Creating art in churches

Using sacred spaces to build secular community

Westminster United Church has been used as a venue for a variety of arts events unaffiliated with the church or its congregation.

Photo by Keeley Braunstein-Black

Churches form a significant part of the arts venues available in Winnipeg, which may come as a surprise to some.

Jessy Ardern is a Winnipeg-born playwright who is one of the three members of Edmonton-based indie theatre company The Fox Den Collective, which participated in ShakespeareFest earlier this year.

“With some churches, there’s this sense of ‘secretness’ and ‘hands-off-edness,’” Ardern says. “Whereas our experience ... is that (the churches the Fox Den Collective worked with) really wanted to serve their community and to be available to the community and available for art and discussion.”

Westminster United Church is one such place, which hosts many concerts throughout the year and is the home of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.

Brandon Johnston, the chair of the property committee at Westminster United, says “Music is a pivotal part of Westminster United’s mission, (which includes) providing a community service and a gathering place in the community. (Rentals also) bolster our budget. It allows us to utilize the money we get from rentals to support other activities in the church,” like the Bell Tower Community Café. Broadway-First Baptist Church offered similar opportunities for staging Ardern’s Sterling award-winning play Queen Lear is Dead, produced by the Fox Den Collective for ShakespeareFest.

Ardern’s take on King Lear by William Shakespeare was a site-specific production, where after a scene, characters would offer the audience the choice of which character to follow into the next scene, which took audiences through many different rooms in the church building.

“When we created the show, it was with (Strathcona Baptist Church in Edmonton) in mind, (so) when I saw that baptistry, I thought ‘I know exactly what I want to do with that.’ And then we just asked, and in both cases were expecting to be told ‘no,’ but we were very transparent with both churches about the content of the show.”

Ardern’s character, Regan, enters the play from the baptismal font, inebriated. Regan is the chaotic driving force of conflict in the play, swearing, questioning God and detailing her wild exploits as a world-travelling socialite. It’s the type of material one might not expect to see in a church.

Both Strathcona and First Baptist provided a lot of creative opportunities to stage scenes for Queen Lear is Dead beyond the baptistry.

“Most churches just have a wide variety of spaces. In my experience, (these churches) run a lot of community programs. Both churches had a giant kitchen. Both churches had a big gymnasium, as well as a bunch of nooks and crannies ... Every church has unique spaces that, ordinarily, people don’t get to inhabit,” Ardern says.

Westminster United Church has similarly opened up its spaces to many different musicians, the cast and crew of Sunnyside, as well as different programs like Families Anonymous, a support group for people with family or friends dealing with addiction, and the Winnipeg Music Festival.

It is a part of the church’s mission to “provide a community service and a gathering place in the community.”

“When (Westminster United) was built, there were no community centres or arenas. This was the community centre. So we’ve essentially just continued that mindset going forward,” Johnston says. “If the example (is) the organ, if you play it more, it is actually better for it. It is the same with the building. You want more people to be in your building and meeting each other and having connections.”

Published in Volume 74, Number 20 of The Uniter (March 5, 2020)

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