A Catholic School Teacher Explains the Deeply Formative Nature of the Theater Arts
Before Karol Wojtyla felt called to become a priest, he aspired to be an actor. As a young man, he delighted in bringing stories to life in front of live audiences. Dramatic storytelling so thoroughly captivated his imagination that, during the Nazi occupation that made it dangerous for Poles to engage in patriotic and religious activities, he formed an underground theater group and performed plays in people’s homes in secret.
Pope John Paul II biographer George Wiegel writes that, for young Wojtyla, performing plays—including those inspired by classic Polish literature—was deeply formative. It filled him with joy and bound him in a special way to the people around him. As Wiegel explains,
Theater, for Wojtyla, was… an experience of community, the self-disciplined action of a group of individuals who, by blending their individual talents with the talents of others, become something more than the sum of their parts.
His experience with theater formed the future saint in another important way: it immersed him—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—in great stories that revealed truths about the human experience. Participating in plays thus reinforced for Wojtyla the Truth of his Catholic upbringing, assisting him on his journey to discern his vocation and fulfill his purpose in the world.
Much has changed in the decades following St. John Paul the Great’s historic life and papacy. Theater is no longer a center of cultural life in the Western world. And the deeply formative nature of the theater arts has been largely forgotten by many educators and cultural leaders.
But that is not the case among leaders of the Catholic education renewal moment who are passionate about forming students who know who they are and why they were made. Paula Grimm is one of those leaders. She embraces the teaching of drama because she believes that “the stories we tell can be a grace to our students and their audiences and deepen their intimacy with God who is the Author of our lives.”
Grimm is the Director of Performing Arts at St. Monica Academy in Montrose, California. Founded by parents in 2001, St. Monica’s is an independent school for grades 1-12 that seeks to “form students in faith, reason, and virtue through a liberal arts education in the Roman Catholic tradition.” A member school of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, St. Monica’s is led by educators who believe that the purpose of education is “to lead the young soul through activities which cause growth in the theological, intellectual, and moral virtues.”
Drama is one of those activities. Under Grimm’s leadership, St. Monica's drama program has become an essential part of the school’s celebrated culture and curriculum. As part of the drama program, all grade school students perform in multiple skits and presentations, including a Christmas Pageant and living Stations of the Cross, every year. All ninth graders take a drama class and all high school students participate in dinner theater presentations at an annual literary-historical feast. In addition, all high school students are invited to audition for an annual Shakespeare production and spring musical.
Photo credit: John Haggard ©St.Monica Academy
Past plays have included Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Comedy of Errors. Past Musicals have included The Sound of Music and 1776. This year, students will perform in Shakespeare’s Richard III and the musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Photo credit: Jonathan Green ©St.Monica Academy
Grimm delights in seeing students of all ages experience the joy of drama as part of a faithfully Catholic education. She notes the importance of selecting plays and musicals that reveal universal truths about the human experience. “By choosing stories that echo the themes of the great story of salvation,” she says, “students are presented with heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, light and darkness.” She continues:
This allows them to wrestle with profound truths as they enter into these stories and act them out upon the stage. In the midst of the dramatic tension, they begin to experience a pull, a longing, a desire that leads towards an ultimate order and peace. They start to breathe the atmosphere of beauty, and the impulse to conform themselves to the beautiful dawns in their hearts.
Grimm says that, in addition to absorbing philosophical and theological truths, students who are exposed to drama learn practical lessons relating to memorization, rhetoric, and collaboration. They also learn an important life lesson: not everyone can be the star of the show, but everyone has a unique role to play that contributes to a successful run.
Photo credit: Serina Rockwell ©St.Monica Academy
As Grimm enters her ninth year teaching at St. Monica’s, she prays that, through the drama program, students and audiences “will get a small glimpse of the transcendent glory that awaits us all.”
“The liturgy itself is a drama,” she explains. “And the stories we tell should help us to remember the most important story: ‘Do this in memory of me.’”
“And this should be a cause of great joy and thanksgiving.”
Charlie Goodwin is a faculty member and membership coordinator for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.
Kimberly Begg is editor of Catholic School Playbook and Director of Programs and General Counsel of the Ortner Family Foundation.