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In 'The Christians' L.A. is The Choir

#435

(L–R) Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell, Philip Kerr and the Chior in "The Christians" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Why is a massive cross dominating the stage of the Mark Taper Forum, and why is a choir belting out hymns? These are two ways The Christians, which plays the Taper through January 10, 2016, is immersing audiences in an evangelical church where they play the congregation. At the pulpit, a pastor questions a core tenet of Christianity, organized religion at large, and the very concept of belief. These questions ultimately threaten his congregation and his personal relationships. The choir, apart from providing a beautiful and entertaining backdrop to the actors and actresses and increasing the production’s realism, plays a pivotal part in how these questions are presented and addressed.

Why is a massive cross dominating the stage of the Mark Taper Forum, and why is a choir belting out hymns? These are two ways The Christians, which plays the Taper through January 10, 2016, is immersing audiences in an evangelical church where they play the congregation. At the pulpit, a pastor questions a core tenet of Christianity, organized religion at large, and the very concept of belief. These questions ultimately threaten his congregation and his personal relationships. The choir, apart from providing a beautiful and entertaining backdrop to the actors and actresses and increasing the production’s realism, plays a pivotal part in how these questions are presented and addressed.

In a city full of multi-talented performers, it would have been easy to cast only professionals to play the choir. Instead, Music Director Scott Anthony, playwright Lucas Hnath, and Director Les Waters decided to put together a group of singers consisting of many actual choir members from across Los Angeles. “It’s important to reflect the community on stage,” said Anthony, “to have a mix of professional singers and local talent.” Hnath and Waters, said Anthony, “stressed the necessity of diversity in the choir. The audience should feel on walking in that this is ‘church’—but not a specific church. Local and diverse choir members create the universality.”

This universality is intended to ensure the audience’s full investment—that they actively feel the play rather than passively absorb it. Like an ancient Greek chorus, this chorus of Angelenos comments on the action, provides insight to characters, and perhaps most importantly, guides the audience from the perspective of the local community. “It allows the city to feel ownership of the story and the show, said Anthony, and “it cultivates a sense of civic investment.” As in a traditional Greek chorus, the choir has a leader: Anthony is taking the stage as the choir director for the church, mirroring his real-life role.

The choirs are being pulled from a pool of 50 local vocalists—a mix that spans the gamut from established Broadway performers to USC students and ranges in age from their 20s to their 60s. A core choir that performs every night will be augmented by three rotating choirs that will take the stage at different points in the run. Anthony described the process of casting a diverse choir that represents L.A. as “exhausting and wonderful,” but aligning everything from their musical ranges to their schedules required “massive spreadsheets.” However, Anthony doesn’t seem to mind. “Working with all of these people has been amazing!” he said. “We pulled in people from across the spectrum religiously, and the show connected to them. That was very gratifying.”

Anthony predicts that audiences will connect with both the show and the choir, as they did during the 2014 Actors Theatre of Louisville production of The Christians, which also featured a choir made up of community members. The choir gives the audience “the sense of people in the pews,” as Anthony put it. Like the choir, the audience comes from a mix of backgrounds and faiths, or lack thereof. The play speaks to all these people as it probes  the  expanding morass between differing viewpoints in our world today. The choir, with faces plucked from L.A., shows our yearning to bridge that distance. “Not to mention,” said Anthony, “they provide a great stage exit.”

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