Truth to Stage: Theater Festival of Catholic Playwrights at Sheen Center

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This weekend, through Sunday, June 24, the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in lower Manhattan, celebrates its second annual Theater Festival of Catholic Playwrights. The festival’s mission is to showcase a variety of Catholic-themed plays, a natural outreach of the Sheen Center, a project of the Archdiocese of New York.

The festival’s opening night June 21 played out differently than one may have expected. The four performances, “Miracle in Rwanda,” Magis Theatre Company; “The Rainmaker,” The Storm Theatre Company; “Indigenous,” Xavier Theatre Company; and “The Other, Other Woman,” Turn to Flesh Productions, were vastly different in their themes, plots and characters.

The first performance was an excerpt from “Miracle in Rwanda,” a one-woman show about Immaculée Ilibagiza, a young woman during the Rwandan genocide, and the power her Catholic faith gave her as she and seven women hid in a local pastor’s home for 91 days. Leslie Lewis, performer, writer and board member of Magis Theatre Company, spoke during the talkback about how Immaculée’s story resonated with her because of her faith. “When I first heard her (Immaculée) speak, I was so moved by how the rosary had really allowed her to transform herself while she was in hiding…that is essential to the core of that story.”

In “The Rainmaker,” the themes of God and faith are hidden in the characters’ relationships and their interactions with one another. In the excerpt performed, the character, Bill Starbuck, helps Lizzy Curry realize that her simple dreams of being a wife and mother are not too hard to achieve. Peter Dobbins said that The Storm Theatre Company’s mission is to create theatre that showcases “God’s crazy love” for us.

“I like to think,” Dobbins said, “that Storm dedicates itself to doing plays about crazy love. The incredible romance between God and mankind, and often how that is shown through the relationships between men and women.”

While much of each play was different, they shared one of the most important parts of theatre: telling the truth. Xavier Theatre Company’s Brother Joseph Hoover, S.J., spoke about the correlation between theatre and truth during the talkback. “When we tell the truth about reality,” he said, “we’re telling the truth about God.”

Speaking the truth of God, especially in theatre, can often be a daunting task.

Emily C.A. Snyder, artistic director and co-founder of Turn to Flesh Productions, spoke about her experience working in Catholic theatre. “We wanted our company to be a little more covertly Catholic rather than overtly Catholic…When you say ‘we’re doing a Catholic show,’ people don’t show, including Catholics,” she said to chuckles from the audience.

How, then, do “Catholic shows” gain recognition and become a universal genre? The answer, once again, is by speaking the truth. Ms. Snyder said, “You can show completely, vastly different worldviews and so long as you’re showing them honestly, and giving each part of the argument truth, then everyone can come and listen.”

Catholic theatre isn’t theatre for Catholics only. “Yeah, we’re Catholic; that means you’re welcome. We’re Catholic; that means I love you. I love you, you’re welcome and I want you here,” Ms. Snyder said.

The Sheen Center’s Theater Festival of Catholic Playwrights will continue tonight, Friday, June 22 at 7 p.m., with the staged reading of “El Coquí Espectacular and the Bottle of Doom” by Matt Barbot, directed by Melissa Crespo. The play examines the ways we define our heritage and ourselves. Saturday, June 23, at 7 p.m. will be the staged reading of “The December Man” by Colleen Murphy, directed by Kathy Gail MacGowan. “The December Man” follows the story of Jean Fournier, a young man coping with grief and regret after fleeing the massacre at L’École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1989. The festival ends on Sunday, June 24, at 2 p.m. with the staged reading of “The Merry Widows of Windsor” by Emily C.A. Snyder, directed by Chris Rivera, a comedic sequel to Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives.” All staged readings will be followed by a Q&A session with the participating artists.

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