Prepared theater directors and actors research their projects thoroughly, especially when it’s a new work. For the area premiere of Lucas Hnath’s play “The Christians” at Dallas Theater Center, director Joel Ferrell and actor Chamblee Ferguson’s research took them to church.
“A real big church,” as Hnath writes in the opening stage directions.
Or, what we’ve come to know as a “megachurch” — a place Texans know well, either as congregants or as passersby observing them planted along highways like mighty fortresses.
The local churches Ferguson and Ferrell visited for research, either separately or together, included Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Irving Bible Church, Fellowship Church of Dallas, Cathedral of Hope and Wilshire Baptist Church. All shared similarities with the nondenominational evangelical megachurch that is the setting for “The Christians.”
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The play begins at a Sunday service, with a full choir, testimonies and a sermon from Pastor Paul (played by Ferguson). When he arrives at one topic, he takes a turn from the church’s original beliefs, which sets off a series of conflicts and discussions with his wife, the associate pastor, a church elder and a congregant.
“Some of the examples Lucas Hnath used as inspiration for this, they galvanize around a charismatic, well-meaning leader,” says Ferrell. “Of the churches we visited, it’s hard to determine a connection [to a denomination or branch]. A lot of the Bible Churches have a super-structure, where they don’t have a charismatic leader — and no church succeeds or fails on the shoulders of one leader.”
Ferrell had an extra advantage in his research, in that his father, now retired, led a Methodist church in Saginaw for many years. He studied at Fort Worth’s Brite Divinity School and Dallas’ Perkins School of Theology. Both of Ferrell’s grandfathers were ministers, as well.
They’re closer to Hnath’s character of Pastor Paul than, say, a TV evangelist such as Robert Tilton, who became better known for his infomercial-style fundraising techniques than his knowledge of the Bible.
“This is not a holy-rolling, give-me-your-money church,” he says. “It boils down to this fundamental single doctrinal idea addressed in the play.”
Ferguson said he grew up Methodist, with a history-professor father who became an atheist and separated from his wife who attended church mostly for social reasons. He does remember attending the Methodist church in the small town of Manhattan, Kan., where the pastor was “progressive, inclusive and gentle,” he says. His conversations with his father and another local pastor he knows informed his choices in playing Pastor Paul.
This play is talking about fundamental doctrine and the interpretation of that, and whether you need a set of black-and-white guideposts or if you need shades of gray.
Director Joel Ferrell
“[With Pastor Paul] there is a hubris of leadership, or a potential for it. He grew this church from small to big, and talks about ‘how the Lord is speaking through me,’ ” says Ferguson, a member of DTC’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company. “Christ only described himself as a servant. He never described himself as a ruler or King of Kings; it was everyone else who said those things.
“What catches [Pastor Paul] up in this sermon is that he hasn’t thought enough about [his conclusion]. Then it’s not just about the doctrine, it’s the interpersonal, his relationship with his wife, with a deacon, the associate pastor, with the congregant,” Ferguson continues. “It’s those interpersonal things that challenge and excite me the most as an actor.”
Performances near and far
“The Christians” premiered at the Human Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., in 2014, and has since had productions in New York, the U.K., and around the country, including Houston, home of America’s largest megachurch, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, which has about 40,000 in attendance every week.
The choir is made up of about 80 volunteers from actual church choirs in North Texas, with members rotating in and out so that there will be a 30-person choir at each performance.
In Dallas, it is performed at the historic Kalita Humphreys Theater in Turtle Creek, where the stage and audience section of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design are transformed into a pulpit and sanctuary. The choir is made up of about 80 volunteers from actual church choirs in North Texas, with members rotating in and out so that there will be a 30-person choir at each performance.
Hnath himself grew up with a mother who was a minister at a megachurch in Florida. He modeled this play after Greek drama, where there are well-thought-out conversations between two characters about what is just. He also quotes Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” which has parallels to “The Christians.”
As with Dr. Stockmann in “An Enemy of the People,” Pastor Paul’s sermon turns many against him, even as he remains resolute. The plot device is not unlike discussions many churches face in considering modern social issues such as roles of women, inclusion of gay members and ways to attract younger, more diverse members.
“This play is talking about fundamental doctrine and the interpretation of that,” Ferrell says, “and whether you need a set of black-and-white guideposts or if you need shades of gray.”
- Through Feb. 19
- Kalita Humphreys Theater
- 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas
- 214-880-0202; www.dallastheatercenter.org