The arts touch us all and possess the power to create tremendous cultural influence and change. Val Lieske, founder and Artistic Director of Fire Exit Theatre, a community theatre company in Calgary says, “I believe, ‘stealing’ from Andy Crouch who wrote Culture Making, that we (North American Christians) can no longer sit back and simply critique culture or consume culture. The ONLY way to change culture is to create culture. I don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines. I want to be on the forefront of telling good stories, of creating culture. Fire Exit Theatre is dedicated to just that –telling good, faith based stories that no one else is telling. “We have no desire to simply entertain people. We’re there continually trying to challenge people to examine their worldviews. Sometimes we tell realistic stories of darkness so we can show the transformation into stories of light.”“Where are You? Why are You quiet? These questions and other thorny issues that may plague Christians and unbelievers alike are explored in Absence, a play written and directed by Lieske. A now-concluded recent run of Absence, a modern-day Psalm, was performed in a church. It is a story that depicts the confusion and disappointment that many experience during times when God seems absent, aloof, or silent in the midst of chaos or pain. Lieske says the play poses more questions than answers, but it ends on a hopeful note. A local dance troupe teamed up with three actors to produce a thoughtful look at hard questions. Lieske feels that it is critical for audiences to grapple with the tough stuff. Following curtain call the actors often ‘pop back’ to talk with the audience, and sometimes they may go down the street to an eatery with a few who want to continue the conversation. As many as 800 people attend performances and it’s a mixed audience of Christians and non-believers. Church small groups and youth groups sometimes come. Written discussion questions are available to facilitate ongoing dialogue. One lapsed catholic said that had she been allowed to ask questions she would likely still have faith. Even during rehearsals there have been great opportunities for meaningful conversations as not all of the dancers are Christian. “We don’t want the conversation to end in the lobby.” Lieske wants people to grapple, to think, to consider if they can be comfortable knowing that some things will remain a mystery. “Many things are clear, but some are fuzzy and may remain so. Are we okay to say we are still on a journey?” Absence is intended to spark new thoughts and maybe new questions that will lead us farther along in our understanding of how faith and culture intersect. Sharing some of her learnings as a moulder of culture, Lieske says, “I am not afraid of culture; my faith is not that fragile. I can engage with culture-makers who don’t share my worldview. I can learn from culture-makers who don’t share my worldview. I am honoured to be invited into ‘their’ world and to co-create alongside them. It is the only way to earn their respect and trust and to be able to influence them and their art. We should be running directly into our world…not away from it.”Val Lieske attends Centre Street Church in Calgary where she is the Director of Theatre Arts. She is an instructor with Alberta Bible College and was the Co-Chair of the Theatre Department at Rocky Mountain College for three years. She works as a freelance publicist, writer, speaker and instructor. To read more about Fire Exit Theatre, click here.
Story by Jean Winker