What do you get when you mix a dastardly pirate, a flamboyant French chef and a fish-flinging competition with parables and the Nativity? It can only be 4Front Theatre’s creative autumn line-up. Artistic director and Regents graduate Rob Holman gave Direction a peek behind the scenes.
For the past eight years, Christian theatre company 4Front Theatre has toured the UK, using its inventive shows to share the gospel in a hilarious and engaging way.
As the brainchild of Regents graduates Rob and Nat Holman, it focuses on performances for primary-aged children.
“When we started we felt God pulling us towards children’s work,” says Rob (pictured above, inset), the company’s artistic director.
“It’s a huge privilege. A survey recently found 70 per cent of Christians decided to follow Jesus before they were 11, and one of the world’s most successful evangelists DL Moody is famous for saying if he could go back he’d devote his life to reaching children.
“It’s really important to speak to kids, because you speak to people at an age where they’re listening.”
Rob and Nat developed a selection of shows and built partnerships with schools and churches that host them.
Take the show touring this autumn, for example.
“The Fisherman’s Tail is an hour-long musical. There’s a whole lot of jumping around, throwing lobster pots and pre-show fun where we launch fish into the audience,” says Rob. “But ultimately it’s a show about Jesus and four fishermen who had their lives completely changed by meeting him.”
4Front aims to be evangelistic and is openly Christian. Rob and the team are excited about some of the responses they’ve had to this.
“We did a show for schools at Buckfast Abbey and at one performance there was a lad who was severely autistic. He found it difficult to engage with many things but was enraptured by the show. The adults with him were in tears to see him responding in this way.
“After another show a vicar said a boy had asked for a Bible so he could read the stories for himself.”
Now 4Front is preparing to perform its Christmas show – a ‘pantivity’ combining the fun of a pirate-themed panto with the nativity story of forgiveness and salvation.
Fish pies, sword fights and Sinner Silas – the baddest pirate of them all – will combine with the Christmas message that everyone is included in God’s offer of reconciliation and love.
Pantos create a natural opportunity for evangelism, says Rob.
“Seeing a panto is part and parcel of many people’s Christmas traditions, so we’re providing something they’re already looking for and turning it into an evangelistic opportunity.”
Having lost his own father at Christmas when he was just eight, Rob understands this is not a happy season for all. So he is keen to bring joy into what can be a difficult time for many.
“We did a show in a hospital once for dying children and their families. It was so special to give them something to laugh at and bring the joy of a panto into that tough situation. We did that through the silliness of a panto, but also with the heart of it; that Jesus came into the world.”
4Front also enjoys creating opportunities for churches to put on special events that build links with their communities.
“We had a show sponsored by a church for a very under-privileged school a few years ago. It was challenging – the kids were shouting, throwing things on stage – but they loved it.
“The teacher was bowled over and said afterwards that our show was the only present most of these kids would get that Christmas.
“We also partner with a church in Birmingham which has a public show on Sunday night then invites three schools on Monday. It’s their opportunity to give a Christmas present to the community and there’s also a link once we’re gone. We’ve had churches use our shows as a launch point to connect with schools.”
Looking ahead, 4Front has another show up its sleeve for the New Year. ‘The Parable Keeper’ includes six parables which can be performed as standalone pieces.
“Using junk-shop items and antiques, The Parable Keeper brings the parables to life like you’ve never seen them before. And the audience gets to pick which parables we perform, which changes every show. There’s also a finale which features all 40-odd parables.”
4Front is bringing the gospel to schools, children and families in a clear, fun and engaging way.
“We bring Jesus with us. When people are laughing along with the fun of the show, they’re in a better place to hear a message about him.”