California church gives life to professional 'Stillspeaking Theatre'
Written by Elsa M. J. Seifert
February - March 2008

San Marino UCC Stillspeaking Theatre artistic director Donald Shenk hangs lights in the church theatre space. San Marino Congregational UCC photo.
Premiere 2008 season includes three productions

A gigantic step was taken on Nov. 3 and 4 when a challenging play, "Awaiting Judgment," was presented in a new theater space at the church.

"Awaiting Judgment," written by the Rev. Art Cribbs, the church's pastor, is the story of an imaginary meeting of two leading theologians of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. The play was first presented at General Synod 2007 in Hartford.

Although the lives of these legendary men never touched in real life, both followed the spiritual wisdom of Jesus Christ. King and Bonhoeffer were devout Christian pastors and advocates for social justice. Both died at the age of 39 while standing up for their beliefs.

In December, Donald Shenk talked about his life-long dream of opening a theater. For Shenk, the UCC's identity theme had become a part of that dream, and that's how San Marino UCC's Stillspeaking Theatre was born.

Shenk, who is the pastoral assistant at the church, is now also the theater's artistic director. The new theater space is housed in the church's original sanctuary built in 1948, which had been used as a fellowship hall since a new sanctuary was built in 1960.

Theatrical branding

When the UCC's "God is Still Speaking" phrase was first conceived, it was immediately picked up by the congregation. The church has been a loyal participant in the UCC's advertising and branding effort. Yet the Stillspeaking campaign also underscored the UCC's new-found emphasis on fostering greater church vitality, something the San Marino congregation took seriously.

Taking note of the strong interest among church members for the advancement of drama and the arts in worship and fellowship, they began to showcase plays using their own amateur talents.

Two early one-act plays began their journey toward "theater as transformation."

The Rev. Marcia Hoffman, the church's former pastor, had included drama in some worship services, often providing the opportunity to involve the youth as well as some adults.

Prior to that, the Rev. Jim Manley had begun to incorporate art and musical theater into part of the church life. A musical play he wrote — "Light on the Table" — included actors and technical personnel from four local churches in the area and was presented in the church sanctuary and also at a Southern California-Nevada Conference annual gathering.

A demographic study of the community at San Marino asked, "What do you want from your church?" The overwhelming response showed a hunger for the arts.  Soon Shenk gathered interested people and they collaborated on a grant proposal for funding for a professional theater.

The theater's mission is "to provide a quality, live theatrical experience that challenges, informs, entertains, inspires, and stimulates our audiences." Productions are to "create a vibrant understanding of the human condition and explore ways in which God still speaks to contemporary society." They wish to provide "thought-provoking, edgy, yet accessible productions" and to "strive to bridge gaps and heal human divisions."

According to Shenk, the Stillspeaking Theatre was created as a professional theater because the church believes God is still speaking through the works of poets and playwrights who educate, stimulate, inspire and empower us to embrace pertinent issues in the world today. They encourage us to seek greater understanding of the human condition so that we may become more conscientious and compassionate people.

The theater was formed to support and enhance the mission of the church, said Shenk, to spread the good news of God's love, heal human divisions and seek peace with justice.

The theater, he said, is dedicated to bringing the highest quality theatrical experiences to the West San Gabriel Valley that entertain, enlighten and excite audiences to confront difficult issues and provoke dialogue.

Set design for the play "Awaiting Judgment." San Marino Congregational UCC photo.
A premiere season

An advisory board was formed to decide which productions to choose to present and to follow the budget. In this way, the whole church owns the theater and is a part of the decision-making process for this theater of realism.

In its 2008 premiere season, the Stillspeaking Theatre will present "To Kill a Mockingbird," based on the novel by Harper Lee and dramatized by Christopher Sergel. The play deals with themes of courage, racial injustice and the death of innocence. It will run from April 11 through May 4.

From July 11 to August 3, the Stillspeaking Theatre will present "Facing East," a play by Carol Lynn Pearson about the anguish of a Mormon couple reeling from the suicide of their gay son.

The season's final offering is "The Mystery Plays," which wrestles in a uniquely American way with the complex mysteries of death, afterlife, religion, faith and forgiveness. It will be produced Nov. 1 through Nov. 23.

The Stillspeaking Theatre has been sanctioned by the Actors' Equity Association under their Los Angeles 99-seat plan agreement. Actors' Equity, founded in 1913, represents more than 45,000 Actors and Stage Managers in the United States. Equity seeks to advance, promote and foster the art of live theatre as an essential component of our society.

Elsa M. J. Seifert is editor of the Southern California – Nevada Conference edition of United Church News.

Learn more about San Marino Congregational UCC and the Stillspeaking Theatre at <sanmarinoucc.org> or by calling 626/292-2080. 

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org