By Howard Chapman
Journal Gazette
10/23/2021 12:00:00 AM

Howard Chapman, longtime First Presbyterian Church member

There is a theater within a church in downtown Fort Wayne.

No, it is not located in a room otherwise used as a dining area, nor is it located in a gymnasium or other general-purpose space. It is a fully equipped, permanent and functioning traditional theater with seating for more than 300 people.

It has been an important part of the Fort Wayne arts community for more than 60 years, and it is called First Presbyterian Theater.

Plays there have covered the broad spectrum of drama, comedy and musicals?:?Shakespeare on more than one occasion. Sondheim, Moliere, Albee, Tennessee Williams, Ibsen and Neil Simon.

Nonetheless, on more than one occasion I have heard someone ask something like, “Why would a church have a theater in it?” After all, Fort Wayne has a vibrant arts culture with several excellent community theaters. And what does a theater have to do with religion?

Reasonable questions.

One obvious answer: The theater brings people to see plays who might not otherwise come to the church. It provides an introduction to the place for people who might not otherwise know about it. It draws men and women to auditions for plays, some of whom are chosen to perform and many of whom wind up becoming new church members.

But in my own experience, there is also a sound spiritual difference between most theaters and what happens at First Pres.

Several years ago, I went to an audition there and was chosen to play one of the characters in a difficult play written by T.S. Eliot. At that time there was a church member named Phil Headings, a professor at IPFW and a nationally recognized Eliot scholar. Phil agreed to attend all of the rehearsals and to help the cast interpret the play.

There was also a man in the cast whom I will call Dan. We were well into the fifth week of rehearsal when Dan came to the theater drunk. It soon became apparent that he was in no condition to participate in rehearsal and, when the director, John Tolley, tried to help him, he became belligerent.

It became tense and unpleasant for all of us, and especially for him. After a short while he announced, in a flurry of obscenities, that he was leaving the show. With that, he stormed out.

In community theater it is not common to have understudies, so this created a real dilemma. It would be nearly impossible to find someone who would be willing to step in on short notice, and who would be capable of learning that role in the short time left before opening night. But we were lucky.

Phil Headings had been to every rehearsal and knew the play by heart. He not only knew the lines; he knew the cues and the blocking. After much discussion, he agreed to take on the role. We proceeded to do a run-through, and Phil did fine.

It was going to be OK.

The next evening when we assembled for rehearsal, John Tolley gathered us together in the green room. He told us that Dan was downstairs, that he felt terrible about the night before, and that he wanted to come back and do the show.

Then John had us join hands and led us in prayer. He talked about forgiveness, about second chances, about the prodigal son and other passages from the Bible. When he finished, he asked whether the rest of us could forgive and welcome Dan back. There were no dry eyes, and I can assure you that there was unanimous agreement.

Dan was greeted with warmth, and he was reliable, competent, well mannered and congenial throughout the entire production. Perhaps this would have been resolved in the same way at a typical commercial theater : perhaps not.

First Pres is presenting shows again this fall and winter. A thriller, “The Bad Seed,” ran on Broadway for 10 months. It will open at First Pres Theater on Friday and will run through Nov. 7.

Howard Chapman is a Fort Wayne resident.

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