New theater company breathes life into contemporary issues

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” wrote T.S. Eliot in 1921. “[An artist must be] conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”

With those words in mind, director and playwright Emily C.A. Snyder and Storm Theatre veteran Michelle Kafel came together this past summer to form Turn to Flesh Productions, a New York-based theater company dedicated to re-examining contemporary questions in light of the classical, Western and Catholic traditions.

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Snyder about the undertaking, as well as the necessity of joining the Catholic worldview to the world of theater. 

Our Sunday Visitor: How would you describe the mission of Turn to Flesh Productions? 

Emily C.A. Snyder: Our tagline is “Modern themes. Classical style.” We want to tackle questions of God, faith and all the “pelvic issues” — marriage, sex, gender — through stylized drama that breathes life into our audiences and actors. 

OSV: Why verse dramas? 

Snyder: When you meet Shakespearean actors, you find they tend to talk about topics like confession or God, because confession and God are part of Shakespeare’s world. When you delve into a world as an actor, you have to take that world seriously. The world of verse is a world in which characters are wrestling with God and the divine, not the kitchen sink. 

OSV: What’s the significance of your company’s name? 

Snyder: It’s actually the title of a short play I wrote about Medusa. As she wrestles with Perseus, her heart is turned to flesh. That’s an idea that runs through all the shows I’ve done. I do theater because it changes people; not just the audiences, but the actors and crew as well. We remember we’re alive.

OSV: You’re writing plays that give flesh to the Catholic worldview, but you don’t label Turn to Flesh as a Catholic theater company. Why? 

Snyder: We’re Catholic, and we’re not hiding that fact, but when you put the word “Catholic” in front of something, the expectation is that it will be “nice.” But God is not “nice.” He heals through blood and spit; he came to bring a sword. If you attempt to create good, moral theater, but refuse to look at the tough moral issues, it’s hokey. We want our theater to blaze with beauty as well as truth. 

OSV: How does your upcoming off-Broadway play, “Cupid and Psyche: A New Play in Blank Verse,” fit that mission? 

Snyder: The play is rooted in G.K. Chesterton’s idea in “Orthodoxy” — that virtue untamed is more destructive than vice — as well as C.S. Lewis’ book “The Four Loves.” Everything our culture is arguing about right now ... boils down to a misunderstanding of love. Unfortunately, in English, we only have one word for “love.” So, we say: “We love having sex”; “We love our children”; “We love food.” But we don’t eat our children, and we don’t have sex with food. “Cupid and Psyche” explores those various meanings of love, as well as how our misunderstandings of love lead to the abuse of love. 

OSV: What makes theater such an effective means of communicating those ideas? 

Snyder: People like stories. Through stories you can convey ideas with humor and compassion in a way that you can’t with a lecture. That being said, “Cupid and Psyche” could have been a book or a screenplay. But what’s remarkable about theater is its presence and immediacy. You can hear the tremor in actors’ voices. You live and breathe with the characters in the moment. That heightens your encounter with the story. Live theater also touches the actors in ways movies can’t. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.