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Applause Not Enough--Playwright Is After Lives

December 03, 1987|R. DANIEL FOSTER

He could be described as a cross between the Pope and Patton--with a dash of Ted Baxter thrown in.

Five hundred soldiers for Christ are at his command. Maps outlining a global strategy paper the walls of his Woodland Hills headquarters. An armada of World War I fighter planes dangle from the ceiling and Winston Churchill's steely glare is framed on the wall. Tucked in a corner, a sign reads: "God so loved the world, He didn't send a committee."

Instead, God sent Charles M. Tanner.

Tanner is commander-in-chief of Covenant Players, an international Christian repertory theater company. A former Hollywood producer and writer, he began with a troupe of eight players in Encino 24 years ago. Today, 500 players tour 76 nations performing nearly 2,000 Tanner-written plays in 13 languages.

"People are being moved all over the nations into making life-changing commitments through these plays," Tanner says. "And you don't do that on Broadway."

Covenant Players units consist of four to six people who receive a starting salary of $30 a week. The unit charges a flat rate of about $100 per performance and often asks for additional money by passing a basket. All Covenant Players are required to rehearse each day and make an initial 18-month commitment. About 50 have made lifetime commitments.

Most recruits decided to join the ministry after seeing a Tanner production for the first time.

A Varied Audience

Covenant Players perform in hospitals, retirement homes, prisons, churches, backyards, garages, airplanes in flight and on ships, according to David Kitch, an eight-year veteran of the troupe. Kitch, who has given just under 9,000 performances, recently was emcee of a performance and sped through three character changes at a downtown Los Angeles church.

Pacing the stage with sweeping gestures, Kitch asked the audience of 150 to "imagine a big, beautiful crimson curtain descending to the stage in a flourish . . ."

Kitch was priming the audience's imagination for several Tanner plays. An ideal resort offering guests everything but companionship turned out to be pure hell in "The Name of the Game." "The Escape Hatch" featured Kitch as a hardened thief who accepts Christ after discovering he has taken a blind Christian girl hostage.

Tanner's plays are based on New Testament themes and deal with current topics such as drugs, the family, schools and human relationships. Several of his plays, such as a World War I fighter pilot series and a World War II submarine series, center on the topic of war, which Tanner calls "a proving ground of human character."

Helen Marshall, director of development at the world headquarters, saw her first Tanner production in 1968 and made a lifetime commitment to the ministry in 1972.

"With me, it was a specific religious experience," Marshall said. "I suddenly realized that as a Christian, if God gave his son, then what I would have to give up would be very small. There have been many hard times, but the commitment helps you through those times. That's what it's for."

During one Covenant Players tour in Vietnam, Marshall was stationed near the firing lines.

"At one time I ministered for 19 hours and had only three days off in three months," she said. "It was very fulfilling. We didn't always know where the next meal was going to come from, but it always came."

Marshall has toured the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia. She and her husband Nels, director of graphics, also serve in the headquarters' San Fernando unit, which gives three performances a week at churches in the Valley.

According to Tanner's wife, Doris, the organization now gives 90,000 performances a year. This spring, Tanner said, the players racked up 1 million performances.

Henry Goodman, professor of theater at UCLA, said there now is a trend of reviving medieval mystery plays based on New Testament themes in churches.

"Modern theater began in the religious ritual of the church in the Middle Ages," Goodman said. "The original liturgical plays were performed at the altar."

Christian Themes on Broadway

Although Broadway seems reserved for secular productions, Goodman said a few Christian themes have made it to the Great White Way. Among them are Max Reinhardt's production of "The Miracle" and T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral."

Emmet Lavery, a Catholic playwright who lived in Encino, wrote "The First Legion," which made its debut on Broadway in 1935 and eventually was translated into 14 languages. The story was about Jesuit priests who disagree over a miracle that takes place in their home. Lavery, who died last year, is most famous for "The Magnificent Yankee," a story of Oliver Wendell Holmes' later life.

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