Theatre and the Bible

You could be forgiven for thinking the only place the Bible and theatre cross are at children’s nativity plays and the odd Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. However, these are words we perhaps don’t hear together as much as we should. The basis of modern theatre and much of what we see on stage today, has come from a combination of these two things.  

‘Miracle plays’ were some of the earliest theatre in medieval Europe. These plays would often travel around villages telling the stories of the Bible, Catholic Saints and other ‘miracles’ to those who lived in the area. In England, the plays would take place on ‘pageant wagons’, which would arrive in a cycle, in one of the earliest forms of what we would now understand as ‘street theatre’. These theatrical productions were crucial in sharing religious stories to the masses. The plays would often incorporate spectacle and comedy into their storytelling. As they began to develop, they became more about entertainment and less about the teachings of the church. Nonetheless, the foundation of the genre was still rooted in Christianity.  The best way to describe Miracle Plays would probably be… ‘chaotic’. The plays would often incorporate spectacle and comedy into their storytelling. The pageant like drives were designed to take the teachings of the Bible beyond the pulpit.  The stories were often told in an episodic way, so as to best support the pageant-like delivery. This is a key part of the storytelling we can be inspired by today- moving beyond the Church walls. I don’t mean this is something we need to do literally, but maybe metaphorically. 

So, you may be wondering why these plays from the medieval period are important now. Not only do they provide the foundation for all modern theatre, but their relevance can go beyond just that. One of my earliest memories of learning stories from the Bible, was acting out the Nativity. Every year parents, children and congregation everywhere are told about the story of Jesus’ birth through theatre and drama. Moving on from my starring role as Mary in my nursery nativity in 2005, theatre has always played a crucial role in my life and continues to. So, why aren’t we doing it more?   

Now, I am by no means suggesting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ should be praised for its accuracy, but it can be heralded for its entertainment value (though I am more of a Sondheim fan if I’m honest). However, for many people these musicals play a large part in their experience of stories from the Bible. The way theatre and the bible interact for many people sits at the two ends of the spectrum here. We have the real community driven work of the Nativity play: tea towels on heads, the joys of sharing biscuits and mulled wine at the end and the chaos of children performing (one Nativity I attended had a four year old insist that Mary had twins as she battled to put her own doll in the crib with Jesus). Then on the other end of the spectrum we have the commercial, spectacle of Andrew Lloyd Webber on the West End. Rarely, do we hear about the work in the middle. 

I will take a moment hear to shine light on a theatre company who are doing just that. The Saltmine Trust is a Charity and Theatre Company, inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus. They are based in the West Midlands, and create a range of theatre projects from Theatre in Education tours, to productions. They describe what they do as “Faith Motivated Arts”. Their shows often ‘re-imagine’ Bible stories and characters to bring them to life for modern audiences. For example, their production Darkness Falls told the story of John’s Gospel in a  “moving, funny, poetical and fantastical” way. The other side of their work, Theatre in Education, refers to productions going into schools and education institutes for students to watch, and sometimes involves workshops and explorations of themes afterwards. It can be an effective tool because it allows us to teach topics in ways which are excitingly different from sitting in a classroom.  

 Again, this use of theatre to bring stories to multiple locations is something we can learn from and use in our every day life. Finding theatre and the bible in new settings can be transformative for many people. If we look at festivals like Greenbelt, exploring faith in new places is important as it can create new outlooks and discoveries. Afterall, Jesus preached in the streets, on hills, in gardens, by lakes; and with theatre we have the opportunity to do the same. We can also bring in more theatre inside the church walls!  

One of my favourite thing about churches is when they become community venues which can offer a range of arts, drama, music and poetry. Only recently was I at a poetry reading at the church on Penny Lane in Liverpool. Even reading the Bible to an audience is a type of theatre because there is a natural drama in story-telling, so in a way theatre is already happening in almost every church on Sunday mornings. So maybe we should be talking about Theatre and the Bible together more!