Beliefnet News

c. 2008 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — Beneath a large photo of Pikes Peak, six actors bounce on stage to Christian music and cope with scandal as they explore life in the center of the evangelical universe: Colorado Springs, Colo.
“This Beautiful City,” which premiered here in June with plans for performances in Los Angeles and New York by 2009, captures the coffee shops and the worship music of New Life Church, the prominent megachurch perhaps best known for the sex-and-drugs downfall of former senior pastor Ted Haggard.
The play was created by The Civilians, a New York-based acting troupe that interviews its subjects and uses the material to create docudramas about them. Members of the group say they were overwhelmed by the scope — and especially the music — of the Colorado Springs megachurch.
“As a theater person, the theatrical experience of going to New Life is pretty astonishing,” said Steve Cosson, the director and co-writer of the play, who compared the church’s music to a U2 concert.
“The church with its lights on is a pretty nondescript building, but when it’s in concert mode, they put on a pretty amazing light show. …
Visually, it’s very sophisticated.”
Just like any typical megachurch, both sides of the stage at Washington’s Studio Theatre were dominated by oversized video screens.
The screens sometimes display white, puffy clouds of Colorado or the words of songs sung by the congregation.
Composer and lyricist Michael Friedman set the words of Haggard’s messages to his congregation — from before and after the scandal — to music. “An Email from Ted Haggard,” sung by three actors, recalls a message to the congregation advising that TV cameras were expected ahead of his television interview with Barbara Walters. “Jumping and dancing in church looks too bizarre for most to relate to,” he warned.
Later, after Haggard was forced to leave the congregation, actor Brad Heberlee sings from another e-mail message from Haggard: “Jesus is starting to put me back together.”
Friedman said the songs provided a way to include Haggard’s perspective.
“It seemed good to allow those to be sung because we didn’t have a chance to interview him before his fall,” the composer said. It was “a way for him to come to life a little bit.”
Though the play keeps returning to New Life and its nearly round-the-clock schedule of activities, it also touches on other controversies, such as charges of aggressive proselytizing at the nearby Air Force Academy.
“If I genuinely love somebody, how can I not tell them news that will save their souls?” asks one actor playing a cadet.
On the opposite side, actor Matthew Dellapina portrays Mikey Weinstein, a New Mexico-based activist who has charged the military with across-the-line evangelism. “It’s supposed to be the Pentagon, not the Pentacostalgon,” he declares.
There’s also a transgender character, gay rights activists and a Catholic priest in the mix. As in the case of Haggard, unexpected events made their way into the actors’ script. While working on the play, the actors learned the pastor of a black Baptist church in Colorado Springs left his pulpit after revealing he was gay.
But beyond the up-and-down drama of congregations, the play unwraps the faith that evangelicals say transforms their lives. “If I had gone to a boring church, I would still be sitting on the couch smoking pot,”
one character confesses. Another talks of “God pulling on my heart” and giving up alcohol.
The play captures both sides of reactions to Haggard’s downfall — one actor recites an e-mail where someone relishes watching YouTube clips of Haggard’s confession; a fellow minister says he misses his pre-scandal friendship with Haggard.
And it includes the thoughts of Haggard’s oldest son, Marcus, who led a separate church in Colorado Springs: “With my dad, I think what happened was he had this kind of performance going on, you know, trying to be like, `I’ve got it all together,’ when he didn’t. He didn’t have it all together. None of us have it all together.”
Friedman, as well as Cosson, created “This Beautiful City” from a personal perspective as a nonreligious person. Friedman admits to feeling a bit defensive of evangelicals — he hasn’t embraced them, he said, but at least he understands them better.
“I start saying to people, you know, you should go to a church,” he said. “I don’t mean you should join a church. … In anything that’s the first step to understanding something, to go experience (it) so you can know what you’re talking about.”
The play ends its Washington run on June 29, and has scheduled runs at the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles this fall and the Vineyard Theater in New York in January.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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