Oberon, King of Fairies from Taylor University Theatre’s Production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, May 2016.
Director: Tracy Manning
Performer: Carter Perry
Photographer: Callie Haven

How did you, as a young Christian, get into theater? Into Shakespeare?

I went to public school and when I was in the eighth grade I went with my older sister to a ‘work day’ for the play she was in. I met the director, Carol Wharton, and spent the day with her helping hang wallpaper on set. I loved it. I loved the energy, the community, the illusion. When I got to high school the following year, I joined the Thespian club and auditioned for the productions.

It’s odd really that I found my way to the theatre, since I was from a very theologically conservative, relatively theatrically illiterate family. Perhaps even odder that, when I did, there were no objections.

My first encounter with Shakespeare was my mother’s large anthology of the works of Shakespeare in our family library. She had studied and loved Shakespeare as a high school student and talked about the plays and her fascination with learning about them. Then when I was a sophomore in high school, we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I got to play a fairy. Carol (my high school theatre coach) loved Shakespeare, taught Shakespeare, and had a bust of Shakespeare in her office. It now sits in mine.

Tell us something about your experience directing Shakespeare? Why did you choose the plays you did (and not others, for example).

The Taming of the Shrew was the first Shakespeare play I directed. I chose Shrew because it was a problem for me. I couldn’t resolve the issues in it, and I’m not sure that I did a very good job solving them in the production either. But I did solve a lot of them in my head and in my heart. As a woman who is a Christian and a feminist, this play and the process of telling it with integrity and authenticity is difficult at best. It was challenging. I’m not sure our current culture is irenic enough to engage with this play right now. Or maybe parental and marital abuse and trauma are too real for too many to enjoy it acted out on stage.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Well, I LOVE this play. I’m so intrigued and challenged by it and perhaps because the seed of the play is so common and every-day: romantic love. It’s funny but also smart, and I believed it would be a challenge for the students I was working with at the time. And it was. I also had some directing goals for which I thought Dream was a great vehicle. I wanted to incorporate dance, music, and acrobatics into a play. Our bodies are epistemological . . . they provide ways of knowing. From a young age we flesh out our imaginations in our bodies, performing the roles we imagine. Dance and music as well as acrobatics give expression to emotions that words alone cannot. When Oberon calls out for Titiana from the top of a 14-foot Silk, suspended in the air, we get the expansiveness of his territory and power that translates into what we believe about him when his feet are on the ground. The actor needs that; the audience needs it. The play is also just very, very funny. It allows us to laugh at ourselves, laugh at our folly. And there is great joy in the reunions — the coming together that the couples achieve by the end.

Romeo & Juliet. When I think back on it now, I’m not sure why I chose this play, but I am so glad I did. I think at the time I was personally wrestling with some of the productions of it I had seen that seemed overly-focused on the feud — what caused it, what sustained it. Reading the play, it seemed to me that the feud had gone on for so long that no one even remembered why they hated each other. That seems important to our understanding of human nature. Of course, I was also intrigued by the passion of this very passionate play, both hate and love, and the way that they are both so present in the world of the play. The most basic things we can know about what it means to be human are in this play. By basic things I mean the state of us at birth which runs across our human experience. The things we all are capable of — great good, great evil. Built into that is the stuff of God too. The capacity we have to love, have joy, believe (have faith), but also the stuff of sin — hate , envy, malice, lust, murder.

The Tragedy of Macbeth. I will be directing this play in January and have been spending this summer preparing. This play haunts and challenges me. Shakespeare does this cool thing in his use of nature to elucidate the dramatic action. The earthiness of the play I find really powerful and wonderful. It seems to live in a time and place when dark and light held a power not only over the seasons but also over people’s lives. Shadows brought mystery and fear. In Macbeth, Shakespeare enters the shadow where “light thickens” and where “the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.”[1] He creates a world where values are inverted or confused, in which “fair is foul and foul is fair;” it is a love story where “all is the fear and nothing is the love.”[2] Fear is mentioned three times more often in Macbeth than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays. When the word love is spoken, it is usually connected to murder. Interesting, huh?

Very interesting. We have found a lot of interest in Macbeth as we prepared this edition, so I’m sure people will be interested in your thoughts about it. I wonder if you’d like to talk about what it means to understand Shakespeare or one of his plays? Do you start the process of production with that ‘understanding’ or more with a lot of questions? To what degree do you think you ever finally understand a play (or have answers to the questions with which you began)? To what degree is that understanding collaborative? I remember when I (Joe) was directing Much Ado, that I understood the play much better after Kevin Gawley, the scenic designer, asked: “What would happen if we did this scene in almost complete darkness?”

My work on a play is always rife with questions, beginning with “What is the play asking? What does the play want?” I don’t know if I can ever understand a play, but I get closer to understanding when I’m in the room with other people seeing and hearing the play in action. What I think I know about the play is more fully revealed when it is given shape and sound by other humans. The set design, light design, sound design and the actors’ embodiment all come together to reveal meaning.

My understanding requires collaboration. It means that we all bring what we think we know and test it in the fire of experience. It also requires humility. It doesn’t really matter what any one individual wants — it is always what the play wants that drives the decisions. Designers and actors inspire me and wake up ideas in me.

Whoa! We are pretty sure you know about C.S. Lewis’s famous line “My eyes are not enough.” If not, you have come to the same conclusion by experience (or faith). Either way, that’s an amazing answer. Ok, next question. But really it’s following up on your previous comments. How relevant is this ‘collaborative coming to understanding’ to our journeys as human persons, as we try to make sense of our lives, to be faithful to truth, and to be good neighbors to our fellow creatures. I mean, here we are with an old book thrown into our midst and all our questions about it (and life).

I believe we were made to live life together. Independence is a myth and perhaps we, in the West, are the biggest culprits of creating a climate where people feel like they have to figure everything out on their own. Jesus didn’t do it on his own: he cried out to the Father, he brought along some friends, he needed parents. Somebody had to fill the jugs with water so he could turn it to wine . . . somebody had to want wine in the first place. We are connected by our needs, by our abilities, by our creativity. We are meant to create together, not alone. My collaborators make me a better person, a better artist.

Shakespeare seems to mirror this both in his plays and in his collaborative work with actors. In Shakespeare plays, at least the ones I am most familiar with, the soliloquy doesn’t usually illuminate the whole truth, because it turns one’s eyes in on himself. We hardly ever find the truth there.

How does theater, and more specifically Shakespeare, pose, answer, trouble us with important questions for human life, much like (and sometimes the same as) the big questions dealt with in scripture and the Christian tradition?

It’s so interesting to me the way most, if not all, Shakespeare plays seem to begin in the middle of something.

Yes, the muddle.

The opening scene usually feels like I’ve been plopped down into something I don’t yet know or understand fully. That seems like life to me. In the circumstances of my life I often have difficulty remembering the beginning and can’t seem to see the end — the middle is where I live.

Editors nod their heads and high five

So, from the very beginning, Shakespeare is inviting us into a middle where real living is happening. And there we can explore, through story, what is true about ourselves and each other. The troubles of the mind and the ways those are acted upon by the will change the way we feel. We can see this in a play, learn from it, and make connections and discoveries. That moment when a father raising daughters says “Lear . . . that was a good play,” because he recognizes in himself what Shakespeare illuminated in his characters — those are great moments.

The same thing happens in scripture. The stories are there to help me recognize what is true about myself, my humanity and the humanity of those around me. “But God . . . ” that’s the clincher — the game changer. Which begs the question, is that something that can be depicted or at least suggested on stage? And the answer is probably, “not usually.” Or at least, “not completely.” If it’s not what the play is asking for, it doesn’t belong. Not every play can tell the whole story. Or should.

For example, for many, many years I didn’t like the musical Godspell. It seemed easy, superficial, and “churchy.” Every production I saw added a resurrection, and many Christians didn’t like the play as written because it “left God dead.” So I decided to do a little work on the play — to see what I could find. I came to find out that John Michael Tebelek wrote the script after attending an Ash Wednesday service. He decided that he could take the contents of that service, traditionally found in the book of Matthew, and make it way more interesting and inspiring. Eureka — It’s a Lenten play! That’s why Jesus doesn’t rise from the dead — it’s not Easter yet. So, don’t change the end of the play. Perhaps it’s already saying something really valuable and important. Plays ask questions about what it means to be human, in the flesh, incarnated. We’re all trying to figure out who we are, who God is, why are we here, and why does it matter. In theater, we attempt to ask and answer the questions through living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.

Interesting point about Godspell. The same thing happened to Shakespeare. By the late seventeenth century King Lear, maybe Shakespeare’s darkest work, was performed regularly in London with a happy ending. So, speaking of tragedies, you are working on a production of Macbeth right now. Tell us about what you are discovering. What you are chewing on. Something(s) you might want your production to express.

Well, these are some of my discoveries right now. I’m not sure if they are profound or new. I’m fairly certain that anyone who spent time with this play would have similar if not the same experiences. But these are mine.

One is that I deeply believe that the weird sisters don’t create the events of the play, they only awaken what is already lying dormant in Macbeth’s soul. These other-worldly enticers are similar to the temptations of the serpent who through the power of suggestion spark a desire already present in the human spirit. To have more, to be great, to be god. In the same way, Lady Macbeth is an Eve of sorts.

Another discovery I’ve made is that ‘Tragedy’ should be a word reserved. Every day you will find some headline, some news feed, with the word tragedy in it. We use the word so frequently now to describe things that are more misfortunes than tragedies in the overall scale of things. We use the word to describe things that are so commonplace that the word may have lost its primal force. If we had been treating the word with the respect it deserves, kept ready for the truly awesome and world-historical horrors, then you might be ready for the weight and force of this great play. But alas, we do not truly know the primal force of tragedy until we face it.

For a theater professor, your approach to your vocation might differ from other directors/actors who are not (formally at least) teachers. Your mission is not just reaching audiences, but students, mentees, the next generation of actors and directors if you will. How does that inform your approach?

I feel a particular responsibility to engage student scholars/artists with the authors and writings that will lead them to refine and redefine their ontology of art, recognizing its unadulterated ability to proclaim the glory of God simply by being what it was made to be. The artists’ vocation is to supply artifacts and ideas which inspire further creativity, critique, scholarship and inspiration. It enriches and enlivens the work when you know that you are creating art, not for its own sake but for God’s. Then your art matters.

Education in the theatre is an opportunity for students to engage culture. I believe that it can provide a safe place to explore what is true about ourselves, others, and the world. Traditional views found in St. Augustine support the idea that all Christian scholarship by its very nature incorporates faith, regardless of the subject matter. In De Doctrina Christiana, St. Augustine explicitly states that “all good and true Christians should understand that truth, wherever they may find it, belongs to their Lord . . . .”[3] If we believe this, shouldn’t Christians actively seek to discover the truth in all aspects of scholarship and actively seek to challenge, improve upon, discard, or replace faulty assumptions or untruths of the past?

St. Augustine’s implied philosophy in De Doctrina Christiana is that Christians and non-Christians alike can discover truth since all truth is God’s truth. Many great playwrights like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and David Mamet do not share my Christian worldview. And yet these playwrights and I share an awareness of the human condition and their exploration of our weaknesses provides an avenue wherein I can explore and evaluate the why’s of my condition. They speak to truths within their scripts that we can agree about. It becomes my responsibility as an artist who is Christian to use the lens of my faith to explore those truths and to point other people toward them. This is what I feel I must teach students to do: approach even the most secular work through eyes of faith. My faith demands an expanded view of art that challenges me and subsequently my students to be part of the conversation.

Theatre creates an environment where conversation can happen, where experience lies in the suspension of disbelief and where the realities of the human condition are before our very eyes, living and breathing. Artistry is to creation as theology is to the word of God. Practicing theology is the journey of discovering who God is. Experiencing art, as a creator or as an audience member, is the journey of discovering something of what it means to be human. If we understand that art is a powerful spiritual vocation, then we may approach it with the fearlessness and intentionality it requires.

There is much to be said for the contemporary swerve towards cultural apologetics out of which came the impetus for this journal issue. No one work of theater does (or should even try to do) everything, but can you tell us about theatrical experiences (Shakespeare or otherwise), from your own productions (or otherwise) which resonated with you in terms of this larger cosmic vision.

My example of this, perhaps unlikely to some, is Tennessee Williams’s play Streetcar Named Desire. When I read Streetcar and see it on the stage, I am reminded of two very important things: that I have been pulled from the pit of sin and the grave and that there are those living among us who still need to be rescued. It reminds me that the lust of the flesh and the pride of life breeds sin and that sin brings forth death (James 1:14 –15). Williams even creates a character who walks the street of the French Quarter selling bunches of tacky tin flowers to use at funerals. In Spanish, she says, “Flowers. Flowers for the dead.”[4] Williams perhaps doesn’t mean to suggest the truth of James 1:14 – 15 in his play, but he nonetheless does.

How, as Christian artists, do we tackle these questions in a way that is both true to the faith, true to our culture, and true to Shakespeare? A play can be done, for sure, in many different ways. Is there some value in trying to understand what Shakespeare might have really been ‘saying’? Can that, on the other hand, be too highly valued?

Valued yes. And, yes, it can be too highly valued. One of Shakespeare’s really spectacular abilities was making his plays relevant and applicable to his culture. I like to think he would want us to do the same with our productions of his plays.

I think we tackle these questions as Christians with integrity, which means probing deeply for what the play is asking, not what we want it to ask. We engage with even those elements we might find offensive to our spiritual sensibilities and search for truth there. We cannot, we must not, sanitize stories to make them more palatable. The writers of scripture did not and we must not.

There is excrement and profanity in the Bible. There is sex, murder, vileness, and cruelty in scripture. So as in humans. We have to be willing to tell all the stories, not just the ones where nothing bad happens. If we sanitize the world, we make little to nothing of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. If I can clean up the world, I don’t need Jesus.

Amen. Thank you, Tracy.


[1] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, in The Oxford Shakespeare: Complete Works, 2nd edn. eds. John Jowett et. al (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 3.2.51-52.

[2] Ibid., 1.1.10; 4.2.12.

[3] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 2.17.27-2.18.28.

[4] Tennessee Williams, Streetcar Named Desire (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1947), 86-87.

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