This month, Actors Theatre is holding the 32nd Humana Festival of New American Plays. One play that opened last week has an ambition: to bridge the divide between liberals and the Christian right. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
2004 stirred this country’s culture war with passionate debates on values, ballot initiatives to outlaw same-sex marriage and an election in which Republicans courted votes from evangelical Christians. The fallout led pundits to talk about a polarized America.
This episode helped inspire a play called “This Beautiful City,” which Actors Theatre’s artistic director, Marc Masterson, chose for this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. Last weekend, it opened to Louisville audiences in its first fully staged production.
“Whether they like it or they don’t like it; whether they agree with it or they don’t agree with it; it is the staring point of a conversation,” Masterson says. “And that conversation is one of the things that I feel may be lacking in our current cultural context.”
To create this play, a New York theater troupe called The Civilians researched the cultural and political life of a Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 2006, these actors and playwrights interviewed people throughout the city, which is home to many evangelical Christian organizations. They transcribed those interviews and used them to create a play taken from the opinions of Colorado Springs’ citizens — writers from the alternative press, Air Force officers, gay rights activists, a transsexual and, of course, evangelical Christians.
The play incorporates the voices of congregants of one of the city’s most influential institutions — New Life Church.
“Well I guess, New Life is a megachurch,” says a New Life Church associate pastor in an opening scene. “The congregation is 14 thousand, so, yeah, yeah, that’s big. But we’re not the biggest by far. It feels like you know everybody.”
Writers Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis and composer Michael Friedman produced the script. It goes inside several churches and gives a range of perspectives on how evangelical Christians shape public policies.
Coming from New York, the writers and other company members say they were unsure how people would react to them, but found people from all groups willing to talk.
Their most formidable encounter was a scandal.
“Oh, my God. One week before the election and this shows up in a nicely ribboned holiday gift box,” says a character in the play with a newspaper in hand. “Looks like Ted Haggard is a closet case and a meth queen to boot.”
Ted Haggard was the pastor of New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals. In November 2006, the troupe was in Colorado Springs when he resigned over allegations involving prostitution and drug use. The company knew it had to include the incident in the play while sticking to the original mission: to portray the different factions in the city and to encourage dialogue between them.
Last February, the company presented the play in Colorado Springs. Michael Friedman describes the scene.
“Everyone we interviewed came,” Friedman says. “And people that had never been in a room together were in a room together watching. And that experience of looking out and going New Life pastor, gay rights activist, revolutionize the prayer pastor, Focus on the Family, transgendered Christian, I mean it was like, oh, my gosh, the mayor. They’re all in this room. And these people who otherwise have direct conflicts with each other politically or for other reasons are sitting in a room watching a show.”
Here in Louisville, theatergoer John Cullen says he’s not an evangelical but he got the play.
“I think it probably highlights just how ignorant a lot of folks are of ‘the other’ culture,” he says. “They’re kind of lobbing criticisms over the walls.”
Sherry Levelle also saw the play and says she saw parts of herself in some scenes.
“As an evangelical Christian, I could tell it was authentic dialogue, just by sitting in the audience,” she says.
She says the play’s portrayal of people like her could change attitudes about evangelicals.
“Some people’s hearts might be touched and influenced and at least be more open to understanding how other people think,” she says.
The Humana Festival of New American Plays continues through March 30.