Monday, February 29, 2016

I Owe So Much to Bill Carpenter

Bill Carpenter 1943 ~ 2015
A while back I was playuing around with a book on radically shared ministry.  In in the Introduction I attempted to describe the influence of a man named Bill Carpenter on both my theories and my practice.  I recently learned that Bill died this past December.  This is an adaptation of what I'd written:


In the 1980s I was not yet an ordained Unitarian Universalist clergy person.  I was, nonetheless, already a minister.  My ministry did not take place in the pulpit of a parish, but rather in countless fellowship halls, classrooms, and street corners.  I was a magician, juggler, fire eater, and clown.  In rather grandiose terms, I saw myself as a prophet of wonder.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal, after an afternoon of wandering around Walden Pond, “I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.”  The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about how the things he knows about the cosmos, and our place in it, makes him want to “grab people on the street and say, ‘Have you heard this?’”  In my own ministry at that time I was using the tools and tricks at my disposal as a performer to offer people an opportunity to remember, or rediscover, their own feeling of wonder in the world.

The paradigm changed for me when I met and began working with a man named Bill Carpenter and his brainchild, The Midway Caravan.  Bill, known more at the time as “Gusto,” had an impressive resume in the theater world.  He’d worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in prestigious regional theaters for more than a decade as an actor, director, stage manager, and playwright.  He’d worked with everyone from Katherine Hepburn to Will Geer.  And yet he couldn’t ignore his growing feeling that something wasn’t right.  In fact, he came to believe that theater was dead.  Or, to put it a little more alliteratively, he perceived that the prevailing paradigm of performance had been pushed as far as it could go.  Something new was needed.

There have always been professional performers, yet performance was also once something that brought people together.  Neighbors would gather around the pianoforte in the parlor, or in rocking chairs on front porches, and make music for and with one another.  Families would come together to watch “theatricals” put on by the children, acting out well known literary works.  (Think of the March sisters from Little Women, as well as the countless real children who acted out scenes from that book.)

There are many interrelated reasons for the demise of the amateur performance and the rise of the performer as a breed apart.  What Bill focused on was the result.  Put in its broadest terms, performance had devolved into a dynamic in which the performer stood on the stage and the audience sat in their seats and said, “oh how gifted you are!”  (And there was usually a subtext of, “and we could never do that.”)  Bill wanted to turn that dynamic on its head, using the form of a performance to subvert this performer-as-other mentality.  And, so, the Midway Caravan was born – a vehicle for interactive, family entertainment.

The clearest example of the Caravan in action was a show called “The Backyard Circus.”  Here a performer, the Ringmaster, arrived at a county fair, a theme park, a shopping mall, a school, and set up his stage – two step ladders with signs hanging between the steps that looked like some mom or dad with minimal woodworking skills had helped their child make and paint them.  Between the ladders hung a “circus banner,” which was really a blanket with an old poster attached.  An old rug was unrolled as the performance area, and the show was ready to start.

Except that there were no performers, apart from The Ringmaster.  So she or he would begin to recruit people from the audience – a lion tamer and four lions, a tightrope walker, a strongman and a clown.  Each recruit would be sent to a clothes rack where costumes awaited, and when the cast was assembled, the show would begin.  The tightrope walker, Wanda, was a young child who pretended to climb a ladder high above the big top and who then walked a rope held by two assistants . . . on the floor.  The crowd would appropriately “ooh” and “ahh” at this death-defying feat.  The strongman was a dad, strongest man in the world, who nonetheless was unable to lift the “500 ton weight” which Bobo the Clown, the strongman’s very young child, was able to lift with ease .  You get the idea.
This was a performance that didn’t create a dynamic of a passive audience staring up at the impossible feats of the performer and saying, “Wow!  Look what you can do!”  Instead, the audience looked at the performers, who just moments before had been the audience, and said, “Look what we can do together.”  The performance was actually something of a ruse; the real act was the creation of community.

I worked with the Caravan, traveling the country as The Ringmaster, and I watched the magic happen time and time again.  And it changed the way I thought about my own performances.  I began to use my own role as magician/juggler/fire-eater/clown as a tool to take the spotlight that would be thrown on me and turn it back on the assembled crowd, the congregation that had gathered, the community-in-the-making.

In the 1990s when I was ordained to the professional ministry, I brought this perspective with me.  It is not too much of a stretch to say that in many – if not most – congregations the same dynamic can be found as in most theaters:  the people in the pews look up at The Minister and say “Oh how gifted you are!  We could never do that!”  The past two decades have been for me an ongoing experiment to see if the same paradigm shift could occur in churches that I saw happen in traveling circus tents.

One example:  it is typical to hold a ceremony called an “installation” shortly after a clergy person is called to a congregation.  It is a way of saying, “She is here!” and formalizing the relationship.  When I was called to serve the First Parish in Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church in Brewster, Massachusetts we had the obligatory Installation service.  Yet when the invitations went out they asked, “Why install just one minister when the church has nearly 500 of them?”  That event was not just an installation of a minister, it was an installation of the ministers of First Parish.  I was installed as Senior Minister, and the Rev. Dennis Meacham was installed as our Associate.  And we also installed our Director of Religious Education, our Director of Music, our support staff, and every single member of the church as one of its ministers, called to their own unique ministries in and through the church.  Look what we can do together. We had a similar Installation of the Ministers when I came to the congregation I currently serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

None of this would have been possible without Gusto, and the Carvan, the conversations long into the night about the theory behind it all, and the experience  of the theory come to life in in each and every one of those circus tents.  The motto of the Midway Caravan was, "midway between what you can see and what you can imagine."  Gusto took me -- and so, so many others -- beyond that point.  One of the programs he was still developing when I last worked with him was called "The Campfire at the Edge of the Universe."  That's the place I hope to meet him once again.

Pax tecum, et gracias tibi, Gusto,

RevWik (Ged)



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