When Ron Reed was preparing to graduate from seminary at Regent College in Vancouver, he asked founding President James Houston whether he should pursue work as a pastor or as an actor. He had done both well.
Regent was founded by Plymouth Brethren Christians, who have a low view of ordination and a high view of Christians’ calling to be salt and light in other professions. Houston said, “We have plenty of pastors, but we don’t have many Christian actors.”
Reed did Houston one better, founding the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1984. Last year, PT won more awards from the Jessie Richardson Theatre Award Society -- an organization that promotes the Vancouver professional theater community -- than any other large theater.
Reed has worked at the theater not only as director but also as a regular actor and playwright. Jason Byassee, the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology, spoke with him about the vibrant institutions that have made Pacific Theatre possible and how it in turn has influenced the city. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What does Pacific Theatre’s success say about the city of Vancouver?
To make a gross overstatement, all the hippies in Canada gravitated to the West Coast. That permeates evangelicalism, too. The church is more free-spirited here. In the Prairie Provinces, I’d have run into more trouble with some of the art we’ve made. Here, we’ve not had many sermons preached against us, or outraged letters.
Regent College has had an incredible leavening effect here. In many other places, evangelical churches would have had a problem with Pacific Theatre. Regent’s stance toward the arts is not, “Oh, that’s strange; it must be bad” but rather, “Oh, that’s strange; maybe there’s something interesting here.”
My theory is that a place gets the theater it deserves. The artistic director lives in that town, with antennae for what’s happening in the culture. An audience is then drawn to that person’s choices. If those don’t match, it isn’t going to happen.
There are other places where this could have worked, but we’d have been different. I’d have been a different person; I’d have built a different theater. But this place drew me. I’ve often wondered what it would have been like if we’d planted someplace else. But this is the best soil.
Q: Your mission language is surprisingly specific: “Pacific Theatre exists to serve Christ in our community by creating excellent theatre with artistic, spiritual, relational and financial integrity.” How do you hold to that without being narrow?
We’ve never said we do “Christian” theater. That word is a bad adjective but a good noun. I readily say I’m a Christian, but we don’t do Christian theater. We do plays that explore spiritual questions honestly from a Christian perspective.
A community has grown around that. Folks have found that they like what’s on the stage. Many call themselves Christian -- not the majority at this point. All know we’re digging into things that matter.
Q: What is PT like as an institution?
We’re very guerrilla. We’ve stayed small. We can fight in any terrain, and we’ve transformed the way we do things many times to survive. We’re an edgy little theater company.
We need to look at succession. I don’t need a legacy theater. My immortality has nothing to do with a theater.
I never started theater because I wanted to run a theater but because I wanted to act, and then to write plays about things I care about. That wasn’t being done in the mid-1980s in North America -- even less so in Canada, even less so in Vancouver.
Q: How did you survive early discouragements?
Ignorance and stubbornness. We received no cultural grant money from any level of government for well over 10 years. It was a decade before we were reviewed in local media devoted to theater here.
We got one nasty review. I thought, “Oh, well. Reviews didn’t matter to me a week ago, so they don’t matter now.” That attitude has served me in good stead. I hold all the attention now very lightly.
People celebrate the Jessies we’ve won. I always say, “Yeah, whatever.” I love being part of the theater community now; we unarguably are. Any barriers are ancient history.
What matters to me is acting in a play, having a chance to put that woman’s play on a stage, conversation with people who see beauty in that play. Otherwise, you can’t care. If you cared, you’d quit.
There were four of us partners in our earliest days. We all decided this is what we would do, with no other jobs. Two of us had spouses who worked, as a nurse and a teacher. Our church, Capilano Christian Community, found [the other two] a home to live in for free.
There’s a really common belief that if you’re an artist in the church, you’re an outsider -- underappreciated, unsupported. Our experience was that we wouldn’t have lasted 10 years if not for all the Christians that came to shows, supported us and took artists into homes.
The level of support we get from our audience outstrips any other theater. That support grew slowly and made us part of the community. We did have three years when we were nonfunctional and had to cancel seasons, [but] our levels of donations didn’t go down. We weren’t even producing mainstage shows!
Let’s not perpetuate the false narrative about the church not supporting artists. More plumbers have come to our plays than I’ve hired plumbers.
Q: Have you seen it as part of your mandate to influence culture?
I’m profoundly antipathetic to theater as message carrier. I’m really a bore on this subject. Yeast is a better model. You don’t tell it where to grow; it just does. Regent has worked the way yeast does. That’s how I see how PT functions. I do believe we have significantly shifted the culture of Vancouver.
I never set out to change the culture with PT. I have a primal urge to make plays -- that can be plays I’m in, or write and direct, or put my friends in. It’s others’ job to decide if I’ve done that with excellence and integrity.
We Mennonites tell a story of a man being asked if he’s a Christian. He responds, “I don’t know. Ask my neighbor.”
Q: What’s an example of a surprising production for a company devoted to exalting Christ?
“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.” That’s a gospel play about sin, repentance, forgiveness and new life. And it starts with the Lord’s Prayer interspersed with expletives. We have an extraordinary audience, whether people of faith or not.
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is on the other end of the spectrum -- you can bring the kids to that one.
“The Foreigner” is another example. It’s not even religious. It has a hypocritical, nasty pastor of cliché. And the least become the greatest, and the mighty fall. That’s essential gospel. I doubt if the playwright would agree! I didn’t pick it for that reason but because it’s a good play and it balanced the season.
Q: Should churches be offering to host theater?
When a church is in duress, it can cause crankiness. Holy Trinity Anglican has leased to us. [At first] we resisted their invitation. We didn’t want to be in a church building. Their first question was, “What role will Holy Trinity have in approving the plays you put on?” I said, “None whatsoever.”
We wouldn’t be a theater company if a church had any say at all. And there’s never been a peep from them. We do shows that are way out there: language, sexuality, unorthodox theology. The church has never said, “Can we meet? Parishioners are murmuring.” That’s astounding.
It takes a special congregation to let you do it on your terms. We have our own entrance -- not through the church lobby. We have complete use of the theater at all times. The church may have hoped folks would ask to find out more about the church. I’m not sure that’s happened.
They did want to serve their community, however. A theater, offering content, does that better than a day care.
Q: How do you think about your work theologically?
You have to love the characters. That doesn’t mean you have a crush on them, or they’re a mentor or a role model, but you can’t sit in judgment on them. An audience can smell acting like that a mile away. If an actor is in judgment on the character they’re playing, they will not do a good performance.
That’s an incarnational approach. In “Freud’s Last Session,” I played Freud rather than C.S. Lewis. I entered into the experience of asking whether God is a delusion and unhealthy.
When I’m in the role, it’s kenosis: having a form of Ron, but not counting the nature of Ron as a thing to be held onto, but emptying myself, and taking the form of the character in a play [Philippians 2:6-7]. That’s my job.
Now, in the incarnation, Jesus still carries the very nature of God, even though he emptied himself. When I write truthfully and well, without spin or manipulation, that too will express me, embody me, have my fingerprints on it, will be made in my image and likeness.
Q: What light does your experience throw on institutional leadership?
I’ve always been a leader, but I’ve never meant to lead. When I started PT, I didn’t want to be its leader, but I started it.
I wanted to pull together a collective of artists and decide together how we’d do it, but then I realized that most people don’t actually want that. Most actors want a good role to do with their whole heart.
Most parts of the work I do, initially I hated. But I realized, “Do you want to do that play? No one else is going to do the budget. If you don’t want to do that play, go sell car parts like your dad.” He loved cars; I love stories.
Aesop tells a fable of the ants and the grasshopper. The ants are busy all summer gathering food and building their hill, while the grasshopper just plays music. Winter comes, the ants close up the place, and the grasshopper wants in. They won’t let him in. That’s how Aesop means it to be read: “Get to work!”
But that’s completely wrong. Is it possible the ants worked better because they had music? They didn’t tell him to shut up when he was playing! Wouldn’t it be nice to listen and dance now that they can’t work as hard? Maybe that’s not true of ants, but it is true of us humans.
The arts, at the simplest level, lift our spirits a little. I’m half ant and half grasshopper. Most of the time, I wish I were out fiddling. But I’ve also got to carry the picnic basket so everybody can eat.
I saw this in my firstborn daughter in the church nursery. Thea is not bossy or a bully, but she’d say, “Let’s do this!” and people joined in. She just came up with cool ideas. I have the same disease.