The Christians, directed by Taibi Magar, will play June 28-July 14 at Bratton Theater, as part of Chautauqua Theater Company’s 2019 season. Tickets are available here.
In The Christians, playwright Lucas Hnath draws from personal experience and stories about embattled religious leaders to craft a portrait of a church community contending with a doctrinal crisis. In 2015, Hnath spoke to Steve Cosson, Artistic Director of the Civilians, an Off-Broadway theater company, about mining religion for performance and ensuring that the finished product eschews satire. What follows is a shortened version of that interview, which was published on the Civilians website.
STEVE COSSON: What was the impetus for [The Christians]? Where did it come from?
LUCAS: I’d been wanting to write a play about a very large church, because as a child, I went to a very large church that had grown very quickly, and actually a little too quickly, and went into significant debt. So I knew that that was part of the story. … The dilemma that I would often think about and even talk to friends about when I would say that I wanted to write this play [is] there’s a real risk of the Christians on stage feeling quite othered. Sort of like these odd specimens, those nutty people who believe what they believe. And I’d been trying to figure out for a long time how to not let the play fall into that. And then I had the idea that, if the drama is actually about not, “Do you believe in Christianity or not,” but rather a doctrinal controversy within the Christian faith — if all of the conflict centers on that — in some ways it actually puts you inside the belief as an audience member more than it lets you sit outside of it. Not that the agnostics or atheists convert when they watch the play, but that’s where the stakes are. That’s the tennis match you’re watching. And so I started researching doctrinal controversies, and there are plenty, but the thing about the question of the existence of hell is that it seemed even more timeless than a lot of the other doctrinal controversies. It seemed like that has the potential not to be associated with a particular political movement. It seemed like the most endurable of the controversies...
My interest is in whether or not the play creates a kind of understanding or empathy of the stakes behind these particular Christian beliefs. And a good bit of the response that I’ve gotten indicates that it does create that kind of understanding. I hear a lot of people come up to me and say, “I’m an atheist, but…” And then they’ll talk about the thing that they appreciated about the play, or that they were really moved by it.
STEVE: What interested you, as a writer, to want to have audience members identify with characters who are inside a big evangelical church?
LUCAS: I feel like I was noticing that, especially within the theater, a good bit of the material that discussed religion — specifically Christianity — did so satirically. It seemed to be a massive gap in contemporary theatrical literature. Any time I notice a gap — something that’s not being talked about or said or noticed — then I want to rush in and make something for that barren space.
STEVE: The vacuum beckons you.
LUCAS: Yes, the vacuum beckons me. I like that better. And I’ve even noticed on shows like “The Daily Show” that, when a controversy came up that had something to do with faith, the central argument in the joke seemed to ignore a basic understanding of what a Christian might feel is at stake. And one of those issues is, in fact, the risk of eternal damnation. When you have that in place… those stakes can create a kind of rigidity. That’s an important component of the conversation, and you can’t have a dialogue without understanding that.
STEVE: I’m certainly compelled by characters that I don’t immediately understand and that have experiences or ways of being in the world that are different than my own. In the case of your characters, who believe in eternal damnation, if they go down the wrong path, the consequences go on beyond the end of the play… Fundamentalists are compelling characters, because they live in an absolute world.
LUCAS: I have a tendency to be really interested in writing plays about absolutists. It probably also has something to do with my love of the Greeks. But even the pastor in the play, he is not a fundamentalist. He is proposing a gospel of “radical grace,” but he’s also quite absolute in it. And when you have a couple of very strongly held beliefs, or people who are absolutists coming together in a play, it becomes a testing ground for ideas. That’s the thing I like doing in plays. I like plays that are these dialectical arrangements, and I like a theater that proposes theories about how the world works and then tests them through events or dramatic action or arguments. You can see how those ideas change over the course of the play.
STEVE: Yes, I think your play does that. And I’m interested in how what you’re doing — taking on evangelical Christians in a non-satirical, straightforward way — is ultimately bumping up against a theater world that doesn’t want to spend time with those people.
LUCAS: Well, and a lot of people who are outcasts from that world, too. I think it’s possible that there’s a decent percentage of our theater-going audience that feels not only that they’re not part of that world, but that they are rejected by it. So they come into the play with a good bit of armor, and you can hear it in the first 10 minutes of the production. You can hear that they’re very eager to latch onto any line as a laugh line. They’re eagerly looking for the comedy.
… One of the things that ended up having to happen in the writing process is that the language — the “church language” of the play — is actually adjusted. I wrote the first pages of the play during a week-long workshop that I held at New Dramatists. I went in and showed the actors video after video of preachers preaching, and I asked them to keep lists of everything that the preachers did that was what they would expect a preacher to do, everything they did that upended their expectations, and everything that the preachers did that made them cringe or not trust the person. We collected all of this data, and it influenced how I wrote the play, especially the moments where the actors watching the preachers went, “I don’t buy it. Oh, you’re full of it.” And I noticed that any time that a preacher used militaristic language, that would make the actors cringe. The goal became to write the play in a language that did not use those cringe moments. And so the language of the play is even a little bit adjusted to give the audience members who might have an inclination to be antagonistic towards these characters a little less ammunition. If you look at Pastor Paul’s language as things move forward, he actually talks a lot more like an English professor than he does a pastor. And that’s very intentional… Little adjustments like that defanged the potential response of audience members who weren’t going to have it.
STEVE: In the rehearsal process, I imagine that [the director] and the actors purposefully shaped moments and behavior to achieve the same effect you were going for in the writing?
LUCAS: Absolutely yes. … This play is particularly dense. There are giant sections of text, and there’s an aesthetic of stillness that I encouraged quite a bit. The microphones help with that because it gives you the freedom to emphasize words you would not normally emphasize in naturalistic speech. It can be more musical. The other thing that the microphones do is that they reveal a lot of intention. You can see a decision to speak well before it happens, when a person lifts the mic. Speaking into a mic on a stand is very different from choosing to take it out of the stand and walk over and speak. There’s a lot of action that’s happening just in the use of the mics.
Photo: Richard Perry, New York Times
(source: The Civilians/Extended Play) (abbr. interview)
For more about Lucas Hnath, check out CHQ&A’s 2018 podcast episode in which CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba interviews Hnath. Listen here
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Entering its 35th Season, Chautauqua Theater Company is the resident professional theater and Conservatory of Chautauqua Institution. Internationally known actors, directors, designers and writers join 20 emerging artists drawn from the nation’s top training programs to form a unique company that produces a vibrant summer of work in the historic Bratton Theater. Dedicated to the next generation of theater artists, the development of new work, first-rate productions of modern and contemporary classics, and fresh insight into Shakespeare’s canon, CTC produces the best of a year-round regional theater within eight weeks of Chautauqua’s nine-week summer season.
About Chautauqua Institution
Chautauqua Institution is a community on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York state that comes alive each summer with a unique mix of fine and performing arts, lectures, interfaith worship and programs, and recreational activities. As a community, we celebrate, encourage and study the arts and treat them as integral to all of learning, and we convene the critical conversations of the day to advance understanding through civil dialogue.