Hearing the Light: An Interview with Director Hana Shariff on The Christians at Baltimore’s Centerstage

What is faith to you? Who is God to you? How does what faith is and who God is to you impact your relationship with other people, with the outside world? Can you find yourself among your faith or spirituality and still understand the faith and spirituality of another even if it doesn’t alone with your own views? Powerful notions such as these come to riveting life in Lucas Hnath’s compelling drama The Christians, which happens to be making its Baltimore area debut at Baltimore Center Stage as the first production of their 2017/2018 season. But before it opens, TheatreBloom was fortunate to sit down and chat exclusively with Director Hana Sharif about what the project has meant to her and what she hopes it will do for the community of Baltimore who venture out to see it.

Thank you ever so much, Hana, for taking time to talk with us about this project! What has the experience been like so far?

Director Hana Sharif
Director Hana Sharif

Hana Sharif: It’s been a real kind of joyful and profound experience to be honing this project at Center Stage. Lucas (playwright Lucas Hnath) I think is brilliant. I think that this play has been constructed so that no word has been spared or wasted in moving the experience of the show forward. It has just been an extraordinary experience, right from the very first read of it. It completely opens a heart space for people. I have not had one conversation with a designer or an actor who has come to the table, who hasn’t immediately started to share their own journey of faith regardless of denomination or whether they see themselves as a part of organized religion. I think that there are human existential questions that are tackled in this play that have really been the ground on which we stand. It is just so interesting to see people almost without a sense of intentionality, opening themselves up and talking about their own faith walk and questioning people of leadership on their principals and integrity. It has felt, at times, like a really amazing spiritual journey, especially at this moment. It has made the work feel very meaningful. Not just on the technical level, but the metaphors in the play I actually think are the strongest level of storytelling. It has just been such a profound experience.

What is it that you are hoping audiences are going to take away from coming to see The Christians at Center Stage?

Hana: That is always such an interesting question. I never have a mandate of what I want the message that the audience takes away to be. For me, it’s more of a question of what is the experience that we’re creating for the audience? I think that Lucas Hnath has been so smart in the creation— we talk about it as colliding truths— but these five characters on stage that are deeply fundamentally rooted in the truth. A truth that we can empathize with and that we can understand. I can understand where Pastor Paul is coming from I can understand where Pastor Joshua is coming from, so what’s curious for me is when there is this collision of two completely rational truths that are in opposition to each other. What does that mean to us? What questions does that bring up for us?

I think that there are people who will come and see the show with a very sure sense of who is right and who is wrong. I hope that the play raises questions and makes us challenge those notions of right and wrong, of leadership, of what our own principals are, what we’re willing to stand behind and risk. This is a play that I hope people will walk out of being moved but also wanting to talk about, wanting to debate. I don’t think it’s a play that easily lends itself to everyone landing in the same place, and that’s the part to me that’s the most exciting. This is a play that people will experience and will hopefully spark a discourse that will keep you talking long into the night.

What would you say you have learned about yourself, as a Director, as a human being, working on this project?

Hana: That’s a good question. I think about the kind of work that I’ve been drawn to in my career. I’m always interested in looking at the diversity of the human experience and the homogeny of the human experience. I think that this journey has been an extraordinary one in understanding how important the questions of your own integrity and your own principles are elevated by spirit. There are all these references that come up and the actors will say, “This feels like Jove here” or they’ll say “this feels like being a lion in the desert.” I think that what I found is that every time we hit these really tough moments in the world— you know we’ve been in rehearsal for the last month, it’s been a dramatic month in the world— I’ve been reaffirmed by the transformational work we get to do in our field, especially with this play in particularly.

I’m a Houstonian and most of my family is in Houston and Beaumont. To have just come through the hurricane and the floods and to be dealing with that level of space has been an ordeal but then I’m able to walk into a space where there is this elevated celebration of humanity. It has really made dealing with these shifts in the world easier; just being in the space with people who are working on elevating these questions and experiences has made that external experience easier. I was in rehearsal the same time I was receiving text messages about whether or not my mother and my daughter would be able to make it out of Houston before the storm. The anxiety that I would have probably felt around that situation was calmed by being able to be on this walk with these people and this play.

Lucas has created this play and it’s incredible the way it relates to everyone because of the way it draws out this notion of believers regardless of faith. I mean, it’s called The Christians, but I believe it really does translate to anyone and to every human being. Lucas was really interested in putting a play on stage that isn’t condescending to the idea that you might have a faith practice or a belief in faith, but also has a lot of rigor to it. It’s really a conversation of believer versus believer versus believer versus believer, instead of believer versus non-believer. That’s been really interesting as well because it makes you examine those relationships more closely. What does it mean to have people who say they believe in the same creator but yet have such different practices of it? What does it reveal ultimately about what is essential about our humanity versus what is non-essential? How are we connected versus how are we different? It’s been a wonderful learning experience.

I’m so sorry to hear about your family, and I hope everyone is safe.

Hana: Thank you, and yes, everyone is okay. Houston is a wonderful city that’s connecting together to rebuild. You know that’s another thing that we all have with this experience. That’s just one thing of so many things that are happening in our world. We have so many conflicts and we come in every day and the cast comes together and we do a lot of talking about how the play is really reflective of the ideas of leadership, trust, and integrity that whether it is intentional or not, speak to the moment we find ourselves in as a country. Blind faith, the works of faith in leadership and trust, all of those things are really very present in the play.

What would you say has been the most challenging thing for you during this process?

Hana: That’s another good question! We’re in tech right now so it’s exciting to see all of the elements come together. The other thing about this production that makes it really unique and I think makes it one of the most exciting parts? Though, I will say it’s probably been the difficult logistically. Because of our firm belief in creating art for and with the community, we are having community choirs perform in the show. Every week there is a different community choir featured. It’s exciting! It’s been phenomenal. The day where we first integrated one of the choirs into tech and the actors had the full experience? It set the entire theatre on fire.

Which area choirs will you be featuring?

Hana: The first choir is the Greater Baltimore Church of Christ Choir. They will be with us from first preview through opening week. And the last choir that will be with us will be New Psalmist Baptist Church Choir from October 3 through the close of the run. Many, many churches were very interested but the timing of when we go into production wasn’t aligning with their schedules. I had no idea that church choirs kind of go on hiatus and take the month of September off! We had lots of choirs who wanted to participate but didn’t have enough available participants to fill the full choir. So what we did at Center Stage is, we held an open audition to everyone who wanted to come out for those choir roles, and we have built The Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage. It includes choir members from many different denominations, from many different faith practices who are coming together and they are extraordinary. It is reflective of the work that we wanted to craft.

That’s incredible. It makes quite the statement to bring so many people from varying walks of faith together for a project like this.

Hana: And it’s something that I’m proud of. Lucas has been very specific in not giving the church in the play a denomination and we embrace that as we approached everything about the work. I went to— sometimes three services a day— at many different churches, experiencing how service differs between denominations and between communities. We pulled from all of these different traditions and practices to create what our church would be. Our Sound Design Team and Composers were amazing. We talked a lot about wanting to create a sound that you couldn’t identify strictly as one denomination or another. We’ve got this incredible music that blends together faith traditions and denominations so well that the idea of putting together a community choir with all these different people from different walks of faith all over the community to reach across the idea that Sunday is still the most segregated day in America, just made sense.

We have created a community choir of who Baltimore is in its multiplicity and diversity. We have pulled together a church that blends together a lot of different traditions but elevates the humanity of it. The idea is that no matter where you are in your practice, we didn’t want you to come in and feel “othered.” We didn’t want anyone coming in and saying “that’s how they worship, not how I worship.” I think that that is very much in line with what Lucas’ intentions were when you look at the script. He does have a lot of scriptural references, but he’s taken such care to not just use one single denomination’s approach to those references. Every single reference has a different translation from a different denomination or faith tradition of the bible so that no one can really pinpoint exactly where you’re coming from. It opens up this space for all of us to find ourselves within this world. It’s a very, very exciting endeavor and the community members are so enthusiastic about their work on this show. They have done extraordinary work independently, working with the Music Director (Jaret Landon), and I have to say, the moment that they hit the stage with the actors, and the lights, and the mics turned on, I felt transported. I believe it’s going to be an extraordinary moment for our city. I believe this story is an important one for Baltimore and I’m so excited to be able to tell it in such a beautiful fashion.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the experience or about why people should come out and see the show?

Hana: I would just say that The Christians is really a reflection on leadership principles, truth, and faith. It is not strictly a theological play. It is a play that alienates people. It is a play that speaks to what makes us human and exposes these essential questions that we all face. It will resonate in many, many different areas of our lives. It’s an important play that I am very, very excited to be a part of.  

The Christians plays through October 8, 2017 in the Pearlstone Theatre of Baltimore Center Stage— 700 N. Calvert Street in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.

To read the TheatreBloom review of The Christians, click here.

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