At the talkback sessions and in further discussions that followed performances of Chautauqua Theater Company’s The Christians, a number of audience members expressed awe for the similarities between the church set in the theater and an actual house of worship.
“It felt like a call-and-response church,” said Patt Defendorf, hostess of Chautauqua’s Catholic House. “I felt like I should be participating.”
According to Ruth Becker, a Motet Choir member and the show’s associate music director, amidst the meticulously crafted, lavishly carpeted set and the passionate actors that take the stage, a major reason the show feels so real is the inclusion of the Motet Choir.
“Using a live choir is much more organic, much more real than with canned music,” Becker said. “In fact, I don’t think this show would work, really, if you didn’t have that live choir.”
The Christians, which closes its run at 2:15 p.m. Sunday, July 14 in Bratton Theater, is the first show to include a collaboration between CTC and the Motet Choir. The play is set in a massive megachurch, and follows the congregation’s charismatic pastor as he deals with the repercussions of dropping a major ideological bombshell on his church.
The choir members sang authentic spiritual music, including “It Is Well with My Soul,” by Horatio Spafford, and “God’s Unchanging Hands,” by Jennie Wilson. Choir members who participated in the process said the experience was an informative and engaging one.
“This was all new to me coming in,” said Lucy Rider, a tenor in the choir. “I had no idea what went into putting a play on. It’s huge, and it’s been hugely interesting to see that process unfold.”
Joseph Musser, bass, agreed, saying even though one of his daughters minored in theater and he’d had some prior experience with the process, he learned a lot about the level of detail and precision required for bringing a show to its feet.
“I used to tell my daughter that theater people used to strike me as obsessive-compulsive,” Musser said. “She would say, ‘Well they have to be, there’s so much to pay attention to and figure out.’ I understand a little more of what she meant now.”
However, Becker, Rider and Musser weren’t just there to learn and observe. Members of the choir sang in every one of the show’s many performances, providing a lively backing track to the actions that unfolded each night.
Musser said that, while the songs and presentation were similar to a typical choir performance, there were some key differences when bringing their voices to the theatrical stage.
“One big difference is that, instead of practicing for half an hour, performing and then moving on, you do these songs over and over and over again,” Musser said. “It makes a huge difference in how you approach the music and how you approach rehearsing.”
According to Musser, another notable difference is the audience’s level of focus.
“Playing in church, when you’re doing the prelude, people are all talking to one another and not listening,” Musser said. “Here, people actually pay attention. It really is rewarding to have an audience with that level of attention.”
And while the attentive audience was something the choir members enjoyed, both Rider and Musser cited the bonds they formed with their fellow singers, as well as with the CTC actors, as the best part of the process.
“Everyone has been so wonderful and so patient,” Rider said. “The actors have accepted us so warmly, and working together as a group to complete this task was so rewarding.”
Becker said that, due to time constraints, she would be hesitant to leap into another theater performance anytime soon, but that the experience was an overwhelmingly positive one nonetheless.
Rider, however, didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, yes, I absolutely would,” she said. “I enjoyed myself immensely.”