If you ask Methodist minister Jane Voigts, the Bible is inherently comedic.
“The ancients believed that laughter was the first and most basic response to the faith journey and our relationship with God,” Voigts said, adding that the Judeo-Christian text — considered sacred by millions — is stuffed with stories designed to uplift and entertain.
“This is not a book about tragedy,” she said. “This is a book about comedy.”
Voigts, the pastor at San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church for six years, is the creator of “The Bible Cabaret: A Comedy and Music Revue Starring the Old and New Testaments,” which plays Friday at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. Proceeds benefit the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, Arts Obispo.
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The show features comic monologues and character sketches inspired by the gospel, interspersed with musical interludes led by Wayne Gamble of Arroyo Grande.
Voigts said “The Bible Cabaret” isn’t intended to convert anyone.
Rather, she said, she wants to offer Christians and non-Christians alike “a chance to look at these stories in a completely different way.”
A natural mix
Blending comedy and Christianity comes naturally to Voigts, who entered the ministry after stints as an improvisational actress and stand-up comic.
After graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, the Des Moines native performed in Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1980s before enrolling at the Claremont School of Theology. It was there, as a member of the improv troupe Angelic Residue, that Voigts started thinking about scripture in a more humorous light.
Voigts, who graduated from seminary in 1996, has shared her uniquely playful perspective with congregations in Southern California and the Midwest.
After leaving San Luis Obispo in 2012, Voigts spent a year preaching at Toluca Lake United Methodist Church, known unofficially as “The Comedy Church.” She’s currently living in Waverly, Iowa, where she’s caring for her parents.
According to Voigts, the Bible started out as “entertainment for the people” — inspiring anecdotes intended to give the poor and powerless “hope and strength and a sense of delight that made the next day worth living.”
“After a long, hard, difficult day in the field or on the road, you don’t want to sit down after dinner and hear how bad you are. You want to hear how your ancestors got out of scrapes at the last minute,” Voigts said, or thumbed their noses at authority. “That’s the spirit in which these stories are told.”
“The way we were taught to approach the Bible changed,” she said, when Christianity became a state-sponsored religion. As the focus shifted from entertainment to education, that original lightness was lost, she said.
“There’s nobody that I know that’s really looking at the Bible as a whole as a document of comedy,” said Voigts, who decided to create a stage show exploring the subject.
“The Bible Cabaret” premiered Aug. 30 at the Fake Gallery in Los Angeles, with comedian Betsy Salkind and musical acts Zehnder and The Sweet Potatoes performing alongside Voigts. The pastor has since performed the show at a Minneapolis bowling alley and a Culver City theater.
“I like doing (the show) primarily not in churches (but) in bars and galleries,” Voigts said. “It feels cool to do my best, most cutting-edge stuff that’s all about church and God in a club. I love that juxtaposition.”
A blend of tunes
On Friday, Voigts will delve into spiritual stories about the creation of the world, original sin and Jesus’ teachings, among other topics.
She’ll be joined onstage by Gamble and two other local musicians — bass player “Proper Mitch” Houseman and drummer Kurt Michels. (The latter is a member of bluegrass-Americana band The Mother Corn Shuckers.)
An Atascadero High School graduate who studied music education at San Diego State University, Gamble has been the band director at Mesa Middle School in Nipomo for 11 years. He also plays lead guitar in the South County-based group Occasional Moustache, which specializes in California-flavored country-rock.
According to Gamble, Friday’s program will include a blend of traditional gospel songs such as “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” and “Where Could I Go But to the Lord,” and less obviously religious tunes including George and Ira Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
He encourages audience members to clap and sing along — just as they would in a church setting.
“Although I’m not spiritual, I can see what music does to people’s spirits,” said Gamble, who enjoys that uplifting aspect. “It’s one of the positive forces in life.”
IF YOU GO
"The Bible Cabaret"
6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Friday
Steynberg Gallery, 1531 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
544-9251, ext. 13, or www.artsobispo.org
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.