Late in the summer of 2021, Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School welcomed a new Director of Musical Theatre who has rich roots in theatre. Stephen Atherholt earned his BA in Musical Theatre from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and his MFA in Theatre from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Before arriving at LBC | Capital, he amassed an extensive theatre résumé, from performing for over 12 years at Sight & Sound Theatres to working extensively in television and film. In fact, he’s playing the titular character in a new Sight & Sound Films Christmas production about the life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “I Heard the Bells.” [Read more on our blog.]
In addition to serving as an LBC professor, Atherholt teaches for Sight & Sound Conservatory, Piercing Word, Cavod Academy and as a private acting coach. While he’s certainly been busy during his first year at LBC, one of his first major stage productions for the local community will be the fall 2022 musical “Into the Woods,” which runs Sept. 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24 in Good Shepherd Chapel.
Lancaster Bible College’s “Into the Woods” show times are:
- Friday, Sept. 16—7 p.m.
- Saturday, Sept. 17—2 and 7 p.m.
- Thursday, Sept. 22—7 p.m.
- Friday, Sept. 23—2 p.m.
- Saturday, Sept. 24—7 p.m.
Visit lbc.edu/events for tickets.
LBC | CAPITAL: As the Director of Musical Theatre, how do you integrate what’s happening in the world of theatre with students’ biblically based education at LBC | Capital?
STEPHEN ATHERHOLT: We teach with a strong biblical worldview at the core of all we do. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” When we engage with a show like “Into the Woods,” we spend a lot of time in study and conversing about what the Bible says about the concepts and ideas found in the show. The students are challenged to analyze the characters’ motivations and desires, but also the life lessons the show is teaching. Do they align with a biblical worldview or are they contradictory? What could the Lord teach us through this show, even though it is not written with a biblical worldview in mind? Should we be doing shows at LBC that are not inherently Christian?
We encourage our students to look to the Bible for examples of storytelling. Jesus was a storyteller. When He taught, He would illustrate ideas so his audience could imagine the journey of the characters in their minds. In Luke 15:4-32, Jesus tells the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son. He tells these stories so people can relate, so they can see themselves in the shoes of the person in the illustration and mourn with those who lost something of great value. Then He leads them to rejoice at the return of that which was lost, just as God rejoices when any lost soul returns to Him. We are made in the image of God, which is why we love storytelling. The stories Jesus told weren’t inherently religious. They were relevant to the time of the people and covered topics from the mundane to the magnificent. Yet, each story was easy to understand and dealt with real life. This is our very same goal, our very same passion, to tell stories that our audience can relate to and be changed, even if it means the story does not directly point to Jesus. I hope that we, too, can share stories of real struggle, even if they are not directly Christian, and trust the Holy Spirit to speak to the hearts of our viewers.
LBC | CAPITAL: In what ways does this show encourage students to reflect on LBC’s values and core beliefs, in particular, the college’s mission to “educate Christian students to think and live a biblical worldview and to proclaim Christ by serving Him in the Church and society”?
SA: In “Into the Woods,” the students will need to face real-life issues such as: How do we deal with worry, loss, fear and pain? Where is Jesus when we walk through the hardest times of our lives? The honest vulnerability of the characters opens the door for our students to process some very deep concepts that life isn’t fair, easy or always happy. We’ve asked the students to analyze the show in the light of Scripture and tell us in their own words what they are learning. We have devotionals before rehearsals to read Scripture together and share ideas. We are also recording the students’ reflections before, during and after the show to visualize their faith journey through this process.
Our students share incredibly profound thoughts, as the challenges of the characters often parallel their own struggles in life. “Into the Woods” presents a lot of hardship and loss in the characters’ stories, but our biblical worldview encourages joy in the midst of hardship—not in the absence of hardship. What does it mean to embrace suffering, and why is it so important? How do we love the Lord our God and others as ourselves when we feel so unworthy of love? Our students will be the first to remind others, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39 NIV).
LBC | CAPITAL: What was the inspiration behind choosing and performing “Into the Woods” in 2022?
SA: The Music, Worship & Performing Arts (MWPA) Department exists to prepare highly skilled artists to influence our culture with grace and truth. To fulfill that mission, we must challenge our students to become the best they can be regarding the gifts the Lord has given them. “Into the Woods” has incredibly challenging music written by Stephen Sondheim, with characters that have dynamic emotional arcs. At LBC, our initial desire is to choose safe shows with G-rated content. This is understandable since the show is being performed in the Chapel, which is a place of worship. As Christians, we may avoid shows with difficult topics because, while we may watch similar shows on TV at home, we feel uncomfortable presenting them at a Bible college. We must remember that these students are getting a degree to perform in the world, with the desire to influence our culture with grace and truth. They need to be prepared with challenging music, difficult characters and topics that may stretch our level of comfort without compromising our integrity.
When they enter the world of theatre, these are the very shows they will be asked to perform. If we choose to insulate them within a safe Christian bubble, we do a great disservice to our students. We must give them a safe space to think and grow in their understanding of how to deal with challenging content while revealing the light and love of Christ through the show experience. Many of our students are called to minister to the lost in the world of theatre. The best way we can prepare them is to do shows with real-world issues, even if they feel out of place on the LBC stage. After all, Jesus never calls us to be comfortable, He calls us to be obedient.
LBC | CAPITAL: Are there unique challenges associated with musical theatre—a largely secular industry—on a Bible college campus? Why or why not?
SA: Absolutely. Musical theatre is meant to entertain a wide variety of patrons as well as to present “real life” on stage. This becomes very difficult when the content of most musicals would be considered offensive to a conservative Christian population. Real-life struggles are a part of life, and we can’t shy away from reality on our stage.
The Bible isn’t G-rated. We read about slaughter on a large scale, children sacrificed, enslavement, and prostitution. The resurrection story comes with a lot of brutality, and we can’t diminish the sacrifice and pain of the human experience if we are to value the redemption that follows.
I hope to bring some of this to the stage at LBC while still being sensitive to the viewers. “Into the Woods” brings together fun, fairytale and family, along with challenging topics of selfishness, fear, adultery and murder. We’ll never put things on stage that condone sinful behavior, but we have a lot to learn from characters that fall, experience hurt and loss, and yet must find a way to overcome and finish the journey. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it? We want to reach the lost, but when we shy away from shows with difficult topics, we minimize the people who are struggling with those issues.
Sometimes, we as Christians begin to create this bubble where we’re not engaging with culture. We must engage with culture in the musical theatre program to bring grace and truth, so we can say to our students, “We’re going to prepare you for a profession in musical theatre, and that means we need to give you training in the classroom, experience on stage and the wisdom and discernment to do it well for the glory of God.”