Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Spotlight on National Community Church and Godspell

By • Apr 6th, 2007 • Category: Interviews

Listen to Mike talk with Heather Zempel, about the National Community Church’s production of Godspell, and the church and theatre [MP3 13:07 3.8MB].

Mike: This is Mike with ShowBizRadio and our spotlight today is on Heather Zempel, who is with the National Community Church. She is going to talk with us about the production of Godspell which is going on this week. Good morning Heather.

Heather: Good morning, Mike. Thanks so much for having us on today.

Mike: Sure, not a problem, glad to talk with you. You are with National Community Church?

Heather: I am, I’m actually on staff. During the day I serve as Discipleship Pastor with National Comunity Church. At night I double as the producer of our current production of Godspell.

Mike: It seems weird for a church to do theater, although off the top of my head I can think of two community theaters in the area that are based out of churches.

Heather: The church and artist have had a shaky relationship for many years. That is something that we are pretty passionate about reconciling the arts and faith. If you look in the book of Exodus the first person mentioned in the Bible to be filled with the Holy Spirit was a guy by the name of Bezelel. It says he was filled with the Holy Spirit and God gave him the ability to do all kinds of crafts and to make artistic design. The first person to be mentioned in the Bible to be filled with the Spirit was actually an artist. We just believe that the arts are a fantastic opportunity to communicate truth and to be a catalyst for life in for community transformation. That’s really what we’re trying to do. That’s why the church is involved in this whole kind of theater thing.

I think another of the reasons we do this is one of our philosophies as a church is that the church belongs in the middle of the marketplace. If you look at the life of Jesus, he didn’t spend a lot of time hanging out at synagogues and religious establishments. If anything he spent most of his time hanging out at the fishing docks and the wells, and encountering people in their normal everyday life. That’s one of the reasons as a church that we built Ebeneezer’s Coffeehouse, which is the stage that Godspell is curently performing on.

We feel that the coffeehouse is sort of a modern day well where the church and the community can sort of cross paths in a way that is very natural and very organic. We want to do that and we want to empower and equip our artists because we feel like they are prophetic voices in our community. As pastors we need to equip them to do the ministry that God has given them whether that’s right here within our church or on 42nd Street and Broadway. We need to give them a platform so their voices can be heard.

Mike: Are the people in Godspell members of the church or are they part of the community?

Heather: This particular production we had people from the church community come out and audition. Those were the people who were cast in the show and were plugged into the different technical and artistic creative team positions. We did have one person that comes from a non church background and got involved in the show and over time kind of found herself sucked into our community. In the future we plan to open up auditions and have it become a kind of a standard community theater type experience. For this show just kind of the way it worked out it was actually a National Community Church community.

Mike: Are you building a church service around any of the performances or anything like that? Or is it totally stand alone?

Heather: It’s totally stand alone. We want people to feel like they can come to the theater and get what they came for. We still feel like what we’re doing on stage is preaching as loud as any sermon can preach, but it’s not preachy. We want people to come and experience the theater without it being tied up into a more liturgical order or churchy kind of experience.

Mike: We haven’t been there yet. Is there a stage? What’s the setting like?

Heather: There is a stage. Ebeneezer’s Coffeehouse is actually the largest coffeehouse on Capitol Hill. It opened about year ago. It’s three levels. The top level is office space, the coffee level is on the main level. The bottom level is a performance space which seats about 120 people. On there we have a very small stage. It’s very tight, intimate setting, but that’s where we’ve done Godspell and it works really really well in that space.

Mike: Did you think about doing any other shows to tie into Easter? Or is that that one that hit you right off that you should do?

Heather: Godspell is something that has been a dream of mine for about 15 years now. A couple years ago a group of us got together and started brainstorming about it and dreaming about it. At the time it felt a little bit like Spanky and Alfalfa and the rest of the Little Rascals putting on a show in ther barn. That’s kind of how it got started. We always felt that the dream was a little bit bigger than just Godspell, but that’s where it started. Now we’re kind of in the process of figuring out where we go next as a company, as an ensemble and as a church.

Some of the things we’re thinking about would definitely tie in what we do theatrically with the church calendar. One of the things I’m brainstorming for next Easter would be a series of monologues that were inspired by the last words of Christ on the cross. We are looking at several other posibilities, but we won’t limit ourselves to shows with religious themes. We’ll also look at other stories that we feel are communicating truth and communicating life to people, stories that need to be told. Certainly they’ll come through a filter that makes sense for us as a church biblically and theologically. Then we’ll also do shows that we feel stretch us and challenge us as artists in certain ways.

Mike: Last summer we interviewed Rob Tessier from the Upper Room Theatre Ministry in Manassas. They did Pippin. Are you familiar with Pippin?

Heather: Yeah.

Mike: We asked, “Pippin at church with a youth group?” He talked about it and we saw the show. It was amazing how they got out of some of the lustful situations that are usually in Pippin. He made that whole sequence into the seven deadly sins. It was very effective. It’s amazing how many churches get scared of the arts in theater.

Heather: Right. I think that one of the reasons that the church gets scared of the arts is because so often the arts display life as it really is and life is dark. Life is sinful and life is ugly. I guess the way that we kind of view it is unless you show how dark and ugly and uncomfortable life is, then there is no reason or need for redemption. In order to communicate the grace and the hope that’s available to people, you have to sometimes show sin as it is and for what it is.

It’s definitely a tension that you have to kind of find the happy medium on it. Something you have to balance. Especially artists who are people of faith are in a very difficult position because the church doesn’t really understand them and the secular world doesn’t really want them or know what to do with them. So I want to make sure that whatever I can do within my capacitiy to make a place where artists have a place and are at home and understand the role that they can play within our community.

Mike: Is it better to be kind of like a light in the world and a Christian going out to a secular group and doing non directly religious/Christian shows? Or should Christians kind of stay in the “good” theater that’s in churches or other positive theater groups?

Heather: That’s a fantastic question. I honestly think the answer is yes to both. I believe that answers are going to look differently for different people. For me personally this is the first church related production that I’ve been a part of. My previous theatrical experience has always been out in the “secular theater.” I believe that Christians absolutely need to be out in those places. Partially because some of the theater I’ve seen done by churches is not very good quite frankly and doesn’t really stretch people and doesn’t challenge people. It’s more like play acting or pretending than real art and real theater.

So the difficulty I’m trying to navigate right now is trying to build something, here at National Community Church, that’s a part of National Community Church, but also somewhat separate from National Community Church so that it can stand alone, on its own two feet.

The difficulty I’m trying to navigate now is trying to build something here at National Community Church that’s a part of National Community Church, but also somewhat separate from National Community Church so that it can stand alone on it’s own two feet in the theatrical community in DC. But also encouraging our performers and our creators and our creative team to go out into the theaters in the area and get involved where their talents and their gifts can be used. This is the first production that my husband has been involved in in an entirely church capacity. He’s done work at Little Theatre of Alexandria and Arlington Players and Lazy Susan. I’m a big fan.

There was a book, Roaring Lambs by Bob Briner. It really encouraged people of faith to take their gifts and their arts outside the four walls of the traditional church and get out into the world where they can really let their light shine. Where their light can shine in the darkness instead of just shining around other lights.

Mike: So how can we improve the quality of theater that’s done at churches?

Heather: I think first of all just not being scared of artists and not being scared of art. Yes, artists are quirky and moody. At times they’re going to be people of few convictions. But the church has got to get these people and welcome them into their communities and show them that there’s a place for them. I think that’s the first thing.

I think not being scared of what sin looks like when we put it on stage. That’s what give us an opportunity to talk about redemption. I think that having a commitment to excellence. God is the ultimate creator. That’s how he first revealed Himself to people. When you read the Bible the first thing He did to reveal Himself to people as a Creator.

As human beings I believe we reflect and bear the glory and image of God. Part of that is in our creativity. Finding ways to encourage creativity goes beyond the Sunday morning sketch or goes beyond the skit that the kids do and really getting involved in real art that speaks. It’s not one dimensional. It’s three dimensional. It doesn’t shy away from the tough issues, but tackles them head on and juxtaposes them against the biblical truth that we embrace.

Mike: Do you know of any training programs that are out there for church based groups?

Heather: There was a program that I’m aware of that was in Nashville, Tennessee called The Crucible. I’m not sure if that program is still going or not. I know that at one time they were trying to take that international. A guy named Dave Durham was running that. It was an excellent program for helping artists to not only grow creatively, but also to grow as disciples. That’s something that we’re looking into doing here. We’re trying to figure out how do we disciple artists in their creative gifts and also just as followers of Christ. That’s something we’re exploring and if there’s anybody else doing anything like that we certainly want to know what they’re doing and draw from that.

Mike: So tell us when Godspell is playing?

Heather: Godspell opened last Friday March 30th to a sold out crowd. We performed for a packed audience last weekend. We’ve got one more weekend of performances. Thursday night, Friday night at 8 PM at Ebeneezer’s Coffee House. We have an Easter vigil performance on Saturday night at 10 PM which is after some of our Saturday night Easter services so if people want to come to those they could. The show actually doesn’t begin until 10 PM. On Easter Sunday we have two performances at 2 PM and 6 PM. You can get tickets online at Or you can buy them in person at the coffee bar at Ebenezer’s any time during normal business hours.

Mike: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about National Community Church or Godspell?

Heather: No, I think that’s good. Really appreciate you’re giving me the opportunity to do this today.

Mike: Sure, thank you very much for talking with us.

Heather: Absolutely.

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started ShowBizRadio in August 2005 because they love live theater. They each have both performed in and worked behind the scenes in DC area productions, as well as earned a Career Studies Certificate in Theater from Northern Virginia Community College. Mike & Laura are each members of the American Theatre Critics Association, and Mike is a member of the Online News Association.

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