How Acting Drew Me to God: A Reflection on the Acting Program at JPCatholic

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— By Hannah Dorss —

Bible scholar N.T. Wright from the University of Saint Andrew in Scotland encouraged artists to recognize the relationship between art and theology, by integrating the two and celebrating creation’s goodness, brokenness, and redemption through art. At John Paul the Great Catholic University, that’s exactly what both the teachers and students do in the acting program. When I came to JPCatholic, I thought that I’d have to study philosophy and theology in order to delve into my faith, but I was wrong. In simply studying acting here, I learned just how intimately connected art and grace are, and that has opened my art up to a new level of inspiration.

Many of my acting classes taught me how acting and sanctity are closely related. Discipline, empathy, and trust in God were perhaps the three biggest virtues our acting teachers, Professor Fricchione and Professor Eskey, instilled in me, and all of these worked to my advantage in my spiritual life as well.

In classes like Acting II, III and Scene Study, I developed discipline by working on my acting technique, which in turn helped me grow spiritually. I read Konstantin Stanislavski’s works, did Sanford Meisner’s acting exercises, and performed various acting warm-ups. The tedious warm-ups, which were muscular release exercises, became useful for my inner life. The stretching, breathing, and surrendering of tension all brought me a better bodily awareness and discipline. Though I did not realize it then, developing these qualities prepared me for a more disciplined prayer life and a deeper attunement to my body—a necessary ingredient for sensing God’s grace in my art and in my life.

As we worked in acting classes to cultivate empathy and openness to our characters and partners, I began looking at my neighbors differently. Instead of seeing the faults in people, I started seeing others as broken humans in need of God’s grace. This new lens of seeing others helped me to treat them with real fraternal charity and helped me become humbler.

Our screen acting professor, Gina Fricchione, taught me how to audition and act on screen as well as how to develop my trust in God and my moral courage. Gina taught us the Haber technique of auditioning, giving us monologues to memorize and perform for the class to critique. After learning how to audition with the Haber technique, I felt a lot more confident in my ability to land roles. Besides helping us with our acting technique, Gina also encouraged us to completely trust God and stick to our morals. She told us about how she invited God into her acting career by always trusting that if she declined one job because of moral issues, God would bring something even better her way.

Another major way I found God speaking to me through art was by reading plays for acting classes. In these courses, we studied authors like Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Shakespeare, Sam Shepherd, and Stephen Adley Guirgus. Through reading their works, I noticed the themes and questions raised all had to do with a need for God’s grace. Whether the plays were about love, forgiveness, family, hope, or reality, the characters were always seeking something eternal and fulfilling. My Catholic radar sensed a longing for God, which helped crystalize my understanding of the connection between faith and art.

I now realize this is what Professor Eskey wanted me to learn all along. His decisions to start acting classes with meditative, Teresian/Ignatian prayers, his discussions of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in relation to the plays we performed, and his constant reminders that God is present and speaking in every moment were for a purpose. We were being prepared to become saints, mystics, and artists attuned to God—artists who worship Him through our very humanity and broken art. JPCatholic opened my eyes to this possibility. John Paul II, our university’s patron, says it best when he says in his Letter to Artists, “It is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed.”