Changing hearts and minds with Catholic theater
BY ELLA HADACEK
Catholics are called to reflect the truth and beauty of God in every facet of their lives.
St. John Paul II beautifully articulates the role of Catholic artists in his Letter to Artists.
With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power. (LA, 1)
Catholic Digest spoke to three Catholic nonprofits that aim to respond to that artistic spark in a way that reflects God’s truth and beauty.
ELIZABETH DALY FOLLOWED THE ADVICE OF HER PRIEST
“Art is a wonderful medium for truth, goodness, and beauty — things to which Catholics are particularly attuned. Sadly, art is too frequently used to glorify other things, which is exactly why we need to bring more attention to the art of good Catholics,” Elizabeth Daly, founder of the Veritas Theatre Co. in Chicago, told Catholic Digest.
After her junior year of college, Daly returned home to Chicago to pursue her call of performing. As she took classes and acted in community theater, she became increasingly confident that she was answering God’s call, but she began running into roadblocks.
“In improv, my scene partner said, ‘Let’s order strippers!’ to which, if I were playing by the rules of improv, I could only answer, ‘Yes, and … .’ Another time, at the community theater, I was offered a part in a sex comedy.”
Daly began struggling with whether she could pursue theater after seeing that most famous actors felt they had to compromise their values to succeed in Hollywood. She reached out to her parish priest for advice, and he gave her a simple answer: “You don’t have to deal with all that junk. Start your own theater company!”
Daly followed her priest’s advice. She hopes the Veritas Theatre Co. can show practicing Catholics that they don’t have to choose between their calling and their moral standards. “Too many actors and directors have muzzled their consciences in favor of playing the Hollywood game,” Daly explained. “On the other side of the coin, too many gifted men and women have walked away from their God-given vocation for fear of being sucked into that notorious hotbed of sex scandals, drug problems, divorce, and suicide. The existence of theater and film companies that are run in accordance with Church teaching would do much to destroy this false dichotomy.”
Daly believes it is vital that Catholics don’t walk away from the theater because of the way art can be used to edify.
“Entertainment has a strong impact on societal norms,” Daly said. “The industry focuses on ‘giving the people what they want,’ which seems to be mostly vice. Offering audiences what they need — something they’ve forgotten how to want — has all but fallen by the wayside. This is the way to combat the soul-damaging garbage that the entertainment world seems so bent on cranking out right now.”
To this end, Veritas Theatre Co. looks to the teachings of the Catholic Church when choosing what plays to produce and what to portray on stage. That means they don’t show nudity or excessive public displays of affection onstage, and they won’t produce a play that has blasphemous characters.
“If something morally wrong happens in the story of one of the plays we produce, the audience will know it’s wrong. We portray virtue as virtue, and vice as vice,” Daly shared.
LEONARDO DEFILIPPIS BRINGS THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS TO LIFE
When Shakespearean actor Leonardo Defilippis found his way back to the Catholic faith after living the life of a “typical actor,” he fell in love with the Scriptures and the stories of the saints. He left behind the world of secular art and began a career centered on bringing Scripture and the lives of the saints to people in an engaging and entertaining way.
“Once I came back to my faith, I had this intense desire to know more that pulled me into the Scriptures and sacred tradition,” Defilippis, the founder of Saint Luke Productions (StLukeProductions.com),told Catholic Digest.“ As I read, I thought, These lives are so incredible, but no one knows about them. No one certainly sees them at all in the theater.”
Defilippis originally intended to have St. Francis of Assisi be his first show, but in studying the founder of the Franciscan order, he learned that St. Francis’ life led him back to Scripture. Instead, Defilippis’ created a one-man, dramatic-form production of the Gospel of Luke. He has gone on to do 11 shows, including Tolton: From Slave to Priest, the story of America’s first black priest, Ven. Augustus Tolton; Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy; and Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz.
While Defilippis believes it is important for Catholics to be involved in the secular theater to regenerate it and bring truth and beauty, Saint Luke Productions has remained focused on religion. Defilippis’ desire is to use his art form to evangelize, and he’s taken his productions to Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and even to prison inmates.
“We create religious imagery with the same professionalism and artistic integrity that you would have in a normal theater. We want it to be beautiful and engaging; we want to keep people’s attention so that we can inspire people,” Defilippis shared.
Defilippis has seen his shows have an amazing impact on theater goers in the 38 years that he has been doing Saint Luke Productions. Men and women have had healings and major life changes after seeing the lives of these amazing saints.
“A number of times when we have done our show on St. John Vianney, we have had a young man decide to become a priest, or a seminarian who intended to leave the seminary have renewed vigor for his vocation. With St. Faustina, I have seen incredible healing for people who are going through trauma from sexual assault or abortion. I have also seen the show on Faustina inspire a young woman to end a bad relationship with a man who was just using her.”
Defilippis said theater has a cathartic effect.
“It’s different than a Hollywood movie experience or a talk at church because it’s a live encounter with a person,” he said. “People feel like they’ve actually met that person in their heart and their mind.”
A THEATER FESTIVAL INSPIRED BY VEN. FULTON J. SHEEN
Founded as a project of the Archdiocese of New York, the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought & Culture (SheenCenter.org) in New York aims to answer the call of the New Evangelization issued by Pope Benedict XVI, who said the greatest tools for evangelization for Catholics are the saints and the art the Church creates.
David DiCerto, director of programming administration at the Sheen Center, told Catholic Digest that the center does this by presenting works of art that highlight “the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
“The Sheen Center aspires to affirm the mystery and dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Jesus,” DiCerto added. “Hopefully, everything we do on our stages invites all people of good will into a deeper understanding of the mysterious workings of grace in the world and an acknowledgment that, to borrow a phrase of Archbishop Sheen, ‘life is worth living.’”
One way that the Sheen Center strives to inspire with art is through their annual Sheen Center Theater Festival.
“The Sheen Center Theater Festival was started by Cole Matson (former programming associate at the center) and myself because we knew so many playwrights who identified as Catholic and whose work is inspired by their faith,” said Kelley Girod, the festival’s co-founder. “We wanted to create a space in the theater world specific to artists whose work intersected with their faith. Our mission is to show the many different voices of Catholic artists, and maybe disrupt people’s perceptions of what a Catholic artist produces.”
Those Catholic artists aspire to imitate Bl. Fulton Sheen, who embodied not only a strong faith but also “charisma and storytelling skills to captivate generations of viewers,” Girod added. They choose theater because storytelling is natural to Christians because of the way Jesus used stories.
I think it is organic for us to turn to storytelling as a way of transmitting love, peace, understanding, comfort, and mercy, among other things,” said Girod, noting that Catholics are particularly attuned to this because of the artistic nature of the Mass. “[Art] is a way that we praise, and a way that we evangelize.”