit different. Some students argue that you can’t have theater without a stage. Others insist that a D&D session, soccer game, or chem lab are essentially theater. While I try to have an expansive definition of theater, my default, like most people’s, involves characters interacting in a story-telling way (generally, but not always, scripted).

But our church sometimes has things that are not quite theater in a traditional sense, but are definitely theatrical. Many services include some form of Biblical storytelling, which employs literary narrative styles to bring Bible stories into a new light. These sometimes are third-person stories, and sometimes are full-fledged monologues. We also sometimes have people tell their own life stories, and this is the kernel of theater, especially when they are gifted tellers.

Sometimes, the way we use the space or move through it has a certain theatricality. We decorate a cross in the course of an Easter service, until what was bare is covered with flowers. We light candles to mark time through the year.

One particularly memorable Pentecost, the Worship Arts team rigged yards and yards of orange silk up on the balcony, and at one point in the service, it flew down, over all the people below, brushing the taller heads, and landing in the front. It was both simple and exciting, impossible and inevitable. Brilliant. It encompassed the congregation, and it used our whole space in a big, bold way. That was theatrical, but not theater.

And maybe that is how we use our gifts in the church; not to create skits that are rarely worthy of our audience, but to create experiences that evoke a feeling, impress a memory upon someone’s mind, change how people see our church—and not just the church building, but the church, how we relate to each other in space and in spirit.

Someone, about a year ago, committed one of the classic blunders, which was inviting me to join the commission that plans our church’s worship services. I love it, maybe a bit too much. And I’m always trying to poke them to rethink what we’re doing. What if we rearranged the space so the pulpit was in the center, instead of up on the stage? What if we shifted things out of the order people expect, just to wake them up? What if we asked someone we haven’t heard from to do this or that?

In the past several months, our church has been going through a process of inviting God to speak to us and through us as we try to articulate where we are going, as a group, in the next few years. We’re about to finish a series of worship services about that process, and the penultimate service in the series was about dreams and visions. I had a kind of crazy idea, a sudden stroke of inspiration. “What if we had everyone tie their dreams to a helium balloon, and then it would be like our dreams were just hovering above us?”

I thought that they’d say no. But they said yes. Then I told them how much it would cost (and yes, I knew this number off of the top of my head. Two of my three favorite plays that I’ve ever directed featured helium balloons quite prominently). Then they STILL said yes.

I was just stupid with joy.

And that is why, at 7:00 on a Sunday morning, I was in my car, blowing up helium balloons.

Wait, let me go back.

Party City has the best price on helium in Harrisonburg. They’re not paying me to say that, it’s just true. However, they only have a very small tank and a “jumbo” tank…which weighs about 200 lbs and is enough helium for 500-600 balloons. If I had a do-over, I would probably have gone with a few smaller tanks, for two reasons. (1) The big tank was basically impossible to get out of my car and into the church. I didn’t even try. Instead, I took the car seats out of my car, folded everything down in the back, and turned my car into a mobile balloon-filling station, and (2) the one tank was a time limiting factor. We actually had enough helium and balloons to do about 30% more than the roughly 200 balloons that we did, but we ran out of time. If we had two smaller tanks and could have had two people filling at once, we probably would have gotten there. Not that we needed more balloons (I mean…need is a strong word….but I wanted all of the balloons!).

I recruited a few teens and their parents to help set up the whole thing. We started with balloons taped in bunches on the outside aisle seats and slips of paper under the center aisle seats. People commented on it when they came in, but practically no one knew what was going on.

But when the time came, it was perfect. Anne played “Morning Has Broken,” and people started sending their balloons up, just one or two at a time. People were laughing. They were crying. They were caring for each other, passing paper and balloons and pens. They were joyful.

Today, when the kids and I went over to clean up the fallen balloons—which naturally lose helium through the latex over time and were on the ground 24 hours later—our pastor shared some of the dreams with me. They were fascinating. Some of them were personal, others were practical. Some were lyrical, others, down-to-earth. Many of them were big in a way I haven’t heard before. People responded to this surprising event with their own surprises.

And this was a theatrical event. We used objects in space, music, and change over time to create a feeling and new thinking in people.

I’m not sure what is next, but this pathway of thought is a good one. I’m grateful for a church that welcomes experiments and daring feats.

Here’s the video. It gets good around two minutes in, as the balloons start floating up.

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