The Church and the Stage

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In 1997, a group of arts enthusiasts established The Storm Theatre in New York City to focus on work that explores what it means to be human. Over the years, its repertoire has ranged from classical Shakespeare to Karol Wojtyla’s obscure plays to modern works reflecting life today.

Zoe Romanowsky talked to Artistic Director Peter Dobbins about the theater’s mission and its latest endeavor, the Paul Claudel Project. In conjunction with the Blackfriars Repertory Theatre, Claudel’s Noon Divide is now playing at the Church of Notre Dame until November 20, 2010.

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Zoe Romanowsky: Tell me first about the name — The Storm. Where did it come from?

Peter Dobbins: Well, I get really bored with names like Public, or Civic, etc. I was going after something more beautiful, romantic, and elemental like the Elizabetheans . . . The Globe, The Swan, The Rose . . . I think a storm is a great metaphor for theater. They’re beautiful, potentially violent, but also can be regenerative.

Perhaps most truthfully, it came from a woman who inspired me while at a crossroads. She was beautiful, and her face reminded me of a storm.

I notice a strong Catholic tone to The Storm’s mission. Is it correct to say you are a Catholic or Christian theater company? Or is there another way of describing what you’re trying to do?

I am Catholic, and I am the artistic director. Yes, I think it’s safe to say we’re a Catholic theater company, although not everyone is Catholic or even Christian. I am choosing the material that reaches the audience. You’re always trying to tell the truth as an artist, and my belief in what is “true” has been deeply influenced by my faith. I believe that our work, therefore, will stand in stark contrast to much of contemporary dramatic art.

How do you choose the plays you present each season?

There are many factors: Will people come? Will this get reviewed? But really, I try to love as intensely as possible in making a gift of myself and others to the audience. I hope that makes sense. Plays choose me, not vice versa. You read something and it won’t let you go. They keep calling you until you do them. You seek material that you really love and believe that other people will as well. And it’s not enough for it to be just you or just them that loves it — the potential experience is filled with such a longing or expectation that it allows you to give the most of yourself to your audience.

Which plays have most resonated with your audiences and why?

The most romantic ones . . . Arrah Na Pogue by Dion Bouicicault; As You Like It by William Shakespeare; The Jeweler’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla; The Satin Slipper; and our current show, Noon Divide, by Paul Claudel. Everyone responds to romance instinctively, as we are all deeply involved in our own cosmic romance with God in which all elements of creation play a part.

In previous seasons, you ran a “Karol Wojtyla Theater Festival,” where you presented four of the late pope’s plays — The Jeweler’s Shop, Job, Jeremiah, and Our God’s Brother. Many people are only familiar with the first. What themes in the plays speak most to what it means to be human?

Our God’s Brother deals with vocation and how one chooses what to devote one’s life to. The playwright believes you should choose the path — in whatever profession — that will allow you to love most completely. For some that might be the priesthood, for some the arts, for others something else.

Job and Jeremiah were written during the Nazi occupation and focus on faith under extreme duress. They deal with Poland and its role in God’s Divine plan. Both are constantly asking why the suffering has happened, but always looking beyond to see the possible answers.

noondivideLet’s talk about the Paul Claudel Project. You’ve presented three plays as part of this festival, and the last one — Noon Divide — is showing until November 20th. What is it about Paul Claudel’s work that you find so compelling?

That he is maybe the only great playwright that really goes to the core of human existence. What is the purpose? Salvation. He sees and tries to illuminate the vast architecture of salvation and the mechanics of grace. It’s about the crazy love of God for His creation and how He will do whatever it takes to bring us closer to Him.

The other two Claudel plays you presented were The Tidings Brought to Mary and The Satin Slipper. How did you decide in which order to show them?

It just seemed the natural order. Tidings was perhaps the least complicated to stage, thus the easiest way to start. Satin Slipper is considered his “great masterpiece.” That became the perfect way to open our new 114th Street space.

Will this be the end of the Paul Claudel Project, or do you plan to keep it going?

That’s it for now. I would love to tour the three of them in rep around the country. That’s a hope and a dream, anyway.

As the artistic director, are there playwrights you would like to feature or new work you want to bring to audiences?

I would love to do even more Boucicault, Claudel, and Shakespeare. But beyond that, I’d love to do a Eduardo de Filippo festival. He was a wonderful Italian playwright. I definitely need to find new work as well — perhaps adapt some of the great Catholic novels to the stage, like Brideshead Revisited or the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.

As a former stage actor, I’m curious about your actors. Do they audition simply to land another job, or do most of them have a personal interest in your mission and selections?

You get both. The best person for the role is who gets the part — or the person who I think is best is probably more accurate. Some very much want to be part of what we’re doing; they’ve been looking for a place like this. Others, really, just want to act.

The casts are usually a mix of practicing Catholics/lapsed Catholics, other faiths, or no faith at all. I think this is a great way to have a group of people think about ideas they may not have otherwise.

What can we expect at The Storm in 2011?

Possibly a new staging of Dion Bouicicault’s Arrah Na Pogue, which we originally staged in January 2000. Also perhaps a new translation of Marcel Pagnol’s Marius, the first part of the Fanny trilogy, as well as some more Shakespeare with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

When does Noon Divide show, and how does one obtain a ticket? This is the final weekend, right?

Yes, there are two more performances: on Friday, November 19, and Saturday, November 20, at 7:30 p.m., and we close November 20th. We perform at the Theatre at the Church of Notre Dame at 114th street and Morningside Drive West.

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To find out more, visit www.stormtheatre.com or www.smarttix.com, or call 212-868-4444.

Zoe Romanowsky

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Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Godspy.com. Zo

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