How do you make a 150-seat black box theater feel like a megachurch?
That’s the challenge AthensWest Theatre Co. artistic director Bo List issued to Logan Greenwell, a senior scenic design student at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, for his first professional gig as a scenic designer.
Greenwell looked to his own life experience when he began exploring design concepts for “The Christians,” a play by Lucas Hnath that explores the fallout among the flock when the pastor of a megachurch has a revelation that rattles the congregation to its core.
“I was familiar with the aesthetic that the show needed because I grew up in a megachurch,” says Greenwell, who attended Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. as a child.
“That was the only kind of church that I knew. That was normal to me, going to a church with over 5000 people at every Sunday’s service.”
“He knew all the right ways to hit the notes we wanted to hit in a small space,” says List, who knew Greenwell when he was just a 15-year-old theater student in Memphis, where List lived before returning home to Lexington.
The play is the final installment of AthensWest’s “season of truth” and while “The Christians” explores that concept in a religious setting, the concepts and quandaries it proposes invites audiences to examine how conflicts and disagreements in the pursuit of truth might be handled in a more human way.
“Yes, this play is about a church and a situation in a church but it could be any organization, any community where the faith of the leader is tested and his followers or employees or colleagues have their faith tested as well,” List says.
List cites Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” as another play set in a religious community that addresses social and political issues beyond the purview of faith.
“It made the larger point about what was going on in the ’50s with McCarthyism,” List says. “It has a value beyond truth telling, beyond the Salem witch trials.”
Similarly, List says “The Christians” addresses today’s contentious political and social environments.
“We live in very divided times,” List says. “It used to be that people would disagree on things. It seems like people don’t know how to disagree anymore. What we believe and what we know to be true are informed by wildly disparate sources. We can barely even agree on what facts are anymore, these days.”
“This goes back to basics in many ways and everyone involved in the storytelling agrees that there’s a book that informs everybody on what we should believe but their reading of that book is so very different that they can no longer agree on the things that are most important to them,” List says.
As they prepare their show for opening night, Friday, both Greenwell and List are quick to point out that there are a lot of similarities between theater and church.
“The church as a whole, when you think about it, is a production,” says Greenwell, whose theater career as a designer was influenced by his early involvement in church productions.
“Once upon a time, if you lived in ancient Greece, you would see a play and it would have similarities to both theater and church,” says List. “You would go to see a story told and you would go for the instructive spiritual experience of having your values confirmed on stage.
“In the couple thousand years that have occurred since then, we’ve sort of split off and gone to the theater to be entertained and church to have our beliefs indulged, but as some of these big megachurches are proving, them more razzle dazzle you provide, the more you can draw in a larger audience.
“The theater we remember the most and cherish the most offers big ideas and explores important topics the way a good sermon can.”
So what is the message of the “sermon” in The Christians? Audiences will have to decide for themselves, but List posits it has to do with how we treat one another.
“The nice thing is that even though there is a vivid disagreement, everyone in this play cares about one another and respects one another,” List says. “I firmly believe that if everyone had the chance to see this play, they would be much better equipped in this high-stakes, passionate environment.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
What: Lucas Hnath’s drama, presented by AthensWest Theatre Co.
When: April 13-29; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $27.50 adults, $22.50 students, senior adults and active military