Terry Weber is one of the kindest individuals we know. Couple this with his role as Artistic Director of the local theatre company The WordPlayers, and you’ll find a man who is well-versed in encouragement and in making good performers great. He teaches acting and voice at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and has played in productions from Seattle to New York to Avignon, France. He was gracious enough to sit down and answer a few of our questions.
FH: Audiences and patrons of visual art categorize theater apart from television and cinema. Why is it important that people engage with the theatrical art form? What is unique about the flesh-and-blood element of the medium?
TW: When actors and audience gather in the same room, breathing the same air, experiencing the story at the same time (no “pause” button in live performance), feeling the same vibrations of sound in the space, then the potential for a transcendent experience exists like in no other situation. All art can be transcendent on some level, transporting the individual to a felt place beyond himself. A powerful sermon can, too. But the theatrical art form has the possibility of bringing artists and a group of audience members to a shared transcendence that is palpable. Suddenly, one might sense a connection to the past or to the future or to his culture that is fresh and illuminating. One might understand an aspect of the human condition that had never made sense before. One might feel the presence of Truth.
In a culture that seems to be isolating individuals more and more from meaningful communication and connection (despite all types of “social” media), I believe the experience of theatre is more important to our spiritual health than ever before.
FH: The WordPlayers have stated a Christian approach to theater from the outset. How has this caused you and your team members to read scripts? What show ideas are rejected or accepted and why?
TW: Our Christian worldview draws us to scripts that offer hope, forgiveness, and/or renewal on some level. We are drawn to scripts where at least one character has an awareness of the existence of God or at least some sense of the supernatural. If there are characters that struggle with the difficulties of trying to live as a Christian in a world sometimes hostile to the Gospel, those scripts resonate with us. Scripts which ask and wrestle with the big questions of life – good vs. evil, justice vs. mercy, meaning vs. emptiness – appeal to us. We look for plays which offer a sense of redemption or joy, and characters who move from darkness to light.
Scripts which are likely to be rejected are those which wallow in things completely sensuous or completely secular. If the Lord’s name is taken in vain too indiscriminately by too many characters, or if overly profane language is the norm, we are glad to leave those scripts for other theatre companies to explore, even if some of the aforementioned themes exist.
FH: Based on this, how do you justify having antagonistic characters onstage?
TW: Every good story has an antagonist. Good stories are what we thrive on and what engage an audience. Good, strong stories are what help us to understand all the ramifications of human existence. Give me a strong antagonist anytime!
FH: What does that do to your actors to jump into those roles?
TW: I believe that as artists, it excites them. As human beings who might be very different from the character they are playing, it helps them to empathize with those who are different than they (or perhaps not so different as they first imagined). As Christians, perhaps they are intimidated, appalled, or horrified, but ultimately serving the story takes precedence.
FH: How is playing, especially the playing of a character, a spiritual exercise? How does that work for the role of the antagonist or heel?
TW: There is a “Credo for Christian Actors” that we have, on occasion, talked about. While we’ve stopped short of officially adopting it for The WordPlayers or asking everyone to memorize it, I think it addresses this question. It is adapted from a Facebook post by Prof. Dan Buck of Lee University:
We believe that glorifying God through our art requires diligent care of our bodies, minds, and souls.
We believe that exploration in the rehearsal studio and on the stage will result in the revelation of God’s truth.
We believe in creating a community marked by humility and grace.
The exercise of our art is a spiritual pursuit that includes diligent work, fearless learning, and loving collaboration.
FH: The WordPlayers have recently gone through some structural changes. What’s different and why change it?
TW: The legal and fiduciary responsibilities of The WordPlayers falls to our wonderful Board of Directors. That has been the case since 1998, when we were granted non-profit, 501 (c)(3) status from the IRS.
The staff of The WordPlayers consists of Artistic Director (myself), Managing Director (Jeni Lamm), and Artistic Associate (Ethan Norman). Ethan just began his official (part-time) duties on August 1st. We trust his addition to the staff will be an exciting and needed infusion of more energy and creativity in effecting the vision and programming of The WordPlayers.
Until recently, there was a small “go-to” team of theatre artists, known as “the company,” who were the first to be approached to fulfill any job associated with a particular project. Now, largely because of the dedication and commitment of those artists, the influence of The WordPlayers has expanded such that many more talented folks are working (or desirous to be working) with us. The idea of a small “company” has now been expanded to a vision of a much larger “Fellowship of The WordPlayers.” We want everyone with a passion for theatre to feel welcome to join us, work with us, play with us, pray with us, and to reach the larger community with culturally-relevant and powerful story-telling.
The WordPlayers schedule, including the mainstage shows Walking Across Egypt and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (shazaam!) can be found at WordPlayers.org.