By Jerry Stein
Post staff reporter
On any given Sunday, attendance at Salem United Church of Christ in Over-the-Rhine averages about 25, Pastor Fred Hoeweler said. A special occasion such as Christmas might put 70 into the pews.
But when it comes to Salem's arts ministry, the Congregationalist church is a Mighty Mouse of the arts. Home to the Know Theatre Tribe, which produced the Corbett Award-winning and controversial "Corpus Christi," the church takes a progressive view on what's presented at its arts center. You might even say it encourages controversial art.
Salem's Gabriel's Corner mission, Hoeweler said, is to "bridge the differences between peoples and organizations, encourage personal and interpersonal healing through artistic expression."
The Salem Church, founded in 1867 by German Congregationalists, established the performing space dubbed Gabriel's Corner in its fellowship hall beneath the sanctuary. This space is currently home to the Know Theatre Tribe.
In June, the alternative theater company, which does excellent work on a modest budget, produced the controversial play based on the Passion of Jesus Christ, "Corpus Christi." The work by Terrence McNally presents Jesus and his disciples as being gay. The production won a 2003 Cincinnati Post-Corbett Award.
Hoeweler serves as the part-time clergyman at Salem Church and director of Gabriel's Corner. He also is director of West-C, a social service agency based in Lower Price Hill.
"Gabriel's Corner originated in 1978 or '77," said Helen Schroer, secretary of the Salem Church Council and a member of the Gabriel's Corner Committee. "It originated as an out-reach ministry to bring in the children and any neighbors.
"We worked with Rothenberg Elementary School. We had groups over here that did plays. They would write their own plays and put them on on the stage. That was kind of a nice thing for the children."
Hoeweler said he seeks to continue Salem Church's tradition of supporting the arts "because I am more of a social conscious person. That's part of why my focus has been on these young people and making a difference for them.
"The arts are a vehicle for that, not for the art itself. I'm not particularly that artistic except I do like photography."
During the 1970s and 1980s several theater companies performed at Gabriel's Corner. The companies included Pegasus -- a troupe founded to provide a venue in which recovering alcoholics acted -- and Fahrenheit Theater. Fahrenheit later became the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival.
Jay Kalagayan, executive director of the Know Theatre, which he founded in 1997, said his company has been at Gabriel's Corner performance space since 1999. He estimates the company plays to about 5,000 people each season.
"I remember seeing Gabriel's Corner when I was in college, with its marquee," he said. "It always interested me."
In 1999, after a period of relative inactivity in the space, Kalagayan stopped by the church to talk to Hoeweler. He said he didn't even know the space -- a flat floor, no permanent seating and a small stage at one end.
"What's nice about Gabriel's Corner," Kalagayan said, "is that we can do plays like 'My Children! My Africa!'" -- a play on apartheid in South Africa that opens the 2004 season in the space tonight.
Hoeweler said decisions on plays Gabriel's Corner can support are "driven by the mission statement we developed about five years ago."
"I think when we look at plays, many of them are cross-cultural, dealing with interactions between or among diverse ethnic, racial, social groups or characters," he said. "'My Children! My Africa!' (received) a real strong endorsement out of us."
Religion is another topic the Know Theatre likes to address.
"We always try most every year to look at religions in a different way," Kalagayan said. "'Corpus Christi' was one.
"We did 'Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You' by (Christopher) Durang, which to a lot of people was more offensive than 'Corpus Christi.' The figure of the nun shooting people ... that kind of thing.
"Some plays we submit are slam-dunks. 'Two Trains Running' (August Wilson's play). No problem. 'Pretty Fire' (Charlayne Woodard's drama on racism). No problem."
But for the Know Theatre's submission of "Corpus Christi," Kalagayan said, "there was a little more dialogue because we started receiving mail. It was definitely a concern of the church."
For "Corpus Christi," Schroer said, "we met with some resistance in the church council and on the (Gabriel's Corner) committee. We had several meetings. We read and re-read it. We discussed with each other and with the Know Theatre.
"It didn't make everyone in our church happy, but we were a committee that the congregation could trust in."
Hoeweler said the debate in Salem Church over "Corpus Christi" was not atypical. He said, in general, disagreement is part of the democratic tradition within the Congregational Church.
"I think it was a kind of conviction on the part of people that this is the process by which we try to find out where the spirit would lead people. How you get at the will of God.
"And it's not done without actual conflict of interests. Maybe that's one of the processes by which we mature and grow in our faith."
Kalagayan admits his theater almost mischievously tries to test the limits of the Gabriel's Corner Committee at times.
The committee, Kalagayan said, tends to turn down "anything really gratuitous as far as sex or violence without having a real point. We did 'True West' here. It's a very violent play."
On the other hand, Kalagaya said, "'The Reindeer Monologues' was not to their taste, which we totally understand." The satirical holiday show features a lascivious Santa Claus who sexually assaults Vixen and Rudolph.
"Fred said they were having a little weirdness about the pedophilia with Rudolph," Kalagayan said. "I was like it's not pedophilia; it's bestiality.
"That didn't help," Kalagayan said.
"It turned out we totally understood. It was almost to see how far we could go sometimes. A teenager testing his limits, maybe. We went to Arnold's Bar & Grill and it was perfectly fine."
For the future, Kalagayan said, "There have been some growing pains. We keep growing in size and scale. We're developing long-term goals. And one of them is our own space.
"We like being here. We really like being in Over-the-Rhine. You hear about rough areas in Over-the-Rhine, but it just doesn't feel like it here. It would take a lot for us to move anytime soon."
Hoeweler said he wants to keep Gabriel's Corner growing and viable, too. He would like to return the performance space to multiple theater company use as it had been under former director Mary Ann Wehrend in the '80s.
For further information on Salem United Church of Christ and Gabriel's Corner: (513) 241-1796.