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Catholic Women in the Arts

Using Feminine Sensitivity to Evangelize through Showbiz
by Elizabeth Lyulkin | Source:

Some say that those who openly use their feminine sensitivity and the feminine point of view do not stand a chance in the fiercely competitive and sometimes outright brutal worlds of show business, publishing, and the other creative arts. I disagree.

It was a sunny, almost summer-like day in October of 1989. My friend Lisa and I were sitting in a sidewalk café in East Village, New York. Lisa, an up-and-coming theater director and filmmaker, was dressed entirely in black and was drinking an espresso; I was perfectly content with my “regular" decaf. I was feeling a bit nervous because this was more than two friends meeting over a cup of coffee – this was serious.

Two months ago I had given Lisa my play about Saint Peter and his betrayal of Jesus, and today she was going to give me her critique. We have been talking about collaborating on a project for years, and I was hoping and praying that this was it – that Lisa was actually going to direct it.

“Why?" Lisa finally lifted her head from the magazine she was reading.

“Why what?" I asked. My heart sank, but I was still hoping that maybe, just maybe, Lisa was referring to some minor inconsistency in the plot.

“Why would you waste a year of your life on a play that nobody’s gonna read, nobody’s gonna produce, and nobody’s gonna come and see?" she asked.

That was it. That was all she said, but that was enough for me. I went home, cried for two hours, and threw the play into the garbage disposal. I swore never to write another word for as long as I lived.

Why? That was twelve years ago, but that word still echoes in my mind every time I start yet another “Catholic" project. Four plays and three inspirational book manuscripts later, I am still asking myself “why." Why would I choose to forgo commercial success in favor of writing “Catholic" plays? Why would I choose “the road less traveled"?

Finding a True Home

I wasn’t always a Catholic. I don’t like calling myself a convert because that implies choosing Catholicism over another religion, and I find that misleading. I was born in 1963 in what was then Communist Ukraine, in a half-Jewish, half-Catholic family that practiced neither. I am not ever sure I knew there was a God before my family came to the States in 1979.

My family settled in Queens, New York, and I have been living there ever since. I finished high school, studied history and drama at Queens College, worked in different off- and off-off–Broadway theaters as a stage manager, prop mistress, and set designer. I even got to direct once or twice. And yet I felt there was a deep void in my soul, a void that no amount of commercial success was able to fill.

One day in 1982 my then-boyfriend asked me to come to church with him. At that point in my life I had completely given up hope of finding any kind of spiritual direction or fulfillment. But the minute I stepped over the threshold of the Ascension Church, a wave of something that is almost impossible to describe rushed over me. For the first time in my life I felt like I belonged. I felt like I had come home.

I started attending church with my boyfriend, I even started taking RCIA classes, but when we ended up going our separate ways, I stopped going to RCIA — but I never stopped going to church. That was the time of trial, the time of doubt and tribulation, but that was also the time I developed a wonderful relationship with the Blessed Mother.

For some strange reason, for the next seventeen years of my life I was perfectly content with coming to church – Our Lady Queen of Martyrs this time – sitting all the way in the back, listening to the homilies and going home. It was almost like a sick person taking his daily medicine. I wanted to become a Catholic, but I would always find an excuse for dragging my feet.

It took a tragedy three years ago for me to come to my senses and start attending
RCIA classes again. In April of 1998 I was baptized into the Catholic faith; in 1999 I became a lector and a eucharistic minister; a year later I became the second female sacristan in the history of our parish.

But what does all that have to do with my career as a writer and a playwright? The answer, interestingly enough, is – a great deal.

Everyone says an artist should have a Muse, and Jesus is my Muse. He makes me do things I never would have thought were possible. I remember walking home after bringing Jesus to the patients at our local hospital and Jesus whispering in my ear that I should write an inspirational book aimed specifically at the homebound, the elderly, and those in hospitals and nursing homes. I did just that and now the manuscript, which has gotten good reviews, is on its way to being published. I have also written a book of meditations and a book of inspirational poems. I truly believe that with Jesus at my side I will find publishers for those books as well.

But what is more amazing is that my whole life’s purpose has changed. I no longer look at my writing skills as a way to earn money or people’s respect. I want to teach people about Jesus, about His deep and abiding love for us, about His never-ending goodness and mercy. What is even more important – I am no longer alone. I have found other valiant Catholic women artists who are not afraid to put their careers on the line in order to preach the Word.

Some say that those who openly uses their feminine sensitivity and the feminine point of view do not stand a chance in the fiercely competitive and sometimes outright brutal worlds of show business, publishing, and the other creative arts. I disagree. I believe that our feminine sensitivity is a definite enhancement of our work. Being women provides us with deeply rooted compassion and a need to create, to grow, to serve others; our desire not to judge and condemn, but rather to see the world through another ´s eyes — all those things bring us closer to God and make our ministries true extensions of our femininity and truly unique gifts for the glory of God.

Companions in the Field

Sister Ave Clark is one of my closest friends. Seven years ago she started her Heart to Heart Ministry, a series of retreats, poetry readings, and support groups for the survivors of rape and sexual abuse. She has written a book called Lights in the Darkness published by Resurrection Press about her own abuse recovery and the recovery of countless others — a book that has helped thousands of wounded souls to find their way back to God. Her book was translated into Spanish and she is now getting letters and phone calls from as far away as El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sister Kathleen McAvoy´s ministry is of a more personal nature. She has written a book filled with what she lovingly calls “prayer poems," called Soul to Soul. She told me the book was meant as a prayer journal at first, but then she found that people could relate to her poems. "I find writing and sharing the prayer poems very life-giving," she says. I couldn’t agree more.

Patricia Angelin is a fellow Catholic director and playwright. She holds an MA in Criticism and Theory, she is a member of Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors´ Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. When not working off-Broadway, she volunteers her services with Courage – a ministry for the Catholics (and their families) who are loyal to the teachings of the Magisterium and struggle with same-sex attractions. Courage is the only ministry of its kind that has been officially approved by the Roman Catholic Church. She has written and directed a play about the young people´s struggles with homosexuality, and it was performed last year at the Courage Youth Conference here in New York.

It was a huge success and Patricia hopes to direct it again – this time for a larger audience. She is also thinking about directing one of my plays – A Different Kind of Love, about Sister Faustina Kowalska of the Divine Mercy.

And last, but not least, there are Patti DeFilippis, Maggie Mahrt and Callie Cribbs of Saint Luke’s Productions. Patti is a Catholic playwright, screenwriter, director, and actress, and she could probably do props, costumes, lights, and set design if asked. Leonardo and Patti DeFilippis are responsible for bringing to the Catholic community such masterpieces as Maximilian: Saint of Auschwitz; Therese: The Story of a Soul; and Saint Francis: Troubadour of God’s Peace.

Callie Cribbs is their administrative assistant – she deals with all the day-to-day things that are involved in running a theatrical and film company. They have just finished shooting the movie based on the life of Saint Therese. And they do accept unsolicited manuscripts from Catholic playwrights and screenwriters.

Maggie Mahrt played Saint Therese in the theatrical version of Therese: The Story of a Soul. Since, she has fulfilled her lifetime dream – to become a postulant with the Sisters of Saint John. We are all very excited for her, although I am a little saddened – she will never get to play my Saint Faustina! But since I am prayerfully considering joining the Sisters of Life in a couple of years myself, I understand.

Last month together with Patricia Angelin and Tina Williams (yet another talented Catholic actress who sees her participation in the arts as a way of serving God) I was discussing the unthinkable: creating New York’s first and only Catholic professional theater group. I think Wings of Faith Productions is a good name, but I am open to suggestions.

Who knows? Maybe someday we will have a Catholic theater in every major city in the US. Like one very wise man wrote a long time ago: “I can do all things in the Lord who strengthens me."

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Published by: Kathleen Burke
Date: 2010-07-10 10:47:41
Dear, Thank you for publishing this article! I am so inspired by reading this. I am a college student, an actress and a playwright, and a practicing Catholic. Sometimes it seems so hard to reconcile my life in the theater with my life with Christ! I would love to learn more about Catholic theater artists. If you have any more information, please contact me! Thank you, Kathleen Cole Burke

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