The Intellectual Life Together

My first semester as the director of ETBU’s Honors Program is coming to a close. In my final post for The Intersection, I thought I’d share some of the highlights from this semester as well as my perspective on the role of the Honors Program.

Back in September, the Honors Program held a retreat at Shepherd’s Pasture, a beautiful retreat center in Jefferson, Texas. We spent time playing board games, watching (and obsessing over the details of) the movie Memento, sharing meals, sitting around a campfire, wandering in the woods, and playing basketball and volleyball. We also went into town and took a riverboat tour, where we learned about Jefferson’s past as Texas’s first major city and port. In January, we will visit San Antonio to attend the symphony and to tour the Mission San José.

Two Monday nights each month, my wife, Amanda, and I have met with students to discuss James K. A. Smith’s work Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, in which Smith asserts that the Church can gain valuable insights from major postmodern thinkers Jacques Derrida, Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. He believes that these theorists’ demolition of modernist preconceptions actually open up space for the Church to reclaim and extend its Scripture-steeped, liturgical, catholic, and incarnational identity. We have engaged in great conversation about the meanings of modernity and postmodernity, the character of the Church in the present day, and the challenges facing the Church in Western society. Our students necessarily will be grappling with the implications of these issues throughout their lives, and the conversations we’ve had reveal the personal stakes involved for them in these issues.

Each chapter of Smith’s book opens with a summary of a film that he feels provides a good analogy to the theories put forth by the philosopher covered in that chapter. Dr. David Splawn hosted screenings of some of these films in his home and led discussions about them with the honors students. This engagement with the films has helped the students see how these theories have infiltrated the culture.

Each Thursday, Amanda and I have opened our home for honors students to gather and chat in a more informal setting. These coffee hours have been enriched by visits from several faculty members: Rick Johnson, Warren Johnson, Jeph Holloway, Jerry Summers, Scott Bryant, Lynn New, Elizabeth Ponder, Emily Prevost, and Troy White. The students have greatly benefited from hearing professors recount how they entered their fields of specialty, how they approach teaching and research, and how their faith frames their work.

Both the Book Group and the Coffee Hours have been central traditions to the Honors Program over the years. My wife and I have felt strongly that these events should take place in our home, with armchairs and couches, with food and coffee, and with children running around and making noise. We want to show through our hospitality that the intellectual life flourishes when it shapes and is shaped by normal, daily living.

The phrase that best sums up my vision for the Honors Program is, “The intellectual life together.” It’s an amalgamation of titles from two books that have inspired me. In The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges describes the scholarly vocation in almost mystical language, charging those who are called to it to great focus and determination but with incredibly human balance. He understands that a life of study, which requires a great measure of solitude, nevertheless takes place in the world, among friends, family, and daily labor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins Life Together with a reminder to Christians that a worshipping community is a gift—to gather without fear of violence or persecution to praise the Lord in song and to read His word is a luxury that we often take for granted. As a result, we build up imaginary, “ideal” communities in our minds and grow frustrated with the flesh-and-blood community in front of us that doesn’t seem to measure up. We must rid ourselves of these illusions and participate humbly and fully in worship and service within the community that God has brought us to.

I am thankful to enter and oversee an already vibrant community bound together by traditions. I have loved getting to know these kind, funny, interesting, servant-hearted students who find so much delight in instruction, and I look forward to deepening these relationships through living the intellectual life together.



Does Wendy Know Your Name?


“Bluegrass Gathering at Coffee Shop!”
Amanda Coolidge (CC license)

It was Sunday. I was grumpy from having to wrestle my two-year-old son throughout Mass, and after lunch, my wife offered me the chance to go out somewhere and read, ostensibly to give me time to myself.

We haven’t lived in Marshall very long; I haven’t figured out where to go when I need to relax by myself with a book. I drove downtown to the two coffee shops I was familiar with—neither is open on a Sunday. So I decided to go to Wendy’s.

Why Wendy’s? The last time I had been there to pick up food, I noticed that there were some nice sitting areas consisting of some stuffed chairs around a fireplace in a slate wall. Plus the customer service at this shop has been particularly courteous. I went and got a large cookie (heated up) and an iced tea and then sat down with my book.

I told my students about this experience yesterday, and they laughed. “You went to read at Wendy’s?” Had I heard someone else tell this story, I would have laughed as well. Wendy’s is fast food. It’s brightly colored, uncomfortable, plastic furniture. It’s loud talkers and fussy kids and distracting music. It’s definitely not where you go to read except in an emergency, like when your car breaks down and you need to wait for someone to pick you up.

Okay, there was one woman who was talking very loudly on her phone, but otherwise the environment was welcoming; it was a space that you would want to stay in for longer than it takes to eat a burger and fries.

Wendy’s is not the only fast-food restaurant I’ve seen gussying up its interior, making it inviting and inhabitable. The redesigning of McDonald’s restaurants into “McCafés” is another example. Panera, which is slightly classier fast food, also provides such a space—it was my favorite place to go to grade papers when I lived in Longview (a colleague of mine spent hours there, writing his dissertation), and it is a popular spot to study for students. Of course all of these restaurants are borrowing from or responding to the success of Starbucks, the ultimate in corporately generated, suburban hang-outs.

But the inspiration behind the environments of all these restaurants is Ray Oldenburg’s concept of the “third place”: “In contrast to first places (home) and second places (work), third places allow people to put aside their concerns and simply enjoy the company and conversation around them. Third places ‘host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’” (Project for Public Spaces). Third places are local, neutral, and egalitarian environments. The people who frequent a third place most likely are from the community surrounding it. They are not obligated to be there for any reason; they’re there because they want to be, and this shared desire to be in this space puts everybody on the same level—nobody can pull rank in a third place (“Third Place”).

The theory of third places is that people need a sense of belonging as an individual within a community without being defined (merely) by their familial or work roles. The suburban, commuter lifestyle predominant in America often does not provide that feeling of belonging; third places offer an antidote to modern isolation. Although these spaces are neutral, they understandably become locations where people can discuss important life matters—religion, politics, art—because they essentially are spaces of leisure.

During my years at the University of Florida, I spent much of my free time in a third space that profoundly influenced me, both as a person and as a scholar: the Christian Study Center of Gainesville. I would attend the lectures and reading groups offered by the Study Center, but I would also hang out for hours in its coffee shop, Pascal’s, working on homework or conversing with friends. For a few semesters, I even held office hours there. My closest friendships were forged there. Since leaving Gainesville, I have longed for another space like the Study Center.

The longing for third places is shared by a number of people. Some stores intentionally market themselves as third places; Main Street Coffee House in Hallsville is an example. According to the owners, “Hallsville has been our family’s home for almost 10 years. We raised both our boys here. As our adopted community began to grow and thrive we realized the need for a safe-haven to gather and ‘hang out’, a neighborhood front porch so to speak.” The Dionisio family saw the need for a third place in their community, and they provided one.

So what about corporate chains, like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Starbucks? I think they are borrowing the trappings of third places to capitalize on people’s longing for community. We should be aware of how large, impersonal institutions use the illusion of belonging to promote their product (a great discussion of this is in Brett and Kate McKay’s essay, “Communities vs. Networks”). Coffee and cookies and overstuffed chairs do not a community make—on their own.

On the other hand, the atmospheres of these restaurants are changing in a way that people in the local community could take advantage of them as third places. Even though the brand might be a nationwide corporation, the individual restaurants often are owned by local franchisers, who might recognize their community’s need for a third space, like the Dionisio family. We should be aware of how our desire to belong may be exploited, but we also can be intentional in making a space a third place. The point of a third place’s neutrality is that the people who inhabit it are what matter.

My Sunday afternoon at Wendy’s reminded me of my desire for meaningful community, but it also showed me new ways to be flexible and intentional about using space for that community. So don’t be surprised if I invite you to chat over a Frosty.


How Are We Who We Are?: What It Means to Be “Me”

Perga: Roman Wall and Gate City walls, once needed for defense, continued to function in the Greco-Roman world by giving concrete expression to membership in the group that was welcomed within the city boundary.

Perga: Roman Wall and Gate
City walls, once needed for defense, continued to function in the Greco-Roman world by giving concrete expression to membership in the group that was welcomed within the city boundary. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Whenever I meet someone new, I am forced to remember who I am. I blame my parents. My siblings and I are known within the family by our middle names. Having grown tired of explaining this custom, and having moved to a new city, as an eighth-grader I decided to use my first name, Richard, at the new school. Thus began my odyssey of using two names; who I am depends on when, where, and how I met the person to whom I am speaking. The validity of “I am ‘me’” is dependent upon who “you” are.

This concept, that my identity is at least partially dependent upon others, would have been considered normal until the Renaissance. René Descartes put in writing what has been identified as a central tenet of individualism: “I think, therefore I am” (Discourse on Method, Part IV). The autonomous self, thus unleashed upon the world, set western culture on a course toward the rugged individualism for which Americans became known. Embedded as we are in our individualistic culture, we struggle to imagine ourselves in any other way. I am determined to be “myself,” confident that I am the only person qualified to determine the content and character of “myself.”

The apostle Paul lived in a different world. Describing himself and his accomplishments he declared

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless (Phil 3:4b–6 NIV 1984).

How did Paul define himself? His curriculum vitae includes [1] membership in a nation (Israel), a tribe (Benjamin), a linguistic community (Hebrew), and a sect (Pharisee); [2] adherence to the standards of those groups (circumcision, righteousness according to the Law); and [3] zealous opposition to those perceived as traitors to that national identity (the church). Paul as individual makes no claims here. Even when he changed his identity, the transition was not to the status of a rugged individual, but to membership in another community.

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (Phil 3:8–9 NIV 1984).

Paul’s desire to be found “in him” reflects the phrase that occurs dozens of times in Paul’s letters: “in Christ.” Departure from the sect of the Pharisees was simultaneous with incorporation into another community: the redeemed who identify themselves together in Christ. In fact, Paul explicitly rejected the notion that he possessed any individual merit: “not having a righteousness of my own.”

Despite my confusion over my name I remain an incorrigible individualist. Centuries of cultural conditioning cannot be overcome easily. In an episode of the television series M*A*S*H, a villager from the vicinity of the hospital identified himself with the assertion “I am me!” If I remain tethered to an individualism such as that expressed in that script, I must be cautious to avoid allowing it to become a solitary existence. At its origins, only one aspect of Creation was deemed to be wrong: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’” (Gen 2:18a NIV 1984). In my case, the remedy for this deficit includes embracing an identity I share with my wife, another that I enjoy with my children, and a perhaps inexplicable alliance that unites me with fans of the New Orleans Saints. As a participant in the Christian academy, I am foremost a member of the church (like Paul, my core identity includes being “in Christ”) and I am a member of a scholarly community. Perhaps I am an individual, but that individuality is conditioned by my existence at the intersection of the various communities of which I am a member. According to the narrative in Genesis 2, the Creator designed ktisis in this way.

Should these musings be characterized as philosophy or psychology or sociology or theology? I am not sure that this question has a confident, unique answer. Such is the nature of the Christian academy.

As I composed these paragraphs, I learned of the death of a precious family friend. He knew me as Warren. He perished at his own hand. In recent years circumstances beyond his control had resulted in him becoming progressively more isolated. “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

Richard Warren Johnson [With my full name I embrace all of who I am. You may choose which name to use.]

The Silent Head Shake (or… Audience Etiquette)

To be a member of an audience for a live performance is to hold a certain amount of power.

Think about it.

Actors prepare weeks in advance to bring the public their very best.  Their work is exposed for the audience to either praise or pan.  The energy a full house brings to the performance can lift the spirits of those on stage and behind the scenes or. . .

…it can create a bitter enmity.

The same show across multiple performances can see quiet and defiant patrons as well as laughing and appreciative audiences.  And the comments backstage will reflect the actors’ read on the participants in the seats.

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“This house is AWESOME.  They get the jokes and applaud after every scene!”

or. . .

“Did you see the girl on her cell phone?”

or. . .

“Why are they SO DEAD today?”

or. . .

"Albert Guillaume Au theatre" by Albert Guillaume - Bonhams. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Albert Guillaume Au theatre” by Albert Guillaume
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

“I thought we were sold out.  Why are there so many empty seats?”

Because of the amount of work and personal investment that goes into every performance, actors, directors, and technicians tend to get emotionally involved in the response.  We LOVE a committed, attentive, and receptive patron.  We loathe the individual who strolls in late, yawns a lot, looks around, checks their social media, and leaves at intermission.

A few years ago, in an attempt to curb some inappropriate behavior emanating from our house, we published suggestions for audience etiquette in one of our programs.  Here are a few excerpts from that production’s bill:

Thank you for your attendance this evening.  We are grateful for your support of our theatre department, and we hope that tonight’s experience is a wonderful one.  In addition to our commitment to the students, it is part of our mission to inform and educate those who attend our programs.  To that end, please note the following guidelines regarding audience etiquette.  Many are not aware of the distractions that can occur during a performance that will hinder the work of the actors and/or diminish the experience of other audience members.

  1. TEXTING – Texting or checking social media is a major no-no.  The light in a dark house will catch an actor’s eye quicker than a falling set piece, and any distraction is dangerous.  It can also irritate those around you.  We also know when you try to hide it in your hand, cupped to your stomach, beneath your legs, or in your purse.
  2. HARD CANDY – Unwrapping hard candy or cough drops in the middle of a performance can be heard throughout the hall.  The sound of the plastic wrapper in your hands as you struggle to free the immovable treat takes those around you out of the illusion of the play.  It can kill an emotional moment: the lovers are about to kiss… and crack, shuffle, crack, twist, crack!  Unwrap before the show begins.
  3. BABIES – University theatre, unfortunately, is not for infants and young toddlers.  Some of our plays contain content that is for mature audiences only.  We tend to panic when we see a patron bring in his/her youngest family member.  Times are tough, and we know that hiring a sitter is not always an option.  We will be understanding as long as you sit on an aisle and exit as soon as the child becomes an interruption.
  4. UNPLANNED EXITS – Emergencies happen; that’s okay. For your comfort, we always note in the program how long an act will be before you get a break. Please look for this and plan accordingly.

    "Albert Guillaume Les retardataires" by Albert Guillaume  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    “Albert Guillaume Les retardataires” by Albert Guillaume
    Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  5. SLEEPING – Frankly, we’d rather you nap at home.  Not all shows are exciting all the time; we know this well.  But, we simply cannot afford to bring you an action movie in play form, and the students are working to learn the art.  Your kind attention is deeply appreciated.
  6. MAKING OUT – Eww.  No.  Just… no.  We are committed, however, to bringing you realistic kissing scenes when the script calls for it.  Enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Have I seen each and every one of those happen in one or more of our performances in my time here?


And sometimes we just feel like giving up on humanity when audiences do not practice good manners.  For example, in a recent production, a couple brought in a baby.  Our front-of-house staff tried to dissuade them from the show, explaining the loud noises and mature content (which was clearly stated on all our promotional materials and website).  The couple insisted on attending.  Our house manager asked them to please sit near the exit door in case the child should wake and cry.  They declined, insisting that the infant would sleep through the show.  They sat on the other side of the theatre, where they would have to cross the stage to exit.

"Emil Mayer 043" by Emil Mayer - Damals in Wien.   Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Emil Mayer 043″ by Emil Mayer – Damals in Wien.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This was also the one performance we had planned to film after receiving written permission from the playwright.

I’m sure you can guess what happened.  And instead of carrying the infant out the two times he cried, they turned to their fellow audience members and proclaimed, “We’re not leaving.”  The video?  Ruined.  The performance?  Strained.  The audience?  Antagonistic towards this couple.  Our faith in humanity?  *silent head shake*

All this is to say, we do this, in large part, for you—our audience!  We would be nowhere without our patrons.  We thrive on your attendance and participation.  We listen carefully to your feedback and response.  We pour ourselves out for you in the hopes that we can awaken an appreciation for the art form, for the issues addressed in the text, and for the talent and growth seen in the students.

Without you, our work is just another rehearsal.

And respecting the work . . . that’s just good manners.


Belief Matters, Part 2: Al-Qur’an and Belief

Ten years ago, after the terrible tsunami struck the Northern tip of Sumatra, I found myself serving as head of a small group of volunteers attempting to improve the water quality in neighborhoods of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. I will never forget the day I met my most devout Muslim friend, Imam, as I was cleaning out debris and salt water from the ground-water well outside his home.Now, it is important to note that I had come to Indonesia originally as an English teacher. In fact, I had just finished my Master’s degree and was about to begin my doctoral degree when I was given the opportunity to serve the victims of that terrible disaster that claimed approximately 200,000 lives. It was because of my past experience teaching English in Indonesia that I had been chosen to lead the volunteers there. I was familiar with the culture and, as you will soon understand, I knew enough of the language to get around and get myself in trouble.

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)

I will never forget the circumstances surrounding my first encounter with Imam because that is the day I learned how little Indonesian I really knew. The submersible pump  I was using to rid the well of salinized, dirty water had become stuck on some debris.  When Imam came out of his house to help me he asked me if the pump was stuck (machet). I became a little concerned when I thought he said there was a corpse (mayet) in the well.  Of course, things got even more confused when I replied, “No, there is just a human head (kapala).” I meant to say, “There is a coconut (kalapa).” So, because of my poor language skills, we were both convinced that the other person saw a dead body in the bottom of the well. In point of fact, it was some palm branches, a pair of shorts, and a couple of coconuts.

Looking back at it today, it seems humorous. But, at the moment it was anything but funny.

We must remember how devastating it would have been for Imam and his family to deal with a body in the bottom of their well. For them, it is so much more than an issue of sanitation. Imam and his family are devout Muslims, and a dead body is a ceremonially unclean thing. Its presence would have had a significant negative religious impact on them.

It was this moment that Imam and I first became friends. And, we would get together a few times over the course of the next couple of weeks and have conversations, largely about religion. In those conversations, it became clear to me that there was a great distinction between Imam’s faith and my own. One of the most powerful differences was that Imam’s faith gave him no assurance for where he would spend eternity. And, as we sat on his tsunami-damage porch surrounded by neighborhoods destroyed by the earthquake and its aftermath and talked about the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, several of whom were close to Imam, there was absolutely no comfort for him and his fellow Muslims that those souls would be in Paradise. “If God wills,” was the only possibility of hope.

This fact struck me as particularly tragic. For, had the tsunami hit my hometown, grief-stricken though I would be, I would have some measure of comfort that my family and friends who had passed would be in a better place. Isn’t that one of the simple and profound aspects of our faith that comforts us all, all of us who have lost some dear?

quranI tell this story to illustrate one of the characteristics of the Muslim faith that we discuss in my World Literature class. The first Sura of the Al-Qur’an says this:

Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,

The Compassionate, the Merciful,

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment!

You alone we worship, and to you alone we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,

Nor of those who have gone astray.

We can learn a lot about Muslim theology from this first Sura, a passage that is quoted daily by Muslims around the globe.

What does this text teach its readers about humanity?

The people on earth are divided into two groups: 1) the favored and 2) those who have incurred God’s wrath. Those who are favored are those who have followed the straight path. Those who incur God’s wrath are those that have gone astray.

What does this text teach its readers about who ‘God” is?

God is the Lord of Judgment, judging people to either be deserving of his favor or deserving of his wrath. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe. The god of the Qur’an is not a god who acts on our behalf. He sits and judges.

What does this text teach its readers about right or wrong or how to appease God with our actions?

As humans we must attain God’s favor by following the straight path, lest we incur his wrath instead. For Muslims, this verse, recited during prayer five times a day, is a constant reminder that the only way to win God’s favor is to stay on the straight path. Their ticket to Paradise is not dependent on God’s mercy or Grace, but on their own righteous works.

How does this faith contrast with our own faith?

Isaiah 53:6 reminds us that we have all gone astray. In the biblical view, all are deserving of God’s wrath. But, the verse also reminds us that Jesus has shouldered all the iniquities for us all. This is the great assurance that the gospel gives its followers. It is that we know that we are deserving of God’s wrath, but through his grace we have been spared that wrath.

In the 21st century, as we witness the atrocities of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, my students have a lot of questions about Islam. And, although I am unable to answer all of those questions in one class period, I hope my students understand this one thing: one primary belief that motivates a segment of the Muslim population to do such horrible things is the simple understanding that they must win their way to Paradise. They must prove their devotion and righteousness to their Allah. Muslims are literally scared to death that their good deeds will not outweigh their evil deeds and they will spend eternity in hell. At its heart, the problem of militant Islam is a spiritual problem.

Once again, as we observed in our reading of the Hindu Gita,  we are made aware that what we believe informs what we do. Faith matters.


Just a Technician (or… The Importance of the Individual) – Part II

As promised, I continue to highlight the jobs done behind the scenes by our technicians who are so very essential to our success.  Please remember, what you read here is just a basic overview of what these hard-working individuals actually do during the production season.

In costuming, the designer will deliver the renderings and research to the costume shop manager and crew.  They must then work together to pull items from stock, to rent from reputable warehouses, or to pattern and construct a new costume from scratch.  Most of the time, it’s a combination of all three approaches at ETBU.  Costumers’ work can also include dyeing, distressing, and altering.  Every detail on a new build, from the fabric to the trim, from the buttons to the thread color, is carefully considered in conjunction with a director’s approach, the actor’s complexion, and the lighting and scenic designers’ mix of colors.

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

The show is then handed off to the wardrobe crew who must plan, rehearse, and execute any quick changes that a play may demand.  Nothing is scarier than an actor who misses an entrance because of a wardrobe malfunction, so great care is taken to ensure a timely and complete change.

Cast members line up for costume parade, when the director approves the work done by the crew so far.

Cast members line up for costume parade, a time when the director approves the work done by the crew so far and addresses any problem issues

Makeup, Hair and Wigs
Makeup, hair, and wigs collaborate with the other design areas, especially costumes, to complete the look for an ensemble.  Once a designer has submitted drawings for each character, crews must work to fit the design to the theatre.  Lighter makeup is used in intimate spaces and more intense makeup is used in larger venues.  The designer and artists must work to balance foundation with the actor’s skin tone, execute special effects (which may include age, injury, or creature makeup), and master prosthetic additions like large noses or extended chins.  Wigs must be built or styled from stock.  And, if working with an actor’s natural hair, appointments are made to predetermine the preferred look.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency

Properties and Set Dressing
Properties and set dressing involve both hand props and those used to decorate the set.  Often these demand extensive research, especially for period plays.  Props are pulled from stock, borrowed from friends or family, purchased, or constructed from scratch.  Property crew members must set up tables backstage where each prop is labeled and stored during a performance.  Often props must be “tracked” as they change hands or make numerous exits and entrances in the course of a play.  Additionally, the props crew is responsible for any perishable foods needed for a production.  This may include cooking every night before a show as well as clean up after the performance has concluded.

Run Crew
Run crew (alternately called stage crew) are the individuals whose work is predominantly featured during the actual performances.  They move set pieces and furniture, man the fly rails to raise and lower scenic drops, open and close the curtains, and operate any special effects equipment including fog machines or special trap doors for the set.

Publicity and Box Office
We take great pains at ETBU to make sure that all our promotional materials present the necessary information in a professional manner.  This includes all our posters, programs (a good program can spark curiosity and conversation about the department), voice mails, web sites, and press releases.  Our front-of-house staff has responsibilities that can include design, proof reading, distributing posters, writing press releases, answering phone calls and emails from patrons, tabulating head counts, and totaling box office receipts.  The box office crew—and by extension our house manager and ushers—are the first people our patrons encounter whether for reservations or for will call pickup.  Naturally, it’s important to us that our guests be treated with courtesy and professionalism.  Positive word-of-mouth reviews about the entire experience are essential to our success.

A sample of posters from our productions.

A sample of posters from our productions


Let me close by saying that we do not believe in sexist assignments.  Our female students learn to be confident carpenters and electricians, and our male students are expected to know how to handle a sewing machine and apply make-up.  Sometimes, when a student faces a challenging assignment in an area they have little experience with, he or she stumbles upon a hidden talent.  New confidence is found, new skills are discovered, and an opportunity avails itself for future employment.

Theatre truly personifies I Corinthians 12:15-19.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.  Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

I think of these verses often when I look at how many different specializations there are in the world of theatre and how these individuals must all work together—with respect for each other’s gifts—to create something completely dependent upon the ensemble.

There are many talents, but only one goal.


Just a Technician (or… The Importance of the Individual) – Part I

What goes on behind the scenes of a production is far more important than most anyone outside the world of theatre realizes.  I’ve spoken a little on the actors’ work with the director.  I now want to highlight the often unacknowledged work of the carpenters, costumers, painters, purchasers, organizers, electricians, and board operators.  So the next two blogs will focus on the absolutely essential work of our technicians.

At ETBU, our theatre curriculum is structured in a way that emphasizes the well-rounded student.  We don’t believe that any one of our majors should be just an actor or just a technician.

In fact, I’ve come to loathe the word “just” as qualifier for any of the work we do.  Our students are not “just” actors, nor are they “just” technicians.

Therefore, we immerse them in as many different areas as possible.  No star-system here.  Rather, you’ll find a group of students who work day and night in a myriad of specialized jobs.  For example, we’ve had several instances where a student might play the lead role in a production and serve as master carpenter behind the scenes.  Or, a student might be the director of one of our main stage shows but still be required to handle all the publicity for the play.

So, here are abbreviated descriptions of the different areas that support every production you see on campus—Part I.

(I thought I could fit all of this into one blog.  Nope.)

The Scenic Elements
The scenic design, once completed, is given to the technical director.  The technical director is in charge of taking the ground plans and elevations and turning them into working drawings.  These are the drawings that illustrate the engineering behind the build—how a flat or platform is to be constructed, where the supports and braces will be mounted, where items should be rigged for hanging or fasteners added for attachments.  It depends on the design, which could include all sorts of challenges like multiple levels, plumbing, secret trapdoors, or intricate detail.  These working drawings are then passed on to the master carpenter who oversees, with his or her crew, the construction and installation of the set with all its working parts.

Casey Papas works on a scenic element for our spring show.

Performance major Casey Papas works on a scenic element for our spring show.

Obviously, most scenery is painted, stained, or treated.  The scenic charge artist carries the responsibility of using the scenic designer’s elevations and perspective renderings to replicate a certain look on the set.  It can be a very time-consuming effort when large drops or floor treatments need painting.  Colors for the set are deliberately chosen with respect to the director’s concept and the choices made by the costume and lighting designers; this will keep elements from clashing or blending together onstage (unless, of course, that is the intention).

The paint crew sent me this picture of their "battle scars."  Photo by Natalie Oates.

The paint crew sent me this picture of their “battle scars.” Photo by Natalie Oates.

The lighting designer works closely with the master electrician.  The light plot indicates not only what type of instrument will be hung, but where it is hung, how it is cabled, and if it is to be colored with a gel (incandescent lights).  Technology is constantly changing in this field; LED and computerized lighting are gaining popularity, and they come with a whole new set of cabling rules and programming.  We have to be careful, no matter what lights we use, that we don’t overload our circuits; instruments must be patched correctly into the dimmer and assigned appropriate channels in the board.  Once everything is hung, the lighting crew has to focus each light on its designated area, give it a hard or soft edge, and add the color or gobo pattern if needed.  Then each cue is built and recorded into the board for the show—an effort that requires an empty theatre and plenty of uninterrupted time.

Design/tech major Laura Stokes works to cable a light for our spring show.

Design/tech major Laura Stokes works to cable a light for our spring show.

A sound designer is not only in charge of the music for set changes and curtain call, but also for all ambient sound and scripted needs.  Depending on the director’s vision and a play’s requirements, sound can heavily pervade the entire production or be very minimal.  Shows with complicated designs require hours and hours of recording, timing, editing, mixing, and playback to make sure everything works cohesively with the final product.  This is not a single software endeavor; there is usually one computer program used for editing and another used for playback.  Crew members may also, according to a production’s specific needs, be in charge of amplification for the actors.  Additionally, the sound crew must decide where the speakers will live and how to mix the sound.  Finally, they must organize the edited files on the playback device (usually a computer); then, during performance, they have to know how to equalize the sound board and adjust the gain and volume as necessary.  And for what it’s worth, live sounds made by crew members offstage are always an option as well.

Because the blogs actually come with length limits, I must end here.  I promise the technician discussion will be continued in the next entry.

I would, however, like to conclude with this observation: studying these details and personally knowing the individuals behind the work makes me appreciate collaboration in all its forms, even those outside my discipline.  It never ceases to amaze me what beauty human beings are capable of when we work together.


Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day (or… The Creative Process)

The creative process is a fickle phenomenon.

As artists, I firmly believe we are compelled to create.  It’s more than just a passing interest—it’s a consuming need to express our world, its beauty, its hardships, its messed-up-murky-monkey business… all in an attempt to make sense of it…

or tell a memorable story…

or inspire change…

or wrestle with the dark questions.

I believe our ability to create—following the example of our great Creator—is an amazing gift.  It’s also incredibly hard and humbling.

A friend (and fellow performer) once shared this description of the creative process.

This is awesome.
This is hard.
This is awful.
I’m awful.
This might be okay.
This is awesome!

That so perfectly sums it up.

We are often terribly excited to begin a project… and then we quickly realize how ambitious it is.  How intimidating.  Too much to do and to get right.  Questions and doubts begin, asking whether or not the work will ever come together.  At points, we may even loathe the process, fearing that it will never reap the beauty we hope for.

Then we start blaming ourselves.  Maybe we’re the reason it’s not coming together.  Maybe we’re the reason everything is terrible.  Personally, I’ve been a part of near 100 productions in my lifetime, and the pattern has never changed.  We never seem to remember, in the throes of a creative process, that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Rome.  Lovely. "Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Rome. Lovely.
“Na Koloseum i K Franciszki Rzymianki”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, we push through… and it gets a little better.  A little sharper.  A little stronger.  We start to see glimmers of the huge potential this project has.  And we sprint towards that goal.

Personally, I never want to tackle a production that is too easy.  I’m constantly looking for a play or musical that will challenge the students, our limited facilities, and our budget constraints.  I don’t think we grow as artists if we stick to the same old routine.  I don’t think we educate our audiences either if we just give them some rehashed product they’ve come to expect.

Part of the love/hate relationship with mounting a production is the thrill of tackling something new compounded with the effort and energy it takes to make it a realization.  Uncharted territory is exciting.  However, if fear takes over and we settle for status quo, then our art suffers terribly.  I have known several directors who routinely return to the same production they did a few years ago.  Their repertoire seems to be limited to about 15 plays total.  I will never understand why they do that, especially when there are so many incredible works which have been available to produce since the dawn of time, the written word, and Aeschylus.

I exaggerate a little, but you understand my point.

We must overcome our fear of the difficult, of the unknown, and of our limits as created beings.  Let me be clear.  I’m not advocating some unwise regimen of extremist behavior here.  Our art cannot be our idol.  I’m talking about removing the chains of the “what ifs” and exchanging them for the satisfaction that says, “Look what we did!”

To create is to be brave.  To step out in faith and exercise the gifts we have been given by the Father.

There are so many subsets of the creative process contained within a production… so many ways to be brave.

  1. The playwright’s work to create the world of the play
  2. The director’s approach to realize that world
  3. The designers’ renderings, presentations, and models
  4. The technical director’s oversight of the build
  5. The actors’ wrestling with the characters and motivations
  6. The choreographer’s interpretation
  7. The scenic charge artist’s detail and nuance
  8. The stitcher’s embellishment
  9. The composer’s/sound designer’s aural story

And on and on and on.  Everybody creates!  Everybody works to contribute their special skill or gift to this GINORMOUS—or, honestly, it could be “simple”—product that will invite hundreds of others (spectators!) to judge their work.



Why on earth do we exert so much effort, engage in vulnerability, and invite criticism?

Because we cannot keep our work to ourselves.

Theatre is communal.  It loses its value without an audience.

This is where I think television and film fall short.  Though an audience may engage with the material presented on the screen, there is no give and take that is reciprocal.  The film doesn’t change based upon how you react to it.  But the theatre…

Every performance is different.  Connection.  Inflection.  Chemistry.  Comedy.  Rhythm.  It’s so wonderfully dynamic.  You know exactly where you stand with an audience for each performance, and it is always some place new and unchartered.  You know when you connect and when the crickets are chirping.  It’s an unbelievable exchange of emotion and thought that goes both ways.  You share space.  Air.  Energy.

And, at the end, polite applause.  Sometimes ridicule.  Silence.  Judgment.  Questions.  Strong opinions.


Praise.  Like-minded excitement.  Dialogue.  Thoughtful consideration.  Enthusiastic exchange of ideas.



Connection (or… The Void)

This week one of my colleagues suggested I discuss how we connect with a production.  And, in reflection, each one has a different… love story.

Initially, we certainly hope to be touched by the narrative itself.  We all have our favorite novels, short stories, movies, or television shows.  There is something about them that we delight to revisit every now and then.  Maybe it’s the action or the setting.  Maybe it’s the language or the character relationships.  Maybe it’s the big mess of feeling we are left with at the conclusion.  Perhaps there is something satisfying or redeeming about the work.  Surely, it’s some fantastic combination of all of these.

In order to spend several months on any particular work, we must find something we desire to be a part of.  Something much bigger than ourselves.  Something that speaks to our own need for connection.

Connection.  That’s a huge reason why we do what we do.  And it starts with a connection to the playwright’s voice.

We are constantly reading.  New plays appear on the market all the time.  We listen to suggestions from friends and critics.  We seek out historical work with a timeless message.  The search is relentless for that one play or musical that grapples with our heart strings and illuminates a part of our own journey.


When I set out to find my thesis play–a work I would spend months researching, rehearsing, and ultimately writing a 200+ page thesis on–I knew it must capture my soul.  It had to combine characters I would adore with a journey that would rend my heart.  I found it in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac.  Every single act ended with a page-turning climax.  The characters were both noble and flawed.  And their over-arching desire was to be loved.  To be loved.  Loved for who they were… in spite of who they were.  Battlefield skirmishes, honorable sacrifices, swordplay, poetry and unquenched desire set in seventeenth-century France?  What’s not to love?  It grabbed hold and would not let go.  It filled that void inside me… a need to be a part of something bigger than myself.  Something nobler than myself.  Something more beautiful.

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac (Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

From Act III of Cyrano de Bergerac
(Photo Credit: Sam Hough)

Cyrano and I connected.  And I poured myself into the process.

As a director, designer, playwright, or actor, so much of yourself goes into a production.  When your work is torn down or criticized, a little piece (or a huge chunk) of your confidence goes with it.  But I know of no other way to honor the work than to fully invest my own self in it.  Because I’m asking every one of my collaborators to make a personal investment as well.  So the choice must be to select something that feeds your creative soul.

So what happens when you don’t have a say in the choice?

You still have to find your way in.

When ETBU’s School of Fine Arts decided to do Sunday in the Park with George as its huge centennial celebration production, I didn’t really know much about the show.  However, people I trusted loved it and recommended it.

All throughout the summer prior to casting and rehearsing, I tried and tried to connect with it.  I read it over and over.  I researched it.  I watched the original Broadway production repeatedly on DVD.

Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  I wasn’t connecting to it on any level.  Not the story.  Not the music.  Not the message.  Not the characters.

We finalized the design.  Nothing.  We held auditions.  Nothing.  We started rehearsals…

It wasn’t until I saw the students grapple with the difficulty of the piece that I found my way in.  I would come to love this show because I loved them.  Every one of them.  And I think we were all a little terrified of the challenge before us and deeply grateful that we were not alone in the process.

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George (Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Act I Finale from Sunday in the Park with George
(Photo Credit: Lindsay Steele)

Sunday in the Park with George is ultimately about the sacrifice and work it takes to make great art.  It’s about the compulsion to create and the need to make our mark through excellence.  But it doesn’t sugarcoat the end result which is often marred by the struggle to find balance and priority in the midst of the creative process.  It can get ugly, gritty, short-tempered, and self-absorbed.  George is also about connection and, conversely, disengagement.  Somewhere in there is a cautionary tale about the cost of art… and what happens when we mix up our priorities and fail to invest in those who invest in us.


It’s odd, really.  We examine all kinds of human disconnection through this unique collaboration we call theatre.  Play by play we look at selfishness, fear, manipulation, rejection, and neglect.  Play by play we also examine generosity, courage, perseverance, grace, and sacrifice.  And we apply what we learn to our own lives and worldview.  We know intimately the God-sized hole in our own hearts and the many things we try to fill it with.

So by the end of my time with both Cyrano and George, I had become acutely aware of the respective sacrifices and hardships they explored, and my own life became the wiser for it.

We are made for connection.  And theatre, through its timeless tales and characters, connects people across history, across miles, across the curtain line, and across the stage.

…yet another reason why I love this discipline so much.


You Should Do Shakespeare! (or… How We Choose Our Season)

Once, after a performance of a contemporary play, a patron told me, “You should do Shakespeare.”

Sometimes it’s hard to find the grace to respond with kindness when I’d rather be banging my head against a wall.  Repeatedly.  Then I remind myself… they don’t know the whole story.

ScriptsChoosing a production season for any theatre, whether professional or educational, is a painstaking process.  We can agonize over it for months before we commit to next year’s work, essentially because there are several criteria that guide our selection of a play.

I’d like to share those with you.

1. Is the cast size consistent with the talent in the department?

It is folly to choose a show we have no hopes of casting.  Though our productions are open to the entire student body, we have found that only those who have a deep love for the theatre are willing to commit to the demanding schedule required of any show.  This limits the size of the cast and, as a result, the type of shows we can do.

2. Does the production have academic and thematic merit?

We are a university committed to the intellectual growth of our students.  If we say we want them to think critically, then the material must demand intellectual inquiry through skillful storytelling and ask the participants thought-provoking questions regarding the content.  Wrestling with great literature helps our students think and problem solve beyond everyday expectations.

3. Has the play been recognized for excellence?

This is closely tied to #2.  Usually those plays that have been popularized through strong word-of-mouth reviews, legitimate awards, or favorable critiques provide the richest academic and artistic challenges.

4. Will the demands of the show exceed our budget or workforce?

Selecting the wrong show can sabotage an entire department in one of two ways: we can break the bank by committing to a play that demands too much of our budget or we can break our backs by selecting an overly ambitious show that will drain our workforce.  With a season of at least four shows, we must find a healthy and economically sound balance.

5. Will the experience stretch, challenge, and grow our students (both on stage and behind the scenes) in a way that prepares them for professional or graduate-level academic work?

Students should experience a wide range of genres, forms, and styles from across history to better understand the discipline.  We must also prepare our students for the real world by engaging them with the work out there now.  They are challenged to make bold choices, take risks, engage their faith, and set their boundaries.  It’s not all black and white, and our students must know how to dialogue about their limits in a profession that won’t necessarily sympathize with them.

6. Does the play reflect the faith and values of the institution?

This question is best answered by our Theatre Arts and Christian Worldview statement found on our website and in our programs.  In short, we absolutely want to maintain the integrity and mission of our university.  We love to discuss the redemptive, cautionary, or unresolved conflicts found in the work we do.  As a result, we often schedule talkback sessions after particular performances to help answer the difficult questions.  Our goal is to balance the needs of our students with the expectations of our patrons.

7. Is it something we personally want to work on for 6-9 months?

That’s about how long we spend on any one show, often overlapping the various needs as the schedule demands.  While one show is in performance, another is being designed, while another is being researched and conceptualized.  If we aren’t passionate about the work we have chosen, the end product will suffer.

2014-15 Production Season

2014-15 Production Season

I love Shakespeare’s work and would welcome the opportunity to produce any one of his histories, comedies, tragedies, or romances if we can do the play justice.  However, large cast sizes, multiple male roles, few female opportunities, lengthy run times, multiple sets, iambic pentameter (with numerous variations), difficult thematic content, and some of the most beloved stories ever told make his work a significant challenge for a department of our size.

So we work to grow.  We try hard to recruit top-tier students.  We train them in voice and movement, acting and design, analysis and history.  We build our stock of period clothing, weapons, and props.  We dream big and problem solve within the limitations of our facilities.  We press on in the hopes that one day we will do Shakespeare.

But until that time comes, we strive to meet the immediate needs of the department in a way that gives students opportunities that are just as rich and rewarding.  Maybe it will be Miller, Ruhl, Brecht, Molière, or Sondheim, but it will be just as worthy.