The Parish of Calvary–St. George’s has welcomed a theater company called Sea Dog, which seeks to “tell stories of alienation and reconciliation.”
Plays are staged in the church, and Sea Dog hosts meals with wine for the cast, crew, and audience afterward. Sea Dog’s first production, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, won Outstanding Revival of a Play at the 2018 New York Innovative Theatre Awards.
In Lent, Amber Noel interviewed Sea Dog’s director, Chris Domig, in tandem with the rector of Calvary–St. George’s, the Rev. Jacob Smith, to find out more about this friendship. Spoiler alert: This interview refers to the endings of two different plays.
Why did you start this theater?
Domig: The first question you say to the person next to you after Death of a Salesman is probably not “What do you do for a living?” Great stories ask great questions. If a play does its job, these questions continue to ricochet within us. Why send the audience back out into the night alone? Theater can help us realign our vision — of ourselves, and what we need to be restored.
Also, people come to Sea Dog and think they’re exchanging $20 for a play, and we suddenly offer them a banquet table and community. That’s perplexing to people in the best possible way. Communion is a code word for what we do.
You’re not a “Christian theater” but you’re doing theater from a church. Tell me more.
Domig: This church was the one who kept coming to Sea Dog and saying, “What you guys are doing fits with our mission.” A lot depends on whether the rector understands the artistic vision. Fr. Jacob does. He’s done audience talkbacks after performances about the spiritual themes of the plays. That’s really special.
The old building helps, too. Most artists I know appreciate intentionality. There is intentionality about the architecture. We’re an off-off-Broadway theater. If someone says, “Here’s a free space,” you go for it. But we’re in a space that’s imagined for multiple purposes. There’s a mystery about it. There’s sacredness.
Take an example. For Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, we staged a bar scene in the part of the church basement used as a soup kitchen. Then we used the choir crypt for the final two scenes, which take place in a character’s bedroom.
The audience sees the church soup kitchen become a local watering hole, and the place where people are sleeping in Christ becomes a bedroom. That’s powerful.
Domig: Well, they call it the choircrypt. I don’t know how many are sleeping. … But yes!
We’re doing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis [originally directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman] on March 29. This play is long, it has language, and Fr. Jacob is letting us do it in the main sanctuary.
Front and center?
Domig: This is a play that is relevant to New Yorkers. It’s full of humor, uses the language of New Yorkers. What if, during Lent, you put on something for people that would never set foot in a church otherwise? The spiritual questions the play raises are so worthwhile, Fr. Jacob was willing to give us that space.
The sanctuary is also appropriate because in the play, Judas is on trial in a courtroom, and the play is about grace. It asks, is there anything beyond the grace of God? It’s going to spark conversations.
Tell me about the church’s friendship with Sea Dog.
Smith: We started an arts ministry back in 2014, and this introduced us to Sea Dog. Our message is to preach Jesus, who reconciles all of us alienated humans back to God; their mission is to produce plays around themes of alienation and reconciliation. It’s a natural synergy.
Where do you see signs of God at work?
Smith: They did a play about housing in Chicago, with different ethnic groups getting bought out by one another over time. The questions raised delve to the heart and soul of what it is to be human. How am I alienated? What does reconciliation look like? Oftentimes it looks like loss.
At the end of another play, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, the main character gets pummeled for the sake of a woman, like the Bridegroom and the Bride. But this is the gospel. It’s not a pretty thing. These plays leave you asking, “Where does my help come from?” To put that in the context of a church is very, very powerful. That is where I see the Holy Spirit working.
Do any tensions ever arise between your mission as a church and the theater’s?
Smith: There would be tension if they were producing bad art — especially in New York City. The bar is high.
Before they perform something at Calvary–St. George’s, do you approve it?
Smith: I really trust them. They ran one play by me called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
That’s the play you’re hosting in the sanctuary, in such a sacred space. Why the sanctuary?
Smith: The point of the play is that the gates of hell are not locked. Every person in hell has chosen to be there. Jesus has kicked open the gates. I think about my own life. I’d prefer to relish my own anger, my own resentments, rather than release and be released from bondage. Deep down, I prefer alienation. And this is what The Last Days is trying to convey — a particularly important theme in Easter.
This play is intense. You’ll probably get some emails and phone calls. Does a part of you say, “Bring it on”?
Smith: That’s evangelism. We throw big questions out there, and Sea Dog is the means by which we’re asking them.
How does your congregation interact with Sea Dog?
Smith: Around here, if you go to church, you’re kind of weird. The church gets to see good art for a really low price, rare in NYC, and then parishioners can engage with audience members at the banquet afterward, who talk to them and say, “Oh, you’re normal!” Congregants invite people to see that there’s good conversation happening in the church — not with the agenda to convert, but to provoke bigger questions.
Which can be a sneaky path to conversion.
Smith: Of course!
Can other churches have these kinds of partnerships?
Smith: Do it if you like art. First you have to like art. Nobody wants an extra project, or to be someone’s project. If you do open your space up, don’t micromanage, but allow artists to be artists and watch what God does.