story and photos by Janet I. Martineau
Coming soon in the city of Saginaw: a new community theater company, a new film series and a new recording studio.
All in the most unlikely of places.
First Congregational Church, 403 S. Jefferson -- founded 155 years ago and now in what is called the Historic Cathedral District.
|Rev. Todd Farley behind the Bradley House stage curtain|
“We’re calling it The Phoenix Project,” says senior minister Todd Farley, noting that the struggling church hopes both it and the struggling city will “rise from the ashes” in the process.
Mainstream churches, he says, especially those in cities, are witnessing a decline in attendance so it is it time to find other ways to serve not only their parishioners but also their cities, in particular youths.
Thus First Congregational’s Bradley House fellowship hall will become the home for live theater productions, open mic performance nights and and the showing of films as well as a recording studio where youths can create performances to post on You Tube -- “a place for the celebration of the arts and music; a place to encourage the younger generation toward self-expression; a place for people of all faiths, all orientations, all economic levels.”
Farley comes well certified to lead such a transformation. He is a mime, trained in part by the famed Marcel Marceau himself, and founded and for 23 years toured the world with a mime and ministry program called Mimeistry International. He also has directed numerous plays, receiving a best director award in Grand Rapids. And he has taught theater at the college level.
The Phoenix Project carries a $700,000 price tag, Farley says. The majority of it, $500,000, is paying for a restoration/enhancement of the church’s 1929 Skinner pipe organ in the sanctuary. Another $120,000 is aimed at the Bradley House transformation, although it already has a stage and room to seat 150.
First up is a Sept. 22 celebration of the arts night, open to high school and college age poets, dancers, musicians, actors, “as diverse as possible -- maybe even a school band or choir.”
In November, the drama series kicks off with “Big Love,” a series of vignettes dealing with women’s rights issues. “We’ll have a two-weekend run, and it will be directed by Angie Noah, our Christian education director.
“We plan to stage a drama quarterly -- and on any and every topic; avant garde, social awareness issues, no holds barred; allowing a safe place to see such plays and then have conversations about them.
And on Nov. 3 the film series will debut “although we have no films selected yet. We want to show one the first Saturday of every month. Documentaries or narratives; dealing with social issues like ‘Schindler’s List’ did, or ‘Amistad.’ We will find an expert on the topic of each film so a discussion, NOT argument, can follow them too; maybe bring in its director or an actor if possible.”
|Exterior of First Congregational Church in Saginaw|
The films will show on a theater-size screen, he said. And the new lighting in Bradley, for the plays and You Tube productions, will feature LED lights which are low energy, he said, with 20 of them the equivalent of 200 old-style theater lights.
Farley hopes the recording studio end will be up and running in October, a place where youths can record their own songs, music, dance numbers, poetry readings on video or CD, “dealing with their own issues.”
At first the church will only provide one camera and a sound system for those recordings, he said. A switchboard for post production and more cameras to capture various angles will hopefully get funded later.
Farley hopes the sanctuary also will be overhauled eventually so it can serve as an sanctuary/auditorium for more classical style concerts and recordings “because the acoustics in there are phenomenal.”
“I want to stress the point that we feel we are not in any way competing with what the Temple or Pit and Balcony does. We’re small. Avant garde and dealing with social issues. Heavily aimed at high school age and college age youths.”
Needless to say, the church cannot afford a paid staff to tend to all the adult support needed on the plays, films, recordings and performance nights so Farley is looking for volunteers from the church and the community, and maybe even tapping into Delta College or Saginaw Valley State University students to serve as mentors.
A gift from a foundation, personal donations and the church’s own savings are footing the $700,000 bill, although all the funding is not yet complete, says Farley.
“Churches need to change the way they do church,” sums up Farley, “more post-Christian, if I dare say that; more service to the community. Kids are less religious these days. They are more about spirituality. At First Congregational we welcome that.
“God speaks from the pulpit yes, but also to people on the street, kids in classrooms. In mime, dance, drama and music we hear the voice of God in real, authentic and meaningful ways. We can, I believe, deliver meaning and ministry behind entertainment.”