For more than 25 years, Melanie David has been spreading the Gospel without ever standing behind a pulpit. Her "sermons" aren't preachy; in fact, the 48-year-old actress said the cornerstone of her ministry is avoiding that at all cost. Instead, she reaches out to both believers and non-believers through the power of drama.
"There are people who have had a not so pleasant experience in church … or some who haven't had a way to be in church at all and theater ministry provides a safe, enjoyable way for them to have a positive experience," David said. "When the Gospel is presented in an entertaining way, people are more receptive and open to the message."
Many ministers would no doubt agree, having noticed the tendency of some parishioners to nod off during the sermon on Sunday mornings. It is that narcoleptic response David tries to counteract by "bringing the Christian message to people through theater."
David heads up a consortium of about 65 actors, set designers and technicians - all evangelical Christians - who are committed to "doing theater with a Christian message, but not being preachy," she said.
The theater company, which lacks a formal title, is housed at Catalina Foothills Church, 2150 E. Orange Grove Road, where David is employed part-time as director of the church's Theatre Arts Ministry. It features members from various Northwest churches, including Pusch Ridge Christian Church, Casas Adobes Baptist and Northwest Bible Church. And when these actors and actresses get together and produce a play - with the love of God and the importance of what David terms "the Christian worldview" as the centerpiece - no one is nodding off.
"Our productions are professional, high-class performances, with highly trained actors and actresses," she said. "We put months into our rehearsals so we can produce a first-class play that rivals anything in town."
The attendance at various performances attest to the quality of the production, David said; for a three-night run, attendance averages 350 to 400 people per night.
"Generally, we have no problem selling out each night," she said.
David was first exposed to theater ministry as a stymied high school actress.
"I loved theater, but I was very frustrated because I could find no way of integrating my love of theater (with) my faith," she said.
Her parents took her to Houston to see the A.D. Players, a national touring Christian acting troupe, during her last year of high school.
"It changed my life. I said, 'Here is great acting, with an incredibly strong Christian message, but not preachy," David recalled. She remembered that experience when she began attending Northern Arizona University, where she majored in advertising and minored in theater.
"I spent all my free, waking hours in the theater up there," David said. "I love acting, I was doing it all the time, and then began working with various churches to produce (Christian-based) plays."
For more than a decade, David did theater ministry in various churches in the Flagstaff and Phoenix area before moving to Tucson eight years ago and starting her first Theatre Arts Ministry out of Canyon del Oro Baptist Church, 9200 N. Oracle Road. She moved it to Catalina Foothills Church about five years ago.
The Theatre Arts Ministry group has produced two plays annually for the past eight years, David said. Their most recent production was "Myrtle," a musical based on the Old Testament book of Esther, which the group presented at the end of May.
The plays the group performs are not all biblically based, but they all have a "Christian, family orientation," said David, such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Snapshots & Portraits," a family drama about a man who lost his wife to cancer and how his relationship with his son was affected.
"Even though it was a secular play, it still had the message of God's grace and the power of prayer in it," the actress-director said. "That is what makes it work for us. There are some secular plays out there that we can do, but then there are plays I will never do, such as 'Grease,' because they are not in keeping with the Christian worldview."
However, that doesn't mean the company produces only plays that avoid the modern issues, struggles and challenges of life, said David, adding that the group did the one-act play, "Dear Diary," by Paul McCusker a few years ago.
"The show dealt honestly and openly (with) teen suicide, sex and peer pressure," she explained. "Again, it was from a (Christian) perspective, but without being preachy … (it was) very well-received. I enjoy producing unusual plays - not your typical fare."
Even the plays that come directly from Bible stories, such as "Myrtle," are often "modern allegories," David said, because theater-goers are not necessarily interested in coming to a show that is simply acting out lines from the Scriptures.
While auditions are open to all members of the community, "We feel it is imperative that actors be believers because (this) is a ministry - we are proclaiming God's word. We need to be believing what we are putting all our hours into," David said.
Each production entails hundreds of hours of preparation, David said. Beginning with set design, building the stage-platform and making the costumes, the all-volunteer cast of Theatre Arts Ministry starts preparing for a production about five months before opening night. Rehearsals begin eight weeks before the show opens, David said, with the cast practicing in three-hour segments, three times a week.
"It is a lot," David admitted. "Some people say it is because I'm a perfectionist, but from my perspective, we are striving for excellence. We fight an image problem. When I say I do church drama, immediately some people think two things: it must be bad and it's got to be preachy. So I tell my cast, because it is church drama, it has to be better than other plays; it has to be the best."
David said the cast prays before and after every rehearsal and performance and that she believes "God has richly blessed our efforts because of that commitment to prayer."
While she does a lot of the legwork herself - finding the plays, producing and directing them and, many times, acting in them - David said she couldn't put on such professional productions without the help of Arlo Moeckly, the set builder.
"He's an amazing man, he's been with me the whole time," David said.
Her other main support is her husband Gary, who majored in theater at NAU but is now an Army helicopter pilot in Marana, and has acted in a number of his wife's productions. They have two daughters and a son, only one of which seems to have caught the acting bug.
In addition, David said her Theatre Arts Ministry has "a good working relationship" with Gaslight Theatre, which sometimes helps with their set backdrops, as was the case in "Myrtle," David said.
"Gaslight is a great group of people and they've been very supportive … they come to shows and we've had members of the (Arizona Theatre Company) come to shows and say they really like it," David said.
In spite of the long hours and the image problem with which "church drama" has to contend, David said she couldn't see doing anything else.
"Drama can be a very powerful tool for people to think more deeply about faith," she said. "Our role is to expose as many people as possible to the Gospel message, people who might otherwise never come into a church, and theater ministry does just that."