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Matt Tuckey creates immersive soundscapes

Through our Patrons Scheme, we support Christians who are making engaging, powerful art or who are using their skills to serve their local communities. This term, one of our grants has gone to Matt Tuckey, a sound designer from Newcastle. Jonny caught up with Matt to find out about his practice and his latest project.

JM: Hi Matt, who are you and what do you do?   

MT: So, my name is Matthew Tuckey, I am a sound designer and sound artist. I live in Newcastle upon Tyne with my wife Molly, and I spend a lot of time pointing microphones at things/people/places.

JM: Most of us would be familiar with graphic designers, or fashion designers, but a sound designer seems a bit more abstract. What exactly is the role of a sound designer?

MT: Good question. It’s hard to pin it down as it’s a term used across multiple platforms, industries and artforms. The best ‘job description’ I can offer is: to plan, through a collaborative creative process, the creation and playback of all sonic content in a live environment, digital media, or tangible product.

So whether that’s in theatre, video, music, or UI (I have done elements of all), I am constantly collaborating. My practice is mostly based in theatre sound design and this is the most collaborative artform I work in – I am often approached by a director, who then introduces me to a writer (or their words) and puts me in a creative team with a set designer and/or lighting designer. My approach is often to problem solve – what aspects of the story can be and need to be clearer by the creative manipulation of sounds? This normally involves, for me at least, finding an interesting or thematically relevant source material (recording an ambience, creating sound effects, working with music/composer) and creatively manipulating and playing those sounds as part of the dramatic narrative.

I also design the playback system for the theatre performances whether touring or running in one location. I like to call this a holistic sound design – working from creative storytelling all the way to technical innovation. This often sees me collaborating with another set of people – the technical or production team, and on larger productions (such as musicals) a whole sound department team.

JM: Sputnik is proud to be supporting your latest project through our Patrons Scheme. Could you talk us through it?

MT: I am very grateful to Sputnik for running this Patronage Scheme, my work is extremely technical, and these funds are crucial to its success.

I am creating an abstract piece of soundscape inspired by the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Through a recent connection with Newcastle Universities Oral History Unit and Collective I am now hoping to incorporate elements of oral history from Newcastle’s disappearing shipyard heritage.

I am using immersive and multi-channel audio and my hope is to complete research and development by early 2020. Then to move into final production and initial preview run mid 2020, and prepare for a rural coastal tour of the piece starting early 2021.

JM: As a freelance artist who has to raise your own funds for projects, what advice would you give others regarding fund raising?

MT: These past nine months have taught me a lot about this. I’ve learnt a lot as I’ve gone along and have had to ride some disappointing rejection.

I constantly keep thinking “this is too complicated, I can’t do this” – but this brings me to something that Ed Catmull (founder of Pixar) says – “get smarter”. Having worked in theatre so much, I know the value of a team. I knew nothing about funding applications until I asked someone who did!

The match funding, bursaries, and team have been huge victories for the project. First contacts and drafting applications is really scary, but we have a saying in Newcastle “Shy bairns get nowt!”. I also would have not put in the Sputnik application, or any of the subsequent bids without listening to the words of the late Huw Evans – “just turn up”. 

Thanks Matt. To keep updated on this project or to help support similar projects like this in the future, sign up for our patrons scheme.

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The Notre Dame fire: How precious should we be about things we’ve made?

Photo: Thierry Mallet, AP

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called architecture ‘the mother art… without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization’. As humans we naturally feel a connection with things we have built – not just personally, but collectively. We even travel around the world to marvel at the greatest achievements of our species, from pyramids and castles, to temples and skyscrapers – seeing these great structures as testaments to our collective ability and ambition, imbuing their walls and towers with our own memories, our own hopes, our own ownership.

It is something marvellous that buildings can hold multitudes of our individually precious moments, or that one architectural achievement can be called ‘mine’ or ‘ours’ by so many through the decades and centuries. Like all good artists and designers, those who make our greatest skylines and landmarks don’t think merely functionally, but create vessels for our wildest imaginations and our most personal experiences.

A world in two minds

Yet the world seems split in its attitude towards architectural art – and I think one recent event brought this out in stark relief. Watching the spires of Notre Dame engulfed in deep orange flame, as smoke poured into the twilight Parisian skies, it was unsurprising to see the international outpouring of grief. The personal connection to its presence could be seen just scrolling through our own social media feed – people we knew shared their heartbreak at the loss (or even partial loss) of such an undeniably beautiful, historic, creatively artistic building: memories of first kisses, of treasured trips, of meeting old and new friends under the shadows of its bell towers. Its place in the cultural canon of French literature – or maybe better yet, in Disney films – as well as its place in the heart of an island in the heart of a river in the heart of the city, means we understand what it means to Parisians, and admirers from further afield, and join with the sadness in its loss.

Then, almost as soon as the news had broken, we saw something like a backlash. Were bricks and mortar and timber worth having songs of worship and prayer sung over them? There were justifiable complaints about grieving a casualty-less accident in a Western, city-centre landmark as opposed to the entirely avoidable loss of life in an inferno in a West London suburb, or even the countless treasures and buildings raised to the ground in Mosul or Palmyra as ISIS destroyed lives and cities. As the rebuild project for Notre Dame raised unbelievable sums of money in mere days, the inevitable questions followed about where those funds might be better used.

What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

Considering the disparity of privilege, opportunity, and diversity between Parisian arrondissements, and in wider France, they’re crucial questions to ask; and they raise alarming, broader issues about the world’s rich – Carl Kinsella’s honest and challenging response on this is worth reading in full. But beneath the questions of wealth, there’s a different tension that artists will recognise: what kind of luxury is art, anyway? What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures that may have some limited functional use, but are more often pursuits of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

The split in the world’s opinion says that either we should move mountains and millions to ensure that the best of our artistic endeavours or architectural wonders remain as pristine as possible for generations to come, or instead they should be treated as the bonus at the end of the list once we have sufficiently and rightfully ensured mouths are fed and families given shelter.

As artists, as much as we value art, we can surely see the argument from both sides. Most of us will have felt the pang of guilt at some point when sitting next to doctors, nurses and fire fighters, trying to describe what our next album sounds like after their stories of lives saved and hearts kept beating. How do we constantly and consistently decide to press on and to know for sure the value of what we do, when what surrounds us are situations that often make what we do or what we have feel like at best small drops in the ocean, or at worst frivolous pursuits?

Does what we build matter to God?

Like so many of these questions, the answer that we can find in the Bible may not be one extreme reaction or another, but something more delicate in the middle. As a starting place, we know that God himself time and time again plans to have a building or a structure that is to be used by His people to glory Him both in its appearance and in its function. Through the tabernacle and the temple and then finally in the new city described in Revelation, we know God recognises the need for a place and the sense of home that provides, but also that God loves good interior design and excellent architectural planning and desires the skill of all the best craftspeople to make it happen.

I think that God understands our very human connection to places too, that goes beyond just spaces built for or consecrated to Him; taking care to put us in specific places at specific times that He knows will be to our good. We even know that the people of God wept when they remembered the home they had and the buildings that they thought were unshakeable that now laid in rubble and ashes – and in fact, Jews still mourn the temple on a specific day now, thousands of years after its destruction.

A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; maybe what is more beautiful still are the meetings and memories that were shared about the place.

Yet God also seems to have a forward thinking nature about these things, not wanting us to sit in mourning or become too precious about the way things were. The physical spaces and places are certainly important to Him, but perhaps more important is what they represent or what they give the opportunity to do. A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; its flying buttresses and stained glass are undoubtedly works of immeasurable skill; but maybe what is more beautiful still are the aforementioned meetings and memories that were shared about the place over the last week. Each time a choir lifted their voices in worship, or each time the familiarity of home’s landmarks made someone feel more settled, or each time it became the focal point for friends or lovers or families or fellowships to meet and share.

Hold on to artistry, hold loosely to artwork

In the Bible, each time God’s own house is taken down, or destroyed, or goes up in flames, or even goes up on a cross, it is rebuilt in a way more glorious that the last and more unexpected. Jesus himself seemed to have a pretty clear idea on what would be left of the temple, and God repeatedly brings down structures that are put up out of either self-ambition or become too precious.

From tent, to temple, to Christ to new Creation, God constantly remakes anew rather than rebuilds the old, and with each remaking the people that are invited in gets wider and wider and the focus becomes more on intimacy and relationship than it does on recapturing any former glories. We get closer to Him, and in doing so get closer and more understanding and more welcoming of each other.

Battersea Arts Centre by Morley Von Sternberg

In 2015, I was privileged enough to have a job in one of my favourite venues – Battersea Arts Centre – when a fire took hold in the roof. Much like Notre Dame, the rest of the structure was saved through the skill and quick response of firefighters. Within hours the community had mobilised; and 24 hours after the fire, BAC was continuing its normal programme through the assistance and help of those who had come to see it as ‘theirs’. For years the building had been at the centre of community life, as well as having run groups for families, young people, those in need, those without money, and those who wanted to work in the arts but didn’t know how. The community decided in those hours after the fire that this was too much to lose, and sprang into action, paving the way for a rebuild project that was completed earlier this year.

Yet to walk through the building now you will find the scars and marks of the fire; scorched walls still blackened and sooty, melted glass and twisted metal, all brought together and held together by a brand new imagining of what the space and the building could be. They didn’t seek to rebuild as was; they sought to think what they needed now, how best to serve their community. For future generations, seeing each mark of the fire upon the Great Hall tells a story of the passion and importance it had for a group who decided not to give up on it. Even other great cathedrals have shown a precedent for creating a new space out of adversity: Coventry’s integration of its war-torn edifices is a living story of history, for example, or Barcelona’s decision to hand parts of its sublime Sagrada Familia over to new artists and architects – meaning it is an amalgamation of styles and perspectives that remains unfinished almost a century after breaking ground.

So can we hold on to the artistry, but hold loosely to the artwork? Can we prioritise what our work is there to do, and not what it means to us – and in doing so, widen up the doorway to invite in different communities and groups who we usually wouldn’t commune with? Can we be less precious about the physical thing itself (how it is experienced, how it is perceived, how it comes across, or even if it gets destroyed) and instead find joy in if it points anyone to the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy things of the world? If so, then I think our art is a discipline worth defending and pursuing even in the most pressing times.

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Filmmaker Luca Papa’s journey towards faith

Artists Pray One Hopera Rome Sputnik Faith Arts

I am an artist.

Before I came to know Jesus, I was already fighting against social injustice; but I was always the centre of my life, and self-centred in my aspirations and my desire to control things. I really liked the figure of Jesus, but only at the historical level. I was the artistic director of a company with my wife, Serena, who was an interpreter and took care of the organizational part.

Luca Papa Sputnik Faith Arts Hopera Rome
Luca and wife Serena Ansidoni

At the age of 26, I started to follow my very experimental artistic research, and this gave me some notoriety. But it also exposed some problems with my ego, as I started being very demanding with my students and interpreters. I began to shut myself up in my art more and more. Art was my God, and I lived in the continuous frustration of seeking results.

After my first film “Revolution” (a work of experimental video art made against abuses of power in Italy), stains began to emerge on my body. We thought it was a dermatological problem, but after a week, there was a big black bruise on my stomach. We went to the hospital and I was told that it could be leukemia. You are meant to have 240,000 platelets in your blood: it turned out that I only had 2,000!!

The doctors could not explain how I was even still alive! I was given a week to wait for further results and that week of waiting was crazy. I started thinking about my life, the things I took for granted such as walking, drinking, my wife’s eyes, her kisses, eating. I was letting my life pass without fully experiencing it.

I told the artists I was closest to that I wanted to create a work to thank God. They were incredulous

But, when the results arrived, I was told that it was nothing serious and after a short period of treatment, my blood levels were stable again and I was out of hospital. Incredible! The first thing I did, once I was out, was to cry for joy with my wife.

Immediately, I called all of the artists that I was closest to in my company and I told them I wanted to create a work to thank God for giving me a second chance in life. They were incredulous, they could not believe I was doing a work of thanksgiving to God. I completed the piece in one night and there, for the first time, I had an experience of God. After that experience I was like a different person. People did not recognize me anymore; I wanted to help people and my art took a very social turn, focusing on the suffering of the most needy.

We continued taking our art in this direction, and this led us to move to Tenerife for 5 years, where we partnered with a high school to develop an educational project. It was at this point that I decided to create some work that was more explicitly spiritual, focusing on Jesus. I wanted to find people with real faith for this project, and I spoke to our neighbours about it. Our neighbours were a 60-year-old couple, Raul and Olaya. Raul told me that he wasn’t religious, but he knew God personally and invited us to go with them the following Saturday to their church.

On 13 September 2014 we entered the church for the first time and were very perplexed. We were used to Catholic rituals, but at this church, the music was played in a modern style and the people prayed for their friends with ‘a free voice’. After the service, we met the pastor and talked to him about our proposed film project. He was immediately interested and put his church at our disposal both to use their space and to involve people from the church in the various roles.

After that time in church, I started to ask my neighbour Raul a thousand questions about God and about Christianity. He was a retired former Civil Guard agent, responsible for training the recruits, and even in the kingdom of God he was starting my training!

One day, Raul and Olaya invited us for dinner. Serena did not want to go because she knew that faith would be talked about the whole time, so she pretended to have a sore throat. When she found this out, Olaya asked me if she could go and talk to Serena and she ended up praying for her. Although we found this a bit strange, when she prayed, we felt an indescribable feeling of peace. Later that night Serena found herself crying for no reason, which was very unusual for her.

I had thought that the whole thing was a theatre, that it was all fake. Then, to my surprise, I saw my wife charging towards the preacher

During the time of worship, I realized that Serena was crying again. I did not understand. I said to myself: but she is an atheist! The preacher spoke in Spanish and I only understood about 25% of it, but at one point in the talk, he asked if anyone needed prayer. Many people started going forward and as he prayed, there were many strong reactions, people crying and falling over. I had seen some things online about extreme charismatic experiences and I thought that the whole thing was a theatre, that it was all fake. Then, to my surprise, I turned to see my wife charging towards the preacher. When he prayed with her, she started crying in a way I’d never seen her cry before.

It was clear that something extraordinary was happening, so I said to God: “if you are there, show me!” and I too went forward to the preacher. When he prayed for me I felt a great fire inside, I fell on the ground and began to laugh, full of joy. Looking up to the sky, I had the feeling that I had finally found it, that now I understood everything!

René Breuel Hopera Church Rome Sputnik Faith Arts
Artist believers meet at ‘One’, an offshoot of Hopera church

After all of this, Serena and I prayed with the pastor and we both accepted Jesus into our lives. I don’t think I even knew what I was saying, but I know that from that day, our lives have completely changed. I left behind my biggest fears and my obsessions. Serena and I looked at each other differently – our love was growing and improving every moment. After only a month I was baptized in the sea, and I was actually born again, to a new life.

A year later, we returned to Italy and began to talk about our experience to our friends, family and our entire artistic group. Many, seeing our passion and the real change in our lives, have decided to believe, and many young artists have come to the faith. Now we have a group called One, which started because we felt we needed to live out our faith in a completely new and fresh way.

At One, we aim to make God known to young artists. We do not use religious terms, we do not have a denomination, we focus on three things: Jesus, singing to him, and prayer. This has generated a unique love for God. Now in the group there are about twenty young people, some of whom also come to Hopera, our church. They still remain artists, but with a very healthy and passionate Christian imprint and their enthusiasm has a positive effect on the whole community.

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LifeBox Theatre and the StageWrite festival of new writing

StageWrite Festival Theatre Sputnik Faith Art

Phil and Harri Mardlin are the founders of LifeBox Theatre company, based in Bedford. Both relative latecomers to the theatrical world (at least, by the industry’s standard) they’ve nonetheless carved out a successful niche for themselves by switching between several different hats: communication training in businesses, education and healthcare; agency-style management of other actors; and of course, your meat-and-potatoes gigs acting, writing and directing.

Sputnik Patrons helped to fund the 2018 StageWrite festival, run by LifeBox Theatre – a festival for new writers which Phil and Harri have built from the ground themselves.

Sputnik Patrons Promo Phil Harri Mardlin
(L-R) Phil and Harri Mardlin.

PHIL AND HARRI exemplify the Sputnik credo: an abundantly creative, affable duo, operating at a professional level; embedded in their industry, but also dedicated to their local environment, Bedford, where they lead a Sputnik Hub thriving with poets, painters and other actors.

For Phil and Harri, work, life and faith commingle every day; with humility, they pour themselves out serving a community that is rarely on the church’s radar. And by embodying a person onstage, they can challenge an audience to new empathy and perspective, without being heavy-handed (a well-known maxim of good writing: show, don’t tell).

“We have an opportunity to be embedded in our industry, and to give people a positive experience – whatever the stage of their career.”

In conversation with the Mardlins, it’s clear that they have a deep-felt, nerdy love of their artform, and an unabashed desire for the community around it to flourish. One particular passion project of theirs shows this in crystal clarity: StageWrite, which is run in collaboration with No Loss Productions.

StageWrite: a theatre festival focused on new and undiscovered voices

“STAGEWRITE IS A festival of new writing,” Harri explains. “We invite scripts from any writers, emerging or established, to give them the opportunity to see their work performed by professional actors, in front of an audience, and to gain an understanding of how their work really sits in that context.”

“It’s the most valuable thing, to see your work in front of you, being performed by professionals,” adds Phil, principally a writer/director himself. “We bring a sense of what it might look like in a fully-realised, professional production. You realise, for example, that those 25 lines of dialogue you wrote – an actor can do with one look.

“Out of the new writing festivals that exist, not many are offering that. The feedback we get from writers is that it’s hugely valuable: they learn to hone their voice, to get their message across.”

StageWrite is a fundamentally generous endeavour on the Mardlins’ part. Not only has it been self-funded for the last four years, but in its very essence, it exists to do good for the industry, to show a helping hand to all writers, whatever their background; to encourage people, and amplify unheard voices. It has immediate benefits in some cases: three pieces from previous StageWrite years have gone on to full production and/or touring. But it also takes the long-term view that to bring Gospel life to any community means inhabiting it fully, not as a ‘project’ but as a group of fellow humans in a notoriously difficult and discouraging line of work.

StageWrite, self-funded for the last four years, is a fundamentally generous endeavour on the Mardlins’ part.

Harri considers how to summarise the project. “StageWrite represents a greenhouse, to grow new theatre, which is important. But it also provides us an opportunity to be embedded in that industry, and to give people a positive experience at our festival: directors, actors, writers – whatever stage of their career. We want to live out our professional relationships with people well. We want to honour people.”

StageWrite LifeBox Theatre Sputnik Faith Art
Performers rehearse with LifeBox Theatre.

The Christ-like art of rehumanizing everyone in the room

IN A WAY, StageWrite has at its heart the same golden thread that runs through all of Phil and Harri’s work: communication. Whether they are teaching people how to communicate in a corporate setting, collaborating with actors to bring a play to life, or interacting directly with an audience, the Mardlins help people both to speak, and to listen: a distinctly Christ-like art of re-humanizing everyone in the room, showing us the face of our neighbour.

Phil: “You need to learn, as a writer, to capture your own vision so clearly that any director and a set of actors can pick up your script, and they’ll communicate what it is that you intended to communicate.

“We invite writers to come to the rehearsal of their piece, but they’re not allowed to feed into it; that’s really difficult as a writer – you’re sitting there, thinking ‘That’s not what I meant!’ But actually, that’s how the industry works: the process of submitting a script to a professional company, and having to step back.”

The same golden thread runs through all of Phil and Harri’s work: communication.

This year, our Sputnik Patrons scheme is helping Phil and Harri to fund StageWrite. After honing the list of submitted scripts down to just four, they’ll select one to take beyond just rehearsal into a more fully-realised production – and pay the actors who are taking part.

“Theatre is like no other experience,” Harri smiles. “It can’t happen without an audience; there’s an energy in live performance that doesn’t happen in other situations or mediums. You work with the audience, and off the audience as an actor: it’s an extraordinary experience that can have a very far-reaching, lasting impact.”

Help us to support StageWrite, and other artists like Phil and Harri, by becoming a monthly Patron of Sputnik.

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Ezekiel – The First Performance Artist?

One day. A long time ago. In Babylon. The exiled Hebrew prophet Ezekiel put on a show. In front of a diorama of Jerusalem (etched on a clay tablet) he enacted a siege, with props ranging from ramps to battering rams to iron pans. Then he lay down on his left side for a year, then on his right side for another month, keeping himself alive by eating food cooked over cow dung.

Then he shaved his hair and beard with a sword. He set fire to a third of the hair, distributed a third of his hair round the city and threw a third to the wind. He tucked a few remaining strands in his pockets, and to finish things off, he burnt the last bits.

An audience was (or presumably lots of different audiences were) present throughout and I’m sure as the stench of burnt hair filled their nostrils for the last time, they clapped and cat called in equal measure, and the local papers went wild with conjecture about this bizarre but oddly compelling artistic event.

The precise account can be found in Ezekiel chapters 4 and 5, and while I have put my own spin on it, I don’t think I’m overly embellishing what the text describes. We know Ezekiel today as a prophet, but I think that if he was alive today we’d give him a different title. Ezekiel was a performance artist.

Avanting the Avant Garde

His performances (of which the Bible records at least 5) seem to be pre-emptively in the mould of artists like Marina Abramovic, Joseph Beuys, Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono. In the 20th century, these artists were seen as broadening the boundaries of traditional art from paintings, songs, plays, and the like to ‘happenings’, in which the ideas become paramount, and the audience’s interaction with the artist becomes part of the work itself.

Consider for example Abramovic’s ‘The Artist is present’ in which she sat immobile in a museum’s atrium for 736 hours and 30 minutes, completely silent and still, while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Basically a more comfortable (and fresher smelling) version of the main body of Ezekiel’s previously mentioned work!

And Ezekiel wasn’t the only one. Isaiah walked around naked for three years (Isaiah 20). Jeremiah made and wore a wooden yoke, which another prophet broke (and there could be an implication in the text that he then returned with a new yoke made of metal) (Jeremiah 27-28). For these prophets, while they wrote and announced their messages (usually in carefully arranged poetic stanzas, but that’s another post), they were also known to use highly symbolic actions to communicate what they felt that God was saying. Their performances were striking. The audience were often active participants. They always had a particular point to make, yet they drew people in by raising questions. This was avant garde artistic practice that avanted the avant garde by almost 3000 years.

Now, if you’re still with me, and you’re willing to look at the Old Testament Prophets at least partially through this lens, a couple of conclusions follow. Firstly, there are some examples of artistic practice in the Bible that many of us have overlooked. And secondly, those of us who make art have some new biblical role models to potentially educate our practice.

Not Just Bezalel

Potentially then the Bible’s whole teaching on the value and place of the arts gains another dimension. You see, when Christians go to the Bible for artistic inspiration or even validation, they usually bring up all the old chestnuts: Bezalel, Oholiab and the crafting of the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-11), the design of Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 2-4) and the Psalms usually being pretty prominent. Now, all of these artistic endeavours have similarities. On the whole, these works are created for the faithful people of God to encourage them in their worship (admittedly the Psalms don’t all fit that description, but it is true of the main body).

Therefore, as aids to worship, for people who presumably already quite want to worship, they have some shared features. They aim at beauty in their appearance (or composition), clarity in what they are communicating and they are largely safe pieces of work (by this I mean, Moses and Aaron were not having pastoral meetings about whether Bezalel was corrupting the minds of the children. Again, there are huge exceptions in the psalms, to which we will return forthwith).

Two types of Biblical Art

However, once you consider the Old Testament Prophets in your survey of biblical art practice, you see that an entirely different type of art exists in the Bible to an entirely different audience. As we’ve seen, these guys are not making art for the faithful, but for the unfaithful. And because of this, their art is not beautiful, clear or safe. It is dramatic and attention grabbing because people didn’t really want to engage with what they were saying. It also has a tendency to be ugly, ambiguous and risky.

When we see this, another thing happens. Suddenly, those awkward psalms that talk about killing babies and languishing in the pits of despair aren’t a strange exception to the rule that all Christian art should be nice and happy and optimistic. Now they find themselves fitting snugly into a tradition of art that runs throughout the Bible that seems to operate in a whole different way to Bezalel, Oholiab and David (on a happy day). In fact (sorry if I appear to be getting carried away), couldn’t we add an even more prominent character on to the roster of difficult biblical art?

Jesus’ parables operate in a very similar manner to the aforementioned prophets. Jesus uses this particular creative mode because of his audience’s likely antipathy to his message (Mt 13:13-15, quoting Isaiah!) and again his work is at times ugly (Lk 19:27), ambiguous (the parable of the dishonest manager, anyone?) and risky (plucking out eyes, hating wives, etc).

In summary, once we start seeing the Old Testament prophets as performance artists, we see more clearly than ever that there are two very different types of art in the Bible. Art that inspires people to worship and art that questions why they’re not worshipping. Art for the faithful which is beautiful, clear and safe and art for the unfaithful, which has the potential to be ugly, ambiguous and risky.

The church has become very comfortable with the first of these and has been ploughing time, money and resources into creatives who practice in this way for some time. I think we need to start becoming a bit more uncomfortably comfortable with the second and raising up and supporting a whole load of modern day Ezekiels.

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What Do We Do With The Old Testament Prophets?

Following on from Chris’ post on Tuesday, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into what it means to make prophetic art. We’ll get to the art in the next post, but to give some context, I wanted to focus today on the thorny issue of prophecy.

I am what could fairly be described as a charismatic Christian. I am aware that, if that label means anything to you at all, you will now see me as anything from a faithful adherent to New Testament Christianity to essentially a snake handler. Well, I’m in no rush to fill you in on exactly where I would sit on that spectrum, but hopefully, whatever your theological tribe, there’ll be something in this post of interest, amusement and maybe even of value.

Charismatics, as you may be aware, are very fond of prophecy, and picture God as a very chatty father, who loves to speak to his children. But, someone might object, what if you get the wrong end of the stick? What if you just have a vivid imagination or happened to eat a lot of blue cheese before bed or just downed half a pint of adder venom or whatever? Well, of course, that’s a possibility, and for that reason, all prophecy should be weighed, as per 1 Corinthians 14:29. The image that’s always stuck with me regarding this process is someone weighing a lump of what appears to be gold, to work out how much of it is actually gold and how much is accumulated dross. So how do you weigh prophecy? Well, you recognise that we’ll always be slightly faulty receptors of God’s word (we prophesy in part- 1 Cor 13:9) and therefore listen carefully, hold on to what seems valuable, and graciously reject what seems a bit ‘off’, always using God’s revealed word (The Bible) as the gold standard.

But, what about Deuteronomy 18:20-22? I hear you cry! If I’ve misheard your particular cry on this occasion (probably something to do with the cobra fangs latched on to my right forearm), Moses says in these verses that if a prophet prophesies something and gets it wrong, they should die. This seems a far cry from giving an encouraging pat on the back and gently suggesting that, after all, there are other gifts of the Spirit.

Now, here is where we get close to the actual focus of this post, because at this point a certain move is made. In my opinion a good move, but a move that perhaps needs looking at again. In answer to this very reasonable objection, the modern charismatic would tend to draw a line between the gifts of prophecy in the Old and New Testament. Yes, in the Old Testament, there was a weight that was expected of all prophets (total infallibility), but now that the Spirit is freely available to all, and all ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17), there is more grace available to those wanting to communicate God’s will to people (and presumably also an expectation of more wisdom in those who are listening).

And so, with this line drawn, all the teaching I’ve heard on how to prophesy has been taken from the New Testament, with very clear instruction that we should not look to emulate the Old Testament prophets at all. The concern is that, if this is not underlined, we will open the door to the ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’, ‘I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger’, ‘sackcloth and ashes’ brigade. And we can’t have that.

But the result is that we no longer know what to do with the Old Testament prophets, except to discuss their theology. The bit about the suffering servant is great, but you obviously shouldn’t lie around for three years, eating food cooked over poo (Ezekiel 4). Agabus (Acts 21:10-11) may be a fine role model, but not Isaiah. And, if in doubt, (because let’s face it, Agabus seems a bit on the spectrum himself!) 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 help us out. In these chapters, Paul tells us exactly the purpose of prophecy for the modern day Christian, especially in 14:3-

‘But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.’ (1 Cor 14:3)

So basically as a brief summary of the teaching I’ve had on prophecy over the years: God still speaks. We should listen. If I’m going to share what I think He’s saying, I must make sure it’s a) in line with what the Bible says and b) is potentially strengthening, encouraging and/or comforting for people.

Now, just to underline what may have been lost in my slightly flippant tone, I like this stuff. I’ve hugely benefited personally from listening to God’s voice and from accepting what God is saying to me through others. I also love being part of a church that listens to God and encourages the use of the gift of prophecy.

However, at the same time, I do think that we need to reassess the role of the Old Testament prophet in this whole scheme. I think that the ancient Hebrew seers, both major and minor, have things to teach us about how we should communicate God’s truth, not just about how we should think about God.

And I don’t think that we need to make a huge shift here, but simply to do what this particular blog is adamant that Christians need to do in all spheres of our lives: we need to remember that we’re not just called to speak to the church.

1 Corinthians 12 and 14 gives instructions for the use of the gift of prophecy in a gathered meeting of Christians. Yes, there are allowances made for guests to the meeting who are not followers of Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:24-25), but the focus of this teaching is upon how we communicate God’s word to people who already have a certain openness to that word. The Old Testament prophets on the other hand spend most of their time speaking to people who are very resistant to God’s word.

God makes it clear to Isaiah that this will be the context for his whole ministry. As the prophet faithfully puts himself forward to serve God, God spells out, in Isaiah 6:9, what his message is to be:

‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;

Be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

For Ezekiel, his call is very similar:

‘Son of Man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebeliious nation that has rebelled against me… the people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.’ (Ezekiel 2:3-4).

Now, of course, these prophets were mainly ministering to those who were seen as God’s people (although not always, eg Jonah), however, God was making very different assumptions about the group these guys were addressing, than Paul was about the audience that were receiving prophetic input in Corinth.

In short, the teaching I’ve received (and often given) on the prophetic seems to have assumed that we are communicating God’s word only to Christians who need encouragement, or to people who aren’t Christians but have come to Christian meetings. If, as this website regularly asserts, the church needs to learn how to communicate much more effectively with people who don’t already follow Jesus and have no intention of coming to our meetings, I think we need a new model. And by a new model, I mean an old model. And by an old model, I mean the model of often eccentric, outspoken and unpredictable Hebrew prophets who brought God’s messages of hope and judgement to Israel and the surrounding nations between about 900 and 400 BC.

Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that by following their example, we should have a different message from what we communicate in our church meetings. It’s important to remember in all of this what the Old Testament prophets actually did: they pointed people towards the Messiah. That is still the goal. In one sense, ultimately, it is the only valid goal. And my motivation behind this encouragement would be that this is so important that we shouldn’t neglect a method of achieving this goal that God gives over such a large chunk of his word to.

The reason why I am examining this topic on our arts blog is that I reckon that a helpful way to view the Old Testament prophets, at least at times, is as forerunners to the performance artists that began to emerge in the 20th century. When seen through this lens, I think we start to see who may be able to step into their shoes in our times, and how they could do that. We can also pick up some very important lessons for all artists who wish to strengthen, comfort, encourage and perhaps also dramatically confront those outside of the church who are presently hurtling happily towards disaster and trying to take the rest of us with them. Just like the Old Testament prophets, an artist has the ability to cause people to stop in their tracks, think about their present direction and ultimately turn towards Jesus.

So let’s look at that more in the next post. In the mean time though, where did I put my flaggon of poison?

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Interview with Phil Mardlin (LifeBox Theatre Company)

It was great to meet Phil and Harri Mardlin early last year at our first SputnikDay, and ever since we’ve been chatting about how to connect with and serve actors more effectively. We thought it was about time to bring you in on the conversation, particularly because we’ve got some schemes fast approaching that we’d love all of you script writers and actors to get involved with. So, to that end, we caught up with Phil…

So, Phil, introduce yourself.

Hi.  My name is Phil Mardlin. I started LifeBox Theatre Company with my lovely wife, Harriet.  So many theatre companies just don’t make it in today’s competitive market place so we wanted to make sure we ran a company that made us money and allowed us to work artistically.  So, we have two strands to our company; we specialize in forum theatre, delivering training around communication issues in healthcare, education and business and we also provide actors for other training companies that deliver communication based training to businesses across the region.  Artistically, we run an annual new writing festival in Bedford called StageWrite, which has just run for the 4th year.  We take unsolicited scripts for much of the year (this year we had a record 67 scripts submitted) and then we select 8 and put them on, script-in-hand over 4 nights in front of an audience.  After each performance we have a question and answer with the writer, director, actors and the audience to help them develop the piece further.  We tend to select one of the strongest pieces and, working with the writer, help them take the piece to full production with a short tour.

How did you get into acting and who are your main inspirations?

Well, after a career as a children’s cancer nurse, followed by 8 years as a lecturer in children’s nursing, I had a very early mid-life crisis and gave it all up to become an actor!  Madness, I hear you cry… and you’re probably right but, it’s the best decision I ever made.  I was too old and with too many responsibilities to be able to go to drama school so I did a degree in English and Theatre and managed to bag a first class honours!  Since then, largely through our company, I’ve discovered directing and writing and love being able to switch between the two of them, plus being a performer, depending on the project.

As for inspirations… gosh, that’s hard because I have so many!  I remember going to see Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan and Simon Callow and just watching it thinking, if I can’t be that good, is it worth bothering?  Of course it is, and whilst I will never be in that league, I know I’ve always got something to aim for.  As a writer, I am heavily influenced by Alan Bennett.  He’s so incredibly observant about life and, having performed in The History Boys, I find that he writes in such a way that every word seems to logically follow on from the next.  I know that sounds strange but it meant that it was just one of the most joyous and easy scripts I’ve ever learned.

How do you see your faith and your creativity coming together?

I don’t really see creativity as an extension of faith because the two things are inextricably linked and, for me, one can’t exist without the other.  For me, being a child of God is at the very core of who I am.  When I live out of that place, anything I do, creative or not, should come from a place of desiring to please Him and serve Him.  I would also add that doesn’t mean everything I do creatively is ‘about’ God but it is ‘for’ Him.  Much of what I do either as an actor, director or writer, I do because I believe in the message of the story or the impact and questions it might raise in those who engage with it.  Sometimes, that means engaging in a world that might, on the face of it, seem quite dark.  I believe that sometimes, to reach the people in those dark places, you have to reflect back their world to them, and theatre and film can do that very well; what you then do with what you are shown is the responsibility of the observer.

How will you be involved at the Catalyst festival this year?

I am so excited to be involved with Catalyst this year and, along with a few others, we are going to be creating a space for emerging writers to see their work up on its feet with the help of professional actors.  We will be working with selected scripts over the Sunday and Monday afternoons of the festival and this will culminate in a performance of the scripts on the Monday evening.

How can people get involved with this project?

If you are a writer, then we would love to read your script.  We are looking for scripts of around 20 minutes in length, so it could be the opener to a bigger idea you have or it could stand alone as a short piece of theatre.  It needs to require no more than 4 actors to put on.  Depending on volume of scripts we can’t guarantee that we will be able to put them all on but we will give you some brief feedback if you would like it.

If you are an actor working professionally or with some relevant experience, then we would love you to get involved with us to work on the scripts and perform them on the Monday evening.  If you are interested in either of these, please contact Jonny at (Better be quick though as the deadline for scripts is 15th May)

How do you think churches can support actors more effectively?

Good question.  I could probably write for hours on this but ultimately it’s about communicating.  I think the biggest thing you can do as a church to support actors is to simply engage with them.  Invite them for lunch (we’re generally poor so free food is always a bonus) and talk to them.  Too often, actors and creatives generally are seen as mavericks and people don’t often have a box to put them in. So talk to them, listen to them, hear them and seek to understand them.


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The First Bedford Passion Play in over 30 years

Phil Mardlin, together with his wife Harri, heads up the theatre companies LifeBox Theatre and Stagewrite. He is also a member of The Kings Arms Church in Bedford and this year was responsible for putting on the first Passion Play Bedford’s seen in over 3 decades. And here’s how it happened…

Bedford’s last Passion Play was over 30 years ago but that changed this year.  Back in June of last year, I was approached by Cally Lawrence, a director friend of mine who had been asked if she would direct a Passion play for the town by a committee of local churches.  She readily agreed thinking this would be a great community event for the town.  So with an agreement in principle, she came to me to see if I would be happy to write it.

The committee wanted to access funding from the Passion Trust (I didn’t even know they existed, but they do) and one of the requirements for funding is that it needs to be a brand new script.  Now, I’ve been a Christian for the best part of 25 years and, in my arrogance, I figured that as I knew the story pretty well, this would be an easy task; I couldn’t have been more wrong.  When I finally got down to writing it, it’s amazing how many discrepancies you find in the Gospel accounts.  One writer describes the two Marys arriving at the tomb, experiencing an earthquake, seeing the stone being rolled back and the guards becoming like ‘dead men’ as an angel appears.  Another account suggests that the two Marys were with Salome and when they arrived at the tomb, the stone was already rolled away and the angel was inside the tomb, whilst another describes more than one angel appearing.  You get the picture.  Suddenly making a coherent narrative that includes all these perspectives suddenly becomes a little more taxing.  But we got there and by the end of the summer we had a working script and rehearsals were under way.

Now to make this work we needed a cast which included a chorus of 50- 60 minimum. By January, however, we had a loyal following of about 6 who were turning up to rehearsals regularly. Therefore we put out some bulletins and pleas for help, letting people know that if they wanted this to happen then we needed them to step up to the plate and to come along to a rehearsal on a Saturday towards the end of January.  Well God certainly motivated people at that stage and about 40 turned up.  It looked like this was going to happen after all.  Now, the only caveat that the committee were given was that Jesus had to be a professional actor.  This seemed a perfectly reasonable request since it’s a huge role and undertaking even for a good amateur actor so, with that in mind, Cally began auditioning prospective Jesus-es.  Now, ironically, some might say, Judas never turned up for rehearsals so the mantle of betrayer fell to me… which I was secretly quite glad about since I hadn’t initially thought that I would want to perform in it.  With time drawing nearer some of the practical difficulties started to become evident such as the need for crosses, stage combat experts, etc.  Then we met Alyssa, an incredibly talented woman whose job is choreographing stage combat and specialising in Roman times and crucifixions!  This amazingly talented woman built us 3 crosses, choreographed all our fight scenes and then took the part of one of the criminals.  We also had donkey-crises, followed by dove-crises that all had to be resolved and time was ticking on.


As the day drew nearer I’d be fibbing somewhat if I told you there weren’t some nervous and anxious conversations with regards to working with a large number of complete non-actors on a performance that’s in the open air and that you can’t really have a proper dress rehearsal for; in this situation you’re never entirely sure what might happen on the day.  But the day came, the weather was on our side, and we duly kicked off Bedford’s first Passion play in over 30 years.  And what a time we had.  We had no idea how many would come out for it – I think if we were honest we hoped we might get a couple of hundred out to see it – but by the time we had arrived at Castle Mound for the crucifixion, the tentative guesses of numbers sat somewhere between 1500 and 2000 people following the procession through the town.  It was incredible. To both be involved in it and to see elements of such hard work come together.  A motley crew of rag tag church goers had come together, with mostly no acting experience and pulled off the seemingly impossible. I know that both Cally and I couldn’t have been more proud of this group of people who had worked so hard to pull this off.  Feedback on the day was so positive with comments around how immersive the experience had been and how the chorus had brought such a degree of reality to it as they spread rumours through the crowd and informed them of what was happening and what Jesus had done.  So… if you’re thinking of putting on a Passion Play in your local town next year I’ve got two pieces of advice: 1) Go for it – yes, it’s hard work but it’s so worth it and 2) get started… it was almost a year in the making and time’s ticking on.