Church a sanctuary for performing arts

Showcase: Places of worship increasingly welcome music and theater by outside groups, which favor the family-friendly setting.

July 07, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A Mardi Gras-style dance party on church grounds may seem like an ethical contradiction, but that's how Rockland United Methodist Church in Ellicott City promoted the grand opening celebration of its amphitheater last month.

The Rockland theater is one of a growing number of showcases for popular music, theatrical productions and visual arts being run by churches or by outside organizations renting church space in the Baltimore region.

"It's kind of a new trend," said Joanne Juskus, a Columbia folk singer who runs a 9-month-old eclectic music series called "The Bottom Floor" at St. John's United Methodist Church of Hamilton in Baltimore.

"We get a lot of national acts coming through St. John's, and when you look at the musicians' schedules, a lot of them are playing churches."

For hundreds of years, many artists have grown up in the church, which once had great composers, writers and painters practically on staff.

As time passed, though, artists without direct religious themes in their work were often weeded from the pack.

But in recent years, more and more secular singers and actors are returning to church halls to present their work to the public.

Anne Arundel County has Holy Grounds in Severna Park, a joint project among four churches that features live rock and pop music from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays.

And in Annapolis, the 333 Coffeehouse created by a Unitarian Universalist church, holds folk concerts and "spoken art" shows the third Friday of every month.

In Carroll County, St. James Episcopal Church has held performances of Alice in Wonderland by the Mount Airy drama troupe on its grounds.

And in Baltimore County, the Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills operates a gallery for its constituents.

The religious organizations do it for extra funds, or to give back to the community or to draw new parishioners.

"We're hoping to do things that appeal on a broad range, not just Christian music," said Buddy Oliver, Rockland's music director. "If we can bring people here in that atmosphere, maybe they'll come back on Sunday."

But evangelism isn't the focus for most of the artists performing in churches.

For them, it's all about the environment and the opportunities, which Juskus says can be better than in a club.

"The churches tend to give you a little more freedom to play original music," she said. "In a club, you might be required to play cover songs to an audience that's not really listening."

The setting is intimate, and the artists get a chance to really strut their stuff.

"There are not many venues today," said Guy Clatterbaugh, a musician who started a nightclub series called "2nd Saturdays" two years ago at Kittamaqundi Community Church in Columbia, a nondenominational Christian worship center.

"The only place to hear music is generally in small bars, and usually when you're playing, there's a TV going on in the background. The band is secondary."

Better for both

Setting up shop in the smoke-free, family-friendly environment of a church means the artist is better heard and the audience better served, Clatterbaugh said.

At Roots Cafe, which lives in another St. John's church in Baltimore's Charles Village, band-booker Ken Delaney said the atmosphere is largely what keeps the 11-year-old cafe alive.

"Families can come out and they don't have to get a baby sitter," he said. "They can bring their kids and introduce them to music, and single folks can come and dance comfortably."

And it's over at a decent time. Shows at Roots, on which Clatterbaugh based his series, start at 8 p.m. and end by midnight.

Music isn't the only artistic expression finding sanctuary in churches.

Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park has its own art gallery, which displays new works every six weeks. Peg Swartout and calligrapher Joan Machinchick are now displaying their drawings and sculptures, which have a "Four Seasons of the Bay" theme.

"I like having my work in churches because a lot of people who wouldn't go to a gallery see it," said Swartout, who draws and works in clay.

She has exhibited at Woods about a dozen times and has sold some of her work to the church.

The Rev. Howard Nash, pastor at St. John's in Hamilton, says he hopes to expand his church's artistic scope beyond Juskus' music series and that of another, better-established series also run there called "The Cellar Stage."

Nash wants to develop a program that would give people studio space in exchange for their teaching art or music classes at the church.

"We have a general emphasis here at St. John's on the arts," Nash said.

"On any given Sunday, you're likely to see Van Gogh or Picasso or hear eclectic music. ... But we have a dream ultimately of having some artists actually in residence here."

Liberal churches

Nash describes St. John's as perhaps more liberal than some other churches, and that seems to be one of the requirements for this type of arrangement.

"The more conservative the church, the less likely you'll see this," said Bob Racine, who directs a theater troupe at Kittamaqundi.

The art tends to be on the conservative side, though. But that's attributed less to policing by church officials and more to simple logic. The space is often tight and the acoustics more conducive to mellow folk than heavy rock `n' roll.

"Trying to get people to come out and hear music is challenging anyway," Juskus said.

"This gives them a great [option] to come to a place where there's no smoke, and they can just sit and relax and listen to the music."

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