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West End theatres warm to chaplains

22 May 2015

On the eve of an inaugural lecture, Madeleine Davies looks at Theatre Chaplaincy UK

Johan Persson

Leading actor: Kristin Scott Thomas with a canine member of the cast

Leading actor: Kristin Scott Thomas with a canine member of the cast

WITH rave reviews under her belt, Kristin Scott Thomas is treading the boards as the Queen in The Audience, at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Downstairs, the front-of-house team are playing Uno, waiting for the interval and the crowds that will swarming into this hushed space.

Sitting alongside them is the Associate Rector at St James's, Piccadilly, and senior chaplain at Theatre Chaplaincy UK (TCUK), the Revd Lindsay Meader. It is only the fourth day of this run of The Audience, but Ms Meader has known these young people for months.

"I've never had any connection with anyone in the Church," Sophie, one of the theatre staff, says. "I don't see you [Ms Meader] as someone from the Church, but just as a friend, which is nice. There is not any sense of 'You have to believe this,' or a judgemental attitude. You just have a nice presence. It's not that you are trying to change us."

Josh agrees. He assumed that Christians had a problem with gay people, but says that Ms Meader is "not narrow-minded". "If you were anti-gay, this would be the worst for you," Sophie jokes.

Adam, who, like many of the team, is an actor, recalls how a theatre chaplain gave him "fantastic support" when he broke his leg during a run at Drury Lane. "I didn't know that theatre chaplains existed until he came to visit me," he remembers. "Then I was made aware of weekly meetings in the theatre, just for a chat and getting worries off your mind."

He speaks of a misconception that actors are confident. "Actually, we are very scared. We worry about what people think about us. Realising that you are not the only one helped me."

The easy atmosphere is testament to the rapport that Ms Meader has built with the staff. When she helped relaunch the Actors' Church Union three years ago (it was rebranded as TCUK in 2013), she discovered that theatre chaplains were not universally cherished by those in the business. In conversation with company managers, she learned about chaplains who were known as "celebrity stalkers", or who sought to convert the cast.

Some of the managers had never had a chaplain, and others were nervous about employing one. It took Ms Meader 18 months just to get in the door at her first theatre.

A turning point was the partial ceiling collapse at the Apollo in December 2013. Three months later, the CEO of Nimax Theatres, Nica Burns, invited Ms Meader and the Revd Simon Grigg, Rector of the "Actors' Church", St Paul's, Covent Garden, and Chaplain to the Garrick Theatre, to conduct a blessing for the refurbished theatre.

They developed a liturgy together, and, wearing robes and using incense and holy water, led a procession through the stalls, "rehallowing and reclaiming the sacred space".

The response from those present - which included builders, painters, and technicians as well as the theatre staff - was initially sceptical. But it was felt to be "healing", and, with the endorsement of Ms Burns, now a patron of TCUK, other theatres began to open their doors.

"Theatre demands a lot," the Revd Edward Olsworth-Peter says. He is about to become the diocesan adviser for Fresh Expressions and Young Adults in Ely, and was the chaplain who had supported Adam. "It is quite an uncertain profession, and you can be in work, then out of work. Chaplains are there to help people in an uncertain industry."

Ms Meader has listened to people talking about relationship problems, bereavement, and unhappiness within companies. Some people may feel bullied or isolated.

It is not just - or even primarily - about the actors, she explains. "The whole point is to be there for everybody. Most of the actors are well established, living in London already, with a really good support network."

Front-of-house staff are often talented people with dreams of acting, writing, and directing, she says. She can sympathise: she took a degree in drama and post-modern literature, before joining a training theatre in Exeter. But two bad car accidents ended her hopes of a career on stage.

"I never blamed God, but realising that that dream was not going to happen was like a huge bereavement," she says.

It was partly through meeting an actor who was open about his faith that led her to seek ordination. At the first service she attended with her mother, the priest compared the beauty of the language in Genesis to that in Shakespeare, and something clicked.

Ms Meader hopes to add more chaplains to their number. "I feel extremely blessed being ordained," she says. "But to end up still being part of the theatre community, in what feels like the most appropriate role - I feel very lucky."

The Inaugural Theatre Chaplaincy UK lecture, by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, takes place at St Paul's Church, Bedford Street, on Wednesday 27 May.

Long history In 1879, the Revd Stewart Headlam formed the Church and Stage Guild, to "get rid of the prejudices widely felt by religious people against the stage, and by theatrical people against the Church." In 1898, the Revd Donald Hole and an actor, Charlie Cameron, formed the Actors' Church Union (ACU), so that actors could receive "helpful ministrations from the Church". By the outbreak of the First World War, there were 1828 members and 349 chaplains.

The ACU was a practical organisation. It produced a "digs list" to help companies locate accommodation.

The TCUK's website says that theatre chaplains still seek to be a source of stability and support to theatre professionals. There are now 16 chaplains in London, and 20 around the country, as well as five in Scotland.

The Bishop of Stafford, the Rt Revd Geoff Annas, a stager in his youth, has been a theatre chaplain for 20 years, currently at the Regent Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. He has conducted communion services in dressing rooms, dealt with deaths among the company and in the audience, and said prayers before curtain-up. 

"I think there is something about artistic people: a spiritual awareness and sensitivity," he says - though they often lack someone to pull things together. He remembers one production when he went from from dressing room to dressing room, hearing in each that the occupant was disappointed to be the only Christian in the company. 


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