Called to the Stage: Lori Woodall + Ben Parman

How does theatre help audiences discover something true about themselves? How does theatre reveal humanity’s reaching for the divine? How are actors, writers, and directors changed by inhabiting new personas? As part of our ongoing engagement with Christianity and the arts, we sit down with two people who are shaping Milwaukee’s theatre scene in important ways.

Guest Appearances

Lori Woodall is an actor and director with more than 25 years of professional theatre experience including television, film, radio, modeling, and voice over and 10 years of experience in drama ministry working primarily with disadvantaged urban youth. She obtained her MFA in acting from the California Institute of the Arts and a BA in theatre and Afro-American studies from UW-Madison and is currently the director of the theater program at Concordia University Wisconsin. Lori continues to work as a professional actor, director, and voice-over artist in the Milwaukee area. 

Ben Parman studied theatre at Wisconsin Lutheran College, graduated from the film program at Full Sail University in Orlando, and worked as a casting assistant in New York City. In January 2016, his second play, Starlings, premiered at Soulstice Theatre. Ben is a recent graduate of the Second City improv program and performs across the Milwaukee and Chicago areas with a variety of theatre companies. He is also the business manager at Acacia Theatre Company as well as a regular contributor to Cinema Faith where he reviews classic film.

Key Topics

  • Both of our guests have experience working with Acacia Theatre Company. They share about it as a place for Christian themes to be explored in theatre. Listen in at 21:50.
  • How do audiences respond to themes of racism and white supremacy on the stage? Listen in, starting at 25:10. 
  • Plays can often function as modern parables. Listen in at 31:20. 
  • The theatre can often serve as a means of authenticity and identity. Lori and Ben share their experiences at 38:25.
  • Why should you go to see live theatre? Our guests give us the inside scoop at 43:35.

A Few Mentioned Items

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Episode transcript

Lori Woodall: When [audiences] share their responses, especially when it’s a revelation to them that has helped them with a spiritual stumbling block of some kind, I feel like it’s a great reminder that it’s not about me at all. This is all God. We use our gifts to glorify God. This is all God. This is his doing and not ours. It’s just a good reminder that we’re the vessel for his work.

Angelina: I feel like I’m gonna really excel at old age. I’m really looking forward to being old.

Michael: I cannot wait to be the guy who wears a sweater when it’s 80 degrees outside, and I’m just, you know, I can say whatever I want to people. Anything I want. I can get away with anything.

[MUSIC]

Michael: Welcome to another episode of living uncommon. We were just talking about peaking. Do you guys think that you peaked? Have you yet to peak, or have you peaked already?

Dan: I was watching a documentary on Rothko, and he didn’t really start selling until he was 50. He really started selling paintings. I’ve got time yet. I’m banking on the post-war artists peak to head at some point.

Angelina: Then, there’s always the option that after death you become famous. You could peak after you’re gone like Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson.

Michael: I think the 40s are gonna be good for me. I think I’m gonna have a really good one.

Angelina: What about your twenties when you were in a band, living the life in twin cities?

Michael: That was certainly a high point, but I don’t think it’s a peak.

Dan: We’ve got a nice discussion about the theater arts coming up. I think we have enough to do a whole mini package series about art. At this point, we’ve hit just about every major art form. In this episode, we’re gonna be talking to Lori Woodall. Lori is our director of the theater program here at Concordia, and it’s just a minor right now, and she does talk about that a little bit. It’d be great if it were a major someday. She’s doing a great job with that program. She talks a lot about her work as a artist but also as a teacher. Then, we’re also in discussion with Ben Parman, who is the business manager at Acacia Theatre Company, that’s a Milwaukee based Christian performance arts kind of group. He talked about his experiences doing that. It’s a really great discussion. They get into a lot about art and what it means to be a Christian artist. Let’s get into it.

Lori: My journey began at…I was a very imaginative child that liked to speak in a British accent regularly. When I was in grade school, my mom had seen in the Journal Sentinel that there were auditions for Milwaukee Rep’s Christmas Carol, and they specified that they wanted multi-ethnic kids. She was like, “Take a look at this! You get to be British.” So, I jumped at the opportunity. I went to a very small parochial school, and it didn’t have plays. I was in choir, but there were no plays or anything like that. I auditioned for it, I got in, I ended up playing Martha Cratchit, and I was 12, and I fell in love with the theatre. In that moment, every day was Christmas. They have always had amazing sets and costumes for the Rep’s annual Christmas Carol. I just remember just loving coming to rehearsal.  We had a dialect coach that taught us the British accent. I get to refine my accent and everything, and yeah, it was just magical. I fell in love with the magic of theatre. From that point on, I sought out professional opportunities. There was a group called the Travel Cast Players at the time, and it was for high school aged students. I think it started with eighth grade because I know I had just graduated eighth grade, and I auditioned for them. They were a summer traveling troupe. We played Summerfest, and then we went to different sites around Milwaukee, and we performed these original skits by the founder of this company. It was these dramas with a message for teens. This is like late 80s, early 90s. It was the dangers of drugs and all of these things, an after-school special, you know, just a live after-school special. I did that for some years, and I did theater in high school. I went to UW-Madison for my undergrad where I majored in theater and African American Studies. That introduced new things to me. I ended up working with a local playwright in Madison who is an African American woman who is still there and produces quite a bit of work in the Madison area. After graduating, I came back to Milwaukee. I had two solid years between undergrad and grad school where I was just working as an actor. That’s where I first met Janet Peterson, who was also in a bunny suit with me in The Velveteen Rabbit. She told me about Acacia Theater. I had grown up in the church, and it was Christian, and she told me about this company that I actually had never heard of before. I auditioned for them, and then, I ended up doing their season that coincided with grad school. I went to Cal Arts for grad school, for my MFA and performance. I ended up choosing that path instead of staying in Milwaukee to do the regional theater thing here. I went out there primarily because they were experimental theatre. I had a very traditional theatre background, which I loved, but at the same time, I was ready for something out of the box. They seemed like they were very innovative with what they were doing, and I also wanted to do film. California was the place to go for that. Post graduating there, I immediately got an agent. I was doing TV, some films that were in festivals, and things like that, and ended up coming back here for family reasons just a few years after that. I had some family that got ill, so we came back home. My husband, who is also an actor, ended up doing work when we first initially got here, between Milwaukee and Chicago. Then, I came to Concordia by way again. When I came back, I contacted a few people that I knew from before, one of them being Janet, because Janet was actually in touch with me during the time that I was gone. This was the early days of emails and things. It was actually kind of a miracle to keep in touch during those years. My husband and I were in a show called Pilate at Acacia Theatre Company, and David, who used to be the director of theater here, was in that production. One day, he says, “Hey, you have your MFA, right?” I said, “Yeah, I do.” “You want to be a teacher?” I had just applied a few other places, and so, he hired me to teach his two classes that semester, to graduate these seniors that were minors at the time. I’m still here 13 years later. I still act. I mean, my husband and I, we have two children now. Doing plays is a little harder, but the on-camera work still does continue. It’s easier for me to do industrials and a quick commercial shoot, or voice-over work. I’ve had some very unusual experiences. I can say that I’ve danced with Richard Simmons. I can say that I am the voice of Pimp My Ride. I am all the female voices of that theme song with MTV. One of the highlights of my career was the West Coast premiere of a musical called The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin. It’s about Kirsten Childs, who was the first African American performer to work with Bob Fosse. She wrote her life story into a musical. She actually teaches on the musical theater faculty at NYU, and she produced this play, went off Broadway, and found success. LaChance played my part in New York, so that was some big shoes to fill on the West Coast. This is play about her life. That was really enjoyable. Then, she flew in to watch it. It was just a scariest thing of my life. Then, in terms of how faith gets intertwined in drama, my husband and I began teaching for Above The Clouds, Inc., which is a non-profit Christian arts organization that gives free classes to disadvantaged youth in inner-city Milwaukee. We’ve been teaching with them since 2007. We want to do work that has something to say that speaks to our spirit. We saw the brokenness. My husband’s from Portland, Oregon. He actually was not as familiar with Milwaukee. When I came back, I could feel its brokenness. It had changed so much from the last time I had lived here. When you hear the children voice these things, and we were hearing children say things like, “Well, I have no future. Of course I’m gonna go to prison,” even before they ever committed a crime. We heard God’s call, this is something that we were passionate about. This is our Nineveh. It’s a hard place to be in, but yes, this is the Lord’s work. We need to be doing this. Just by way of working with Acacia Morningstar, they have those talkbacks afterwards. Again, you see how the Holy Spirit really impacts the audience. The messages are always way more than we ever anticipate. That’s more or less where we’re at in terms of anything that we would write. That’s something that when I started teaching here, I brought to the Concordia theater program, that specific slant. Even if we’re doing a secular show, what themes can we highlight? The gospel, The Women of Lockerbie is one that sticks out. I first directed that for Acacia. I love that play. I always thought of that as a powerful Christian play. Deborah Brevoort, the playwright, actually came and she saw the play. She did a workshop here, and it was so funny. I had dinner with Deborah, and she was like, “Lori, several Christian colleges produced this play in the theater company. I did not write it with that lens at all. It just astounds me. That’s not it.” She wasn’t opposed to it. She thinks it’s beautiful that it has taken on that life.

Dan: Now, you’re the department head, right?

Lori: Yes. So, that’s been the last six years of those 13. God has blessed me in the work we have. When I first came here, the program that was actually dismantled. Now, we have 32 minors. We have about 75 participants total.

Ben: It sounds more major than minor to me  if you’re listening.

Lori: It feels more major than minor, for sure. So, I’m a busy lady.

Dan: And, you’re putting on a production right now?

Lori: Yes. It was actually two. So, there is Meet Me In St. Louis. I am a native to St. Louis. When you’re from St. Louis, you’re proud about everything St. Louis. You love the Cardinals, you wear red, and you love Meet Me In St. Louis because we hosted the World’s Fair in 1904. We were chosen. I grew up in a household where my mother played that movie several times a year, we had the book at home, it was the thing. Generations though, like the grandparents generation, and the older generations, all of my great-grandmother’s were born in the late Victorian period. They lived these really long lives. They remembered the World’s Fair. They couldn’t go to it. That’s another topic for another time, but they remember when it was there. So, you kind of grew up with that history. So, working on that, and that opens in November, November 7th through the 10th that runs.

Dan: Thank you. Ben, you’ve got the floor. You’ve got a little bit different of a journey.

Ben: I’m gonna provide a little bit of connective tissue here, which is that I’m the business manager of Acacia Theatre Company that Lori mentioned several times. Also, I’ve given a couple talks in her classes at Concordia. I feel like that’s the full disclosure, like an NPR where they say, “One of our employees….” Anyways, the drama and spirituality were always associated for me because I started in the Congregational Church of East Troy. I think I was an angel. No, that was not typecasting. My sister played the back end of a camel, which would have been better for me, personally. That would have been a more appropriate casting choice. So, it was just from the beginning. My parents had these massive Halloween parties before we were born. They’re still pictures, just page after page of pictures of them in costume, and all their friends in costume, and they showed up once at the bus stop for my sister in full costume. She was mortified. I thought it was fantastic. That background was kind of in place from the beginning. Then played… of course, the character was not called Spock because that would have been copyright infringement. I played this Mock Spock in Journey to the Center of Christmas, which…why we would reference a Jules Verne novel when we’re doing a Star Trek omage…explain it to me. I had prosthetic ears and everything. It started there, and then I was in some shows in junior high and high school theater, which I still think if you’ve got a good program is some of the best experiences you’ll have because you’ll get cast and roles you’ll never get casted in again. I did theater in college for a couple of years, but I have a short attention span, and I have several interests in the arts… Also, there was a deal with the parents where they would pay for the decent four years of school block, which is a lot more than most kids get. I’m really grateful to this day, almost on a daily basis, for that. I went to two years at Wisconsin Lutheran College, because you always go to the Lutheran’s for theater, right? That was two years there, and then I realized there was an accelerated program for film production in Florida. Of course, you go to Florida for film production. Combined, it was four years at a university. That was why I did that. Then I was in New York City, did some casting, and I moved back to Milwaukee after having a nervous breakdown, because that’s where you go to have a nervous breakdown is New York. I was detached from the arts for six, seven years. I was writing a journal in that time, but I just felt very disassociated from it in the sense that it seemed harmful, and it seemed just inescapably selfish. I had all of these notions about it that were more the industry than they were the nature of art. I got connected with a church in the Central City of Milwaukee, and that was a focus switch. Their values were community. Their values were a kingdom vision of different ethnicities, and different races, and different socioeconomic statuses coming together and worshiping one God, and then being one as they are one. That took my concentration for a long time, and it was worthwhile because that’s always worthwhile, and that should always be an undercurrent of whatever our vocation is. I needed some Sabbath from the arts. When I did revisit art, it was because I had some very formative experiences working at a non-profit temp agency for ex-offenders. I’ll just echo all the comments you made about that atmosphere and how humbling it is, and how the kingdom of heaven is theirs. If we want access to that, we have to draw near. I think it’s just gonna be very difficult. It’s gonna be like camel through the eye of a needle. Hopefully, my sister won’t be in that camel. Anyway, that was very formative. I worked as a volunteer coordinator at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, and I was part of my church’s effort to embody just incarnational living. That was a bunch of white people moving into a black neighborhood, which is both good and bad, that’s a big old mix that we’ll talk about, maybe later. Again, all of that just altered my approach to all of life. When I revisited the arts, I had written a script about most of those experiences that was set in a non-profit temp agency for ex-offenders. Lori and I had talked about it. I wanted her to play one of the leads, and she was more interested in directing. Then, there was just personal calamities that prevented her from doing that. I still wish that had happened. Then, trying to think of what else from that…When that production premiered, a friend of mine was on the board of Acacia Theatre Company, and they had a new job opening, and they suggested me. and I had done some work with them years ago when I was still in Milwaukee just out of high school, but I had been separated from them during that whole time. Janet never lost my email address because she collects people. I’m just picturing Madame Alexander dolls on a shelf. It’s not creepy like that. She just never stopped contacting me about different shows. She remembered who I was, and I got the job. Then, that just reignited everything. It was in the right context because I felt protected, and I felt that people were concerned about the same things I was concerned about. That just became the site for my Renaissance. I feel like a personal Renaissance of just flourishing in all of those pursuits.

Dan: Tell us a little bit about what Acacia is? You both mentioned they’re a Christian theatre group.

Lori: Why don’t you speak as their business manager. 

Ben: It’s an interdenominational group of artists who may be Christian or may not be Christian, and the core itself is committed Christians, but in terms of who participates, that’s very hospitable. I recently heard someone who’s an atheist, and they said, “I really want to work at Acacia again because I can be myself there,” which was the most bizarre thing I’d heard. I just kind of did triple takes with them because it’s so unbelievable. That culture really cultivates authenticity and vulnerability. I hear that over, and over, and over again.

Dan: Janet is the artistic director. Both of you have done a lot of work with theater that explorers hard topics, or things like that. How is theater, as a platform for exploring deeper themes…how does that work?

Lori: I’ll put on an academic hat for a second. Theatre in its origins have that function. If you go back to the ancients, it always examined the relationship between humans and the divine. Even in polytheist societies, it was examining, ‘what is their relationship to the creators at that time?’ Then, also, it had a civic responsibility to speak on societal issues and internal conflicts. That’s the second focus outside of the relationship between human and the divine is just within humanity, human to human, and also within oneself. If you go back to the Madea’s, and the Oedipus Rex, and the Theban Cycle, and all of those, you get early versions of this. Throughout history, and I’m knee-deep in teaching theatre history right now…I could go through all the isms and all these things. I get really excited. I jump in class, and the students are like, “It’s so boring, yet, it’s so entertaining.” You can connect it all the way to…then, you get Shakespeare, and all these things that descended since then. My point being that, the platform gives voice to societal ills, or to personal struggle, or whatever. It does take us naturally to the hard spaces, whether those are psychological ones, or societal ones, and not all plays have that function. I can argue that even places you think that don’t have that specific purpose, have it.

Dan: What is a piece that has challenged you as a viewer or challenged you as an actor?

Lori: There’s been a few. What I’ll mention, since we’re going to go back to Acacia, my husband and I, and Ben, were involved in Best of Enemies, and that was two years ago now, and which of course was made into a film recently as well. That dealt with the Charette, North Carolina school board in 1971. It had themes of racial tension, and overcoming those, forgiveness, Redemption, all of that. Ryan, who was white, played the Klansmen, CP Ellis. I played Ann Atwater as the african-american woman, and they were both at odds for a long time. Then, of course, in real life, became friends. In the play,  you see that transformation as well. I had never been up close and personal with a Klansman role before in my entire life, thank goodness. It wasn’t the double whammy of, ‘my husband was in it,’ because I know he’s not that, so I can separate that. It was just being on stage with this symbol of hate that had literally lynched one of my ancestors, Leander Nelson his name was, who had a successful business during the post-reconstruction era. It was still like the 1890s, and he was killed by the Klan just for advancing. I had grown up with hearing first-hand accounts of things. Then, to actually see that, I think unnerved us all. That corresponded with a time, and just our own current history of a lot of polarization, and a lot of hateful rhetoric being on the rise, being condoned at times, things like that. When you’re working on a show, you get immersed in that world. You get immersed in the text, and the conversations, or whatever. That was a space we were in for awhile. I immediately went from that to directing The Raisin in the Sun. It was four or five months of being in that place. It was  hard because as african-american, and as someone in her mid 40s, I could say that for me, this has been one of the hardest times, I feel, to be african-american in my lifetime. I grew up in the 70s when it was still, “Okay, now, you stay here, and you stay over here,” but there can be a tangible fear and uncertainties. Working on these pieces when you’re already feeling that externally was difficult. It was enjoyable in a way, and cathartic, but still difficult.

Dan: How did audiences respond to that?

Lori: Audiences were lovely. We had tears, meaning confessional tears, or people just wanting forgiveness, people wanting to extend… there were several times that happened in the talkbacks. I don’t know if you want to speak to that some more.

Ben: I would say, it’s one of those experiences where everything becomes leveled briefly, and not that everything disappears in terms of inequities, or in terms of history, but everything is temporarily leveled, and people are able to speak directly to one another in a way that’s humane, and humble, and so, that’s rare. That happens in talkbacks though. I’ve seen it happen at all times in different ways. This summer, The Endurance of Light, which was a play that featured a scientist and wife, who are grappling with multiple miscarriages. It was comparable in the way that people felt released to share.

Lori: Recently, a group of faculty here saw The Niceties at the Rep, but it’s about a white female academic who’s a historian. Her african-american female student hands in a paper. It starts off where the teacher is basically… I won’t spoil the whole plot, but she basically had some issues with the paper, and then it unravels into this unmasking. So, here we are, a group of academics. We were black and white, and we were a diverse group that day. I think all of us as academics could relate to some of the things. The point she was making was in terms of those basic student-teacher things, but then, on same token, can relate to that student for what she was calling her out for. Then, it ends very abruptly. It leaves you stunned, which is a very interesting place to be left. That’s how it leaves you, and it doesn’t ever offer a solution. It was an excellent play. I am still chewing on this play. It still comes up. I think, we saw two weeks ago, and if we see anybody else it’s like, “I’m still thinking about this.”

Ben: This is gonna sound perhaps like a cliched evangelical response, but it’s truthful, which is that Jesus spoke in parables, and he thought that was the most effective way to reach people. The Bible, in itself, there are many books within it because there’s different genres, and there’s many books within it that function like parables. Even though they were real events, they still function like parables. I think of the scene…wasn’t it King David where the prophet comes to him and and gives him a parable, and then he replies that that man should be killed? It’s like, well, you are that man. I think theatre accomplishes that, and most art forms accomplish that. For me, personally, the example of that in my… I don’t even want to use the word career. I just feel like an eight-year-old boy walking around in high heels. It’s just ridiculous. I was in a production of Oleanna, which is play by David Mamet that he wrote at another point in history where the heat was being turned up about sexual harassment. There was a high-profile trial going on, and he wrote this play as… I don’t know if you would consider it a response or just an agitation… but he wrote it between a professor and a student. Initially, the student comes for help with the homework that she’s struggling to complete. She’s struggling to keep pace with the other students, and then, over the course of the play, it escalates and unravels into this gradual, intensifying altercation. It was written in that period, in that context of male to female, in the traditional understanding of that and issues of sexual harassment, issues of academia, and inaccessibility, and all of that. Then, a friend of mine wanted to do a production with it and wanted to cast a man in the role of the student. They didn’t want to change any the dialogue and also didn’t want to talk to David Mamet about it. We began examining the script and realized that not only was there space for it, but there was a lot of framework for it. Not that he had that intention, but there was language within it that supported an interpretation of someone who had identified perhaps as genderqueer. They would identify as gender fluid or something like that. It’s still applied. It was still all of this lamenting of, “I don’t fit in here, and I don’t know how to belong here. You’re talking and you’re using these words, and I don’t know what they mean.” So, in playing that part that’s doing lots of “research,” reading a book called, “The Transgender Child,” and this must be so difficult, and how do people live? Halfway through the show thinking, maybe some of this is internal. The call is coming from inside the house. By the end of that show, having a much more clear understanding of how I experience gender, and what gender meant to me. I say, not thankfully, but personally, thankfully the show was closed after one performance. We got a cease and desist letter. Thankfully, personally, for me, because it would have been extremely difficult to do multiple weekends in that show. As you know from doing those shows in succession, you get to this, “Oh, how long, Lord?” I think that’s relevant to what the question was. 

Dan: Yeah, definitely. What kind of questions do audiences ask? I know that, Acacia always does talk backs, but you mention this a little bit, audiences taking on a very personal aspect of what they’re seeing and experiencing through the characters that they’re watching.

Lori: I feel, when they share those types of responses, especially when it’s a revelation to them that has helped them with a spiritual stumbling block of some kind, I feel like it’s a great reminder that it’s not about me at all. This is all God. We use our gifts to glorify God. This is all God. This is his doing and not ours. It’s just a good reminder that we’re the vessel for his work.

Ben: It’s not about the gift, it’s about the giver. That’s been helpful for me recently in terms of the cultural practices of artists in theatre in the West. This will shock all of you, but it’s very individualistic, and it’s very based on identity. When you visit other cultures, or you interact with other cultures in whatever format, you learn that other theatre artists don’t consider that from other cultures. They consider it a craft. They consider it work. They consider it a vocation. It’s not that they don’t find joy in it or in each other. They don’t consider it as their value, or their worth, or their humanity. I think it’s helpful to try and toggle between those cultures in your head. If I were Olivia Colman receiving this comment, would it really matter? No. She’d probably be like, “bollocks.” It just wouldn’t bother her because she’s like, “Oh, well, we’re having fun.”

Dan: We talked a little bit about theater being a means to authenticity. Specifically, you mentioned that a couple times. What does that look like as an actor, as a writer, as a director?

Lori: Authenticity is something that we often bring in two lectures somehow. We talked about it because in the theater, whether you act, or design, or whatever, there is an examination of and reflection of self.  Basically, you discovered that we are complex and that we use what we are. That’s where I was going with that whole perspective. Whatever it was, it stems from environment and all these other things. We are what we are, and you need to know what that is, I think, or at least to know that you have it, that it’s in there to pour out and pour back into your characters, or your design, or your directing, or whatever that is. I talk about Christ identity with them because, especially as actors, you can get lost.  There are actors, professional actors in stage and in film who I’ve heard say things like, “I’ve been playing so many people, I don’t know who I am anymore.” Rejection is a major part of what we do. That’s one of the hardest things to teach students. With casting and things like that, you win some, you lose a lot, right? You have to get used to that. Therefore, you have to find a way to define yourself that is not defined by that. As believers of God, that identity through Christ has always been my anchor. It is the anchor to cling to. Who does he say I am? Especially in the secular world of theater, they’re gonna say, “You’re too short, or you’re not singing well enough.” There’s gonna be all these things. What is that going to fill you with? Then, one of the loudest voices you have to disquiet is your own. That can be the worst culprit, “You’re not good enough, you’re not this enough.” It’s important to to hold on to who Christ says you are. Don’t let your your worth be defined by these other means.

Ben: I think of performance as a sort of alchemy from inside to outside, or maybe just better put, if I knew any metallurgical terms I would use them right now, you just find out what your metal is. I’m thinking of Terminator II the Poly Metal, or whatever it is, but you just find what your actual composition is through all of this experimentation. So much of it is stored, or it’s not visible, or you’ve been instructed by parents, or by teachers, or by authority figures to act a certain way. Then, you can apply that to, ‘women are told to act this way, and men are told to act this way, black people are told to act this way, gay people are told to act this way,’ and you go on, and on, and on, and on. It’s really beneficial to then be pushed into an area where you claim there’s none of your persona in there. Then, you’re pushed into it, and you’re suddenly like, “Oh, that paint stain really looks like me. Is that me?” You start examining everything.  You relate this to the parable, right? “Oh, there’s more of that in me than I realized.” Or, “I relate to that a bit too strongly and intensely than I thought I would.” It’s an act of faith because you are going forward as this person, even though maybe you don’t think you are this person, or you don’t know how this person could do what they did. Then, as is the case with faith, whenever you reach out, God will reach back. Then, you will be given provision. It doesn’t always mean it’s gonna be a good performance, but you will be given some sort of sustenance through that, and then, some sort of nourishment about what you want.

Dan: Sell me on theatre. If I’m someone who has no interest in theatre, and I don’t want to see a bunch of people acting, especially singing, what is it about it that calls to you? What is it that makes you love it?

Lori: I think, we as humans have an inherent need for catharsis. Catharsis isn’t just joy and happiness, it’s fear, it’s pain, it’s an anguish, it’s frustration, it’s anger, it’s all those things. We have a need to see ourselves back. We have, also, I think, at a heron, need to know more. I feel like theatre serves that purpose.

Ben: I would add that especially in contemporary culture, and the isolation that seems to be unavoidable, it’s very important to get into a room with a bunch of people and have a shared experience. It’s just irreplaceable. It’s a very chemical, emotional thing to be connected with everyone. I was just listening to the NPR interviewing Lin-Manuel Miranda and a couple of his friends that are doing this freestyle show on Broadway. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, everyone comes in, and they were given a compartment in which they have to place their phone. It locks, and you can’t use it. Of course, if it’s an emergency you can go out in the lobby and they’ll unlock it for you. That’s what we need. If all of them recognize, it’s critical for us to be present, especially in theatre. I feel like theater forces that in a way that other mediums don’t. The lights go out, and it’s just us. 

Dan: My wife and I were at Fringe Festival in DC over the summer, and went to some shows, and there’s a very awkward moment where we realized that we were the only two people in the audience. It was a great performance, but it was a early. It was a Tuesday at like 3  o’clock, and you get that feeling like you’re still part of something. It’s just the two of us and an actor who’s doing a one-person show. It was a great show. She put so much into it just for the two…well, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe she wasn’t performing for us at all. She was just performing. Maybe the audience doesn’t matter at all.

Lori: They absolutely do. There’s a reciprocity there. Even when you can’t see their faces, you can feel an energy, or a stillness. You kind of get to a point where you could discern what it is a little bit. Sometimes, you’ll have an audience that’s quiet, but there’s a difference between an audience that’s quiet because they’re bored, or because they’re with you and they’re absorbing every word. Somehow, you know. You can feel the energy.

Ben: Or the gasps. The gasps are my favorite. 

Lori: Or, that lady that has comments.

Ben: Or, the whispers explaining something.

Lori: Those are the best.

Dan: Give us some resources. We always like to ask our guests to point us towards something you’re working on right now, something that you’ve found really helpful in the field that points to maybe the future of the field…

Ben: I always recommend “The Mind of the Maker” by Dorothy L. Sayers to anyone who is seeking to understand art, or practice art, or any of that because it’s a robust and lively theological statement about art. She never gets enough credit.

Lori: I just recommend the people see shows, and not just musicals, because as a culture now…, I mean, if people are going to the theater, they’re going to see the Broadway tour. See a variety of different shows to truly have…to understand the full spectrum of what theatre is, when and why it’s still relevant all these hundreds and hundreds of years later. Go out and see more work. I tell my students, seek something that will challenge you. Then, investigate further afterwards.

Dan: Awesome! Well, thanks so much for your time.

[MUSIC]

Dan: All right. We’re back. I’d like to start out by going around the horn here and finding out what is your experience with theater? Were you in a play as a kid, or even the junior high, or the church play, or whatever? Do you make your own theatre at home? Angelina?

Angelina: All of the above! We would always have a Christmas program. I went to a private school for a few years, and we would always throw this big Christmas program with songs, and poems, and then there would always be a big play. Then, there would be little skits. It’s always like, “Who’s gonna get the part?” They would cast, and then we would practice for weeks. I don’t remember my first role in any of those. I never had a big role. It was always “the girl sitting on the couch,” or I might have one line. My dad, he would…we did this for several years where… his side the family is really big. There’s nine kids and then they all have eons of kids. We would do a Christmas play yearly, and he would transform the basement into a set, and we would have actual curtains. Then, everyone would come over after dinner, and we would do the Christmas story. He had a little pulley system. The star came down. It was great. It was a lot of fun.

Dan: What about you, Michael?

Michael: I have some background in the theater. Indulge me. I have a long trajectory to trace here. It all started off, I was a rather rotund little boy. My first experience in the theater was…remember the nursery rhyme, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean.” Well, the people at my school thought it’d be hilarious to cast the chubby boy as Jack Sprat, and then, a really skinny girl as the wife who could eat no lean.There was a joke there. My second experience in theatre was, I was a shepherd at a church Nativity play, and I had really bad allergies…they have this on videotape, i kept trying to pick my nose. I’m the sly with my staff. There’s videotape of me shoving the staff in my nose, so, there’s that. Then, in high school, I got into experimental theater a little bit. I did a series of things where I would do eighties songs, but as inanimate objects. Then, I did assistant teach a script writing class for theater as part of my studies. I was gonna do an MFA in English, and that’s one of the things I did. Now, my brother is a professional actor and does theater stuff, including with Acacia. Thanks for indulging me as I traced my…

Dan: I didn’t really do a whole lot with theater. Although, we always did the talent shows in school right around Christmas time. That would be the big thing. For some reason, I thought I always had to be in it. I would be so stressed out. I’d be like, “Well, what am I going to do this year? I have to do it.” One year, I did a mime, and I can’t fathom myself at that age. I was probably in fifth or sixth grade, fourth or fifth grade maybe. This mime routine was of me like picking apples in an orchard. Then, my zipper was down the whole time, and I didn’t know until I got off stage. The weird thing is, I can picture this thing, and I don’t know what possessed me to think that people would want to see someone miming. I don’t know. It’s bizarre.

Angelina: How long was the routine?

Dan: I mean, it was a few minutes, maybe two minutes or so. I don’t know. I could probably reenact a lot of it right now. Later on, when I was a youth pastor, my wife and I would plan the Christmas programs for our youth group. We wrote a lot of plays for that. We would do that, and we did a post-apocalyptic one. I’m actually pretty proud of it.

Angelina: How were the kids in your youth group? Were they eager to participate?

Dan: They were. We had a lot of fun doing it. We did some music as well. No musicals, but we would do our own versions of Christmas carols. We would give everyone instruments and teach them how to play. We’d do that whole performance aspect. We did some puppet shows, a lot of puppet shows all through high school and college. What did you guys think about this? We had Ben and Lori sharing their stories.

Angelina: I really enjoyed this conversation. We were talking about this a little bit beforehand, but I think that this is one of my favorite conversations to date that we’ve recorded. I think what really stood out to me was the way that they talked about their work and their faith as being so intertwined. They both had a really beautiful way of talking. The way that they said things, you could tell that they had been trained on the importance of words and using the right words at the right time. I always appreciate when someone can communicate their ideas in a really poetic way.

Michael: I do agree with Angelina. I think it’s a good reminder that different people have different passions in life, and different people have different professions in life. That’s kind of one thing that we’re about at Concordia. We talk about living uncommon a lot, and it typifies that in the sense that these people are using the gifts and talents for Christ in a unique way. They’re in service to the church and in their community. I think that they’re doing Christian art in a way that is good art.

Dan: I have actually seen both of them in a number of shows. I had seen Lori, and her husband, and Ben in “Best of Enemies,” and that was an extremely moving, difficult play to watch. There’s a lot of language that was appropriate for the time that the play was taking place, but language that hopefully nobody would use today. I think it was really brave for Acacia to take that on, for one thing. I know that they had gotten a little bit of flack because they didn’t clean up the language at all. To know that it was Lori and her husband playing opposite each other made it all the more meaningful.

Angelina: When they were talking about having talk backs after their performances. There was a really beautiful quote by Ben that I wanted to share that really stuck out to me. I think Lori had said something about that, “people will have confessional tears afterwards,” which I thought was really interesting. Then, Ben said, “Everything becomes leveled briefly. Not that everything disappears in terms of inequity, or in terms of history, but everything is temporarily leveled. People are able to speak directly to one another in a way that’s humane and humble.” That, as an outcome of theater, is really incredible that you can sit and watch something, and this is an outcome from a piece of art. I think it’s incredible.

Dan: Those talk backs are really interesting to be a part of because in “The Best of Enemies” one in particular, you had people coming to that show that had a direct experience with that, not only the time period but also the racist sentiments and things like that. You did hear people in tears during the talkback because they had seen something reflected onstage that probably reflected something deep within themselves that they couldn’t contact any other way.

Angelina: Then, I liked how they tied that back to scripture. When talking about how Jesus purposely chose parables as a way of causing reflection in people, and the power that that has to create that reflection versus saying, “That was wrong, or this is wrong, or it should be done this way.” When you use story in any kind of form, it can cause that to happen naturally versus pushing that on people. Obviously, that’s way more impactful.

Dan: Favorite parable? Anyone have one?

Michael: Prodigal son, yeah.

Dan: Why is that, Michael?

Michael: That’s a good story. It’s meaningful. What are you? I need to explain my faith to you, Dan?

Dan: Yes. I like the one about the different soils and planting the seeds in different soils. That’s a great parable. Another reason I like it, and this betrays my need to have questions answered, is that Jesus specifically says, “This is what I meant by that” a few chapters later. He delivers the parable, and then, like a chapter later, he’s like, “All right. Now, this is what I meant by the soil. This is what I meant by the seed. This what the birds are.” So, I like the fact that he let us in on it. Angelina, favorite parable?

Angelina: The only one that’s coming to mind, and it’s just because it’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, is when he talks about the farmer who has such an enormous crop that he tears down his current barns and raises new, or bigger, ones to store more. I think it has a really pertinent parallel to the American life. There are things that we, in our culture, have taken as not just a right but almost a responsibility. When you think about something like a savings account, or a 401k, and what if those are…not saying it is…but, what if those are ways that we’re tearing down our barns and building bigger ones, rather than giving it away?

Dan: I’ve often thought that stage actors and pastors have a lot in common. I don’t mean that in like a cynical way.  I just mean it in the sense that there’s definitely something performative about the church service, the liturgy, about things like that. Again, not in a negative way, but just in a way that it is a drama that you’re communicating, maybe in a technical sense.

Michael: We’re very honored to have both of our guests. If you have any desire to learn more about Concordia and its theater programs, both in the Wisconsin campus, we also have some opportunities in Ann Arbor as well, check out our website, cuw.edu or cuaa.edu. Thank you for listening. Please share your comments with us on social media.

This podcast is brought to you by Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor. However, the opinions and views are not meant to be official statements on their behalf.

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