The Official Student Newspaper of Calvin College Since 1907
October 5, 2007
Volume 102, Issue 6
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Listening is key to dialogue
Play encourages empathy without making accusations
  Enlarge Photo by Sarah States
'Seven Passages' examines the intersection of faith and homosexuality through stories from gay Christians with a wide range of perspectives.
  Photo by Sarah States
'Seven Passages' examines the intersection of faith and homosexuality through stories from gay Christians with a wide range of perspectives.
  Enlarge Photo by Sarah States
The actors convincingly portrayed three to five interchanging characters without the aid of costume changes or significant dialogue differences to lead the audience among various peronas.

For the first time in its 27-year history, Actor’s Theatre has extended the run of a show. “Seven Passages: the Stories of Gay Christians” will run three shows longer than originally planned, and so far, it has sold out every night.

The play, which runs through this weekend and next, was devised and directed by Calvin professor Stephanie Sandberg.

“Four years ago I had a disturbing conversation with a student that awoke a deep sensitivity in me,” she wrote in her Director’s Note. “In this conversation he confessed to me that he is gay and had finally just admitted this to himself after denying it for years — and he told me that his biggest fear was of his family and his church. ... All I could do was listen and offer my friendship.”

This conversation was the beginning of a long process for Sandberg and the team of actors that performs in “Seven Passages.” She said she realized the limits of her understanding of the experiences of gay Christians and saw a play based on interviews as a way to deepen that understanding.

Though the project began as short play based on just a few interviews, “Seven Passages” is now a composite of interviews with over 100 gay Christians from around West Michigan, and all of the lines are direct quotes from their stories.

“People’s words, how they wrap words around their experience, that is in so many ways, who they are,” said Sandberg. “Language is a map of someone’s reality. It’s not the reality itself, but it’s a map of how they navigate their existence.”

The interviewing process lasted through June of this year to allow the actors who joined the project later to participate.

“I wanted for the people who I hired in May to experience interviewing because it does something to you,” said Sandberg. “It produces a different sort of understanding about how people talk, about how they narrate their own experience.”

For Dave Ellens, who also works in off-campus programs at Calvin, the interviews shaped his experience as an actor in the play.

“With this project, starting with the interviewing process and having to be completely receptive and open to people’s stories, it naturally flowed out of that, that in this performance I felt more like a conduit than an actor,” he said. “I really feel like I have to step out of the way and let the stories tell themselves.”

Sandberg began the interviews with a handful of people she knew, and then gathered stories through Gays in Faith Together (GIFT). She and Ellens explained the project to the members of GIFT and interviewed approximately 20 more individuals through this effort.

“It just kind of cascaded from there, people knowing other people,” she explained.

However, they began to realize that they weren’t hearing every perspective of gay Christians.

“I got into this problem where I would get a lot of what I would call self-selection, and I started to study oral history technique,” said Sandberg. “I had studied it a little bit, but I had never studied how you build a good demographic pool so that you’ve got people who are coming from all sorts of different experiences. What about the people who don’t want to talk about this? What about the people who’ve gone through years and years of therapy and still haven’t reached any sort of sense of who they are? What about the people who’ve decided to be celibate? What about the people who are still in [heterosexual] marriages?”

The team then began to actively seek out individuals from these more reticent groups, conducting many anonymous interviews in an attempt to fairly represent a greater range of experiences. Sandberg admits that some voices are still absent or underrepresented (minority voices, for instance, are underrepresented, and she regrets that there are no voices of individuals who consider themselves “healed” of homosexuality), but she hopes to continue working on this for future productions of the play.

The next step was condensing all the interviews and crafting a coherent script.

“We had hundreds of pages of transcriptions and hundreds of hours of interviews,” said Ellens. “From the beginning we were very clear that we didn’t want to treat these stories as ‘material’ but that they were stories, human experiences of difficulty or of joy or of a number of different human emotions. It’s very difficult to pare down the sacredness of people’s stories.”

In July, the first version of the script took 12 hours to read through, and the team faced the daunting task of again condensing the play.

“I don’t even know how we ended up with the script to tell you the honest truth,” said Sandberg. “For some reason — and I can only say that it’s grace — it worked.”

The success of the play, for Sandberg and the others, meant creating a space for dialogue around its subject.

“For us, absolutely dialogue is the bottom line,” said Emily Hanna, another actor, “to open those lines of communication for people who are struggling with this.”

With a grant from the Amos Fund, Actors’ Theatre was able to host a free performance and conference for pastors from all denominations around West Michigan, opening an avenue for dialogue in a community that has been reluctant to talk about the intersection of homosexuality and faith. While they were anxious about the conference, the team was happy with the conversations that were born out of the event.

“We were so moved by the fact that people were making commitments to start dialogues in their churches,” said Sandberg. “You could see that it was having a real effect in the way people were thinking.”

“The pastors gave us a standing ovation,” added Ellens. “We felt, ‘we’ve done what we set out to do.’ That’s really rewarding.”

The process of creating “Seven Passages” has had a profound impact on those involved in its production, but Sandberg notes that seeing how it has affected the people they interviewed has been one of the most gratifying experiences for her.

“I was so floored the other night when this young man I interviewed a year ago told me that the interview is what had changed him and made him feel like he was okay,” she said, adding, “I can’t wear mascara these days because people are saying things to me that make me cry all the time.”

“We’ve been crying a lot,” said Ellens, “and it’s been happy crying. I’ve been given so much hope through this process.”

Forming an understanding of the issues raised in “Seven Passages” is undoubtedly a process for everyone, even Sandberg.

“At the beginning I was terrible listener,” she admitted. “I would get distracted, and I couldn’t stay focused on the interview, but by the time I got to the last ones I could turn the camera on and ask very little and just let it come. It became a lesson in letting people find, even in their silences, find their own way of talking about it.”

The “sacredness of people’s stories,” as Ellens phrased it, is truly the backbone of this play. And without diminishing the sacredness of the scriptures, “Seven Passages” urges its audience and this entire community to simply listen to those stories, to open up and begin a new conversation only after the context of myriad experiences has been established.

 
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