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Ventura County Religion | RELIGION

Where God's Work Takes Center Stage

Christian acting troupe ministers the world over through modern morality plays. Members gather at Somis School to hone skills and Bible knowledge.


OXNARD — Actors in the Covenant Players seek more than applause and money as they tour the world, performing plays in churches, hospitals, schools and wherever else they are invited.

They want to touch their audiences' souls.

This international Christian repertory theater company has its northern hemisphere players gathered for the summer at Somis School to hone acting skills and Bible knowledge, all in an effort to change lives when they go back on the road this fall.

The 170 actors are deployed by Covenant Players out of the organization's Oxnard world headquarters in groups of three to five, armed with 2,000 plays written by organization founder Charles M. "Chuck" Tanner.

Tanner, a former Hollywood producer and writer who began with just eight players in Encino in 1963, has watched the troupe become an international organization with 400 actors who tour the world and perform his plays in 19 languages.

"My father has written over 100 plays a year and always has done so by writing 'first copy'--no rewrite," daughter Bobbi Johnson-Tanner said. "He would just sit down at a typewriter and write. His first draft was his final draft. His writing is a gift from God."

The senior Tanner did not stop there. Like a field general, he was very hands-on in training his troops, until two years ago when he had a stroke.

Chuck Tanner still writes plays. But, now, his daughter is in command.

"My dream is the same as in all Christian ministry," Johnson-Tanner said. "We want to reach more people,"

As the traveling performers teach hundreds about Jesus, they are also recruit Christian actors.

"We hope to find some more people with an adventurous spirit who want to really make a difference with their lives without great financial rewards," Johnson-Tanner said.


The group is not affiliated with any specific denomination. Though opportunities for such backing have been available in the past, the elder Tanner chose to stay independent so the nonprofit group could reach more people, according to his son-in-law, Mark Johnson-Tanner, a Covenant Players' vice president.

Because of this policy, organizers never ask prospective performers about their religious affiliation.

"All they need is a love of the theater and a love of the Lord," he said.

Bobbi Johnson-Tanner began working for her father's troupe as a teenager, mostly just for the fun of it, she said.

But, when she was a 20-year-old psychology student at Washington State University, Bobbi Johnson-Tanner became convinced that she should put her education on hold for a time and become more involved with the players.

"My mom felt very strongly that I should finish school, but understood when I explained that I felt I was called," she said.

It has been 27 years and her college degree is still on hold, but her religious conviction has grown deeper. Bobbi Johnson-Tanner said she has traveled to every state, including Hawaii and Alaska, all over Canada, throughout Europe, in Southeast Asia, as well as in mainland China, to share the teachings of Jesus.


Chuck Tanner's plays are modern morality tales based on New Testament themes. They deal with topics such as drugs, family, schools, conflict resolution and human relationships. Many of the plays use war as a theme, because the playwright considers war "a proving ground of human character."

What plays are performed is determined by the theme desired by the host church or sponsor. The group also performs in prisons and retirement homes, as well as on military bases.

Some plays last just 30 seconds. Others run for more than three hours. It all depends on what the client wants.

Some of Tanner's plays are lessons in virtue, but have no religious references so they can be performed in public schools, Mark Johnson-Tanner said.

It is up to each of the 45 teams to arrange their own play dates, or bookings. Individuals who join Covenant Players are asked to commit to the organization for at least 18 months. Most join after seeing a performance.

"They get a stipend of $50 a week, plus room and board," Bobbi Johnson-Tanner said. "Team leaders can get about $80 to $100 a week. They charge a $300 flat rate to perform or will sometimes take a $175 honorarium and an offering from the audience. For a $450 daily fee, the group will go to many venues and perform throughout the day."


In foreign lands--such as Africa, the Philippines and China--the pay scale can be different, according to Bobbi Johnson-Tanner.

"Sometimes we are paid in chickens or a tank of gas," she said.

To keep the organization's overhead low, performers are also required to arrange for their own housing, which usually means contacting host families to open up their homes.

"I joined after being introduced to the Covenant Players by my best friend, whose family had them staying in their home," said actress Altra Covey, 25.

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