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Southwestern drama troupe fine tunes ministry through the performing arts

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The man with AIDS sat alone on the stage. The Bosnian refugee and battered wife had been ministered to and exited.

First, a long, uncomfortable pause, then the lights began to dim. Suddenly, a woman who had come to watch the drama presentation, ran to the stage and with tears in her eyes hugged the actor portraying the AIDS victim. The power of the drama had literally pulled her out of her seat.

Their pulpit is different from most ministers’. And their messages are a far cry from the 20-minute, Sunday morning variety.

But with dramatic power, “The Company” communicates the gospel around the world, fulfilling its simple goal summed up in its theme verse, Psalm 68:11: “The Lord announced the word and great was the company of those who proclaimed it.”

The Company, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s touring repertory theater group, ministers by performing dramatic sketches and visual interpretations of songs in 45-minute to one-hour programs.

The sketches are short and to the point — some taken directly from Bible stories and others created to communicate a message from Scripture.

— A king dying for a woman condemned to death

— A debate between a seeker and a cynic, contrasting the dead prophets of other religions with the truth of Christ’s resurrection

— A press conference with Moses about the deliverance at the Red Sea and the victory over the Amalekites

— A story based on Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant

About 10 to 20 students from all three schools perform with The Company. The group has taken the gospel across the nation, from Massachusetts to California. In 1996, they ministered at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The Company has also made trips overseas to Zimbabwe, Switzerland, and Germany.

The main goals of The Company are to use creative arts to communicate the gospel and to inspire people to use that same method in their own church or setting, according to acting director John Tillman, a master of communications student.

The Company began in 1985 through the efforts of Dennis Parrish, assistant professor of communication arts, who has guided the group since its creation.

Parrish has been involved in theater since college when a football injury required him to take ballet as part of his rehabilitation. The exposure to theater changed the course of Parrish’s ministry.

In his 1983 master’s thesis, Parrish wrote that a dramatic troupe in which each member is involved with all the characters that are portrayed as well as other aspects of production enhances the production.

The cast members’ closeness to each other and their dedication to the Lord are central to any good performance, he added.

“The Company concept involves a sense of unity,” wrote Parrish. “The performers share their artistic craft with each other so that the performance is enhanced and not just the performer.”

Both performer and performance have benefited through The Company.

Southwestern professor Robert DeVargas performed with the group from 1992 to 1994 and knows its benefits firsthand.

DeVargas said he has “seen The Company develop members in a way that classes could never do” helping them develop character and discipline.

When he was part of The Company, he signed a promise to commit his time and talents to support The Company. The promise included staying “physically fit, spiritually firm, emotionally solid and theatrically professional,” as well as supporting and praying for all other group members.

The Company also helps members develop creativity, confidence to minister and communication skills, DeVargas added.

The commitment level is very high, he noted, because of the nature of the effort. Members participate in spiritual formation groups and short devotional times where they pray for the ministry and other needs. They also keep track of their physical fitness using “aerobic points.”

To keep creative juices flowing they write creative journal entries every week. Some of the entries are later developed into scripts, songs, and poems, or are published in “In Good Company,” a newsletter the group recently began.

Becoming a member of the organization is less about having dramatic talent than demonstrating the availability to be used in the ministry by the Lord and a willingness to learn, DeVargas said.

“Talent can be learned; the attitude has to come from the Lord,” he said.

In addition to the sketch that ended with the AIDS victim on stage in Glorieta several years ago, DeVargas recalled the impact of a visual interpretation of the Steve Green song “He Holds the Keys” at the meeting of the Baptist Youth Congress in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The actors portrayed the death and resurrection of Christ, who takes from Satan keys to set Satan’s captives free. The actor portraying Christ used the keys to unshackle other actors portraying people held captive by sin. He did so as the song reached the chorus which proclaims, “He holds the keys.”

At that point, the audience of more than 3,000 students from all over the world jumped to their feet and began praising God, screaming, clapping and yelling, DeVargas remembered.

“You could feel the absolute electricity of that moment,” he said. “We had visually presented the testimony of every believer in that room,” across cultural, geographic and language boundaries. DeVargas remembered that he was shaking when he came off the stage because of the way God had used them.

Because of today’s media-centered and visually oriented society, DeVargas said, God can use drama to reach those who might not listen to a sermon.

The Company is one of the foundation stones of Southwestern’s communications program, said DeVargas, and has helped the seminary maintain a high level of visibility.

    About the Author

  • Cory J. Hailey