Arts & Entertainment – Local Playwright Dramatizes Gospel Teachings at Christ Episcopal Church

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by Morey Storck

Howard Lipson believes, emotionally and spiritually, that his is “a journey of faith, which involves the melding of theatrical presentation, the Bible, social awareness, scripture, and my faith.” He fulfills that calling in Tarrytown at the Christ Episcopal Church.

Howard, his wife Trish, and their infant son moved to Tarrytown from New York City in 1987. “We fell in love with Tarrytown immediately. Here, we found so many advantages available to us that before we could only dream about. What remained was finding a church that taught and celebrated the word of God, as we did: always be aware, and always be mindful of social justice,” he said.

After some initial inquires and some personal recommendations, they visited Christ Church and found it to be a perfect fit.

 “I entered a new phase of my journey, that of being a dad. Our second son was born a year after we moved. Because I was well versed in both Testaments, I taughtSunday School, and down the road, coached baseball.  It took about 10 years before I felt fully confident to take the next step. The idea of melding theatre with faith took shape,” he said.

At first, he partnered with Judy Burke, a fellow member of the congregation, and began to write plays that were almost always based on the Gospel.  Later, because of Burke’s other responsibilities, Lipson took on the writing alone. The plays are each a concise 10-12 minutes long, involving from 1 to 12 actors, and are always sent to the minister first for theological review before being distributed to the cast. They are all directed by Lipson as well. Performances are usually once a month, replacing a sermon. Content always dramatizes a gospel teaching and, often, how it might relate to a current event.

The reaction from the congregation, at first, was surprise. This had never been done before, maybe never anywhere.  But, now, the response is enthusiastic, thoughtful and very popular.  A June 25th performance of Johnny or Joan? about transgender issues and their effect on a family was also performed in South Salem at the St. John’s  Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s Chapel.

His new play Mystery in White will be presented at the Mid-Town International Theatre Festival in New York during July for the short play series.  It will then be produced at the 20/20 One-Act Play Aery Festival in Garrison.

 Lipson’s first exposure to theater came at a very early age on the Philadelphia playground near his home. That experience led to his joining a local summer program that visited other city playgrounds by bus.  Then came appearances at the Playhouse in the Park, another local program, after a competitive audition. “I was picked, I think, because I went to an all-boys central high school with a student body of varied ethnic backgrounds.  I was sort of in the mix of young kids, reflecting their attitudes of the times. The plays were issue-oriented, and so was I.”  That early theater experience also allowed him to work with some well-known actors of the day. All this while selling shoes in his father’s shoe store!

During those early years and into high school, his mother often invited guests over of varied religious backgrounds and social views. Lipson listened attentively, with growing interest and curiosity, to the conversations and discussions that invariably developed.  That exposure to new ideas from different points of view, served to broaden his awareness of lives around him, the loved and the unloved, the strong and the frail, and those that receive recognition and the many who are forgotten.  With those concepts percolating within his social conscience, he entered college, attending Temple University with a major in theater.  Still selling shoes.

While in college, Lipson formed his own theatre company and named it The New Group Theatre after the original Group Theatre in New York City founded for the purpose of presenting American plays of social significance and social protest.  This was right up his alley: “Plays that were predicated on the principles which I admired,” he said. His own company presented one-act plays throughout Philadelphia.  A newly opened jazz club, named Grendel’s Lair, presented a different kind of opportunity.  He was able to convince management to allow his group to present their theater pieces as a front lead-in to the club’s headliners. 

After college, Lipson’s love of the theater brought him to New York.  He answered an ad in Backstage and ended up at Edith O’Hara’s 13th Street Repertory Company, noted for its search for new talents, children’s performances, and its New Works Reading Series. He met his wife, Trish, there during rehearsals for A Hundred Miles From Nowhere, a musical revue. Also, he formed his own Gryphon Repertory Company where he directed several off-off Broadway productions.

Intermingled with his theatre pursuits, he became a script doctor, taught advanced acting for seven years to professional actors, including many graduates of the Neighborhood Playhouse as well as youths from Hell’s Kitchen.  He had the opportunity to study acting with Harold Clurman and direct other workshops. All the while, he continued to sell and design shoes.  “Hey, its hard to get rich in the theatre.  You still got to eat and pay the rent,” he said.

However, Lipson did finally get a $4,000 gig at a non-profit theatre group, The Amateur Comedy Club. Major productions have been mounted and performed entirely by members several times a year there in an unbroken succession dating to the Club’s founding. Lipson directed Crucifer of Blood there in 1990.

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