By Ben Gartland, communications specialist
It’s not often that a Jesuit seeks the spotlight. But for some whose mission is to preach through the arts, finding themselves center stage is a realization of their vocation.
Across the country, Midwest Jesuits carry on the centuries-old tradition of using the arts—acting, writing, and directing—to share their God-given talents as ministry.
“We have to remember that in the classical ancient theater, the first actors were priests,” said Fr. George Drance, SJ. “The early tradition of the Jesuit theater was steeped in the morality tales of the classics, the Scriptures, and the theatrical tradition. Those plays by the early Jesuits were formative of their contemporaries and really shaped the theater of the world.”
Father Drance has been acting and directing for more than two decades.
In New York, he teaches acting at Fordham University and is the founder and artistic director of the Magis Theatre Company. He also works with the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, an organization that celebrates works that push the boundaries of language and culture. It was through La MaMa that he starred in *mark, a one-man show that relays the stories of the Gospel of Mark in a contemporary setting.
“Living in the words of the Gospel is a profound experience,” said Fr. Drance. “Going through it on stage and sharing it with others, it gets back into the oral tradition of the early Church.”
“There is a feeling of being a connection between the audience and the spirit of the play. The way in which the message of the playwrights is transmitted to these particular people is through my work.”
Father Drance has also served as a model and spiritual director for those interested in the arts—but who also feel a call to religious life. Brother Joseph Hoover, SJ, is one of those Jesuits. He found success in various acting roles in his hometown, Omaha, and then again when he moved to New York. It was there he met Jesuits, such as Fr. Drance, who showed him he could be both an actor and playwright, as well as a vowed religious.
Brother Hoover has acted in many roles and written several plays in his career. He completed a successful run as a member of the ensemble of King Lear in the Shakespeare in the Park series in Central Park, and he starred in one of his latest plays he wrote, Amends, alongside his brother, Bill Hoover. They portrayed all eight characters who were attempting to atone for past transgressions. He also played twin brothers in an off-Broadway show, Monster, and Smirnov in Anton Chekhov’s comedy, The Bear.
Brother Hoover is also the poetry editor for America magazine and founded Xavier Theatre and Film, a Brooklyn-based company creating new works in the Catholic arts tradition.
“As a Jesuit, you use what you’ve got to serve the greater glory of God,” said Br. Hoover. “The brothers especially have been craftsmen or sculptors so, by being a brother, you have the freedom to make your ministry your work.”
That line of thinking is also what led Fr. Jim McDermott, SJ, into ministry as a screenwriter.
Father McDermott entered the Society thinking perhaps he would be a teacher and spent a number of years of his formation teaching English and drama at the Jesuit-sponsored Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. But throughout his formation, even on his yearly retreats, he found himself imagining scenes, plots, and stories. That led him to pursue media work a year after his ordination.
“I went to America magazine trying to find a way of doing communications and also to explore these persistent thoughts of filmmaking,” he said. “‘Was there something to them, or what?’ With the encouragement of my provincial and other Jesuits I eventually decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to take that risk.’”
He applied to film schools across the country, ending up at UCLA. He also landed an internship with AMC, where he spent three years providing feedback on scripts while working on his own ideas, eventually selling a script to the network and later writing for its show Preacher.
Father McDermott said working with AMC was the best experience he’s had in Hollywood. “They were so interested in story and in character at a deep level,” he said. “It was such a great and creative community of people.”
In addition to screenwriting, Fr. McDermott works as a California correspondent for America, and writes television and movie reviews. He also publishes a weekly e-newsletter, “Pop Culture Spirit Wow,” that focuses on the ways that pop culture and spirituality intertwine.
While some may dismiss pop culture as meaningless, Fr. McDermott considers it often modern-day sacramental. “It’s a way that God is able to speak to us and we are open to being spoken to,” he said.
Through both current pop culture and classics from centuries ago, Jesuits continue to keep the arts alive within the Society and the Church as a whole.