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Tuesday, January 25, 2011



This Blog looks at the intersection of the performing arts and Christian prayer.

Public prayer always involves some performance skills. At the very least, the leader must speak loud enough for others to follow. At the other extreme, the ministers perform the entire prayer, directed to God, for the observation of a large crowd of believers.

I became a theater person because, as a intense teen-aged Catholic seminarian, I saw participation in the Drama Club as a way of developing skills which could be useful later in saying Mass and preaching.
I was not aware then that there was a Liturgical Movement or that the Second Vatican Council was about to re-prioritize what the priest and people do at Mass. The legal changes and ritual guidelines which flowed from Vatican II broadened the applicability of a performing arts background.

With the new Missals, Sacramentaries, and Prayer Books of the Western Christian churches, there came a wider choice of texts, positions, gestures, and movements, especially as church architecture developed away from the previously standard form of nave and sanctuary with the altar against the east wall.
Where, for many denominations, public prayer had used rubrically prescribed gestures and movements as well as specified written texts, now, the ministers were expected to move in appropriate ways in spaces which did not necessarily support the previous choreography and which sometimes provided challenges in terms of lines of sight. 

The expectation that the members of the assembly would be active participants offered challenges for interaction between the ministers and the assembly.

The results could be disastrous.

Expecting solid performances under new circumstances from ministers who were used to following fixed texts using prescribed actions was the equivalent of asking people who had previously recited poetry to improvise dramatic monologues based on mere outlines. 

All this was made worse by a lack of coaching and the general failure to acknowledge the need for rehearsal.

Two blatant examples of what sort of thing a theatrically trained person might immediately find inexcusable can demonstrate why this blog is directed toward practical liturgical performance based on liturgical theology and texts.

All Saints Church had gone through several phases of remodeling, and the altar had been moved away from the front wall toward the nave edge of the upper platform. In the latest change, the chairs for the priest and servers had been placed on the next level down and against the front wall to the left of the altar platform. The ambo [lectern/pulpit] was directly in front of the chairs, at the nave edge of the lower platform. 

As a result, the young servers were directly behind the preacher. Their fidgeting, including twirling of their cinctures, was directly in the line of sight for the congregation looking at the preacher. This fidgeting completely upstaged the preacher. People's attention was literally drawn up stage, behind the preacher, something no theatrical director would ever have permitted.

At Sacred Heart Church, the priest concluded the sermon and immediately began the Creed. He then turned around and went back to the altar. There he turned pages to find the place for his next lines and waited for the Creed to come to an end before speaking them. 

The implications of these actions would never have allowed them to survive a theatrical rehearsal. 

First, by beginning but not reciting the Creed in its entirety, the priest implies that the Creed is something that does not apply to him, that he has no participation in reciting the basics of the faith he has supposedly just preached. 

Second, by walking and turning pages and not participating, that priest shows that he is not aware that he is continually visible, that everything he says, does, or does not say has an effect on how the service is perceived by everyone, including himself, consciously or not. 

Third, those same actions could be seen to imply that the only things about the Mass which were of concern to him were the things specified for him to do. He did not all appear to be part of the assembly at prayer or himself to be at prayer at all but merely going through prescribed words at prescribed times and stations. He showed a lack of understanding of how to make liturgy work beyond the rather limited rubrical approach to valid and licit performance of the sacrament.

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