Finding God's call in the theatre

Thu, 2006-06-29 14:39 -- univcomm
June 29, 2006

It was cold even for December, and snow had piled up on the Anderson University campus. While most students prepared for final exams and Christmas break, for an audience inside Byrum Hall, it was still September — Sept. 11, 2001.

That winter evening, Anderson University presented Portraits, a play by Jonathan Bell. Elevated on the left-hand side of the stage, Andie, a New York artist played by Kristin Katsu, struggled to create in a post-9/11 world. Across the stage, a Muslim woman, played by Laura E. Snyder, despaired of the suspicion and hatred she felt from some of her fellow Americans but took comfort from the support extended to her by others. Scattered across the stage, other characters were frozen in their own experiences as the smoke from the unseen fallen towers drifted around them. In the midst of a joyful Christmas season, it was difficult to return to the fear and horror of that day, but the audience was willing.

For Snyder, a junior from Wabash, Ind., that willingness is part of why people come to the theatre and part of her calling as an actress. "God’s enabled us to take people to the places they’re too scared to go," says Snyder. "I guess that’s part of why I’m in the theatre as well, is just to be able to help people … when [there is] a place in their life where they’re too afraid to go to or it’s too hard," she says."When I’m on stage, and I’m able to go there for them, they’re able to experience that with me."

It is just that understanding of purpose that is of the utmost importance to Ronn Johnstone, the director for the program of theatre studies and assistant professor of communication at AU. Sitting in his slightly disheveled office, discussing his vision of theatre at Anderson, it is easy to see his passion for the place of a Christian in the theatre. He talks at length about his philosophy of teaching his students and weaves in and out of the conversation as those students stop by his office. It is easy to see the comfort level they have with their program director and the amazing amount of access they have to him."

If someone is interested in theatre," says Johnstone, "they need to examine why, because we believe that someone can be called to the art of theatre as strongly as they can be called to ministry. It is as strong, as legitimate, as real a call as any other."According to Johnstone, many students are drawn to theatre because of the ego-boost that comes from being on stage and performing before a crowd. Simply enjoying the attention, however, is not the same as being called to serve in the performing arts. Johnstone says that some students who declare a theatre studies major as freshmen find that theatre would make a better avocation than vocation, and they find other majors. But others feel even more strongly that theatre is where God wants them. "When we can start from that space, we can push them to a higher level of work because they’re saying, ‘What I’m doing means something.’"

Johnstone’s desire to provide students with strong professional training in an atmosphere of free and open Christianity stems in part from struggles he encountered in his own training. He remembers thinking of starting a program where someone whose spiritual life was important to them could go, but they could still get good training. "I found that when I would go to state schools," explains Johnstone, "I got good training at these institutions, but my Christianity was a hindrance. Lots of times directors wouldn’t cast me in roles because, ‘Oh, he’s a Christian. He’s going to have trouble with this,’ which put me in a situation to work out, ‘What is the place of a Christian in the arts?’"

When Johnstone first came to AU, the theatre studies program focused mainly on teacher training. And while it was a successful program, Johnstone wanted to shift that focus toward professional training. His idea was to "build a legitimate theatre studies program here and attract a person who wants to not feel that their spiritually is going to be viewed as a hindrance to them." Quite the opposite, many students in AU’s theatre program feel their Christian beliefs are what bind them to the art and what inspire their best performances.

"I feel that it is definitely a calling," agrees Katsu, a senior from Forest Hill, Md. "It’s what I do, and what I do well, and how I love to communicate God’s talents that he’s given to me as his gift." Snyder echoes that idea. "That’s part of the reason why I came [to AU]," she explains, "because of Ronn and his beliefs on that fact that it’s a calling."

Ben Grohs, a senior theatre arts education major from Alma, Mich., expressed the idea that a calling is also a responsibility; if you are called to act you are supposed to share your talent with others. "I think that theatre is not only a calling from God, but a God-given ability. Not only is it a calling that we do it, but it’s God’s gift [to others] to give our abilities out. It sounds a little arrogant," he says with a laugh, "but at the same time if you’re a teacher, then it’s your gift to teach, therefore, it’s not to be held back."

"If you can do anything else, do it," advises Laurel Goetzinger, associate professor of music and director of the Boze Lyric Theatre. "[But] if what you are called to do with your life is to work as a performer, then you must do it .… You’ve been given a gift and with that gift comes the responsibility to develop the skills to let that gift speak."

Goetzinger came to AU seven years ago, in part to develop music theatre on campus. "We have a very strong music program. We are an undergraduate program that does two fully staged lyric theatre productions with orchestra [each year] — that’s unusual. In terms of the production opportunities, we have better opportunities than some schools that offer musical theatre majors," says Goetzinger. "Because we’re small, students get a lot of personal attention, and the opportunities they have are good, solid opportunities.

Johnstone says that many parents aren’t thrilled when their children announce that they want to major in theatre. Parents are concerned about whether or not their children can make a living in theatre arts and how the lifestyle will influence their Christian convictions.

"I have to find a way to approach the idea that if your child decides to major in theatre," says Johnstone, "it’s because they must agree that they feel the call of God, and God will take care of his own." It’s a tough decision. He explains, "I could make a better living doing other things in my life, but God called me first to train me as a theatre person."

"The lifestyle question is almost an easier one to approach," adds Johnstone. "I’ve been involved [in theatre] a long, long time, and there can be a lot of ugliness in that lifestyle." But Johnstone points out that immorality exists in any field, whether it’s embezzling funds or infidelity on a business trip. "You fall into it or you don’t fall into it based on what you think is right and wrong, and that has something to do with where the student’s character is."

While Johnstone understands the qualms of some parents, he is confident that AU’s theatre graduates are prepared for a successful life after graduation. "I don’t want to graduate a student who’s going to be on the welfare line. Statistically 30 percent of students graduate and actually pursue a career in their field of choice, but 85 to 90 percent of students who graduate from college make a better living than those who don’t."

Goetzinger also finds that some parents are concerned about their children’s choice to major in the performing arts, but she believes strongly that whether or not they pursue a career in theatre after graduation, they are well-prepared for many fields. "There is such a rigorous skill set involved in any of the performing arts that you learn how to think and work efficiently and quickly and under pressure," she says. "That’s a good skill set no matter what you’re going to make your living as."

One way to produce more marketable theatre graduates is to teach them other ways to make a living in theatre. Christian McKinney, technical director and theatre manager, is reputed to be one of the best scenic artists in the region. "We try to teach students not only how to act, we teach them another skill in the theatre, whether it’s lighting design or scene design or painting, because in the technical field of theatre, it’s a lot easier to find a paying job than it is as an actor," says McKinney.

"We try to teach so people can go out and get a job and be paid in our field and make a living. Maybe not necessarily as an actor, but you’re getting your foot in the door, and you get to meet people and make connections and that sort of thing so that when they’re looking for an actor, they already know that you have a great work ethic and that you’re easy to work with. No lighting designer works for free."

Grohs has already found that to be true; he has been earning paychecks as a designer and technician and has been in talks with companies about positions after graduation. "Disney has called me about designing lights," he says. "I’ve also talked with Springhill [Camps]."

For students who want to study performing arts, AU’s programs are expanding. With the completion of the Kardatzke Wellness Center, AU now has a state-of-the-art dance studio. "I was finding that the students didn’t have a dance background," explains Goetzinger, "and so I asked if we could start to offer some dance classes. [That] has grown into a dance area within the department of music. We have two faculty and are working toward a dance minor with the idea of working toward a dance major." Writing is another area of growth. "We’re just at the beginnings of starting a scriptwriting program," says Johnstone. "I believe that there is no undergraduate institution that has a scriptwriting program."

It is said that theatre is the study of character. And that, in the end, may be the gift the actors give to their audience, and, ultimately, to themselves. "I’ve really discovered who I am through this department," says Snyder. "It’s something that nobody’s pushed me to do; it’s just been such an encouraging atmosphere. I’ve realized who I am and what my calling is in life and that’s the greatest thing this department has given to me."

— Heather Lowhorn (Signatures: spring 2006)