Toronto Fringe: Love, joy & taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project

A rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a theatre…

Happy Fringe, guys! I started my Toronto Fringe adventures with the opening of Soulo Theatre’s production of The Clergy Project, directed by Tracey Erin Smith, which played to a sold-out house and a standing ovation last night at First Narayever Congregation.

It’s no secret that I love this show; I’ve seen two previous incarnations, most recently in November 2016 at Revival. For Fringe, the show has a BYOV arrangement—and the show sold out its entire run before it even opened!

City Shul Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, First Unitarian Congregation minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Anglican priest Reverend Daniel Brereton took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre solo show workshop—in a class specifically designed to create a space for members of the clergy to tell their stories. Realizing they had much in common despite their different titles and faith backgrounds, the three clergy took a different path from the usual solo show class presentation at the end of the workshop; The Clergy Project is the fruit of their combined labours, weaving in and out of their three individual personal stories.

From the hilarious faith-specific lightbulb jokes, to recounting the call to ministry, to sharing the challenges they face—including situations not covered in their seminary days—to their reasons for doing what they do, all three share the real-life experiences of their jobs with candor and humour. The combination of personalities makes the show:  the shit-disturbing, kick-ass Elyse; Shawn with the wry wit and a twinkle in his eye; and the cheeky, playful Daniel. The frank, funny, heartbreaking—and ultimately inspiring—storytelling reveals their shared attributes of sass, determination and empathy. And the Fringe version has an additional hysterically funny tale from Daniel about his experience directing his first Christmas pageant!

Delivered with heart, soul, humour, and a genuine desire to connect and share personal stories, The Clergy Project is less about religion and more about the humanity of those who minister—aptly illustrating what Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre are all about. Like Smith says, “Everyone has a story.”

Love, joy and taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project continues at First Narayever Congregation until July 16, with performances on July 6, 12 and 13 at 8pm, and July 9 and 16 at 4pm. The run is sold out, but if you get there early, you can get yourself on the waiting list (some folks got in last night). The 90-minute showtime includes a brief post-show talkback.


The humanity & commonality under the vestments in funny, moving, eye-opening The Clergy Project

Father Daniel in The Clergy Project

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a theatre… again.

Tracey Erin Smith and SOULO Theatre remounted The Clergy Project at Revival Bar for a one performance only show to a delighted sold-out house last night.

I caught the premiere performance of The Clergy Project back in May – and loved it just as much the second time around in this revised version, played out in front of an audience of friends, family, colleagues and congregants.

Father Daniel, Reverend Shawn and Rabbi Elyse are back again, sharing their stories of how they were called and the challenges they face doing this deeply human, intimate work. And wait till you get a load of the light bulb jokes! Part storytelling, part confessional, part love letter to their respective congregations, these three clergy get up close and personal, speaking candidly and bravely – and with humour – about their lives in religious service. And while they treat their jobs seriously, they’re not too serious about themselves.

During the post-show talkback, Father Daniel, Reverend Shawn and Rabbit Elyse talked about the joyful moments of ministry; the common thread that emerged was being present in their congregants’ lives, often from cradle to grave, and witnessing their milestones and moments of growth. When it came to doing Smith’s soulo workshop, each expressed a desire to take a moment to break away from their daily duties and be themselves during this process of creating a show (they did a 10-week workshop with Smith, specifically set up for clergy). As Reverend Shawn remarked, it can be a lonely role and it was good to spend time with other clergy to talk about their day-to-day experiences. In doing so, they became siblings in ministry, finding much in common despite their different faiths – and the love, respect and camaraderie show on stage.

The hope is that the show will shine a positive light on clergy and religion; and show that religion doesn’t have to be fundamentalist, bigoted, sexist, homophobic or narrow-minded. That religion and clergy can be there to show the way to depth and meaning, and be a positive force in the world.

The humanity under the vestments and commonalities that transcend religion in the funny, moving and eye-opening The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project was a one-performance only event, but keep an eye out for future productions, as well as Tracey Erin Smith and SOULO Theatre’s upcoming projects, including soulo class shows and Trans Canada.

You can keep up with SOULO Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.


Faith, hope & taming dragons in the funny, brave & moving Soulo Clergy Project

TES Clergy  post show May 15 2016
Father Daniel D. Brereton, SoulOTheatre Artistic Director Tracey Erin Smith, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein & Reverend Shawn Newton in The Soulo Clergy Project – photo by Adam Large

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a theatre…

Two years in the making, SoulOTheatre Artistic Director Tracey Erin Smith’s dream of gathering professional clergy from diverse faiths together to share their stories came true yesterday, when The Soulo Clergy Project gave its debut performance to a sold-out house of friends, family, congregants and supporters at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

With its genesis in a workshop that originally had six students signed up, Anglican priest Father Daniel D. Brereton, Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein are the three who showed up on the first day and stuck it out. And as the workshop progressed, they discovered they had lots in common, and the three individual stories became a dialogue of shared experiences – this gave Smith the idea that, instead of having three separate solo shows, to weave the three stories together into one show. The result is an entertaining, engaging and insightful piece of storytelling.

Entering the theatre, we are welcomed as part of the respective congregations, and the space buzzes with conversation, last-minute service planning – the excitement and anticipation of community, meeting once a week in a holy space. When the show begins, the three clergy storytellers enter in their respective vestments, highlighting the theatrical quality of religious ritual and tradition. And wait till you hear the three variations on the light bulb joke.

Then, something truly wonderful happens. They each remove their clerical garments, revealing black clothing underneath; personalized t-shirts have their first names on the front, and their respective roles and a simple, humourous description of their guiding principles on the back. Daniel: Priest – What would Jesus do? Elyse: Rabbi – What would Moses do? Shawn: Minister – What would Sartre do? Setting the tone for what’s about to come, it’s a reminder that these three members of the clergy are not only defined by their roles, they’re people.

Daniel, Elyse and Shawn share their stories of how they were called to ministry and why they decided to go into the clergy, the challenges faced within their congregations, and life-changing moments of service in the midst of deep sorrow and pain. Told with candor, humour and compassion, they are frank about their personal joys and struggles in faith, some unusual circumstances where they just had to wing it – and even bend the rules – and the navigation of societal prejudice and inflexibility (Daniel came out to his congregation a week after he got married, and Elyse became a rabbi when there were no female rabbis in Canada). Living lives of service and community, they don’t take themselves too seriously and are aware that even tradition has room for change.

While each comes to the storytelling process from different religious beliefs and traditions, they have much in common: faith, hope, charity and a drive to serve their community and build relationships. They are brave, engaging and warm storytellers, each with his/her own flavour: Daniel with his boyish charm and twinkle in his eye; Elyse’s dry humour and chutzpah (and she does a mean Jackie Mason impersonation); and Shawn’s philosophical and introspective vibe.

When asked during the post-show talkback about why they decided to do this workshop and performance, the common thread that emerged was a desire to take a break from the routine of ministry and get in touch with why they chose to heed the calling and do this work. The workshop (which included writing and assembling the show – with dramaturgical support from facilitator/director Smith) provided a safe and respectful place for them to not only explore their lives as clergy, but also as human beings. In the end, The Soulo Clergy Project isn’t just about their roles as priest, minister and rabbi – it’s about their humanity.

Faith, hope and taming dragons in the funny, brave and moving Soulo Clergy Project.

The Soulo Clergy Project was a one-performance only event, but Smith and the three clergy storytellers are hoping for a remount. Keep an eye out for this remarkable piece of theatrical storytelling.

In the meantime, there’s lots more to come. Please join SoulOTheatre for more fabulous upcoming shows this month:

Project Drag Queen: Sun, May 22 at 8 p.m. at Church on Church.

The fourth annual SOULO Theatre Festival: May 26-29 at Red Sandcastle Theatre, including solo show performances and workshops, see the full schedule here; and get your advance tickets/passes here.

You can also keep up with SoulOTheatre on Facebook and Twitter.