February 20, 2020

Acting in Church

In January I co-led a retreat with actor Erin Dangler for the women of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston Texas. Priest and actor, we wove together concepts of church and theater. But we had to start by making clear that acting is not being “fake”. Rather the best acting happens when the actor is able to access her/his/their true self, and is then able to connect that self to the role they have been given.

Erin introduced the gathering to the “actor’s palette”, a concept created by Brian Cranston, which includes life experience, talent, research and preparation, and imagination.

These are the things that an actor brings to any role taken on. Some roles require more research, others require deeper digging into life experiences. Some require a whole lot of imagination.

This prompted us to consider the “palette” we bring to our prayer, and to our life in the church. And it called us to greater and deeper self-awareness. “Attention”, Mary Oliver writes, “is the beginning of devotion”. Over and again we emphasized that God already knows what we want or need, what we desire and yearn for. But the more we can name and give voice to those needs and desires, and the more specific we can be, the more we invite God into those places in our heart, body and mind. We are more than the outward and visible roles we play. We are also the child we were, with all the varied wounds and accolades we received and inwardly digested. The palette we bring to church and to prayer includes our age and our gender identity, our abilities and our disabilities, our understanding of God and our lack of understanding, our actions and distractions, our questions and our imaginations.

Erin also helped us to see that good actors are open to the spontaneous and the unexpected, that it is often when things go awry on set that the most authentic dialogue and behavior emerges. “You don’t stop acting until the director says ‘cut!’” Many of us have experienced this in church — the sermon that gets interrupted by a child or an adult in need, the power outage that takes away the sound system or the lights, the weather that impacts our timing or attendance. It is in these moments of disruption that we often see God or understand ourselves as the Body of Christ most vividly.

Through a variety of activities and reflections, Erin helped us to understand that good actors are able to move in and out of a variety of roles. Look at Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks. Sure, we can’t be anyone and everyone. But we can be or become something other than what we have been. We may, through aging or change of life circumstance, be forced to assume new roles — we can no longer sing soprano, we can no longer carry the ladder needed to hang the Christmas garlands. So, we discover the challenge and beauty of singing alto. Or we cheer on the stronger, and more agile among us. Other times, we can stretch ourselves to try on something new. Still being authentic, the introvert can try being a greeter, the active doer can try being an attentive pew-sitter for a season. The church at its best supports and encourages these changes, knowing that, like the God in whose image we are created, we are not to be slotted or static; knowing that God desires us to flourish and to grow.

In our time together we came to realize that being aware of our palette, being open to the spontaneous and the unexpected, moving in and out of a variety of roles, all of these are vital practices for good actors. And for faithful living, within and beyond the church.