Skip to content

Log Out



Heather Christian. Prime: A Practical Breviary, 2020.
A production of Soundstage by Playwrights Horizons.

Heather Christian. I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, 2020.
A production of Theater in Quarantine in association with Theater Mitu’s Expansion Works. Directed by Joshua William Gelb.

Heather Christian. Animal Wisdom: The Film, 2021.
A production of American Conservatory Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Directed by Amber McGinnis. Stage direction by Emilyn Kowaleski.

IN THE CLOSING MOMENTS OF I am Sending You the Sacred Face, Heather Christian’s drag operetta exploring Mother Teresa’s vocation and dark night of the soul, Mother Teresa, mediated by both Joshua William Gelb (who performs her) and Christian (who voices her) exhorts us, “A symbol works best when you put it into the room.” In that operetta, Christian puts the recognizable symbols of Mother Teresa’s smiling face, her iconic blue and white sari, and her union with poverty to work in both the language of hagiography and the language of camp. In the wider context of Christian’s musical and theatrical productions, “putting symbols to work” might be the most concise way to describe the ecstatic structure of her cosmically expansive yet intimately appealing works.

Christian has been a major composer and performer in New York City’s theater scene for years, but the exigencies of the Covid-19 pandemic and the reinvention of theater outside traditional spaces led her to experiment with ideas and forms built from a variety materials. She draws on the liturgies and language of the Catholic Church, gospel rhythm patterns and stylized vocalizations, chorale, baroque counterpoint, electronic looping, and the 1970s Southern Californian folk-rock studio sound, all packaged in the media languages of podcasting, live-streamed videography, and film. If this sounds ambitious, it is. Yet, as in the best collage art, Christian’s work is elegant, coherent, and generative of new and promising forms.

Christian has a knack for setting received liturgical and musical forms loose in new environments. It’s clear from her mode of address that she imagines her audience as largely unfamiliar with these forms of worship, belief, and devotional expression; but for anyone immersed in or even tangentially aware of these forms and the highly symbolic and metaphorical language they contain, Christian’s art can rearrange the encrusted associations and overdetermined genre boundaries that hobble contemporary worship. Her work reminds—and warns—us that God is big, strange, and bewildering and that the language of prayer registers as both performance and devotion.

The overlay of religion and theater, in their rituals and aspirations, has a long history. Theater emerges in the West from the cult of Dionysius in ancient Athens, survives the Roman Catholic Church’s decimation of the institutional theater in the fifth and sixth centuries, and reemerges, paradoxically, through the Catholic Church in the tenth century with the innovation of liturgical tropes, biblical texts set to music. Repeated, figurative statements, tropes ornament liturgy. One trope in particular, the Quem Quaeritis (Whom are you seeking?), added to the Easter Vigil Mass in the tenth century, signals a performative dimension to ritual. Priests and deacons singing in antiphonal choirs voice angels and the women who arrive at Jesus’s empty tomb. From the Mass, tropes migrated to public processions and folk ritual. Ritualized performance, religious or otherwise, is not theater, though. Only once the language of tropes evolved to include characters, dialogue, and narrative was theater as we’ve come to understand it born. This new form manifested in medieval mystery plays and the flourishing theater culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This history of troping is my attempt to get at the largeness of the musical and theatrical worlds created by Heather Christian—worlds that are wildly formal and achingly intimate, temporally precise yet elusively eternal. As Christian has Mother Teresa lament, there is no way to describe the condition of being human in a world of extraordinary beauty and relentless pain. Instead, Christian ornaments the mystery; she lets it proliferate and evolve in tropes that articulate many ways and names of the divine.

For her work, Christian has received two Obies (for excellence in off- and off-off-Broadway productions) and a Richard Rogers Award for Musical Theater for her Oratorio for Living Things (2020). Oratorio for Living Things, which closed prematurely due to the pandemic, will be restaged in March and April 2022 by Ars Nova in New York City, directed by Lee Sunday Evans. With a new piece by Christian about to reenter the ritualized, sacralized, and ephemeral space of the theater, now is an acceptable time to revel in and contemplate her soulful work.


Prime: A Practical Breviary (2020)

The Liturgy of the Hours shaped the rhythms of daily life in the great medieval monastic houses and continues to shape the prayer lives of both religious and laypeople today. Originally consisting of seven prayers corresponding to hours of the day (lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline), it draws its texts from the Psalms. Christian structures Prime around the hour of prime (typically six a.m.), which awakens a monk or nun to work and prayer. Birdsong is the first sound in Prime, followed by the squeal of a rusty hinge as a screen door opens and slams shut. Christian’s voice enters alone, slightly groggy from sleep. She sings, “Well, first of all open the door,” echoing Psalm 24: “the king of Glory comes, open wide the door!” The language of Prime hews closely to the scripture and ideas on which the liturgical hours are built, while also pulling in the interests in biology, horticulture, and quantum physics that striate all Christian’s compositions (there’s a brief metaphysical meditation on “the truth”—her vocal emphasis—event horizons, and black holes). Christian short-circuits the potential for grandiosity through her percussive, piano-forward instrumentation and open-throated choral harmonies. Maybe because Prime is an entirely auditory experience—there is no visual component—it reminds me of my favorite 1970s folk-rock albums in both recording and performance styles. The warmth, roundness, and immediacy of Christian’s virtuosic piano, along with the close harmonies of the choir, will remind some listeners of Richard and Linda Thompson’s First Light or even Richard Sohl’s piano intro to Patti Smith’s “Free Money.” Layer in gospel music with fragments of southern rock and you’ll get close to Christian’s musical amalgamation. (There are also clear allusions to romantic lyricism as well as baroque choral configurations.)

The purposeful convolutions between liturgical and musical forms meet in Christian’s voiced realization that “this day of struggle and fasting must be turned into a day of joy.” She repeats the same line multiple times, each time with different emphases and rhythmic intonations—a theater rehearsal technique. In Christian’s hands, the line becomes both the idea and act of conversion. As she enters the next song—in the call-and-response style of a work song—she sings of change: “Take the anthill out of me by force…. Let me not eat falsehood with a spoon or any tool at all inside my mouth, Lord.” It’s another way of saying it differently, of changing your life from struggle to joy.

The Athanasian Creed typically concludes the prayers for prime on Sundays. The church’s sixth-century pronouncement on the Trinity, this creed attempts to articulate how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are distinct and yet one. Christian’s gospel-style Athanasian Creed rolls, dives, and ultimately entwines to realize the dynamic relationship of one God in three persons, ever present and active. Though I haven’t seen the sheet music, I can feel the piece in 6/8 time (a meter of three) with the expressive emphases often felt on the second and fouth beats, creating a lilt and lift that make the fixed doctrine of the text sound strange and playful. That rhythm—the way it keeps you steady while moving between temporal markers—is the key to transcendence. The form of the music—its meter—and its style—full-throated, bright, hymnodic, and enraptured—take a listener to a place where praying is possible, where the simultaneity of the Trinity can be realized and expressively understood.

Christian uses the creed’s opening words in both English and Latin—“whosoever wishes” and “quicumque vult”—and here the language does this kind of coincidental work too. The English and Latin say the same thing, but with different sounds and structures. Translation—and just the pleasure of differently sounding words in our mouths—also signifies the Trinity in this hymn. In the final passages, the choir breaks into segments, with one group cresting in a descant, “whosoever,” while another jauntily sings like raindrops, “He’s the One. He’s the One. He’s the Three. He’s the Three,” and the soloists carry the melodic line, praying, “Whatever I speak continues, so if it is words of malice, let me swallow them.”

The musical metaphors and techniques here surpass a simple recitation of the creed, in part because the music is doing something deeply trinitarian, and you don’t need music theory to feel this in your body. Recognizing the depth of the structure reveals the seriousness and playfulness in Christian’s formalism, but her stylistic directness also affects listeners and moves us to a place of wonder. Christian’s Athanasian Creed relieves the document of the anxieties baked in when it was written to eliminate the Arian heresy. Here, in a more liberated form, the genuine questing and questioning bursts forth in majesty as the soloist sings, “Oh, it tosses me about, and maybe it tosses you.”

Why, yes, the Trinity does toss me about, thank you. A gracious point of entry appears, and I open the door and enter into mystery and song and light.


I Am Sending You the Sacred Face (2020)

The possibility of hearing and responding to a voice, one’s own or God’s, motivates Christian’s exploration of Mother Teresa’s life in I Am Sending You the Sacred Face. A voice, whether singing, speaking, or writing, manages to be both ephemeral and materially present, while the act of voicing collapses the distance between self and self-representation. Christian’s decision to render Teresa’s story as a drag performance throws into relief the gap between the self and the mediating forms that populate our sense of authenticity. Here, it is the gap between self and representation that is holy.

While the world understood her as the wizened, smiling lover of the abjectly poor with a direct line to God, Mother Teresa’s posthumously published letters and diary entries reveal a woman in the grip of spiritual desolation, occasionally despairing, and feeling a total lack of communion with God for most of her life. Christian wrote I Am Sending You the Sacred Face’s libretto around these materials, allowing Teresa to speak to us now: “This is how we got here. Me, from wherever the heck I am; You, wherever the heck you are, serendipitously in the same place.”

As the show begins, the drag dramaturgy (an approach Christian invented with Dito van Reigersberg) and stylized videography are the conduits by which we meet Teresa, witness her calling, and meditate on her humility and suffering, working toward a joy very near to despair. There is a red landline telephone over which Teresa receives the “call” from God to serve the poor; images of mouths talking represent the voice of God; and Gelb, dressed in a silver sequined dress covered by the immediately recognizable blue and white sari, lip-synchs (a major trope of drag performance) while Christian sings and speaks (we never see her). In Gelb’s eight-by-four-by-two-foot closet performance space (recalling both a prayer closet and the “closet” of the secreted queer subject) with an LED light as a halo, Christian gives us Mother Teresa anew, as both smile and desolation. She tenderly renders the ironies of camp. Drag performance articulates the distance between self and representation and makes that space sacred and transformative. Drag, paradoxically, highlights and closes the gap that makes representation and performance of identity possible.

During the wrenching song “I Am Empty,” Teresa strips the closet of all ornament save a masking-tape cross. She tells us, “Saints do not practice self-care. We practice self-annihilation,” and then reverses another recognizable motif of drag performance. Instead of offering the drag queen who dispenses hard-won wisdom to a neophyte while applying her makeup and wig, Gelb’s and Christian’s Teresa turns the LED light on herself and begins to remove her makeup, enumerating the chapters of the fictional “Idiot’s Guide to Self-Annihilation,” frantically lamenting, “I don’t want to see my face anymore. It’s a thing I use. It’s not part of me really.” We see that drag can be an act of faith—that the outfit, the gesture, the smile, the voicing can mean something. And yet absence remains. A blue and white sari or the perfectly applied ombre eyeshadow marks the boundaries between voice and self. In the depths of her darkness, singing the song “Undefended” and praying to be an empty vessel, Teresa reminds us that, ultimately, the privacy of this spiritual experience and the privacy of each singular self put us beyond language. Yet we have performance, and we have conversion, both holy and both foundational for drag. Drag is the capacious conduit through which both hagiography and spiritual alienation travel in Christian’s operetta.

For all the visual sumptuousness and spectacle of I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, I find it to be Christian’s most private, meditative piece. At least, the piece activates my own inner quietude. The final lines convey a difficult but perhaps salvific truth: “Let yourself get unused to how it was.… We will not be going back.”


Joshua William Gelb in Heather Christian’s I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, 2020. Theater in Quarantine.



Animal Wisdom: The Film (2021)

Going back in time is often our desire, though, especially to revisit loves now lost. Grief is our response to loss in time, and the resonance of love haunts us. Time, and its particular manifestations in loved ones’ lifetimes, are Christian’s major themes in Animal Wisdom. When a planned national tour of the show collapsed in the wake of the pandemic, Christian and the creative team at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC, switched gears and adapted the live show for film. Released via American Conservatory Theater’s streaming platform between May 15 and June 27, Animal Wisdom: The Film is neither movie nor filmed stage performance. It consciously shuttles between genres, using filmic elements—jump cuts, close-ups, wide-angle shots, and accelerated film—to warp our sense of time, while also borrowing the meta-theatrical conceit of a play-within-a-play (in this case a Mass within a play), all within the confined setting of a theater—stage, seats, backstage, and lobby.

Animal Wisdom relates Christian’s connection to her beloved dead: her grandparents, an uncle whose ghost takes more than it gives, and a cherished godfather eaten hollow by Alzheimer’s disease. The pain and confusion over losing them and the loneliness of being haunted by them are the emotional currents that move Christian’s oceanic engagement with ghosts, God, human nature, evolution, music, mathematics, quantum mechanics, the space-time continuum, and then back to ghosts. Animal Wisdom succeeds phenomenally because Christian moves these emotions and abstractions into particular forms that can contain them: narrative, a Requiem Mass, and music, which for Christian is the form best able to both “contain and explain.”

Christian tells us that she’s like the women in her matrilineal line: migraine-suffering musicians who talk to dead people. Overlaid on these characteristics is a New Orleans–infused Catholicism. The result is a world not bound by temporal and material realities and chockablock with images, objects, rituals, prayers, and a fundamental belief that communion with the dead is not only possible but is always happening, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. For me, a Catholic who spent large portions of my childhood with my grandparents, who saw relatives shoving pennies into dead people’s shoes at funerals, whose mom has been my lifelong piano teacher, and who used to walk in cemeteries with my dad asking how God exists outside time, Animal Wisdom cut into some of my deepest and most private marrow. But for those to whom these tendencies appear strange, Christian invites participation by creating what she calls a “ritual space” together. She does this, in part, by asking everyone watching to take exactly one minute and thirty seconds to find a drink with which to toast her during the opening prayer, a candle, a blindfold, and a bell (or anything that will make a ringing sound). Each of these objects will help the viewer create a “sanctum” from the comfort of her couch. Further, she risks our skepticism by telling us she believes that even though this is a recording, enough traces of energy—from the dead, from her music, from performers’ voices—will reach us to summon our ghosts. Indeed, she believes that together, we will be able to grieve and to stop time (at least for a while) and then come back together again just in time to go our separate ways.

Christian’s biggest wager, though, is that we’ll keep our eyes closed for nearly thirty minutes during the Requiem Mass (you can use the blindfold if you think you’ll peek). As Christian tells us, she wrote that part of the show for the movie behind our eyes, not in front of them. But a meditation app this is not. Following the traditional structure of the musical Requiem Mass—Introit, Kyrie, Dies Irae, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Lux Aeterna, Libera Me, and In Paradsium—Christian becomes the priest who offers this Mass for all her dead and all of ours.

Her requiem blasts and soothes; the thumping bass, electric guitar, and the full range of dynamic registers vivify traditional antiphons and intercessions. This music pumps with enough percussive blood to reanimate the dead. Her holy-roller Kyrie bounces with handclaps and cries of mercy to both “cancer cell” and “Jesus, friend.” The methodical and stalking beat of the Dies Irae and the choir’s precise elocutions of “when the watcher comes to reap (reap, reap, reap)” are terrifying. The purposeful downbeats signal the approach of a being who never rushes the beat because he has all the time in the world, while a key change becomes an act of mercy as it pulls us from fear into a remembrance of God’s compassion in the poignant, longing plea: “Remember me.” After four viewings, I’m still overwhelmed by the force of Christian’s sung supplication—“Grant to me, O Lord, a resting place among your sheep”—and her crying out—“The lion’s in my bed! Michael, raise your shield!”

Music follows rules concerning time, but sound resonates across time and space. Christian manages to stop time, paradoxically through temporal forms that aspire toward transcendent atemporality: music, theater, and liturgy. The form and language of the requiem Mass give her a space through which she can move both time and the dead to their proper places. Linear chronology is of no use here, but we can only see that under the guiding hand of Christian’s rhythms and melody, which are architectural.

We’re summoned back into time (and asked to reopen our eyes) by the ringing of a bell, that deeply resonant sound and symbol. In the Libera Me, Christian sings of the dying universe, everything cooling down and burning up, rushing toward some proliferating entropy. Time will lay us flat; we’ll be squashed by eons, blitzed backward and forward. And yet she asks melodically, voice cracking, “Let me see your familiar face.” That is hope. The stage remains mostly in darkness, but for pin lights marking constellations. As the music swells, the lights shine brighter, but not enough to fully illuminate Christian and the musicians onstage. We catch reflected light only briefly; the span of our lives is never fully revealed to ourselves or others. We return to a darkness suffused with light.

This is an animal wisdom that lays the dead to rest through spiritual tradition and the rituals of performance. This wisdom is as hard-earned as a long-delayed key change, a harmonic shift, a realization that metaphor and music are the ornaments that gild the always disappearing divine. Through her performances, Christian is calling out to those who can hear that both our grief and our wonder are mirrored by an unseen Spirit whom we fleetingly encounter. Her work is also a formal cry that prefigures our final exclamation, when language will fall away, symbols and tropes will no longer be needed, and we—like Christian’s Mother Teresa and her own persona in Animal Wisdom—will sing:

Ah! Ah!




Elise Lonich Ryan is a visiting lecturer in literature at the University of Pittsburgh. With a PhD in English Renaissance literature, she has published on early modern women’s writing and translation. Her writing and teaching run the gamut from word-image relationships to horses.




Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required