Alumni | The SPU Voices Podcast

“Acts on Stage,” with Michelle Lang-Raymond

Michelle Lang-Raymond BA '06 is the co-founder and executive managing director of Acts on Stage Theater, a theater company that serves various artistic communities within the Pacific Northwest while increasing access and opportunity to artists of color and activists of faith. This artistic project is a culmination of Michelle’s years of work combining her gifting in the arts with her commitment to her faith. Michelle has served as a youth pastor, a director of campus ministries at Warner Pacific University, and as the training director for youth pastors at World Vision. During her time at World Vision, she also completed her master’s degree in organizational behavior and development at Seattle Pacific University.

Amanda Stubbert: Well, let’s just get started with this current project, Acts on Stage Theater. I am so excited to see what this whole production company is going to do. Can you tell us how it all got started?

Michelle Lang-Raymond: I think it’s funny, first of all, that you said ‘this current project.’ Because that seems to be the story of my life is just sort of this never-ending stream of long projects. And so yeah, this is the current one, but I think it’s the one that I’ll be attached to for a really, really long time. The way it came to be honestly, I’ve been doing theater, particularly urban theater for the last 25, probably almost 30, years at this point. Which is crazy to say. And when I first started in what people would call ‘traditional ministry,’ I was basically given the position to be a youth leadership development person. And so I decided to use my background in the performing arts to sort of do a spin on that instead of sort of having job training and tutoring and that kind of stuff.

I was like, “You know what? We’re going to use arts to engage kids.” And so that started, like I said, years ago, and I just sort of stayed in that lane for a really long time and then fast-forward to doing work with World Vision and then going to work at Warner Pacific University in Portland. And so to cut to the chase, a couple of years ago, a gentleman named Leroy Barber asked me if I wanted to sort of launch an innovative ministry. And I asked him what did he mean? And he said “I don’t know. You tell me.” And for whatever reason that did not sound inviting to me. And I was like “No, I’m good.”

I’d just been around the rodeo a couple of times. And I was just like, “If you can’t explain what you’re asking me about, then I don’t want to do it. I’ll stay at my nice job and continue to piece together all the ways that I think I’m called to do this life.” And so for two years, he came asking me about it. And it took a little time for me to find out where he was coming from. Leroy works for the United Methodist church and apparently they had done some soul-searching into who they are and what they could be and all this stuff. And long story short, they had discovered that they really wanted to invest in innovative ministries, instead of just opening more churches or hiring people to work at more churches.

They wanted to find people in the community who were already doing innovative ministry and come alongside them as supporters and as investors. And so he just was like, “You’ve been doing this work in the community for years, and instead of hiring you at a church to continue to do it, we actually just want to come alongside you doing it.” And so that’s sort of how ’s Teen Summer Musical and how we already had a vision for what would we do with a theater house that was year-round. And so that’s really how Acts on Stage came to be.

“They wanted to find people in the community who were already doing innovative ministry and come alongside them as supporters and as investors.”

Amanda: Well, praise God. I mean how amazing is it when someone listening to God says, “We want to come alongside what you’re already doing successfully, what you’re doing, your God given-gifts and talents,” instead of saying, “We want to absorb you and what you do and make you fit within what we’re already doing.” I think companies, churches, families, we do that all the time and we don’t really make that space for each other to do what they do best. So it’s a complete paradigm shift.

Michelle: It’s definitely a complete perspective and paradigm shift and not just for their shift on me, but on the community and the world, like there’s this notion that if you just keep building stuff, people will come to it. But the world has changed a lot. The world has changed significantly, not just in the last 15 years, 20 years, but in the last year, since the pandemic, even the world has changed a lot. And so yeah, I think this model, this innovative ministry model, is a wave that I think is the right wave.

Amanda: Well, and meeting people where they are, because just because there were churches that had people coming every Sunday and Wednesday and early on Sunday for Sunday school and filling the seats and putting money in the offering plate. That doesn’t mean everyone was being served, right? And you already know that there were people who didn’t fit in that model and didn’t see themselves within that model.

Michelle: Absolutely. A hundred percent. Yep.

Amanda: So tell us, what’s this next year going to be like for Acts on Stage?

Michelle: You know, that’s a great question because this first year was so out of our control that, that even imagining what the next year is, do we dare imagine what a normal year of theater is going to look like? And so it’s sort of, it’s sort of hard to actually even lean in the direction of what we expect because this last year was so unexpected, but we’re excited about, so just for those who don’t know and haven’t looked this up yet, Acts on Stage is a traditional theater, but we have a distinct mission. And that distinction is that we are centered on focusing our work on the works, the talents, the initiatives, the skills, the narratives of people of color and creatives of faith. So we’ll be just like a traditional theater where we’ll have three to four shows a year, we’ll have special projects, we’ll have classes, we’ll have some content creation, and that kind of stuff.

So we will be traditional in that sense, but what’s not traditional, particularly in the Pacific Northwest is that we’re intentional about centering on the works with people of color and creatives of faith. I’m a woman of faith. I’ve been a Christian for a long time. And one of the things that was unique about my, or was not unique, actually, is how I should say it, was that as I was coming up in church, particularly in the Black church, there really just was not a, I don’t know, a regard or an understanding of what it meant to have artists trying to exercise their faith and their artistry simultaneously. And so for me, it’s really important that what we do creates more space and more room for those creatives of faith to do their work here, or to see their work done here, the same way for people of color.

“We are centered on focusing our work on the works, the talents, the initiatives, the skills, the narratives of people of color and creatives of faith.”

But anyway, the next five years, we’re looking forward to sort of leaning into that traditional part of us with that distinction and becoming like a theater house in the Pacific Northwest that is doing shows that answer that call and that answer that mission. And not just shows, like I said, all the classes and all the other stuff that we’re doing. So this last year, I can tell you, we opened in the pandemic and we thought the pandemic would be like three weeks and then everybody would be back to normal. Obviously it wasn’t. So we had to pivot to become sort of a video content-producing company. And so in our first year, we did probably 10 projects that we would have never done under normal circumstances. And so we’re looking forward to continuing that because it sort of burst a part of us that we hadn’t even imagined, but it also still leaves room for us to just live into our normal traditional theater lane.

Amanda: Go back to when you were talking about growing up in the church that didn’t really have a space for who you were and what you could do. I can say that that’s very much the lane that I grew up in. If you don’t play the piano, if you don’t sing classical hymns or maybe choruses, the church doesn’t usually know what to do with you. And that was very much my experience, and I know it was yours, and I’m assuming that a lot of people listening to us, even if that wasn’t them, maybe it’s one of their children, maybe it’s their brother or sister. And I just want to talk about that space for a minute, of what it’s like when you’re trying to find yourself in a church that you love, but that the church can’t really find a space for you.

Michelle: The crazy thing was, I didn’t know I was trying to find myself. I was just being right and not understanding that the way I saw the world and the way I wanted to sort of interpret the Gospel was different. I didn’t know it was different. I was just sort of discovering that identity of myself, and I was discovering it in a space that just really didn’t have, I don’t want to say they didn’t have a tolerance for it, they just didn’t have an understanding. And so, and I was at a church that was pretty progressive in terms of the arts kind of space, but I don’t remember like wanting to do different things with like the Easter skit or whatever, or do different things on a regular Sunday. But instead of just saying a sermon, I wanted to I sort of wanted to unpack the Gospel in other kinds of ways. And I was telling you before I would get introduced, you know, as special (whatever I was doing would be just sort of called special). They’d say, “Here comes Michelle and her special way.” And I was like, “I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

Michelle Lang RaymondLike I’m not dying for a title or a category, but something about being just introduced as “a special way” just feels like there’s something about the way I engage here that is not, that doesn’t have a permanent space. It was almost like, “We’ll let you, but this isn’t normal. And this isn’t a regular part of what we do.” And it was almost like being called interesting. Like, what do you do with that?

Amanda: It’s like if you say, “Look, I got this new top,” and someone says, “It’s interesting.” That’s it?

Michelle: Or even more like, if you get a new hairstyle and someone says, “It’s interesting.” That’s personal, right?

Amanda: Like turn around and we’re going back to the salon.

Michelle: Right. This is like a part of who I am. This isn’t just like a shirt I bought or whatever, like, this is a part, this is kind of identifying who I am. And so that’s what it always felt like to, to sort of not, and then to kind of have to ask them to have my artistic mindset or my artistic ideas included in Sunday services or programs or whatever it felt like. Yeah. Like you sort of were, we&rsquore begging to belong. And that was difficult. I remember being called a rebel or having rebellious thoughts. And they weren’t even like rebellious in terms of lifestyle or anything like that. They were rebellious because they were just different from your standard singing and sermon Sunday service. And so it took me a lot to come into an appreciation about the arts that I think the arts are divine. I think the arts are a gift from God for us. And that the artists need space to be able to interpret the gospel. Yeah. Just to be able to be who they are. And so, yeah, that took some learning from me. It took a while.

Amanda: Well, Michelle, I’ve shared this story with you, a personal story of my own when my husband and I first got engaged. He was serving as a youth intern and a sweet little old lady, pillar of the church, loved her so much, came up and gave me the biggest hug. And with tears in her eyes told me I was going to be the best pastor’s wife ever. And then her next question was, “So do you play the piano, or do you just sing?” And I did neither of those things at the time … I was doing late-night comedy improv. So you’re just at this stalemate … she’s blinking at me and I’m staring at her going, I can’t actually tell you what I do. And if I tell you that I don’t do those things … so yeah, just that concept of, OK, I don’t really fit, even if you want me and I want to be here, I don’t know how I fit. And so that’s what I love so much about this Acts on Stage theater is you’re providing a place where these people can fit, where especially young people can realize they can be both. They can be all of who they are.

Michelle: At the same time.

Amanda: Yes.

Michelle: A lot of times what church artists get told, what artists of faith get told, is you can be an artist over there, and then you can exercise  your faith over here. And I’m like, I don’t understand why the most dynamic part of who I am, needs to be separated out. And when I say the most dynamic part, I mean my faith part. I don’t understand why my faith can’t exist with my persona as an artist. I don’t understand why those two things can exist at the same time. And the church sometimes what they’re not getting is, is forcing people to sort of live in two lanes when we just don’t think it’s necessary.

“I don’t understand why my faith can’t exist with my persona as an artist.”

Amanda: And we should never be asked to live in two lanes because separating ourselves isn’t what the walk of the Gospel is about. Right? It’s combining who we really are and walking with God and putting our whole selves forward everywhere we go. So I just absolutely love the work that you’re doing. It’s so close to so close to my heart.

Michelle: Thanks.

Amanda: So how can we, as a community, support creatives of faith?

Michelle: Oh my gosh. You know, I say this all the time. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop saying two things. One, include artists and creatives of faith in your regular programming. So not as a secondary thought or like, oh, we’ll just throw this to so-and-so. But to start, as you look at church programming and it, when I say church, I mean like your traditional church and what else, like your college campuses, as you do campus ministry planning, as you do camps and all that other kinds of stuff, think about the artists, think about how you can involve the creatives as part of the original design, and then give those artists of faith time to create really quality, meaningful work. A lot of times what happened is the artist gets thrown in at the last minute. And so they don’t have time to actually create anything or much.

They don’t get time to actually create something of substance, of value, that has dynamic energy to it. It’s just sort of like they only have time to just piece together the best they can within seven days. So include them in your design to give them time to work their work. And then elevate it, like value it. I say this all the time. This is the part I say all the time. There are 52 weeks in a year and Sunday happen every week, and nobody remembers 52 sermons. Amanda, I don’t care how good those sermons are. I don’t care how great a preacher you are, a teacher you are, doesn’t matter. No one remembers 52. I’m a girl who spent much of my life going to church every single week, multiple times a week. I was Pentecostal for a while so that’s like five times a week.

And I don’t care how good the teaching is. No one remembers 52 sermons a week. And so I want to encourage leaders to say, listen, why don’t we say 10, 10 times a year, 15 times a year, we’re going to replace what is the traditional sermon with some kind of artistic expression, and maybe add to that artistic expression some audience interaction or some congregational interaction. So I would just really encourage the church to really start to lean that way. Because to me, if you asked me what movies I saw last year, I can probably remember all of them. And I can remember what scene or what word or what character in all of them had some kind of impact on me. And I just think we’re missing out where we don’t engage that part of who we are.

Michelle Lang Raymond

Amanda: I agree with you completely. I mean, you even look at the Gospel stories, the parables that Jesus told, some stories in the Old Testament that feel to me like a parable told straight from God, our brains latch onto stories, our brains understand music. If am I the only one that learned Bible verses by singing them as a kid and I can still sing them to this day, like what we know these things help us as human beings. So leaning into that can only help us. So I want to turn that around. So as a community, let’s support our creatives, but as an individual, if you’re someone that even struggles with this, if you’re someone that gets a little uncomfortable, when you know, it’s one of those special Sundays where you’re not exactly sure what to expect, how do we embrace some of that rebellious newness in ourselves? Because we all need to grow.

Michelle: Yeah. You know, I would say to creatives and artists that are listening, that there is a measure of risk on your end as well. A lot of times artists sit in congregations and that congregation has no idea that they’re an artist of any kind. They don’t know you paint, they don’t know you sculpt, they don’t know that you write scripts or that you write songs or that you do decor or that you’re a stage designer or a set designer. Like a lot of times you sit in your church and they have no idea. And what happens is these, these higher Sunday events happen like Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day, or whatever. They happen and then you’re frustrated because you could have made it better or you could have added to it, but nobody knew to come ask you.

And so I think artists do have to risk a little bit and start to like go to their church and say, “Hey, just want you all to know I do this. And I’m not saying I’m perfect at it, but I’m willing to work with whomever wants to work with me to help me lend myself to my church. And that does take a risk, because again, we’re talking about an organization or an institution that doesn’t always get us. So there is a risk because somebody might look at you and say, oh, no, not that’s not that’s OK, but I don’t get it. And so it’s almost like going to auditions where you get rejected, right? It’s like, wait a minute. I’m perfect for that part, but you don’t know it. And so I get that. There’s a risk to it. I get that there’s a vulnerability to it. But I do think the creatives among us have to make that step to make sure that they know that we’re there.

“I do think the creatives among us have to make that step to make sure that they know that we’re there.”

Amanda: So Michelle, during that last answer, we could hear some lovely rehearsal of some sort going on in the background. Can you tell us what you’re working on?

Michelle: Yeah, so Acts on Stage, we are producing (typically my co-director Isaiah), we typically direct a program every summer called the Teen Summer Musical. It’s with the City of Seattle Parks and Rec. And so this year we called the city back in January and said “Hey, are we going to be able to resume Teen Summer Musical this year? ‘Cause it didn’t happen last year.” And they said no, but this was back in January when we were still in heightened pandemic mode. And so they said, “No, we don’t know that the theaters and the venue halls and all that stuff are going to be open.” So we said, “It’s fine. We’re just going to produce a show that can be performed outside.”

And so what you were hearing is a bunch of kids, literally outside my window, getting ready for our outdoor shows. Actually, we had our first one yesterday. And so we have to tweak some of the technical issues that we had yesterday. And so they’re literally outside my window right now, doing songs and dances from the play. And so we have eight different parks that we’re performing in all summer. And then we have four different indoor shows that we’re performing in this summer. So that’s what you hear.

Amanda: Fantastic. So if you are listening and you’re in the Seattle area, check out Acts on Stage Theater, come see something, be a part of it. Yeah. So before we let you go, I want to talk about the story of how you ended up at SPU because I love the story, and I think it is so points to how God sometimes just can jerk the reins and turn us in a new direction and we have to be willing to go. So can you tell us that story?

Michelle: Sure. I often feel like I just sort of … I feel like a lot of times I’m following my calling and following my purpose sort of by accident or like I just tripped and fell into it and that’s OK. You know, if that’s how God has to get me to the right place at the right time, that’s OK. So what had happened for me was I was working at World Vision and I was a director of the youth development program or youth workers’ development program called Vision Youth. And so one day I went up to World Vision and I saw on somebody’s desk this job notice that essentially was the same kind of work that I was already doing, but it was a different title and it was a different pay scale. And so I asked the person who was sitting there, I was like, “Hey, can I apply for this job? Or can I apply for this upgrade of my title or whatever?” And they said, “No.” And I said, “Why? It’s already essentially the kind of work I do now, why can’t I apply?” And they said, “You can’t because you don’t have a degree.” I’m one of those people that in my 20s, my early 20s, 21 actually, I just started to follow what I felt like was my passion and my calling and all of that. And so I really just sort of put school off and just dove headfirst into the work, the ministry, the urban development, all that stuff. And so I just sort of put school off. And so when they told me I couldn’t even apply for this job because I didn’t have a degree, which I think there’s something broken in our systems as it relates to that. But that’s another conversation. They said I couldn’t even apply. ‘Cause I didn’t have a degree.

And I said, “Well, what do I need a degree in?” And they said, “Anything.” And I was just so dumbfounded by that. I was like, “What?” And so I literally went to my car, got on the phone. I had a friend who worked at SPU. I called him and I was like, “Hey, are there like some adult classes or some night classes I could come to to get my degree real quick?” I think I literally said it just like that. And he was like, “Yeah, we do have a program blah, blah, blah.” So he sent me the link, I applied, and sent it off. And so the next day was a Thursday, and someone from SPU called me and they said, “Hey, we want to just let you know that we got your application.” I probably sent my application more like on a Wednesday night, not necessarily the day before.

And so they said, “We want you to know we got your application, we read through it, blah, blah, blah. And you are accepted at SPU. And we don’t normally call people, but classes start on Monday. And so if you intend to come, we’re going to send you this email, but you probably need to make a decision today if you’re going to start school on Monday.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m not in any position to start going to school on Monday. It’s Friday. I already have weekend plans. No thanks.” And the person said “Well, that’s fine. We just want you to also know that this is probably the last time we’re going to offer this degree track.” And I was like, “Are you telling me if I don’t start school on Monday that the course thing that you’re offering me won’t even exist?” And they said, “Yeah, no pressure. But yeah.” And I said, “Dang it.” And so God gave me no time to think about it. I literally went to bed on Friday night knowing that I was starting college on Monday. And so I started on Monday, no parade, no bells, no whistles. And two years later I had my degree.

“I literally went to bed on Friday night knowing that I was starting college on Monday.”

Amanda: What a great story. I love that for a lot of reasons. But one of the main ones is I hear people talk about sports all the time and why kids should be in sports and leadership and teamwork and perseverance. But I don’t feel like we hear that much talk about having your kids in the arts growing up. And frankly, being able to adapt, being able to jump into new things, being able to try new things without being too scared to. I’m sorry, I think the arts prepares our children for those life moments. And it was so important to me to have my kids in the arts for a lot of reasons. But one of them is because it teaches you that “yes and” mentality when you’re handed something you weren’t expecting instead of just saying no because I wasn’t ready. You say OK, what if I do this? What if I make this a part of my life?

Michelle: Absolutely. As I’m sitting here watching kids outside my window and I watched them every day, I’m watching kids who literally came into our program and did not say three words for the first week. And now they are they’re exuberant, they’re trying different things. They put their ideas out. You know, even if we don’t take that idea, they’re still like in a different place than they were five weeks ago, where at least they’ll raise their hand and say, “I have an idea. Can I share it?” Even that, stuff like that is …

My son plays sports. Both my sons play sports. And sometimes I wish that sports taught them to be a little bit more communicative, a little bit more verbal and expressing themselves. And it doesn’t ’cause it sort of displaces that through just physical action. But I feel like the arts … that’s the opposite. The arts actually require you to process what you’re feeling into words and into activity and into presence. And one of the parents that came to the preview show last week said that he had never seen his daughter be more confident in talking publicly and just standing on a stage and not hiding herself while she’s standing there, but actually owning this space. And so I definitely think the arts does that in a way that other things just don’t.

Amanda: Absolutely. Absolutely. All right. Well if you have a child who needs to take a class, Acts on Stage is for you, if you want to come check out the theater, see Acts on Stage. Let’s end, Michelle, with our favorite last question. From your unique perspective, if everyone in the Seattle area could do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?

Michelle: Oh my gosh, I was not ready for this question. One thing tomorrow that (or today) would make this world a better place? You know, I would say this from a selfish place, but I say it genuinely, as well,  find a work that you can support and support it. There are lots of nonprofits like mine that are doing a work that a lot of people could identify as something that matters to them. And what happens a lot of times is people will see the work that we do or the work that other nonprofits do or other churches do or other schools do. And you’ll just sort of applaud the work that they do but you won’t actually tangibly support that work.

And I think if we had more people tangibly supporting the works that are happening in our communities, I think that would make the world a better place. If everyone who sort of comes to Acts on Stage’s Instagram or Facebook and says, “Oh wow, that’s good work.” If you would actually do something that reinforces that good work, I think the world would be a better place.

Amanda: And it does something for us, as well, right? It’s not just the people that we are interested in. It’s that act of encouragement helps us, as well. Well, thank you so much, Michelle, for who you are and all the work that you do. And let me end with our prayer of blessing: May the Lord bless you and all you put your hand to, may the Lord be gracious to you and all who hear your story. May He bring unity to our community and peace to us all. Thank you so much.

Michelle: Amen. Thank you so much. Thanks, y’all.

 

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