Well, this letter was loads of fun. PB has a theatre bug herself and appears onstage at fairly regular intervals when there’s a part that’s just too juicy to pass up. As I’ve written elsewhere, I belonged to the Church of Broadway way longer than I have belonged to any other kind of religious community, and I can very much relate to this question. Here’s how it came to me from B:
Just something to think about….tonight is opening night for Les Mis in our local community theater, and I have the great joy of playing Mme. Thenardier. Now, I’ve had other roles that are a bit racy (think Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie dancing on a table at the Shriner’s meeting!), but I’m a bit worried about this one….
Not, surprisingly, about all the bad words I have to sing, but about the newly red — SERIOUS red – hair I decided to dye for the role.
I know that I will get many comments on Sunday about my hair! Which kind of drives me crazy, although I completely recognize that my congregation counts on me to be presentable, well-dressed, with a blond uptwist EVERY Sunday. So, I plan to address it very briefly with a little comment during the announcements.
So, PB, why is this such a big deal?
It’s a big deal because the role of minister is one that trumps all other roles you play in your public life, and it is the one to which you are most seriously and deeply devoted. That’s a guess. OK, it’s a projection. But I’m going to go with it.
I have felt every bit of the anxiety you’re feeling right now. I played my last foul-mouthed character (Chloe in “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”) in Rochester, New York before entering seminary, and now won’t audition for roles that require me to be too undressed or too bawdy. It’s kind of sad, because I’ve had opportunities to play Mama Morton in “Chicago,” but just can’t do it. She’s just too crass. It’s a judgment call.
I fought with a director who insisted that I keep my robe open to reveal camisole, tap pants and a garter belt when I played Miss Hannigan in “Annie.” “She’s a drunk! And desperate! She wouldn’t tie her robe!” he shouted at me. “But my church is coming!” I cried. “Too bad!” he said. “You’re playing a role! This isn’t your church!”
He was right. The robe stayed open and the parishioners who drove a half an hour to see the production were in stitches seeing their minister scream at children, swig from a bottle, and stagger around belting “Little Girls.” I apologized for my scantily clad moments and they told me not to be ridiculous.
As Emma Goldman in “Ragtime,” I sang the lyrics “masturbates for a vaudeville tart.” Over 80 of my parishioners saw the show and couldn’t have been more supportive and proud. It was an extraordinary production and sold out for eighteen performances.
I played Penelope Pennywise in “Urinetown” and sang some nasty lyrics in “It’s a Privilege to Pee.” But the show is hysterically funny and a really smart social commentary whose message I think resonates with the values of my religious tradition, so I took the part. Those are the calls you have to make.
I baked people into pies as Mrs. Lovett!
Guess what, B? We’re artists. Many minsters are. And in the service of our art, which nourishes and inspires and informs our spiritual life and practice of ministry, we sometimes cuss on stage, show our garter belts, sing “isn’t worth me spit/comforter, philosopher and lifelong shit” and dye our hair flaming red.
Here is what I wrote to you the day you sent your message to me:
I’m so excited for you, you bawdy French Revolutionary wench!
Okay, I want to write a longer response to this because I very much relate, and it will be a fun opportunity for theatre ministers to weigh in with similar tales.
My first question is about the congregation’s support for your theatrical endeavors. If it seems good and genuine, INCLUDE THEM in your joy and gratitude for the ability to live out your talents through the arts. So you might preface your hair comment by saying something like, “I realize that my hair is a bit more of a shocking hue than usual, and many of you know that I am in the midst of a run of ‘Les Miserables.’ The red hair is Mme Thenadier’s, not mine. Thank you for your support of this other great love of mine.” If the community has given you any particular insights or gifts that contribute to your ability to shine on stage, mention those. But keep your remarks very brief, very much about them, and smile! Not a touch of embarrassment or defensiveness, mon chere!
Here I am in my own flaming red hair and the infamous robe:
In this, as in all things. Include your community in your loves. As you wish them to live out their gifts in the world, so should they wish the same for you, right? And unless you serve in a much more conservative tradition than mine and need to carefully edit your role choices and almost keep your theatre involvement under wraps (which would be so sad, and which I wouldn’t recommend doing anyway — none of us should serve in communities where any major part of our heart, soul or loves should be closeted), shine it on! That doesn’t mean to talk all the time about your performing (which I’m sure you don’t do, as you are obviously careful to have good boundaries around church and theatre lives and roles), it means to appreciate the ways that the gods of comedy and tragedy bless your commitment to God and Church.
“Les Miserables” is a wonderful show and I must confess that Mme. Thenadier is a role I myself covet and will be auditioning for this summer in a local community theatre. Enjoy your run, smile nicely and humbly when people whistle at your loud hair, wear it in a nice chignon or other elegant style, consider wearing a bit of a more neutral toned wardrobe for awhile until the shock passes, and let your folks appreciate your talent. If there are critics of your hair or choices, you’ll hear about it soon enough. And if you don’t, that means that the community is healthy enough to absorb the negative stuff coming at their pastor, and you don’t need to worry about it.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.” Preach it, girl!
I bet your congregation would love a sermon from you on the themes of the show.
Thanks for letting me share all these fun theatre memories! Send a photo if you want to! We’d love to see!