AMBS intern explores intersection of theater, comedy and theology

AMBS intern explores intersection of theater, comedy and theology

Annette Brill Bergstresser

Alison Brookins creates one-act play on the Doctrine of Discovery

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Sometime in the winter of 2012, while agonizing over what to do next in life, Alison Brookins saw her first Ted & Co. play, a performance of I’d Like to Buy an Enemy at her home church, Madison (Wisconsin) Mennonite Church.

“I thought, ‘Wow … this is what theater can do!’ It can open us to the poignant by means of the hilarious,” said Brookins, who had acted throughout her youth but had left the technical theater program at Goshen (Indiana) College to work on a farm because she wanted to do something that “mattered more.” “Then I got depressed, thinking, ‘Why did I leave school when I could have done this?’”

Around that time Brookins was also discovering a love for writing. She returned to school over a year later and completed a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences Communications with a minor in environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin.

In the fall of 2014, she enrolled at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, to explore theology and communication in the Master of Divinity program. And that year, she set about contacting Ted Swartz of Ted & Co. in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to ask about doing a 10-week internship with him to fulfill her Supervised Ministry Experience requirement.

“Theology is faith seeking understanding, and I think that Ted’s work opens up stories, pulls out things we hadn’t noticed before, and communicates those in new and fun ways,” she said. “Ted has this whole shtick about how ‘humor’ has same root word as ‘human’ and ‘humus’ [of the earth], so it’s like what grounds you and what is real. Finding the humor in things is a way of connecting with the human.”

Swartz, who had worked with a seminary-level intern once before, said he was open to the idea of working with Brookins and interested in her perspectives as a seminary student from the “much maligned” millennial generation.

“I was looking forward to having someone in their 20s seriously explore what it means to work theatrically with theology, and how comedy fits within that equation, and where that would take us,” he said. “There hasn’t been very much academic thought about the combination of theater, comedy and theology.”

He added that Brookins’ “self-directed energy and great capacity for organized thought” impressed him right away as she began her internship: “We met on Monday to talk about a piece on God and Hosea she was writing for a worship service. When we got back together on Wednesday, it was a considerably restructured, revamped sketch that reflected a real craft and sense of the art of it. That was pretty exciting. I knew this was going to be fun.”

Discovery: A Comic Lament

One of Brookins’ specific goals for the internship was to write two comic sketches to raise awareness of and start conversations about the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD), which she described as the philosophical and legal framework that justifies the ongoing displacement and oppression of Indigenous people. As a migratory, agrarian group, Mennonites have been complicit in this story of displacement and domination, she noted. She got the idea for the topic from Katerina Friesen, a fellow AMBS student and member of the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition — a group of Mennonites working systematically to dismantle the DoD.

“Shorthand, the DoD is ‘finders, keepers,’” Brookins said. “It is arrival, claiming the right by discovery to conquest and extraction of resources, enslavement of people, extinction of beings. And it’s not over; it’s continuing. It’s a core justice issue.”

Brookins ended up writing a one-act play, Discovery: A Comic Lament, basing her work on Swartz’s play, I’d Like to Buy an Enemy. She created a series of five sketches ranging from absurdist comedy to fairly serious monologues to farce.

“In my show, I connect to the Mennonite story of persecution, displacement, migration and finding hope and healing in the land,” she explained. “It’s painful to discover that the thing that gave you hope and healing is deeply problematic and has come through violence done to other people. I want to invite people to listen to, acknowledge and enter into lament for this devastating story, and from that place of lament to hear and respond with creativity to Indigenous voices offering paths forward.”

Both Brookins and Swartz noted that the show doesn’t present any solutions.

“In terms of the medium of theater helping us to confront issues, it’s much like any piece of art; you as an observer are going to need to do some work,” Swartz reflected. “I’ve said that theater’s ability to change people’s hearts and minds is somewhat dependent on their willingness to be changed.”

Discovery: A Comic LamentBrookins performed the play on Aug. 14 at her home congregation in the traditional Ho-Chunk land that is now Madison, and on Sept. 16 for the AMBS community with Swartz, Michelle Milne and Ben Ollenburger. She said she’s still in the process of revising it and was grateful for the feedback her audiences offered.

Swartz added, “We spent a lot of time talking about how to keep the show artful, funny and poignant, yet clear; there was a really wonderful give-and-take about that. I think it has the potential to be an exceptional piece.”

“The most joyful group of people”

Brookins noted that the two writing groups Swartz arranged for her to be part of during her internship were “one of the coolest parts” of her summer. One met monthly and the other weekly, with members taking turns submitting pieces for review by the group.

“The weekly group was the most valuable experience I’ve ever had,” she reflected. “It took away the fear, ‘This needs to be good before I submit it.’ Between Ted and the writing group, I was getting feedback twice a week, and it just really pushed me ahead.”

“This group was the most joyful group of people I’ve ever been a part of,” she added, noting that they plan to continue to meet, with her joining via Skype. She has also started a weekly academic writing group at AMBS. “I’m looking for ways that what I do can be both academically sound and rigorous and full of the joy of life and the joy of humor and the light of God.”

Swartz affirmed that the writing groups “were about as much fun as you’re allowed to have,” adding that in a collaborative art form such as theater, to have many voices in the creative process “somehow feels right.”

‘Good drama’ for the church

“Alison has an amazing capacity to be super-creative and imaginative and comedic, and at the same time she’s extremely organized — a rare combination,” said Allan Rudy-Froese, associate professor of Christian proclamation at AMBS and a friend of Swartz’s. “She basically created her own internship, and we’re really open to that at AMBS.”

Rudy-Froese, who teaches a class called Performing the Faith, noted the benefit to both Brookins and the AMBS community that she would continue to develop her DoD play in the seminary context: “This allows AMBS to be part of a really creative project for the church and to contribute to what Alison’s doing.”

“Theater and the church have always had this relationship — sometimes we get along, sometimes we don’t — and it seems to me that we’re getting along quite well these days,” he added. “The way Ted is doing theater for the church, we’ve found it to be an excellent way to communicate and to foster discussion and community.”

Rudy-Froese noted that one of his dreams is for AMBS to model “good drama in the church” — three- to five-minute worship sketches that are performed well: “I think we’ve modeled some good preaching and storytelling at AMBS; we could also model good sketches with help from people like Alison and Ted.”

Safwat Marzouk, associate professor of Old Testament at AMBS and Brookins’ advisor, affirmed her realization that theater is an embodied way of proclaiming the gospel and inspiring audiences to seek peace through justice and reconciliation.

“Her internship with Ted has helped her bring closer together her passion for theater and her love for God and the church,” he observed. “For Alison, the theatrical work of writing, directing and performing creates a genuine space to talk about painful issues and at the same time creates a vision of hope in which peace is possible.”

What now?

Brookins said she has retained her interest in pastoral leadership and is now asking, “How can writing be a part of my work as a pastor?”

“This experience has so widened out everything I’m thinking about and has deepened my enjoyment of life,” she said. “I’m wondering, ‘Can I find a congregation that will gladly give me time to do this thing that is a gift that is given to me … can I then give that to my church?’”

Alison Brookins and Ted SwartzShe said she appreciates Swartz’s thoughtfulness, graciousness and his “amazing gift to critique with love.”

When critiquing her writing, she said he “sits back, puts his glasses on his forehead, and then kind of scoops up everything and makes a holistic comment. From that you can go home and completely rewrite what you did and make it better.”

“What is also impressive for somebody so funny is that he never has to be the funniest person in the room; humor is collaborative for him,” she added.

She said she learned from Swartz that humor “is based in a deep love for the message you’re bringing. What is yours to make fun of and critique?”

In September, Brookins joined Swartz, photographer Steven Stauffer and crew members Dietrich Alderfer (Swartz’s nephew) and Derek Reiff-Swartz (Swartz’s son) for 10 days of a 27-day Laughter is Sacred Space: Human Faces tour through eight states. According to Swartz, she was “a huge part of making the tour work” — building the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the tour, shaping the logistics of the tour, redesigning the set, helping create a structure to transport the set in the van, and restructuring the merchandise table, among other tasks.

“It’s been tremendously rewarding to work with someone who is younger than my children and has an interest in things that I do; it’s an honor to be asked for that kind of thing,” Swartz reflected. “Artists function constantly with what I call a low-grade fear of irrelevance. To have someone who feels as if what I’m trying to do is not only still relevant but also something they perhaps want to emulate in part … that’s significant.

“I’m gratified that Alison has been able to find another avenue to express what she thinks is crucial and that is spiritually rewarding and can be a part of her life — whatever ministry she ends up being part of. Her spirit and abilities are truly significant, and I’m glad I had a chance to be part of her journey.”

Read more of Brookins’ reflections on her internship at: