Music as Mission, Theater as Theosis

For two Fordham Jesuits, art is part of their mission to serve the community.

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Music as Mission, Theater as Theosis

Rev. George Drance, S.J. (center), and the cast of

Rev. George Drance, S.J. (center), and the cast of "The Trojan Woman" rehearse at La MaMa's downtown theater.

ISABELLE DALBY/THE OBSERVER

Rev. George Drance, S.J. (center), and the cast of "The Trojan Woman" rehearse at La MaMa's downtown theater.

ISABELLE DALBY/THE OBSERVER

ISABELLE DALBY/THE OBSERVER

Rev. George Drance, S.J. (center), and the cast of "The Trojan Woman" rehearse at La MaMa's downtown theater.

By MELANIE CORINNE, Contributing Writer

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The arts have an immutable ability to connect and engage their audiences regardless of culture, language, race, religion or politics. Fordham’s Rev. George Quickley, S.J., and Rev. George Drance, S.J., took the time to share how the arts informed their lives and duties as Jesuits and vice versa.

Engaging with the modern world through both religion and artistic expression don’t seem like an obvious pairing — especially not with the somber and lofty tradition of a high liturgical denomination like Catholicism. Of course, there are always exceptions, like the time a Catholic order invested in the Broadway flop “Leap of Faith” starring Raul Esparza. Wondering if that was the exception to the rule, I turned to two of Fordham’s Jesuits to share their experiences of art and faith.

Drance, Fordham artist in residence, said, “In ‘The Formula of the Institute,’ which is the first document that the Society of Jesus had, they talked about the work of the Jesuits being for the good of souls and that we should make ourselves available to teaching, preaching and other ministries of the word.”

“Very, very early in the history of the Society of Jesus,” Drance continued, “it became clear that one of the ministries of the word was theater, and doing theatrical plays in the Jesuit schools became a way for students to learn to collaborate, to create, to apply their studies, to be of service to the community and to embody stories that gave lessons to encourage and inspire people.”

“It’s what an artist is; whether it’s a photographer or a painter … that somebody sees what you have drawn forth from your own experience, from your soul. Someone sees something in it that speaks to them, and that’s what makes it universal.,” Quickley said. Quickley also mentioned that “visualization” is rooted in the Ignatian spirituality of the Jesuits, and it can be a thought exercise that compels artistic expression.

Both Jesuits have done more than just speak of this correlation between their Jesuit faith and their love of the arts; they have lived it. Quickley participated in musicals like “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” before he joined the Jesuits. He studied voice lessons during his Jesuit formation and was a member of the Actor’s Equity Union, singing in the chorus of countless operas including “Amal and the Night Visitors,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Magic Flute,” of which he is fondest. 

He has performed operas in English, Italian, German and Russian. Even in his duties as a parish priest, Quickley used his love of singing, dance and theater synergistically as he celebrated Mass while on a mission to Africa.

Drance was an actor before he became a Jesuit. He continued to serve in an artistic capacity once he became a priest, while on mission to Honduras and in Africa. In East Africa, a piece of theater by Drance’s group was accepted to the national theater, but was later banned by the one-party democracy due to its political content. 

In New York, he received his MFA from Columbia and involved himself with The American Repertory Theater while working at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in downtown Manhattan, where he continues his field work today. He has put on multiple shows with his personal production company, Magis Theater Company, including “*mark” and “Calderon’s Two Dreams.” He is presenting “The Trojan Women” at La MaMa this December.  

Both Jesuits agreed that art and ministry can be one and the same. Quickley uses his theatrical skills to enrich his ministry as a parish priest, while Drance uses his Jesuit faith to minister to the arts community while working simultaneously as a full-time artist. Like opposite sides of the same coin, both men elevate their work through art and faith.

Drance said, “I always allow people to first know me as a colleague and an artist. Eventually they’re going to find out that I’m a priest, and I don’t have to announce that at the very first time or moment. But when they do (find out), all of a sudden, their assumptions are already challenged.” 

Drance continued, “A man came up to me after I had been working with him for about three weeks. He said, ‘I heard you’re a priest.’ I said, ‘That’s true.’ He said, ‘Before you go back to America, I’d like you to hear my confession. I’ve been away from the church for 17 years and I think I can talk to you.’ So, something like that would have never happened had I not been … outside of the normal scope of ministry. I think as Jesuits we believe that that is how we are most effective, is going into the margins.” This was only one example of how Drance’s work as an artist allows him to minister, as a Jesuit, in ways that are not otherwise possible.

Drance credits his molding as an artist to La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart. “Ellen was always looking for a way for the voices that are not present at the discussion to become present … Over the last 10 years, a voice of religion from within religion has been absent from many artistic conversations. But because of who I am, I am able to present the voice of religion from inside rather than the outside,” Drance said.

Quickley’s journey as an artist and Jesuit was also informed and molded by his experience in the margins; A racial incident led Quickley to Catholicism. His family moved to a new neighborhood, where the nearby non-Catholic church rejected them because they were black. Quickley found his own way with the local Catholic congregation, while his family returned to their old neighborhood each Sunday to attend a church in their chosen denomination. 

Quickley said that even this experience informed his love of art — as a place that transcended these issues while simultaneously speaking to them, connecting communities and people and nourishing the soul, much like he found in that initial Catholic congregation. It seems that, for Quickley, singing in operas was yet another way of serving and connecting with others. “That’s what an artist is,” he continued. “You are putting into the art, your soul. And that’s what makes it become universal.”

However, Quickley said of his first inquiry into being a Jesuit, “I had the impression that I was being told, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ and as I was an 18-year-old African American boy with all sorts of experiences of race and rejection … I was drawing on those experiences (that they) were telling me because of who you are, you’re not welcome.”

Quickley remained resilient. The book “Obedient Men” by Denis Meadows and subsequent positive experiences with other Jesuits encouraged him to pursue becoming a priest nonetheless. Quickley related his view of the relationship between art and struggle to Aretha Franklin: “Her singing is everything about who she is and everything that she suffered … She sings, in every song, that journey she has made, whether it be a journey of joy or a journey of suffering. That’s what art is.” 

When asked if their faith ever caused tension or conflict with their involvement in the arts, Quickley said no. Blessed with the dual passions of theatrical performance and parish ministry, he said he never undertook an obligation to a performance if he did not have the time, understanding that their mission as Jesuits always came first. He spoke with equal pride about both his theatrical and diocesan accomplishments.

Drance, meanwhile, was initially challenged by several events which encouraged him to make discerning choices. He looks at the subtext and intentionality of each piece and will always try to find what is redeeming in it. Drance cited performing in the play “Hot and Throbbing” by queer feminist playwright Paula Vogel as a prime example, which raises questions about why people consider sex, not violence, obscene. “I was proud to be a part of it,” he said. 

“Part of Jesuit spirituality is seeking and finding God in all things, and so the belief is that there is nothing that is created that, if we look deeply enough, will not lead us to God,” Drance continued. “If we are in the midst of something and it is not leading us to God, it probably means that we’re just not looking deeply enough.”