Sacred Theatre

A Review
Frank A. Mills

April 15, 2008

Ralph Yarrow, Editor

Although written for those working in the arena of "theatre thought," the book offers much to think about in terms of how one might use theatre as ministry. Not to convert, but to challenge our complacent and self-centered thinking about the world and our place in it. Perhaps even about how to make worship transcendent.

Sacred Theatre, Ralph Yarrow, editor, With sections by Franc Chamberlain, William Haney II, Carl Lavery, Peter Malekin, & Ralph Yarrow. Intellect Books (Bristol, UK / Chicago), 2007, ISBN: 978-1-84150-153-6. Paper, 224 pages with bibliography & index. US$40.00. [Part of the Theatre & Consciousness Series]

When we hear the term "sacred" applied to theatre we are apt to think in terms of performance with a religious message, or at the very least a morality play; the medieval passion plays, for example. Sacred Theatre is not a book about this sort of theatre. The term "sacred" also speaks of something that is "transcendent."

Sacred Theatre is about transcendent theatre, theatre that, as William S. Haney suggests, is a "voiding of thought," in that the performance itself becomes another way of looking at ourselves as we move through time and space. Good sacred theatre blurs boundaries and emphasizes the significant in time (kairos), causing us to reconsider what (and how) we think about ourselves and those notions that we hold to be true. Our preconceptions about where and how we fit into our space, however defined, are rarely challenged— To challenge us is the task of sacred theatre.

Yarrow sums it in his coda like this:

So the sacred for us here is a moment (in the sense that Malekin defines this, i.e., a synchronic event which is in effect a suspension, a step outside of time), an incitement to a shift of frame or paradigm, a loss and a potential renewal. It occurs to us as performance, but it is not just performance; the specific quality which has caused it to be marked off as sacred is precisely that capacity of the performative to function as a hiatus, as pause, to produce a void in thought.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we would rather attend feel-good theatre rather than seek out theatre that causes us question our place in the world.

Sacred Theatre is the first book to take an in-depth look at the role of the transcendent, i.e., "sacred," in the practice, process, and performance of drama. The collaborative format identifies the sacred in theatre from a widerange of perspectives while at the same time questioning the ideas raised. Not only collaborative, the format is deliciously non-linear. As I read I found myself consistently looking back at something that I had read earlier, or even jumping ahead to see the thoughts of another contributor to the issue raised.

There are three parts, with several chapters each, to the book, "Basic Questions," "Text and Performance," and "Processes and Directions." Each of the five contributors brings to the discussion their expertise, experiences, and extensive research, making Sacred Theatre both theoretical and practical in nature. As such, Sacred Theatre is in my opinion a must read for both the student of theatre theory and the performer.

While, in my opinion sacred Theatre is a must read for the student of theatre theory, the performer and viewer, I think it is a book that also should be considered by worship leaders and others interested in how to use theatre as tool to challenge our thinking.
Ralph Yarrow is Professor of Drama and Comparative Literature at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

Franc Chamberlain is Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at University College Cork, Ireland, and Visiting Professor in Performance Studies and Creative Practice at the University of Northampton, UK.

William S. Haney II is Professor of English and Literary Theory at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

Carl Lavery is Lecturer in Theatre Studies at Lancaster University, UK. Peter Malekin was formerly Senior Lecturer in English st the University of Durham, UK.

John Fox (guest contributor) is a prolific artist, print maker, author, cultural provocateur, and co-founder and artistic director of the legendary Arts Collective, Welfare State International.

© Frank A. Mills, 1997-2024

Back to Reviews