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Culture Q&A

McLean and Fiske

Acts of belief

Bringing the supernatural to stage

Acts of belief

McLean and Fiske (BroadwayWorld.com)

Two Christians in the theater world have found professional success creating smart, funny plays that communicate Christian ideas. Jeffrey Fiske is a playwright based in Williamsburg, Va., whose plays have run in both Christian and secular theater companies in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and elsewhere. Fiske adapted and directed C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters for the stage with actor and producer Max McLean. The play had several popular runs throughout the United States and most recently in London.

McLean is based in New York along with his theater company, Fellowship for Performing Arts, now in its second season of off-Broadway shows. In 2009 McLean won the Jeff Award in Chicago for his work on Mark’s Gospel, another production on which he worked with Fiske.

Now they work on separate projects: McLean just produced a new play, Martin Luther on Trial (see page 28), that ran in New York and will soon go on national tour. Fiske recently adapted Catholic author Mary Eberstadt’s novel The Loser Letters for the stage, a play that ran in Washington, D.C., last fall. Following are edited excerpts of my two conversations with Fiske and McLean.

Jeffrey Fiske, what was it like adapting The Screwtape Letters for stage?

I’d seen some productions of The Screwtape Letters that were vaguely based on the original work but went off in a different direction. I thought, There can be a play that is very true to Lewis’ original work and uses only Lewis’ language. It took six months of me calling and writing the C.S. Lewis Company in England to get the rights for it. They weren’t being obstinate, but they didn’t want to flood the market. I think they thought since I was that persistent, I would take it very seriously and respectfully. I got the rights. The show went on for years, and I think it’s because we stuck to Lewis’ language.

How did Screwtape find mainstream acceptance?

Eventually it got good reviews in New York. For a while, when it was first on its off-Broadway run, we couldn’t get reviewers to come to it because of its theme. Time Out New York listed it as a play “based on C.S. Lewis’ Christian lecture.” It wasn’t based on a lecture! Oh boy, let’s go see a play based on a lecture.

Audiences are open to different ideas. It’s people working in theater, where only certain ideas are considered valid. When you’re trying to go to a theater company and to the decision-makers, certain prejudices exist. But they’re not there in the audiences.

For a few years you were a judge for the Lucille Lortel Awards, which go to off-Broadway shows. What was that like?

I saw all of the off-Broadway shows. Week after week, I saw plays where the statement was, “We don’t know why the world is what it is, and the only way we can find contentment is to realize that we are never going to understand.” A nihilistic point of view, play after play. 

Very few of them were successful, even in New York. It’s not that audiences are necessarily craving something pro-Christian, but people who go to live theater more and more are wanting to see plays of ideas. If the ideas are solid, the audiences will follow them, and that includes Christian stories.

If mawkish is a standard of Christian theater, malaise is non-Christian theater. Be neither mawkish nor in a malaise! The big advantage that Christian plays have is you can be hard-edged. You can show a lot of difficulties in life, as you would in any play. But there’s a hope—it just has to be a glimmer.

BroadwayWorld.com

Fiske (BroadwayWorld.com)

Are there challenges to working in a Christian context too?

About 10 years ago I was working with what was supposed to be a Christian theater company. They were doing professional shows. As I was pitching different plays, there was a constant fear of offending somebody.

I’ve been meaning to write a play about what really happened in the Scopes Trial of 1925. There is the famous play about it, Inherit the Wind, but it is thoroughly fictitious. Millions of people have taken it as history, and it’s created a negative view of Christianity. So I pitched, Let’s do what was really presented. The first reaction was that this could be the most important thing we ever create. Then the company president at one point suddenly just became terrified by the project, and pulled the plug.

What makes for a Christian play that is universally appealing?

The thing to avoid as much as possible: the view that people of faith are good, people not of faith are bad. First of all, that really is not what Christianity is about. You’re working against the theme that you think you’re presenting. That’s a way of alienating the audience. One of the strengths of Christianity is it’s about very flawed people. So following those flaws can be very interesting to the audience, and it also does not give a “holier than thou” presentation to the production.


Max McLean, how did you pick out the Martin Luther project, and give it its setting in the afterlife?

Martin Luther had this Shakespeare-sized personality, and he lit this powder keg. But we didn’t want to tell a history story. We wanted to explore Luther’s legacy 500 years later. What hath Luther wrought? That’s why the witnesses became central to the story.

I’ve always felt the Christian church particularly in America underplays the role of the devil. And because of my close experience with C.S. Lewis, not just in Screwtape Letters but in other works, the idea of spiritual warfare is very big.

Do you look to New York audiences as a test for Fellowship for Performing Arts’ plays?

Yeah, New York audiences are tough. But that’s OK—we want New York audiences to give us their input. We find audiences on the road are much more generous than New York audiences.

Fellowship for Performing Arts

McLean (Fellowship for Performing Arts)

Why did you decide to be based in New York?

There’s a real osmosis here. I live on the edge of the theater district; our offices are here too. Within all these buildings are hundreds if not thousands of artists and designers and companies that are creating and exporting art all over the country, all over the world. We rub shoulders with that.

We’re probably the only theater in New York that is producing from a Christian worldview, specifically. Christians are known as culture critics, not culture-makers—that they don’t really have anything to add to the cultural conversation. And of course we beg to differ.

Have you had any specifically good osmosis from the theater world?

I thought Hamilton was the best thing I saw in 10 years. But it is incredibly rare that I’ll go see something that The New York Times says is this really profound breakthrough in psychology or whatever. I go, and it’s just pure subjectivism. The talent, the execution is terrific, but the message lies flat.

Over your years in New York has the theater world changed in terms of receptivity to Christian ideas?

Christianity is associated a lot with politics in New York. And so there’s a strong resistance to Christianity. That means we want to be clear who we are, but we also want to tell good stories, tell them well, tell them smartly, make people laugh, and make people enjoy it.

Do you ever feel a tension between pleasing New York audiences and pleasing Christian audiences, in terms of what they will accept?

In this play, Martin Luther on Trial, we use some profanity. By contemporary standards it’s pretty mild, but by Christian standards—it’s not something you would hear at a church retreat. Occasionally there have been some people that couldn’t get past that. And I try not to judge that, because Paul talks about the weaker brother. That may really be a hindrance to them. And so I think it’s probably best they not come to our show. Words are important.

But having some representation of evil is critical. You want to give evil a voice so that it’s understood. What are its motivations? It’s really rebellion—I want what I want. Satan would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. That’s something at the core of Christianity—are you willing to submit yourself to God? That’s the question of Luther.

You just got back from a run of Screwtape Letters in London. How are you gearing up for The Most Reluctant Convert in New York?

Just yesterday I shaved off my Screwtape beard. And I’m going to cut my hair soon. I love that play. Screwtape is very challenging. He’s a master of the universe kind of character, and he’s so full of himself. But Lewis, he’s so charming, and so witty. I feel like as soon as I put on those glasses my IQ goes up 50 points.