George Sibley Main

Resume of Written Work | Some Writings | Home


"Creativity, Faith, and a Stronger Community"

Maryo Gard Ewell
Gunnison Congregational Church, February 5, 2006

I am honored to be here among you. Thank you for your generous invitation to speak today.

This past year, two things have come together for me. The first is this: I’m on the board of the Gunnison Area Community Foundation, and one of the three roles of a community foundation is a leadership role. In the months ahead, the Foundation will be introducing a new initiative called "The Valley of Respect." We’ll be convening people of differing political perspectives, cultures, languages, ages, interests, and faiths to get to know one another and learn to listen to one another. Our belief is that a democratic society – in the macro – and healthy communities – in the micro – cannot function without a common commitment to respectful listening. It’s our differences, not our similarities, that can truly make us strong as we move forward together.

The second thing is this: My work is about community-building, and the tool I have chosen to use is the arts. Someone asked me recently, "Think back on your life and tell me about the first time you understood that the arts could help to create stronger communities." Of course I started to think about my first job in arts administration. But then I cast my mind back a little, then a little more, and further still, and remembered myself as an 8-year-old in 1957, doing my homework at the Madison Women’s Club while my parents worked on a play.

Now, when you’re 8, I suppose that you figure that the things you see are just the way that things are, and I had no idea that anything earth-shaking was going on, there at the Women’s Club, but now I understand that it was.

The play was called "Man and His God." The Women’s Club was the producer, and the chief playwright-director was my father, Robert E. Gard. Five hundred people from twenty-four churches in Madison, Wisconsin, worked with my dad’s drama program at the University of Wisconsin to design and produce the play – five hundred people. Yesterday, I was looking at the scrapbook that the Women’s Club kept, and there

I found the concern that fueled this project:

In this day, as some say, of confusions and perplexities, of soporifics and escapes, of conformity and mediocrity, and of a seeming general willingness to accept less than the best - in this day, introspection seems called for – introspection by individuals and by groups… (1)

The Club recognized that groups of many faiths were broadening their missions and worship to acknowledge and respond to broader community issues. They decided that their response to their stated concern would be to invite all of the faith groups of Madison to introspect together. Now, this introspection could have taken the form of a conference at which all of these groups could have talked about their faith, and learned from one another, and shared questions or concerns; but the Women’s Club took another direction altogether. They decided, instead, to invite the faith groups to make a play together. They decided that through this drama, people could also respond emotionally, they could also show one another their sense of awe or worship or skepticism. They could learn with their heart and their muscles and their gut – as well as with their heads. Not to mention how they could grow from the bondedness and exchange that happened as all sorts of people whose paths wouldn’t ordinarily cross, worked hard and intensely over many weeks to produce something of excellence and meaning, together.

The great underlying desire of the Club was to draw all the peoples of a fragmented… community together, regardless of race, color or creed, through universal and unselfish regard for a Creator.
The invitation offered the groups the opportunity to take part in many ways - participating in a single scene, singing, dancing, choral reading, or backstage. My father sketched the overall script, but people from the many faith groups gathered early on to critique it, to rewrite pieces of it to reflect their point of view with greater integrity. The scenes each dealt with Man’s vision of the "Creator" or of the ultimate Truth, the challenges the "Creator" makes to Man, and Man’s response to these challenges, and each scene was offered by a different faith group. The scenes were meshed with original dance, with music, with poetry and passages from literature, and with the Deity himself, or herself, wearing magnificent masks created by the ladies of the Women’s Club under the guidance of a prominent Madison artist. The reporter for the Milwaukee Journal said this:

On what stage could you see St. Paul in company with Adam and Eve, Mephistopheles, Buddha, ancient Jewish prophets and the gods of Greek and Scandinavian mythology? Where could the sonorous words of the Old Testament be heard interspersed with a Japanese "noh" play, readings from the sacred Hindu scriptures, and poetry by such diverse authors as Aeschylus, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Christopher Marlowe? … All these ingredients and more have been woven into a precedent-breaking production entitled "Man and His God".… Not a play, not a pageant in the usual sense, "Man and His God" is something new in modern theater. (2)

Here are some of the ways that so many, many different groups participated, both in front of, and behind, the curtain:

The University of Wisconsin furnished the director/playwright. Media students (literally "doing it with mirrors") invented an elaborate system so that projected images could become integral to the production. A theater student trained three boys from Catholic Edgewood High School to handle the complex lighting. The Prologue was spoken by a chorus of women from the Women’s Club. Scene One was acted by the South Shore Methodist Church. Scene Two was offered by the First Congregational and United Student Fellowship Churches. Scene Three was offered by Parkside Presbyterian. Scene Four by the First Evangelical United Brethren. Another by Beth El Temple. Another by the Unitarian Society. Another by the Latter Day Saints. And several other groups did several other scenes. The organist was from Grace Episcopal Church. The Epilogue was a glorious mix of people from the Baha’i Temple and the Mount Zion Baptist, and Covenant Presbyterian churches . And listen to this:

The Negro churches of Madison joined together with a group from the Air Force Base at Truax [Field] to provide a beautiful singing choir… It was apparent immediately…that the Project was going to be a successful experiment in group relations…. Everyone mingled freely….each group went out of its way to get acquainted with others…. Here for the first time, the Methodist minister taking the part of Paul met the Gregorian Chanters from the University Catholic Chapel, and the readers and folk singers from the Baha’i faith and Presbyterian churches joined with the speaking and singing choirs from the Negro churches. Various churches were switching choir robes or borrowing them from non-participating churches in order to get the right color effects….

And the show did not fail in audience appeal; it was sold out every night. In the scrapbook are letters. One is from the Director of the Governor’s Commission on Human Rights. Another is from Rabbi Manfred Swarensky who said, in part:

The inevitable result of such cooperative undertaking is a feeling of mutual respect and reverence for the sacred traditions of our neighbors.

As a clueless third-grader in 1957, I certainly had no idea that "Man and His God" would shape me, but shape me it did. Since my parents were so committed to the arts, as a teen rebel I tried to escape the "art thing" by declaring a psychology major in order to understand, and then singlehandedly fix, the world. But I could not escape. There was a day in graduate school when I was snoozing through my class in community psychology, and suddenly through my daydreams I heard the professor, Dr. Seymour Sarason, say something like this:

I have come to believe that the truly healthy community is one which cares as much about the spiritual and creative health of its people, as it does about their physical and mental health. (3)

It all came together for me in that moment. "Man and His God," my theater parents, my commitment to community building and my democratic heritage as an American. I realize that I dedicated my life – again, I’m sure, without recognizing it at the time - in that New Haven classroom.

So in my professional life since then, my passionate devotion as an arts worker has been to those big ideas, those moments in which creative people have said, "Let’s bring together folks who don’t know one another, folks who may not even think they can agree, within the framework of a creative situation. Let’s invite them to fashion something interesting and beautiful, which includes a multitude of points of view, which lets them be vulnerable to one another, which lets them learn from one another, and which, then, results in respect and reverence for the sacred in one another."

Recognizing our differences through our creativity, we can be made strong, as poet Vachel Lindsay said nearly a century ago, "by the vision of a completely beautiful neighborhood and the passion for a completely democratic art." (4) So I wonder if, here in Gunnison, we couldln’t use this kind of thinking to do our own version of "Man and His God" in the months ahead. To ask ourselves whether we couldn’t set up some kind of creative framework and invite one another to fashion something together, in order to promote dialogue and understanding about the nature of faith here in the Valley.I want to close with a prose-poem, written in 1969 by my dad, Robert Gard, who never gave up on this idea. He said:

If you try, what may you expect?
First a community
Welded through art to a new consciousness of self:
A new being, perhaps a new appearance –
A people proud
Of achievements which lift them through the creative
Above the ordinary –
A new opportunity for children
To find exciting experiences in art
And to carry this excitement on
Throughout their lives –
A mixing of peoples and backgrounds
Through art; a new view
Of hope for mankind and an elevation
Of man – not degradation.
New values for individual and community
Life, and a sense
That here, in our place
We are contributing to the maturity
Of a great nation.
If you try, you can indeed
Alter the face and the heart
Of America. (5)



1. This, and all other uncited quotes, are taken from reports and letters in the scrapbook kept by the Madison Women’s Club of this project in 1957. Mrs. Marie Oakey assembled this scrapbook.

2. "Great Religions Basis for Community Drama Project," Milwaukee Journal Women’s Section, April 28, 1957, pp. 1-2.

3. This is from the author’s memory.

4. Lindsay, Vachel "The Gospel of Beauty," Section II, The New Localism, in Adventures Rhymes & Designs, New York, Eakins, 1968, p.53.

5. Gard, Robert E., et al, The Arts in the Small Community: A National Plan, Madison, WI, Office of Community Arts Development/University Extension, 1969, p. 98. Online at

Resume of Written Work | Some W ritings | Home