On the first day of April, I had dinner with 50 strangers. We were gathered around long tables in the vestibule of Judson Memorial Church for their monthly Wednesday Bailout evening of communal food and performance art. The chicken soup was delicious. There was potato salad, lentils, chickpeas, plenty of vegan and gluten-free options, dessert, and lemonade. Judson Church had furnished some of the food; a few diners had responded to the call for potluck with the rest. Among us were a handful of actors, some industry people, members of Judson’s congregation, and folk who maybe couldn’t find a square dinner elsewhere. Some had come for the food; some had come for the community; some had come for the theater. The vibe fell somewhere between VFW and hipster Biergarten.
I’d spent the last four days joyously ensconced in Judson Church’s spacious organ loft rehearsing Blood on the Tracks, a collage play with music that is so extreme in its liberties and amorphous in its form that I had doubted it would ever see the light of day. The script, collaboratively written by Steve DiUbaldo, Alec Silberblatt, and myself, had undergone so many revisions over the preceding four days that the first draft seemed barely recognizable. My indestructible actors, the exceptional Chris Wren, Royer Bockus, Dylan Kammerer, and Mia Kang, had adjusted with aplomb to every line change and scene reordering. Nobody was getting paid; there was no press release or article on Playbill; there were no future performances scheduled.
But there was chicken soup. There was the opportunity to eat at long tables with strangers before the show and then talk with them after. There was a chance to make theater for people who were not typical theater-goers. There were a few hours in which no money was exchanged. Everybody left well fed. An ambitious play was completely revised and re-understood. And some beautiful songs and scenes got performed in the organ loft of a breathtaking old church.
The theme for our workshop production was “Do It Anyway.” We can’t make any money off this—do it anyway. The play was untested and unfinished—do it anyway. There isn’t nearly enough rehearsal time—do it anyway. “Do It Anyway” distills much of the approach of Judson Church, not only its arts programming, but also its entire ethos for operation. Long a bastion of Greenwich Village progressivism and social justice, Judson Church is synonymous with the purest and most adaptable forms of religious tolerance, open mindedness, pluralism, unity, and equality. A quick stroll through the links on their website reveals just where this congregation’s priorities lie: needle exchange programs, immigration reform, LGBT ministry, and homeless services. Before our performance, a member of the resident Freegan group handed out pamphlets.
Over the last few years, Judson has greatly expanded this “Do It Anyway” approach to a full roster of arts programming under the heading of Judson Arts Wednesdays. Armed with his mantra of “glitter as ministry,” Micah Bucey, Associate Pastor at Judson, has reinvented much of the implementation of Judson’s progressive social activism by exploring performance art’s potential for community building and social justice. A few days after Blood on the Tracks, still flying high on creative euphoria, I sat down with Bucey to chat about his ministry and the work happening at Judson.
Bucey is the kind of guy you want to stand next to in a crowd. Tall, bearded, perpetually smiling, calm, and hyper-engaged, he’s the dude at the bar who you’d never expect to be a minister but who couldn’t possibly be anything else. He bases Judson Arts Wednesdays on “the theological idea that just as food sustains the body, art sustains the soul. There are those who are at need for both of those at different times. Our idea is to collide audiences who are in search of one or both of those things.”
Listening to Bucey speak, I think back on the audience at Blood on the Tracks. It was a true kaleidoscope, from the guy in his 60s with long hair talking about seeing shows at the Fillmore in ’69 to the middle-aged woman with two kids. I realize, in retrospect, that it’s entirely possible that either or both of them were there because they needed dinner that night. But the magic of Judson’s program is that, at that moment, the thought never crossed my mind.
This unawareness isn’t accidental. “There are people who come because they are food insecure,” Bucey said. “Some of them are homeless, some of them aren’t. And then we have the younger, hipster crowd who come to see their friends’ art. We’re creating an experimental place where people feel free to create art that they wouldn’t create otherwise, and where people who might not feel free to go to a soup kitchen can feel comfortable coming for food.” He explained that the program is called Bailout because it came about in Fall 2009 when the bank bailouts were happening. “Tons of people in the village around us were having their hours cut or losing their jobs and were suddenly food or money insecure in a way that they never thought they would be. We thought we would create a charity program where the charity was in disguise.”
Judson Arts Wednesdays has four distinct programs: Bailouts, Magic Time (which presents plays in development in staged readings), Dead Darlings (where artists showcase work that has either been cut or rejected), and Open Swim (where the room is open, the lights are on, and people are invited to create work in community with other people). The theme amongst these distinct programs is consistent: serve people, not product. Bucey is resolute in maintaining this human emphasis in his work. “Magic Time, our playwright development program, develops not plays, but people. I don’t read a play to see if the play can be developed, but to see if the person can be developed, because who am I to judge the work they make?”
What’s more, the space at Judson says yes to everything and everyone, regardless of form, content, or polish. “We’ve always—for decades—had a tradition of non-censorship. We trust that if someone is giving what they have to authentically give, that we will appreciate and accept it,” Bucey insists. “Even if it’s a dance piece where everyone gets naked, it’s still speaking theologically. It’s asking questions about the divine and its relevance.”
As Bucey and I talk and I reflect upon my experience directing Blood on the Tracks for Bailout, I find myself suddenly thinking about faith, community, forgiveness, and judgment—religious themes that have been absent from my lapsed-Catholic brain for years. In an instant every moral I learned in Sunday School or at church or from my hyper-faithful mother and grandmother is at the tip of my brain. And it feels good. I feel comforted, secure, and supported as I reconsider the morals and ethics of a religion that has been peripheral to me since college. I feel like I’m in a place bereft of judgment—a place that leads with artistry and individualism over judgment and laws—and suddenly the art we made at Bailout becomes worth much, much more than the one night performance.
The experience I’m having is, of course, not accidental. Bucey is adamant that Judson Arts Wednesday will forever be absent of proselytizing or preaching. Instead, he sees it as the most basic form of ministry—reaching people wherever they are and helping them. “I don’t know who I am as a person and a minister if I’m not just welcoming people,” Bucey says. “I have a whole new Wednesday congregation—people who don’t come on Sunday, but come back on Wednesdays to engage artistically. I’ve grown more faithful because I have a ton of artists who want to talk about other things beside art. It’s not about getting people to talk about church or God, but people want to talk about those things. Using art as a form of spirituality sometimes works better than church proper.”
Bucey, and Judson Church, are by no means bereft of an agenda. But the agenda is a decidedly apolitical one of opening doors, welcoming people in, and healing. “I know what church has done to damage people and I don’t want people to think ‘oh god, this guy is giving me a space and now he wants to talk about God.’ I find that in opening the space, people want to have these conversations.” And he’s right. Post-Bailout, I find myself reconsidering Judeo-Christian teachings and their relationship to my work and my life. It doesn’t leave me wanting to go to church, necessarily, but it definitely leaves me wanting to go to more Bailout events. Bucey isn’t sneaky about any of it—this isn’t a church bus that offers you a free ride if you listen to the driver quote scripture. He makes clear that the entire purpose of the events is to mix the mediums and foster the cross-pollination of food, art, and spirit. The end result, even for the least spiritual, is fulfilling and nourishing.
A remarkable thing happened at the end of Blood on the Tracks. The cast hugged. I had a long conversation with a woman who describes herself as a “professional healer” about all the things she didn’t like about the show (and there were many). The audience dispersed. I began stacking the chairs. I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Micah put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let us do this. You’ve done your work tonight.”
Imagine you’re an emerging theater director who has just been told that the work you did as an artist was enough. Imagine feeling, suddenly, appreciated and acknowledged. Imagine a strange feeling of completion and satisfaction filling you, a feeling that rarely has room amongst the arguing voices of frustration and insufficiency in your brain. Imagine that you’ve suddenly been given the beautiful gift of a space, an audience, time to work, and enormous amounts of gratitude and appreciation.
It feels heavenly.
ContributorJohn Michael DiResta
JOHN MICHAEL DiRESTA is a theater director who focuses on new work development, immersive theater, musical theater, and theater for social justice. He has developed new plays at The Public Theater, MCC Theater, Rattlestick Theater, Ensemble Studio Theater, The Hangar Theater, and many others.