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The Folger Spotlight

Church Basements

Recently, we are rehearsing in the basement of a Protestant church. Church basements are positively Proustian for me. I have spent a lot of time in them, and have theorized about them, not so much in relation to Shakespeare, but to his fellow Western canon behemoth across the channel, Richard Wagner.

The reasons for a percentage of my life being spent in church basements are several. I gotta lotta hardcore Lutheran stuff going on both maternistically and paternistically. The Lutherans like to call the typical church basement a “fellowship hall.” This is, I believe, the Methodist moniker of our current rehearsal room as well. My parents’ wedding reception was in one. I have spent weeks of my childhood in Vacation Bible School buried in the bowels of Lutheran church basements looking at felt boards and putting Elmer’s glue on my hands.

Church Basement, California, Christmas

A Protestant church basement, or fellowship hall, demands the patently oxymoronic phenomenon of a “charmless aesthetic,” a school of design so thoroughly and rigorously perfected as to be miraculous in its total success, venue after venue after venue. Its domestic handicraft counterpart is the styrofoam cup, and nowhere is that object more welcomed, prevalent, at home, and appropriate than the Protestant church basement.

When I grew up, I eventually found myself at certain assemblages often held in church basements for the purpose of managing the disease of alcoholism; again the label of fellowship; again the styrofoam cup. That dead-ringer same linoleum is underfoot as we rehearsed The Taming of the Shrew.  It is like there is a huge charmless aesthetic quarry for the stuff somewhere. It is the Protestant version of Siena marble.

Church Basement, District of Columbia, Easter

When decorated for a high holiday, somehow, the charmlessness of the aesthetic is ratcheted  miraculously, impossibly, inexplicably, higher.

I know you’re now asking, what was that about Wagner way back in the first paragraph of this blog? Well, the first act of Wagner’s six-hour “comedy” Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg takes place in a Lutheran church basement. Technically its a converted Catholic church succumbed to Luther and now paneled in the fifteenth-century Teutonic version of that charmless aesthetic described above. The title characters of this opera are just regular old middle class Lutheran dads at a meeting in a church basement, and when I encounter this piece of art I am psychically wrecked by it, racked with emotions so strong and primal I can listen to passages of it again and again like a skipping record and blubber afresh each and every time.

For the Protestant church basement is my Proustian madeleine, it is my Wellesian rosebud, it is my Jungian eternal return, and yeah, it’s ugly, but there it is, and so the charmless, some say soulless, church basement in which we rehearse, should be as inspiring to this Norwegian-American actor as the Grove of Dionysus was to the Greek.