Theater as Chaplaincy for the LGBTQ+ Community
By J. Sylvan
Harvard Square was eerie when I arrived at Oberon, the American Repertory Theater’s second stage. A warming spring day like this one would normally see students and tourists hanging out of bakeries and coffee shops, but the sidewalks were nearly empty, and the occasional person I did pass on my way to the stage door looked anxious to be out in public at all. I entered the familiar venue, sat in one of the elevated booths, and waited in the dark. One by one, the cast and crew made their entrance, washed and sanitized their hands, and awkwardly navigated the new and rapidly changing recommendations against hugging and standing too close to one another.
After we all checked in, Kat Sistare, Oberon’s stage manager, got to work rigging the actors with wireless mics, carefully wiping down every surface with alcohol and meticulously sanitizing their hands between fitting each performer. They tucked the microphone packs into the gold lamé shorts of Felton Sparks, who played David—the star of Beloved King: A Queer Bible Musical. Ben Freeman, who played David’s love interest, Prince Jonathan, and who directed the workshop, also needed his mic pack tucked into his lamé shorts. Both characters had burlesque-inspired stripping scenes, so their microphones had to be subtle.1 However, instead of experiencing the electricity of hundreds of audience members reacting to their performances, the actors would be playing to lifeless, clinical camera lenses.
It was March 12, 2020. Later that day, Broadway would shutter, and at the end of the week, Harvard would send all its students home to finish the spring semester online. One day earlier, the World Health Organization had declared the new coronavirus a pandemic, and one day later, the United States would declare a national emergency. Like many Americans, I hadn’t yet fully absorbed the enormity of the situation. I’d had my head down in my own projects and narratives, and the virus had seemed very far away, until suddenly it wasn’t.2 The afternoon before, the theater and I made the mutual decision to cancel the public event, but the production team, performers, and I decided to go ahead and film the dress rehearsal that had been planned for 11 AM that morning. It would wind up being a kind of thank-you note to one another, and a farewell to the art form of theater as we knew it for a still-unknown length of time.
Theater has been a spiritual home for many LGBTQ+ folks, providing shared rituals and stories, a sense of being part of something greater than oneself, and mutual care and support.
For many of us in the LGBTQ+ community, the indefinite loss of live theater is not only felt financially, professionally, and socially. It is also a spiritual (and I’ve even seen some say “religious”) loss. Even before I had this language for it, I’ve long felt that theater often functions as a form of chaplaincy for the LGBTQ+ community. Chaplaincy, at its core, is the stewardship and nurturing of spiritual (or, if you like, religious) life outside of official communities of faith. What “spiritual” and even “religious” means varies from person to person, but generally, it seems to involve at least one, and often some combination, of the following: guidance in meaning making; a feeling of being a part of something greater than oneself; a feeling of connection and responsibility to a supportive and like-minded community; shared rituals and stories; and accountability in creating and following a code of morality. While the theater is more naturally suited to some of these aspects of chaplaincy than others, I’ve personally seen theater communities perform every single one of these roles for myself and for others throughout the course of my life. For folks in the LGBTQ+ constellation who feel a longing for the spiritual, and who may not have felt welcome or interested in “traditional” religious spaces for identity or other reasons, I have seen theater fill the void again and again.
This became even more clear to me as we were working on the development of the Beloved King workshop last winter. Beloved King was my thesis project for my master of divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School. During my first year at HDS, I—a queer, nonbinary, Unitarian Universalist well into my 30s—became a fan of the Bible. By my second year, I knew what my final project would be: a full-length musical telling of the story of David and Jonathan from the book of Samuel through a queer lens. Since the Bible was often weaponized against me and people like me as I was growing up in the Midwest in the 90s, I felt a drive to try to lift up what I read as the text’s inherent queerness, and to use the theater art form to bring queer readings of biblical stories into the popular imagination.
As I reflected on what had led me to create this show, I began to recognize the spiritual part theater had played in my personal history. Theater and spirituality have been so interwoven for me that I’ve finally accepted that they are not merely two separate threads in the tapestry of my life but are two fibers that combine to make up a single central strand—one that Christian religious professionals might refer to as a “call.” Theater had been a passion of mine going back to high school and, more than that, the theater was a spiritual home for me when I desperately needed it. I was raised culturally Catholic, but practically secular.3 As I became an adolescent and realized I was A) Spiritual and B) Queer, my options for exploration of both of these identities seemed limited where I lived in Indiana.4
What I never found in church I found in theater. The afterschool clubs of like-minded nerds. The comfort of ritual as we huddled together playing theater games before opening night. The shared narrative canon of story and song.5 The deep discussions about morality and the meaning of life. The feeling of working together to create something that could communicate not only across the room, but across time and space as well. And personal support when the world seemed hopeless, which it often did for a queer teenager in the 90s. My theater friends helped me find hope in the world that killed Matthew Shepard and told me repeatedly that some “God” hated me. They also helped me keep going and creating through the suffering and fear, to grieve and feel and then try to make myself and the world better than it was. Now, as a ministerial candidate, I call this pastoral care.
I went to college in the early 2000s thinking I was going to be an English and theater major but unexpectedly ended up majoring in religious studies after I happened into a Catholic mysticism class my sophomore year. I adored studying religion, and to me it didn’t feel like that much of a jump from theater and literature. From my perspective, the most important parts of art were trying to get at human meaning. Religion was trying to do the same thing, just in a less oblique way. I attended my first Unitarian Universalist services in college as well, recognizing the similarities with theater in the experience of shared story and song in the church service, in communal gathering and collective mythologizing. The few Catholic Masses I’d attended as a child struck me, in retrospect, as even more theatrical.
After college, I spent a large portion of my 20s hopping between low-paying customer service and gig work, writing and performing poetry and songs, and teaching poetry writing in the Boston area. I fell into a local alternative theater community, which eventually led to writing, performing in, and producing variety shows and musicals in my early 30s. In 2016 I wrote a lesbian sci-fi musical called Spider Cult and acted in a very queer play called The T Party by Natsu Onoda Power. That summer, I became burned out after scraping by for over a decade (surprise, surprise—medium-scale independent queer theater is not a lucrative pursuit!). I also grew deeply spiritually unsettled in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre and the frightening hyperconservative movements gaining visibility and voice in the United States. I applied to HDS with the intention of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. I thought I would be leaving theater behind, but the book of Samuel had other plans for me.
Theater, and specifically musical theater, revealed itself to be an ideal medium for Beloved King for two reasons. For one, theater is transcendent, ritualistic, and, under regular, in-person circumstances, both ephemeral and present. Theater is created in the moment by artists and observers, and it ceases to exist when the moment passes (this is another reason why taped theater can feel so . . . untheatrical). Similar to mindfulness practices like meditation, live theater brings you into the moment and into connection in an immediate way that does not happen sitting on the sofa watching Netflix or Disney+.6 The second reason musical theater seemed an ideal medium to bring the gay, gay story of David and Jonathan to life is, well, theater is gay. And musical theater is very gay. (Don’t worry, I can say that. I’m also very gay.)7
As we put the workshop together, it occurred to me several times that the vast majority of the cast and crew floated somewhere in the LGBTQIA+ identity cloud. This made sense, since it was a specifically queer show, and, despite the overwhelming queerness of theater, explicitly and openly “Queer Theater” is still the exception rather than the rule, with queer narratives typically relegated to subtext or absent entirely. A “progressive” company or theater may put up one explicitly queer show a year, intermixed with mostly “traditional” straight shows. Many queer artists, myself included, find it a great relief to work in a piece of theater unabashed in its queerness.
That day at Oberon, after the actors were mic’d up, sound-checked, and in costume, we all stood in a circle in the middle of the stage. Ben, the director, said something inspiring and filled with gratitude. Ben and I had bonded a little less than a year earlier over being queer theater kids who were now pursuing master of divinity degrees. An effortlessly talented singer and performer, when he had told me that he was beginning to miss his passion, directing, I asked him to direct the workshop. Ben had also been working as an actual chaplain for the previous two years and directed with a level of awareness and care for the artists that is rarer than it should be in professional (or amateur) theater.
In the circle, I caught Felton’s—David’s—eye. He was running vocal warm-ups in his white shepherd’s robe, ready to be found by the prophet Samuel at the top of act 1, but in that moment, I recognized his sadness. In a show full of great performances that were not going to be able to play to the audience they deserved, his was the one that broke my heart the most. Felton was in his early 20s and had been making a go of acting, post-college, for over a year now. He told me later that of all his professional gigs, two (I won’t name them here) had made him want to quit, and two had made him remember why he loved theater.8 At five feet five, he was shorter than average, so he almost never got to play lead roles, be erotic, or show his range on stage. In fact, the role he had played directly before David was of a nine-year-old child. What a waste, I thought. Felton was a skilled dancer, a versatile actor, and a dramatic singer with a voice that rang with power and intention from chest to falsetto. He deserved to be seen by hundreds of people.
It was time to begin. The crew called for places and the cast disappeared backstage. Kat stationed themself at their usual post offstage right, headset on. The lights went down and my wife held out her hand to me. We were the only ones in the cavernous house, except for the videographer and two photographers. “Come on baby,” she said. “Let’s go watch your show.” I took her hand, and she led me to our favorite seats in the theater. The next two and a half hours were strange and awkward and beautiful as we witnessed the actors and musicians perform the musical in its entirety with full lights and sound to an “audience” of five. Felton (spoilers) slayed Goliath and won the heart of the prince. At the end, there was a curtain call, and ten hands clapped wildly.
Since the theaters went dark, I’ve been contemplating the value and meaning of art that is intended to be experienced in person and in a group in a world where most in-person group experiences are indefinitely postponed. What about theater is both vital and possible to practice responsibly as we make our way through this time of remote connection? Kat, Ben, and Felton all agreed to let me share a little of what they’ve been doing during this theatrical hibernation, and to share some of their feelings about theater, the LGBTQ+ community, and chaplaincy.
In addition to being a stage manager at Oberon, Kat Sistare is also a parent. They and their partner have had their hands full with their kid home full-time, but Kat misses Oberon every day. They told me that they first became involved in theater in high school when they no longer felt welcomed by the evangelical church that had been a large part of their life growing up. “When I left the church,” they say, “it was because I knew I was bisexual, and they had made it clear that that would not be acceptable inside their walls. My community was pulled out from under me. Then I got into theater, and I said, okay, my people are still out there. I had a community again.” Kat dedicated their life to theater, finally landing at Oberon, where they have worked for over five years. For Kat, the final run-through of Beloved King in an empty house was emblematic of what they love about the theater. “We knew that no one was going to be in the audience for us, but it was important to do it for each other. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to go into all of this.”
The day after we taped, the theater locked its doors for the rest of the season, and Kat again felt like their community had been pulled out from under them. Grieving the uncertainty of the future of their profession and their theatrical home, Kat created a Facebook group for artists and creators who have produced and performed at Oberon. They weren’t sure if anyone would join, but within hours, the group had hundreds of members posting memories, videos, and pictures from past events. Members then started plotting “comeback shows,” and debating the value and means of producing “virtual theater.” They also processed with one another their fear, grief, and anger as the pandemic evolved. The group is still going strong months later and is so active that Kat has reached out to additional moderators.
“Calling it ‘chaplaincy’ makes sense because a chaplain doesn’t have their own ‘flock,’ ” says Kat. “They’re outside of a church setting. They’re available to everyone. That’s what theater is. Especially for queer people, who may not ever have felt welcome inside a church building. I know my community says that Oberon means a lot to them, so I’m glad I could start this group to help us stay connected.”
After directing the workshop and playing Jonathan, Ben Freeman graduated from HDS and moved back to Providence. He’s teaching a virtual improv workshop this summer and posts videos on YouTube for his students. “I stand in my room and do half of a theater game to an imagined audience,” he tells me. “It’s very strange.”
Ben also says that theater felt like a haven for him as a young person. “Before I had the courage to name being gay, I knew that being in a musical theater space was the closest place I could be to authentic. There was something running in the water that gave me permission to be real.” Ben notes that the unspoken shared experiences of many queer people in theater can be powerful, especially if someone has never felt that before. “Realizing you’re not alone, that’s a kind of religious experience for a lot of young queer people. I’m connecting this to my sense of Jewish identity. In a Jewish space there are certain baseline realities in the ways we’ve gone through the world that are assumed to be held in common, and that can feel really nourishing.”
I mention my appreciation of the way he guided actors in challenging emotional scenes, including a particularly disturbing one involving attempted sexual coercion. He invited the two actors involved to make lists of their fears and hopes for the scene, and they all discussed them in depth before reading a single line of dialogue. Ben directly credits this to his chaplaincy training. “In chaplaincy, we talk about the things that we are bringing into a room where there are high emotional stakes. If I’m going into an interaction with heightened emotion, I want to be aware of my pressure points and trigger points beforehand. I think a lot of rehearsal rooms would benefit from even more of an emphasis on self-awareness.”9
Ben says his teaching is what’s currently connecting him to theater, and as he sees it, the benefits of improv games extend beyond the literal stage. “What I’m interested in right now is tapping into the vocabulary of theater practice to help people live a little more presently. The core principle in improv is to be in the moment and engage with it as it is. It’s like meditation in that way. Whatever your scene partner or the room throws at you, you affirm it and add on to it. That’s the idea behind, ‘yes, and.’ Theater games are meant to teach people to inhabit the actual moment and not the one you want to be in. For instance, I’m not personally very excited about doing Zoom plays or readings myself right now. But for me, the way I can respond to this moment is by teaching. Yes, in-person shows are off. And, I can teach.”
When Felton and I speak, he’s in the passenger seat of his boyfriend’s car, moving to New York City. Relocating to the Big Apple is always a leap of faith for a young actor. Doing so during the coronavirus pandemic requires levels of faith that are positively biblical. Felton tells me that since we last spoke, he’s been getting into the mythos of Christianity. “I’ve always shied away from it because my family was kicked out of our church when they realized my parents were lesbians,” he says. Then he laughs. “I’m actually not sure what took them so long. But something eventually tipped them off that these two women with the same address who held hands and had a son together weren’t straight. I left the church with a bad taste in my mouth. My family still believes in God and is religious in their own way, but I never had direct attachment to my own faith.”
Felton told me once that the first time he felt he had a “religious” experience was seeing Wicked on Broadway, so it follows that for Felton, as for me, theater and spirituality/religion might be entwined. He says his work in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Beloved King had piqued his interest in the scriptures his mothers had once held sacred, and during lockdown, he participated in a Zoom reading of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which pushed his curiosity further. “I believe in it less in a concrete way and more in an abstract poetic guidance sort of way,” he says of the Bible, “but it’s still inspiring to connect to these stories.”
Like me, Felton found the timing of the lockdown personally heartbreaking. “It’s every actor’s dream to be the first person in a role, to build it up from nothing. I was getting to do that with Beloved King, and I had more great roles lined up for the summer, but then it was all stripped away.” I mention to him that out of all my friends, he seems to have had the most active pandemic theatrical career. “Yeah,” he says. “At the beginning I was very motivated because I just didn’t want to stop doing things. I was taking online dance classes, I was writing and recording all day because I wanted to believe the lockdown would only be a couple of months. But it started to wear me down and there was still no end in sight, so I started to be more discriminating in the things I agreed to. That said, Zoom theater has been a personal saving grace for me, even though most of the readings haven’t even been watched by an audience—they’re just friends sitting down together and reading a play. We did Angels in America, which is my favorite play of all time.” Also religious, also gay, I note. “Yes,” he says. “Religious and gay. And that feeling of nailing a scene with a partner even through a screen with no audience, that’s the magic.”
I say that Felton’s description of the magic feeling he gets doing a scene with his friends over Zoom reminded me of our first and last performance in the empty house. I mention how Kat said it was important for us to do that performance once for each other, even though no one else would see it. Maybe that was a kind of beautiful.
Felton pauses. “Was it beautiful,” he says, “or sad?” We both laugh for a good 30 seconds. It was both. It was art.
Chaplaincy, like art, like theater, meets us at life’s most beautiful and most sad moments. As Kat says, chaplaincy meets us where we are and lets us know that we don’t need to be part of a traditional religious congregation to find a supportive, meaningful, and for some, even “spiritual” community. And just as we don’t need to be within the walls of a religious institution to cultivate such community, perhaps we don’t need to be within the walls of a theater, either. When I think of Kat’s Facebook group, Ben’s online improv classes, and Felton’s Zoom readings, I realize that the queer theater community is continuing to support one another even outside of the theater building itself.
Of course, none of these pandemic activities, with the possible exception of teaching, pays the bills. And almost everyone in the theater world I talk to is clear that these online manifestations are lifelines in a time of crisis, but they can’t wait to return to physical space with one another. This is a reckoning that traditional religious communities are facing, too. As with theater, most congregations are predicated on in-person gathering, but this year (and quite possibly next year) these are morally fraught.10 And as mixed as the reactions to online-only theater, church, and chaplaincy services have been, I fully agree that they will continue to be necessary for quite some time. To be responsible, to be moral right now, the show must not go on.11
In times of crisis, communities of faith may move away from sermons and ceremonies and toward pastoral care, community support, and activism. I’ve witnessed my theater communities support one another emotionally and materially throughout the pandemic. We’ve raised funds for individuals who have lost family members, found housing and helped with moving costs for those who have become unhomed, and moved collective money as needed to aid the many artists who have been unable to work. I’ve also seen the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer shift the community’s focus to demanding that powerful theatrical organizations use this time to take accountability for their histories of racism and anti-Blackness, and to take measurable actions to change. Watching and supporting these calls to action gives me hope for the future.
In this moment, we are all called to bring care where it’s needed, to acknowledge what has never worked, and to build new and better systems to uplift and nurture our communities. Perhaps as we continue to live through this time together, we can learn from Ben’s online improv workshop. The world is our scene partner. It’s giving us a pandemic, yes. And now, what can we do?
- I didn’t make up the stripping, btw. See 1 Samuel 18:4 and 2 Samuel 6:14–22.
- We were all trying to process information coming in fast from news sources, between-the-lines gleanings, and Italian Twitter threads. And at that time, we were being told that the transmission of the virus occurred through direct, sustained contact with someone who was actively ill.
- My family went to Mass zero to one times a year, depending on whether Grandma was visiting on Easter.
- I floated through a few of my friends’ church communities, but it was made clear to me I would not be wholly welcomed if I were to bring even a modest fraction of myself.
- No church choir I’ve encountered has yet topped for me a group of 90s theater kids dropping everything to break into a spontaneous rendition of “Seasons of Love,” complete with harmonies.
- All that said, I do appreciate the enhanced accessibility of streaming recordings of shows. I can now finally afford to sort-of see Hamilton!
- Sometimes when I’m feeling cheeky I still use “gay” as many people (including myself) now use “queer,” that is, to refer to anything in the au courant LGTBQIA+ taxonomy. This is unfashionable and problematic, but so are aging gays and recorded language.
- Beloved King and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis.
- I agree with Ben. And the more I think about the similarities between theater and chaplaincy, the more I think incorporating certain helpful principles of chaplaincy directly into the theatrical process would be beneficial, whether or not someone experiences the theater as “spiritual.” Perhaps this can be the subject of a future article!
- My UU denomination has already committed to all-online services through May of 2021 unless a vaccine drastically changes circumstances before then. Even some traditional chaplaincy has moved to all-virtual models.
- I’ve thought more than once that if I’d had as much information on the day of our final run-through as I had just one or two weeks later, I don’t believe we would have done the in-person performance.
J. Sylvan, MDiv ’20, is a candidate for ordination in the Unitarian Universalist Church. They are currently serving as ministerial intern at First Parish in Concord, MA, and continuing to develop Beloved King, with help from a generous grant from the Boston Foundation.