“As I Am”: A Lesson on Listening

This past weekend, a researcher became a playwright, so that her findings could give back to the very people her research was about. That researcher-turned-playwright is Dr. Christine Gardner (communication arts) who spent the last seven years investigating how students, faculty and administrators at nine different Christian colleges have navigated issues about spiritual and sexual identity on their own campuses.

“I began this research as part of a sabbatical project when I was a professor at Wheaton,” explains Gardner. “When I was there, a Wheaton alumni LGBTQ group had started, and there was lots of turmoil on campus. At that time, a lot of LGBTQ issues were really coming to the forefront for Christian colleges. I wanted to find out more about how LGBTQ students at Christian colleges were putting together their sexual and spiritual identities.”

After conducting 103 interviews, Gardner realized that publishing a paper in an academic journal about her findings wasn’t going to reach the audience that needed it most. So, she used her research to write a play. She set the play at Nouwen College, a fictional Christian liberal arts college similar to Gordon and other CCCU schools. Each character at Nouwen was a composite of several people Gardner had interviewed in real life as part of her research.

When Zaleski started casting, she asked if Gardner would play the role of Nouwen’s president. When Gardner was writing the script, it never crossed her mind that she might be in the play. Thankfully, she agreed to do it. She made a very convincing and sympathetic President Susanna Oliver.

Gardner says, “I used those transcripts to help create an experience that would allow audiences to better understand the diverse array of viewpoints that exist in their communities.” To personalize the script for a Gordon audience, she asked her students for their input. “The students were an invaluable part of the process,” she says.

With all 103 viewpoints in mind, she cowrote As I Am with playwright and director Nik Zaleski, which premiered on October 25 and 26 for three sold-out shows in Phillips Recital Hall.

At the start, audience members were given orientation packets instead of playbills, divided into orientation groups for rounds of ice breakers, and invited to participate in floor discussions at key moments during the play.

In each discussion, audience members had to “try on” the perspective of another character by referencing the personas detailed in their orientation packets. For instance, after reviewing the “community covenant,” which outlines the rules for sexual behavior at Nouwen, a handful of people in the audience were invited to step into the shoes of Colton, a same-sex attracted student who believes the Bible says homosexual behavior is a sin, yet was raised in a family that believes it’s okay to be gay and Christian. Later in the play, those same audience members may have been asked to step into the shoes of Robert, a donor who does not believe the Bible supports LGBTQ identity and relationships and is concerned that Nouwen College is compromising its theological integrity.

This act of adopting different personas throughout the play is all part of Gardner’s mirror-and-bridge approach. She explains, “An interactive performance can act as a mirror presenting ourselves back to each other and as a bridge connecting us with people who are very different from us.”

By the end of the play, each audience participant had taken on the perspectives of three people—all with different sexual identities, theological stances and relationships to the college.

Audience participant Alec Hansen ’21 says, “What I loved most about the different perspectives offered was their accuracy and relatability. My own journey of understanding LGBTQ+ issues has led me through many of the perspectives depicted. In the brief persona descriptions as well as the characters in the show, I saw honest portrayals.”

And several of the students who were part of the cast noted that the play has brought about some healing in their own lives. Cast member Miranda Grubb ’21 says, “The characters’ struggles are near identical to ones I’ve had before. I found that rhythmically working through how each character grows throughout the play brought redemption and reconciliation to past hurt.”

Given the success of the pilot, Gardner is excited about the prospect of taking As I Am to other Christian colleges across the U.S. to illustrate how people with varying viewpoints can become better listeners and learn to approach these conversations with more humility.

She says, “That’s been the goal from the start—to give Christian colleges a tool to be able to have these conversations. My current research is on LGBTQ identity, but certainly this could be one more way to help communities come together on controversial issues.”

On Tuesday, November 5, the Gordon community will have the chance to join the cast and crew of As I Am for a discussion about the play, its history and its future. The session will take place from 2:30–3:30 in Phillips Recital Hall.