Soul Purpose is a liturgical drama troupe comprised of students at Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, Indiana) sponsored by the Department of Theatre and directed by Professor John Steven Paul. In 1987 Paul, founded a drama program on the idea of performing plays as part of church services. The troupe, which would be known as Soul Purpose, was designed to provide an opportunity for students at the Lutheran university to connect their love of theatre with their Christian faith commitments.
From the beginning the Soul Purpose program was sponsored by the Theatre Department at Valpo and operated as a theatre company within the department. Paul auditioned actors, conducted the rehearsals and prepared the plays using the same discipline that he used in preparing projects for the Valparaiso University “main stage” theatre season. The company was assigned a stage manager and assistant stage mangers. Many Soul Purpose actors also acted for the University Theatre. Since the first year of the program more than 200 students have performed as part of Soul Purpose companies in more than 150 churches throughout the United States.
The student actors in Soul Purpose represent a broad cross section of academic majors, geographical origins, and Christian denominations. About half the actors have been theatre majors. Soul Purpose actors are not paid, nor do they receive academic credit. “We offer with joy and thanksgiving,” they pray, “what you have first given us---our selves, our time, and our possessions, signs of your gracious love.” They gather, improbably, on Saturday mornings beginning at 8:45 AM for devotions and breakfast. They rehearse for two hours to keep the five or six plays that make up the semester’s repertoire fresh. On Monday evenings they gather in writing and improvisation workshops to prepare new plays for performance.
The first Soul Purpose plays were sermons by David H. Kehret, campus pastor at Valparaiso that the troupe transformed into plays. The plays were then offered to churches to be performed in the place of sermons in worship services. Since Kehret had based his sermons on texts from the Common Lectionary, the Soul Purpose plays were also linked to the Lectionary. When Soul Purpose actors began creating their own plays, under the direction of a John Steven Paul, a playwriting teacher, they continued to turn to the Lectionary as a source and point of departure for plot, character, and idea. In the past twenty years, Soul Purpose has created a repertoire of nearly 30 plays each developed from one or more texts in the Lectionary.
As the troupe continued to write and perform plays based on Lectionary texts, Paul sought to connect play and performance more seamlessly with the surrounding liturgy. The troupe became the “Soul Purpose Liturgical Drama Troupe.” The plays are liturgical in two senses: first, they have been written to be performed in the context of a service of worship. Usually, Soul Purpose performs a play following the reading of the Gospel and the play, which has been derived from the Lectionary texts for that day, serves as the sermon or homily in that service. Following the performance, the actors lead the congregation in a hymn.
In its first decade, Soul Purpose performed, for the most part, away from the university campus traveling as far as 300 miles in response to an invitation to perform on a Sunday morning. In recent years, Soul Purpose debuts its plays in worship services at Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection. There are also longer tours to the East and West Coasts, to Florida, the Northeast and Southwest. Occasionally, Soul Purpose performs programs of two or three of its plays at worship conferences, fellowship meetings, Bible class convocations or church supper theatres. They have given performances in hotel ballrooms, fellowship halls, family life centers, and gymnasiums. But Soul Purpose actors feel most at home in the church sanctuary where their words and actions are surrounded by altar table, lectern, and baptismal font.
During the past several years, Soul Purpose has performed at several major worship conferences. In January of 2001 and 2008, the troupe performed plays, led worship services, and presented workshops at the Calvin Worship Symposium at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the summers of 2002 and 2004, they performed at the Christian Formation conference of the Episcopal Church USA at the Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, NC. In addition, they have performed for a music and worship conference at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Indianapolis (a big church!) and at two liturgical arts conferences at Grace Lutheran Church in Hastings, Michigan (a little church, with a big heart!)