By Mary Margaret Sparks
Entire contents copyright 2013 by Mary Margaret Sparks, all rights reserved.

Christians and the Arts. Oftentimes a stigma is attached to churches that use the arts, mostly performing arts/theater, to reach out to the community. “They’ll just preach at me.” “They don’t accept me.” ‘It’s just going to be some kind of religious play anyway.” These thoughts are common and more often than not, true. Some churches do use theater to spread their “message.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; but such a didactic approach is not for everyone. If there is a place for religious productions, then there also is a place for churches reaching out through secular means. St. Marks United Church of Christ: Stage on Spring is an instructive example of the latter.

J. R. Stuart is a local director and actor who is a member of St. Marks United Church of Christ on Spring Street, located in downtown New Albany. Besides being a faculty member of the Arts Institute at Indiana University Southeast (IUS), he has been heavily involved in the Louisville/Southern Indiana theater scene since he moved here in 1990. He recently directed Arsenic and Old Lace at Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in Indianapolis and will be directing Thrill Me for Pandora Productions in May. Stuart was great to talk with, and I could have just listened to him tell stories all day long. He first became involved with St. Marks in 2006 and mounted the first play for St. Mark’s: Stage on Spring, Mass Appeal, in 2010. The inaugural production ran ten performances and raised $5,000, all of which was donated to charity. This trend has continued, with each production raising money for the church’s charities, including the soup kitchen and clothes closet and also a small fund to support future productions, creating a self-sustaining program.

St. Marks is quite a diverse religious community that has been very supportive of Stuart’s creative endeavors. Church members attend, provide refreshments and help with publicity for the productions. The chapel where the productions are held is right at the front of the main entrance to the church and was mostly unused except for small weddings. Stuart knew immediately he could do something useful in the space. The intimate room has great acoustics and seating for 70 to 80. With the success of the theater series, this past year the church provided funds to renovate the room, adding stage lighting to help create a more authentic theater experience.

St. Marks puts on only one show a year due to the busy schedule of Stuart and others who work on the production. The year 2011 brought Ordinary People, while 2012’s production was Tuesdays with Morrie. All of the actors are volunteers from outside of the church, and most work regularly in professional and semi-professional theatre in Louisville and the surrounding area. Stuart often includes IUS students in the cast and crew, nurturing them and helping them to gain valuable experience working alongside the veteran performers.

Stuart carefully chooses material for the program; and although the plays are secular with no overt religious connections, they present specific morals and values to the audience. “It’s been a great way to bring works no one else is doing that have a real soul, a real purpose, behind them that say something about the human experience,” says Stuart. “Each production has been an amazing experience. The cast is invested, and they believe in the material and vision of the program. It makes it tricky to find the right script, though.”

 “Mass Appeal was chosen because I loved the script and it has a progressive theme. It asked the questions the Catholic Church is asking now. How do we really help the congregation instead of just doing what the authority wants you to do? The United Church of Christ has been the vanguard of churches in America. Before every service we say, ‘No matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here,’ and we absolutely mean it.”

J.R. Stuart & Aaron Johnson in Mass Appeal.

“Ordinary People had a few GD’s in it and I wasn’t sure if I could get away with it. I asked around and the church supported the play. It’s an amazing story of one distressed boy dealing with the death of a brother and his relationship with his parents. It’s an amazing testament of how when you reach out in love you can change people’s lives. Of course everyone knows the film but the play isn’t done much.”
JR Stuart in Tuesdays with Morrie
“Tuesdays with Morrie says so many things that we all need reminded of: How to deal with the dying, how to appreciate each moment of life, how it’s risky to become friends with someone but the risks are so necessary and important. It’s worth it to invest in people and not things. We’ve had great responses to all of the productions, but this one was particularly profound. “

As a member of the church, Stuart does believe that the productions have a connection with a higher power. This subtle ministry does hope to bring people into the church without pressure, proselytizing and intimidation. The program fosters an open and accepting environment. “I’ve seen how a tiny mustard seed of faith can blossom and grow and have an impact far beyond whatever you dreamed. I see people coming together and relating.”

Almost Maine is a romantic comedy in which two men and two women play a variety of different roles. It’s a series of vignettes that takes place in the dead of winter in middle of nowhere Maine. It takes place at exactly 9 p.m. when the Northern Lights hit. The Northern Lights do some kind of magic, and the relationships between these people shift. The play sneaks up on you and hits you over the head in surprising ways. There’s something very magical about it. Almost Maine will open April 5 and run through April 7 and then April 12 through 15.

To find out more about St. Marks United Church of Christ: Stage on Spring, you can check out their Facebook page called Stage on Spring. This grassroots effort has successfully brought in people from all over the Louisville and Southern Indiana community as well as provided great theater to the church members.  All productions are $10 (one of the best prices in town) and start at 8 p.m.