Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My Story: Drama at Montreat

While I was in college, I was heavily involved in The Greybeard Players, our college drama troupe. I got to partake in pretty close to the full range of dramatic experience, acting in several dramas, doing tech work, and even directing a small one act during my last year there.

My college drama instructor (and director/producer on various occasions) was Brian Fuller, a man who quickly developed a reputation at the college as a taskmaster. Not everyone involved in our drama troupe understood Brian's demanding nature, but those of us who "stuck with it" knew that Brian would push us so hard because he wanted the best for (and out of) us. Brian articulated a philosophy of doing our best work because everything we did was for God's glory. As he says on his web page, "If we’re to 'do all things unto Christ,' a 'B-' simply isn’t an acceptable level of effort."

Brian was also misunderstood for other reasons, as he details in the following quote (from the same page, quoted with permission):
When I chose The Lion in Winter as 1994’s spring theatre mainstage, I was wrestling with some very personal fears about the kind of children I would raise. My first daughter was less than a year old and I panicked that each of my failures to comfort her crying would result in some adult psychopathology.

I dreaded the possibility of becoming Lion’s Henry II, reaping the curses of godless parenting. He catches his eldest son in a homosexual tryst and discovers his other two children behind a castle tapestry, their daggers drawn to kill him for England’s crown. He’s imprisoned his wife so he can enjoy her lands and flouts an adulterous affair with a woman betrothed to his youngest boy. Not surprisingly, the play ends on a dismal note, with each member of the family determined to preserve self-interest to the death.

In my eyes, the play affirmed everything Scripture teaches about human nature. Opening night came and I was pleased to present the college community entertainment with instructional and redemptive value. In a tone reminiscent of Old Testament horror stories, I offered a cautionary tale to edify.

Not everyone saw it that way.

A vocal few made it clear that they expected "role models" rather than "negative examples" from Christian theatre. They challenged the worth of dramatizing profane lifestyles and urged me to present "family entertainment" in the future.

Despite some attempts to appease those critics, I’ve come to accept that I will take heat for the public, creative, articulation of my faith. The Genesis account (and Romans 1:19, 20) indicates that the holiest art is personal, it carries the mark of its maker. So as long as I make art for public consumption, audiences will see a little of me every time the curtain rises on my productions for screen and stage.

This is a charge quite different from that given most professors. Fermat’s Theorem is part of the curriculum despite the personal walk of a Mathematics lecturer. Few members of the community have an opinion about what goes on in a Business class. They haven’t the slightest connection with a school’s Biology offerings. Even Trustees can seldom advance an informed analysis of their college's Bible teaching.

When it comes to the Fine Arts and Media, however, "everyone’s a critic." Ubiquity and accessibility of plays, photographs, newspapers, speeches, concerts, and movies invite a response from every audience, no matter how savvy.

These observations about the many targets I wear are my way of justifying a little martyr complex. As I turn the eye of scrutiny inward, I see that bemoaning the necessary status and task of artists must make me tiresome company at times. Yet I persist toward a more gracious acceptance of my role as catalyst in the Christian zeitgeist.
I was one of the actors in The Lion in Winter, and saw a lot of this firsthand. Brian had started teaching at Montreat College at about the same time I entered as a freshman, and his first daughter was born that same year. As I've said before, Montreat is a fairly conservative community. This is not (contrary to how I often sound about conservatives) always a bad thing. One thing that I absolutely think that conservatives "get right" is their dedication to follow God no matter what the "world" says. However, they often tend to get upset about the wrong things, and that was certainly the case here. Much of the Montreat community got more upset about the revelation that Richard the Lionheart was gay (an assertion supported by historical records, and demonstrated in our production by means no more graphic than by having Richard touch another male character on the cheek) than by the fact that Henry II was having a very public adulterous affair (as indicated already in the quote above), and that he wanted to have his sons executed at one point of the play. In another incident, people were more concerned about the fact that there was swearing in a play then about the message warning against hypocrisy that the play contained.

I honestly think many "conservative" Christians would be very surprised to learn just how much Brian's ethics and values echo their own. I was once told by one of my college friends how much it pained him to know how many of his students (including many in drama) were involved in extramarital sexual relationships. (I've always said that the labels "conservative" and "liberal" depend entirely on what you're talking about. This is certainly one area I confess to being more "conservative" on than some people.) Still, Brian was often considered by many in the Montreat College community to be a maverick (I think unfairly), and I was very sad to learn from another friend a few years ago that he was denied tenure, being told (so I hear) that the college just didn't see a place for drama in their campus vision.

Thankfully, Brian has since been hired onto the faculty at Calvin College in Michigan. (Right next to Calvin Seminary, where another of my old professors started at about the same time!) And it seems that Montreat has had occasion to reconsider their stance, as Brian tells me that the new president there had approached him about coming back to Montreat just as "an offer simply too good to refuse" from Calvin came through.

Brian was one of my first choices to ask to provide a recommendation when I entered seminary, and he and I have kept in sporadic contact over the years. He has truly been one of the pivotal influences on my young adult life, and I would recommend that any student who wishes to be all that God has created them to be should take one of Brian's classes.

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