Lindsay Meader explores the relationship between theatre and the numinous and the need for chaplaincy in an insecure industry.
Life in the theatre can be very transient. In the time I’ve had the privilege to be a theatre chaplain, I’ve seen many lovely front of house and box office staff, shows, companies and sets come and go; but one thing has remained the same. Whenever in the course of my visits I find myself standing upon the stage, I have a very strong urge to take off my shoes, because for me it is holy ground.
For me, theatre is and always has been a thin place: the kind of place or space where the veil between heaven and earth seems gossamer thin; when we find ourselves in the presence of the numinous, and our response is one of awe.
Thin places are where we are offered a glimpse of a myriad of other possibilities for our lives and our world; a new and fresh perspective; the clarity of seeing ourselves and our lives as we really are and of glimpsing how we could be. Theatre offers us that same opportunity – to consider humanity and our world anew, from fresh perspectives; to enter into different realities from our own, to explore our own lives and the possibilities and potential deep within.
Just as burning bush and mountain top encounters allow us to relate to our Creator God in a new and deeper way; so each time we go to the theatre, we are given insights which can help us to relate to others differently. We are offered ways into understanding those we have previously considered totally other and alien to us and are put in closer touch with our own humanity. Theatre is both collective and personal. We enter into the experience with many others and yet still as individuals.
One of the hallmarks of such encounters is a sense of stepping out of chronos, chronological time, and into kairos, God’s time; when past, present and future fuse into an eternal now, infused and intensified by that sacred presence. Similarly, in the theatre we step out of chronos and into a much more fluid timescale, in which the events of many days or even years, are portrayed in a matter of hours, and we experience it very much in the moment.
All of theatre is a study in transfiguration; in exploring different possibilities in the life of one or more people and then seeing whether or not they choose change, and if not, why not? In each performance we are invited to bring our whole selves and to engage with whatever is presented. What would we do in that situation? How similar or different are we from the people we see portrayed on stage?
It is the immediacy of live theatre and the interaction between the performers and the audience that heighten the intensity of the encounter. No two performances are ever the same. I love watching how productions evolve over time as actors develop more and more nuances in their characters and of course, different audiences respond in very different ways. Even a one-man or one- woman show is an ongoing dialogue with the audience and a continual process of discovery. Theatre is about forging powerful connections not in chronos, but in kairos. When we engage with theatre our eyes and minds are opened to the possibility that the world doesn’t have to be a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been.
If the stage is holy ground, or the mountain top, then the bottom of the mountain covers considerable territory – the whole of the backstage area, dressing rooms and stage door included, and the front of house area too. No matter how luminous the performances, when the curtain comes down the cast change out of their costumes and back into their everyday lives; lives affected by family problems, health scares, bereavement, debt and the rest of the “heartaches and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” And of course, we are not just talking about actors here, but all of those who work in the theatre and create these rich and resonant encounters for audiences whilst themselves being very much rooted in the real world of joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, excitement and exhaustion and all the muddle and mess of being human.
This is what theatre chaplaincy is about. It’s about serving in the real world. Chaplaincy is simply being alongside in good times and in bad, and providing a sense of stability in the midst of working lives characterised by ongoing transition, uncertainty and frequent rejection. Chaplaincy is being available to accompany on as much or as little of the journey as required; not supplying the answers, but sharing the questions; meeting people where they are and being prepared to weep and laugh alongside; to share sorrows and celebrate joys. Many encounters are fleeting, but they happen in kairos not chronos.
At its best, in those rare and shining moments, chaplaincy can become a thin place in itself, when people are enabled to recognise the signposts, guides and way-marks in our lives that point to the numinous and the path of life in all its fullness that is God’s will for us and for each and every one of God’s children.
Each autumn Theatre Chaplaincy UK holds an annual celebration, TGI Theatre!, in which we welcome special guests, give thanks for the gift of theatre, light candles for all West End theatres, read a roll call of remembrance and commission new theatre chaplains. This year’s celebration is on Monday 19 September at 5.30pm at the Actors’ Church (St Paul’s Covent Garden). All are welcome.
The Revd Lindsay Meader has been Lead Theatre Chaplain for the Diocese since October 2019 and Senior Chaplain of Theatre Chaplaincy UK since 2012. She served on the clergy team at St James’s Piccadilly from 2005-2019.