This guest column was written by Ithaca resident Andrew Hocking. It was NOT written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit a guest column for consideration, email us at email@example.com
ITHACA, N.Y. — After recently performing dress rehearsals of the original play, Power to Help, Power to Hurt, the Tin Can Theatre Troupe will travel to summer camps throughout Central New York, helping children learn how to engage in religious conversation with respect and understanding.
In so doing, they ask the question: can we talk about our worldviews in public, or must they remain private?
Not only does the performance provide insight to the question, but it invites the audience to respond.
The four actors play four children in a theatre camp, working together to make the best show in hopes of winning the coveted prize: pizza and milkshakes. As they discuss the potential plot of their story, one child wants to include a Bar Mitzvah scene, but this leads to disagreements and then arguments between the children who are Jewish, Muslim, Secular, and Christian. As they offend and then reconcile, the characters must still decide whether or not to include religion in their play.
In this way, Power to Help, Power to Hurt questions the place of religion in the public square with nuance and compassion, offering many reasons for including and excluding open discussion of faith.
The religious children tend towards wanting to present their faiths. While there is some hesitancy that others will misunderstand them, they want to be themselves and share their full identities with the world. The secular child worries that she will be left out, but the others assure her that she can present how her secular values help her care for others.
All of the characters worry that engaging their camp on religion could lead to tension, but they also acknowledge how they have grown through their recent interactions, and they see that these conversations provide crucial experiences to help people understand each other.
Ultimately, they want freedom for each person to be themselves and for everyone to feel safe and welcome. While my summary certainly reveals my bias, the audience at the recent dress rehearsal was actually rather split on the decision.
Audience? That’s right. There’s a ton of interaction as the actors invite the audience (who would be actual children in summer camp) to participate in the discussion, answer questions about their experiences, participate in scenes, and finally cast their vote as to what the characters should do.
I’m so glad that the actors invited the audience into the conversation. Maybe not every day, but we all have opportunities to enter religious discussion.
Now, some say polite conversation must avoid religion and politics. Others like me might happen to write a blog celebrating spirituality in movies, TV, and books, so we run to these discussions as they are a lot of fun!
While giving good reasons for both responses to the question at hand, I feel that the strongest case is made in favor of the characters performing their play on religion and worldview, which furthers the message that it is good when we engage in this conversation with others. Power to Help, Power to Hurt argues this point by its very existence. After all, it is a play about religion being presented to children in summer camps!
As society becomes more and more fractured, politics becomes more polarized, and people insulate themselves among like-minded Facebook friends, we need to choose to engage with others who hold different beliefs than we do.
Pluralism — defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist” — is good!
One character in the play makes the easy mistake of confusing secularism for pluralism, saying that all people can participate, as long as they do not discuss their faith. Instead, we can honor people by truly getting to know one another, learning about their beliefs, practices, and culture. True pluralism invites people of all worldviews to the table, including the religious and the secular.
In this environment, we can take opportunities to learn. At a minimum, we learn about others, truly getting to know people, but we might also discover that some of our opinions are mistaken, allowing us to grow in knowledge, to which we hopefully all aspire.
Finally, we need media, like Power to Help, Power to Hurt, that encourages us towards pluralism. Movies, TV, and literature help us see the world through the eyes of others. Often a story can transport us to a different scenario and allows us to re-examine our worldview and values in a different context. (Science fiction, frequently covered in my blog, excels at this.)
And the close of the credits just starts the conversation, as we can discuss with our friends and family how the show impacted us. In fact, when the Tin Can Theatre Troupe performs the play, they will help the camp counselors engage the children in respectful discussion following the performance.
So, is it a good idea for the four children do a play about religion? What do you think? That’s right, this play emphasizes that you’re involved too. You can’t vote online, so you’ll have to make it to a performance!
Tin Can Theatre might do public showings at local parks, so keep an eye out. But to be sure that you and friends will get to see it, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to book a showing for a group of people.
And you can “vote” the next time someone starts talking about religion or spirituality. You can choose to engage. It’s an opportunity to share another part of yourself, whether religious or secular. Take the opportunity to learn and also introduce another person to a part of your life that you consider beautiful.
Residents of Ithaca, Andrew Hocking and his wife write at asyourpoetshavesaid.com where they highlight spirituality in popular movies, television, and literature.