In church theater, lessons are of the utmost importance. Fortunately for us, lessons and theater go hand in hand.
All scripts, be they for a TV series, feature film, Broadway play or musical, require character arcs: a change of heart or thinking by the characters. The protagonist starts off with one attitude or belief but, due to the circumstances of the plot and the experiences he or she goes through in the course of the story, ends up with a different outlook. This is Basic Script Writing 101. Religious drama is clearly no exception — in fact, the character arc is even more important because we are specifically trying to educate our audience, not simply entertain them.
“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Change your hearts and lives…” Matthew 4:17 (NCV)
The interesting thing in our little slice of the medium is that quite often the characters don’t have an arc at all, but the audience does!
An example of a character arc script was Alone But Not Lonely, which took place on Christmas Eve. The plot involved Ben Charles, a workaholic who had lost contact with those he loved. He receives a gift from an anonymous source and, while trying to figure out who sent it, reconnects with a number of people in his past. Through the conversations he has with them, he learns of the huge impact his involvement in their life has had on them and might again have in the future. He transitions from a lonely, sad man to a fellow filled with hope and renewed relationships. The viewer learns the lesson as he does.
An example of an audience arc story was called Lying Around the House. In this sketch, a young couple, Bob and Marsha, have an after dinner conversation, during which they drink, smoke, cheat on taxes, gossip, curse (bleeped out with comedic effect), and discuss how they got away with extra change at the store, hitting a parked car, lying to the boss, and more. They never seem to be aware that their young son, Jimmy, is sitting on the living room floor, playing quietly, listening to every word of this. Then, when Jimmy tells a lie and curses, they are shocked. Where did he learn such behavior? Even if they didn’t have a clue, the audience watching this little play knew the answer, and got the message loud and clear. Consequently, although there was no character arc for the parents, there was for the congregation.
A script that could have concluded with a character arc for the protagonist or the audience was Tug of Ward. Ward is a man torn between four friends on a Saturday night: a Christian who encourages him to bring his wife to a worship concert, a man throwing a wild bachelor party, his business partner who wants him to work, and his brother-in-law who has special tickets to the big game. Like a tug of war, Ward is pulled back and forth between them (literally) and is torn by the difficult decision of whom to spend his time with. People in the audience were naturally drawn into making a choice in their own mind as Ward debated the options for himself. The original ending had Ward going off with the Christian man – his character arc. In the actual performance, however, I selected to end the scene before he made his decision. As he stood struggling with his conscience, we went to black and the audience never got to see his choice. Consequently, they had to make their own. Hopefully it not only stimulated some thought, but some interesting conversations after church: what would you do?