Rare elsewhere, chaplains are an Ethington Theatre tradition

Sophomore Gavin Harris, the student chaplain for Ethington Theatre's "Tartuffe," presented a devotional prior to a recent rehearsal.

By Laurie Merrill
GCU News Bureau

Sophomore Gavin Harris has been cast in five Ethington Theatre productions since his arrival last year, so he is no stranger to performing.

But when he perched on the edge of the stage one recent day, his long legs dangling and his nose in the Bible, he was in a spiritual, not theatrical, role. He was preparing to pray.

Harris not only was cast as the character Damis in Moliere’s “Tartuffe” -- which opens 7:30 p.m., Friday Oct. 13 in Ethington Theatre -- he also was selected as the production’s student chaplain, a role seldom seen in American theatre today but which GCU’s College of Fine Arts and Production embraces.

Harris chose for a devotional Proverb 16-Verse 3: “Commit to the Lord whatever you do and He will establish your plans.”

In other words, Harris said, the Lord wants us to do our best in every situation – including theatre – and with a heart toward others.

James Coblentz has been a student chaplain for "The Good Doctor" and "All My Sons" at Ethington Theatre.

“When you have the mindset of ‘I’m doing this to glorify God’ … and not just as a selfish endeavor, then everything we do is for the benefit of others,” Harris said.

First introduced in England more than 100 years ago to offset theatre's colorful reputation, production chaplains have become a relative rarity. But they have been an Ethington tradition since 2013, when COFAP instructor Michael Kary directed “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. 

The play’s allegorical nature -- with Aslan the lion as the Christ figure -- prompted Kary to name a student shepherd to provide additional spiritual support.

“We were putting the Gospel on stage,” said Kary, a former youth pastor. “I felt it was important to have it bathed in prayer because I knew there would be spiritual opposition to it. I thought it wiser that it not be me.”

Thus, a GCU custom began. Kary selected Devaune Bohall (GCU class of 2017), who was a freshmen that year. She was a student whose heart he knew well and whose relationship with God was strong. She was a leader in her church’s youth group and had been on mission trips.

“I wanted to find a way to combine the passion I had for God with my passion for theatre,” Bohall said at the time, shortly after her appointment.

“Chaplains were a brainstorm of Michael Kary’s, and a wonderful one,” said COFAP Dean Claude Pensis. “They are strong Christians who know how the arts fit into Christianity and have the ability to communicate well with their fellow students and the hierarchy of the production.”

Bohall paved the way for students such as senior James Coblentz, who was cast in two acting roles in “The Good Doctor” and also served as student chaplain for that production. On stage, she played a scolding matron in one scene and a lady of the night in another.

Gavin Harris, far right, in the 2016 production of "Of Thee I Sing."

“It’s funny to me because I went from that to telling everyone about Jesus,” Coblentz said.

Coblentz, COFAP’s administrative assistant, has been cast in numerous acting, designing and stage managing roles.

She described chaplains as “prayer warriors” who present devotionals before rehearsals, take prayer requests and pray for the cast, performance and crew before each show.

“I’m the shoulder to cry on,” Coblentz said. “A lot of our cast members have taken advantage of that.”

She referred to 1 Chronicles 16:11 -- “Seek the Lord and His strength, seek His face continually” – for a devotional about how theatre majors feel like misfits. For them, theatre is a refuge.

“We love everyone and accept everyone here,” Coblentz said. “I compared that to God. God is our refuge. The way we feel about theatre is the way we feel about God.”

Junior Tarnim Bybee, the daughter of a pastor, said she has been acting since she was 7, but it wasn’t until she entered GCU that she was in a production with a chaplain. It’s seems only fitting, she said.

James Coblentz, right, played Mrs. Myrtle Webb in 2017's "Our Town."

“We are theatre people, but we are also Christian people,” Bybee said.  

Cast and crew often exhaust themselves leading up to opening night, she said, but everyone attends prayer sessions. When they are particularly worn out, the chaplain might find a verse about finding strength in the Lord.

“It definitely gets the cast to open up and share,” she said.

Chaplains know the pressures that students face and have a soothing, centering effect, Pensis said.

“It helps calm and relax people and get them in the mindset where they are ready to go,” he said.

Harris, also a pastor’s son, grew up in the church, but he became a scholar of religions after his father told him to find his own path. The study affirmed Harris’ Christianity.

“I did so much studying I wanted to help someone else,” he said.

During the recent pre-rehearsal session, several cast members presented requests, and Harris included them in his prayers.

“I pray that You be with us in the rehearsal process,” Harris said, “I pray for consistent energy and motivation. I pray that You would help us to be selfless.’’

 Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected].


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GCU Magazine

Bible Verse

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)

To Read More: www.verseoftheday.com/