It’s minutes before curtain call and most of the audience has filed into The Master’s College’s music recital hall for a Saturday matinee performance of Meet Me in St. Louis. But the cast and crew – all 47 of them – aren’t backstage.
They are crammed into one of the music building’s adjacent classrooms, which has become a sort of command central for the production. This is where personal belongings are stored, where hair spray and makeup are hastily applied, where costumes are adjusted and repaired on the fly.
In the midst of even the smoothest productions, the room hums with the energy of the show. It is a sea of constant motion. Only right now, even with the chatter of the audience just a few walls away, the room is still. It is silent except for the lone voice of senior Joshua Chipchase, who is sharing his testimony.
A few feet away, the show’s producer/director, Tricia Hulet, absorbs it all. She watches Chipchase and steals occasional glances at the faces around the room. Watching her, one gets the sense that regardless of what is about to take place on the stage, at least a part of her goal has already been met. The muscles in her face are tight with anticipation, but her eyes are calm.
The curtain is about to rise, but much of the fruit of her mission has already ripened.
Meet Me in St. Louis is the 10th show the college has performed since Hulet started the theater arts program in 2008. Under her direction, TMC students are able participate as actors or crew members in two plays a year – one in the fall and one in the spring.
Theater arts is not a major, Hulet is quick to point out. And that’s by design. By maintaining it as a co-curricular program, she is able to offer it to all students, regardless of their major. It’s an invitation to which the students continue to respond – from every corner of campus.
“We’re often called the people’s theater because we have all the majors and dorms represented,” Hulet says. “In this production I think we have 15 majors and every dorm.”
The eclectic mix brings students together that might not otherwise interact, at least not in such close quarters. And in the crucible that can be performing arts, those relationships come together in unique and powerful ways. Science and history majors. Seniors and freshmen. Slight and C-Dub.
“I’ve made so many friends – so many people that I wouldn’t know at school and I absolutely love it,” says senior Nikki Jones.
The camaraderie extends to the relationships between cast and crew, which is a rarity in the world of the performing arts. But such distinctions don’t exist with this group. They don’t allow it.
“There’s no distinction between cast and crew. No elite,” Hulet says. “That’s not in the body of Christ … Performing arts tends to be very narcissistic, very selfish, very me-focused … that does not fit with being a follower of Christ. We want to teach them how to get up on stage and work with each other.”
Hulet, TMC’s director of performing arts, sees the group as a microcosm of the body of Christ – different people, different roles, same purpose. To her, associate director Kellie Cunningham and assistant director James Phillips, the students taking part in the production are there to give a gift. They are there to pull together and deliver something special to the audience, to sacrifice for one another if it means helping the group achieve that goal.
Members of the production, especially those with prior theater experience, are the first to tell you that theater at TMC is unique. It’s what draws them to the program and it’s what keeps them coming back.
Says freshman Caleb McKnight:
“This theater department is unlike any I’ve seen. The focus here is glorifying God. The art comes second. They’ve taught me that we can perform for Christ.”
Says sophomore Natalie Keoshian:
“I really wanted to come back just because of everything that happens behind the scenes. The relationships that you build with people are just so valuable … we can show the love of Christ to people through theater and this program really does that, so it’s great.”
Says senior Francesca Long:
“Most of my theater experience in in a secular environment and this is totally different. We work as a team. We love each other. We come to it for one purpose.”
Hulet admits that cultivating a community of sacrifice and spiritual growth can be a challenge, especially when you are trying to juggle busy schedules, room availability and steady time pressure of a looming opening night.
But those pressures help create the fertile ground for growth that Hulet is after. The cliché that floats around theatrical circles is that “the play’s the thing.” Hulet disagrees. The “thing” is the growth. It’s the relationships. It’s the transformations. That “thing” is the focus for every production. Everyone involved knows it, too.
“We always share testimonies at the beginning of every rehearsal,” Hulet says. “It’s very tempting not to because we have limited time. But they all spend the entire semester being someone else up on stage, so we really want them to get a chance to get to know who each other is – what the Lord has done and how he’s brought them here.”
Chipchase, who came to TMC with a good deal of theater experience, is honest about the inner struggle of performing for an audience and still maintaining the right perspective. Each performance is another test, he says. But it’s also another opportunity to grow.
“There’s always temptation to fall into pride, but God gives us the ability to fight against that,” he says. “We can say, ‘Lord, help me to perform to honor the people around me, to do it as a showcase of what our team has accomplished.’ Going from being me-centered to being team-centered is a way to honor God … Tricia talks about it all the time. Before every show we talk about it. We pray about it. It comes from the top down. We get that at every rehearsal.”
Chipchase’s testimony concludes and the production members come together in prayer. As they disband, Hulet sounds the familiar call: “Five minutes!”
In seconds the room empties.
Soon the curtain rises and the performance begins. In one of the staging areas Hulet watches the action on a laptop that shows her the stage. Around her, actors hurry past, changing costumes, fixing makeup, hitting their cues.
It’s a frenetic scene. Choreographed chaos.
The players deliver their gift to the audience.