Philip Shorey Says, "Kill Your Art." - Interview

Philip Shorey, and his wife Sari are directors of The Suitcase Sideshow, they have performed all over the world and have provided many opportunities for people to join him in their projects, and shows. Philip is not just an artist, he has a passion for sharing the Gospel – which he does through his art. He's got a lot of things going on right now – and that’s why I wanted to interview him.

Mike:  Can you tell people a little bit about The Suitcase Sideshow? Who are you, and What do you do?

Philip: The Suitcase Sideshow is a travelling marionette theater, and our goal is to bring a message of hope to the edges of society. We’ve gone into homeless shelters, street corners, orphanages, safe homes for single moms, juvenile jails, mental hospitals. We went into a brothel one time. We have our show translated into over ten languages, and we’ve traveled all over the world. We’ve been doing this for over ten years. 

This isn’t something that I wanted to do, or thought I would ever do. I grew up with puppets. I’m using my grandpa’s marionettes from the 60’s. They used to travel around Canada, doing kid’s crusades, which were a very common thing in that era. Family Kid’s Crusades, where the kids would come out with their parents, and their neighbors. At that time, there wasn’t as much to do, like there is today, and they’d do a week long thing at the church. I did it as well, in the 80’s. But, I feel like you can’t invite families and kids to church as easily these days. So that model isn’t really working anymore. So, what we do is go to the people. We have our street theater. We go out - to where the people are at. We find the crowd, and bring a message of hope, and God’s love to them.

Mike: You said you didn’t think you’d ever do something like this. What made you change your mind?
Philip: Yeah, well, I started out doing puppets, but as I became a teenager, I just didn’t think it was very fun, or very cool. So I got into sports, and Rock & Roll. Then I moved to Minneapolis, from New Hampshire. I got involved in ministry called the Scallywags, and I was on the West Bank, working in a little, punk rock theater, as a composer. It was this little pagan, underground theater - very dark, and I really felt like I was a light there. Then, I just started to see all these puppet shows coming through. It was a very common type of art, and it wasn’t just for kids. It wasn’t just like Sesame Street, or One Way Street. It was intense, and artful, and had a very intense message. 

So I started to see that puppets could be used to portray very intense stories, and facts about life, and I thought “I can do that. I know puppetry”. And I saw that there was this need. We were going to go to Brazil with my group, The Scallywags. So I put together a show, and it’s a long story, but in short - brought the show down there and performed it in Portuguese. And we went into a brothel, and into orphanages, and street corners - where street kids were sniffing glue, and into slums (favelas), and we just shared the Gospel. And I saw God move really powerfully, and it totally changed my world, changed my life. That’s when I knew for sure that there was a place on the world stage, in foreign missions  - and local missions, for a marionette theater that brought Jesus to people in the most unlikely ways. Kind of, "in through the back door," in a way you didn’t expect.  So, that’s kinda how I got my start doing this kind of thing.

Mike: Now you’ve been participating in the May Day parade for several years now. From what I understand, May 1st is the day most countries in the world celebrate workers. It is also a day associated with paganism in Europe. I think because of its association with the Left – here in the U.S. we created Labor Day as an alternative. I think its also something Christians might typically shy away from – especially evangelicals. What is the May Day Parade? Why do you think it is important for Christians to participate in things like that?

Philip: The May Day Parade, here in Minneapolis, is pretty big. It draws about 40,000 people. The one we were in this year is the 43rd annual parade, and festival. It’s got many levels.  On the surface it’s just like a party celebrating community, and spring coming out of winter. On the surface its just like “let’s get together with friends, let’s enjoy the and sunshine (if it’s sunny out)” this really cool thing. You dig a little deeper and kinda go to the roots, or even the symbolism of the puppets, or even like past years themes and you’ll find paganism, you’ll find witchcraft, you’ll find a lot of dark metaphors, it’s very very spiritual. A lot of people don’t take it that direction, but that’s the premise of the May Day parade, that’s where it came from, and depending on what’s politically correct to talk about that’s what it is. In past years its been more PC so that’s been emphasized. This year it’s more like “No War” and political stuff, which is very good, and common ground for a lot of people. It’s intense.

I was involved with the parade back in the early 2000s, with the Scallywag’s Bike Club, we had our freak bikes, and we were riding with the other anarchist bike clubs. Our back patches, our gang patches, said “Scallywags: Jesus is Lord,” with a cross in the middle. And here we are riding with this other bike club, they were these crusty punks –tough guys. We’ve got our circle bike and we’re doing this flips and tricks. We’re just having fun together.  And people can just see that this is where Jesus should be. It was good. I think it was a really good message for the city – where the church should be.

In the Church though, you’ve got two sides of the coin. You’ve got broken people in the church - people who are struggling, and you’ve got restored people in the church – people who are ready for mission. So you’ve got to have a pastoral heart. The people who are restored - who are ready, they need to go to these places. They need to go to where the sheep are hanging out. They need to get out of the bubble and do it. And for those who are susceptible to evangelism the other way, (and this parade is incredibly evangelistic, there are so many messages, so much evangelism – but its evangelism the other direction,) Christians that are struggling and coming out of stuff, I think maybe it’s not the best place for them.

But I think the church should do really well at sending out artists to speak the language of people like the May Day Parade. Going into these places, sending out people who are ready, equipping them, preparing them. So that’s what we did.  I’m with Steiger, I’m a missionary.  We work with Wooddale Church – here in Minneapolis. Together we put together a group of people, and we went into this parade. This year we walked in the Free Speech section of the parade where we had these four mirrors - that were giant mirrors. And apparently they’re doing this at Standing Rock, I didn’t realize that, but everyone asked me if that's where I got the idea from. They were reflecting mirrors at the riot police, but we reflected the mirrors at the crowd. And we aren't just trying to get people to see each other. We had a message on there, it said “Who am I, to Jesus?” on one mirror. It's reaching past race, gender, age, demographic, social status - the mirror reflects everybody, and it gets that question going.
"Who am I, to Jesus?" 
And because we’re trying to keep it lighthearted I’m out there. I’ve got my top hat. We’ve got our band playing. We’re engaging people - you know “Who am I?” It’s kind of a funny question, but everyone is wrestling with identity. Everyone is asking this question, “Who am I?”.  So we’re asking people these questions “who am I? Who are you? What are we doing here?” So they see this question, “Who am I?” but with a twist “to Jesus?” And the next mirror they would see is, “I am not a mistake.” “I am loved.” “I am forgivable.” “I am wanted” “I am worth dying for” you know, with the cross. It’s this really positive message, but you know, it comes with a little bit of a bite because it’s the cross, its Jesus. There is a little intensity about that, it’s not abstract or vague – there’s a point to it. And this message also comes with a little bit of a bite because, you know, “I’m forgivable.” That assumes that we need to be forgiven, you know. It assumes a lot of people might not feel like they are wanted. And we are wanted. It’s a positive message, but there is a little bit of a bite, and there has to be – because it’s the Gospel, and it gets people thinking, and gets people questioning stuff.

All throughout that, we’ve got a band playing “I feel good” by James Brown, because that’s how we should feel. So we’ve got the crowd signing along, “so good, so good,” and we’ve got this message, this positive message – which I feel like you’ve really got to have in this sort of atmosphere because this is a crowd that is incredibly against Christianity.  They have such a terrible view of Christianity, such a wrong idea of who Jesus is. Their deceived, they have a media painted, sensationalistic view of the church, which is not accurate at all. You’ve got an uphill battle here. If you come at it right away with, “REPENT!” (laughs), you’re just not going to get the right reaction.  You’ve gotta take it in baby steps, you know. Join their culture a little bit, reach out to them, speak their language.  Show them something we can all agree on, which is love, though we have a slightly different definition of love. We can still agree on love, and grace, and hope, and redemption – its in all the super hero movies.

So that’s what we’re building on. And I think its really important that we, as a church, get into this kind of atmosphere. I think we live in an increasingly isolated world, where everyone is just putting stuff around themselves that suits their ego, and suits their opinions, and suits their perspective. Like you’ll un-friend people if they don’t agree with you on facebook – "promoters only". We’ll book bands together that have the same message, or the same style. It’s just like, this isolated thing, where people are putting themselves into bubbles - surrounding themselves with people and voices that are like them.  So I think its really important I think, that the church gets out of our bubble and goes into these places, in kindness and truth, because otherwise no one is going to hear this message any other way.

Mike: In April you came out with a book. It’s called “Kill Your Art”? That’s a shocking title. I think because it sounds like something you wouldn’t want to do? Why did you pick that title, and what does it mean?
Philip: I think a lot of things Jesus said were shocking, like "die to yourself," or "take up your cross and follow me". With Jesus though, it wasn’t to have a terrible life. It was to live a life that’s really worth living.  So, just like Kill Your Art, it’s not about creating bad art. It’s about creating art that’s really worth creating, putting an eternal perspective on your art, dying to yourself, taking up your cross – following Jesus, dying to your art really, dying to your identity, surrendering yourself, surrendering your art to the creator of the universe. It’s about collaboration with the creator of the universe, just as any artist collaborates with another artist to create something beautiful.

The book is about collaborating with the creator of the universe to create something that’s even more beautiful than you can do on your own. It uses street performance as a main catalyst for the examples. I think it’s a message that needs to be heard. I don’t see a lot of evangelistic street performers out there that are creatively and tactfully presenting the Gospel, in a way that really connects with the culture. So this book takes you through the creative process, showing you how to surrender your art each step of the way, how to get out into the street, although it’s not just for street performers, but street performance really encompasses basically any form of art. So it really applies to everybody.

Mike: I’ve read the kindle version, because I could get one quickly, but I really want to get a hold of a print copy, because it has some really amazing art work. Can you tell us a bit about the artist and how did you decided to work together?

Philip: The artist, her name’s Sally Grayson. We’re long time friends. She used to be in a band called Standby, here in Minneapolis. Now she’s in a band in Germany, called Black Swift. She’s an incredible artist. She’s a busker. She’s like a sister to me in many ways. And I wanted to find an artist that knew me, that would be able to pick my brain, and we could pull out something that really reflected me, and reflected the book and represents this overarching theme of Kill Your Art.

I wanted to collaborate with as many artists as possible to create the book because that’s what the book is all about, and that’ll make the book better. So I also collaborated with an artist in Brazil, who did the layout. His name is Felipe Rocha, and he is an incredible artist. He plays in bands, he's a filmmaker, a designer, a painter, someone who does so many different art forms.

So the three of us, those two have never met each other, one’s in Brazil, one’s in Germany, and here I am, bringing us together. So we created this concept of this collage, where you tear art to create something new. And that’s what Kill Your Art is all about. Killing Your Art, tearing it - if need be, to create something that’s better than itself. So the collage itself is a metaphor that speaks for the title.

Sally is also doing my next book, Travelogues of a Family Sideshow, she’s doing a painting for that cover. That book will go into depth on the four generations of the family calling – of puppetry and evangelism. So it will cover a hundred years of puppet evangelism history in my family (laughs).

So we’ve got this collage thing happening, and we wanted it to be kind of lighthearted, because the title is very intense. We didn’t want to go literal, like a knife in a painting, We wanted it to be lighthearted, because that’s what surrendering your art and surrendering your life is all about. It’s intense, but it’s also beautiful, it’s wonderful, it’s fun, it’s exciting to follow Jesus. It’s thrilling to build the kingdom. We wanted to have this effect of this is the best think you can do with your life, this is exciting, its not dark or depressing. We’re emphasizing the first step in the journey, the “Die to Yourself” the “Kill Your Art” step.  But the tone is really the next step which is “SO it can live again” the resurrection. That’s the tone of it all, but the title is like the first step of it all.

So we’re dying to ourselves so that we can truly live – its fun. Then you’ve got the street performance theme on the cover where you’ve got the street performers, and the street, and these giant marionettes, and that’s just The Suitcase Sideshow, and the hands coming down – representing God and life coming in from above. That sort of thing.

Mike: A big reason that I wanted to do this interview and future one’s like it, is because I believe God wants to use all of us in some way. And, like the story of the boy with loaves and fishes, I believe Jesus can take whatever we give him, and use it to further the progress of His kingdom in our world. You are a man of many talents, and you are extremely prolific. But I noticed, you say in your book – God uses us, not based on our merit, or our talent. He does great things through us when we are obedient to him. I think sometimes when people perceive others as having gifts or talents, it can be discouraging because of the way we perceive ourselves. We think – I couldn’t do that. But it seems like you see things differently is that true?

Philip: That’s a good question.  I believe that no matter how talented you are, nothing of eternal value will ever happen unless you fuse that with the power of the Holy Spirit . You know, the world is full of talented people: there’s great movies, there’s great actors, there’s great music – but that’s not what’s going to save our world. We have lots of that, and look at where this world is at, you know It’s only the power of Jesus coming through, personally, one life at a time. When that’s manifested, it doesn’t matter if its incredible talent or simple talent – its all irrelevant to God.

It doesn’t matter if you’re the most beautiful voice in the world, your voice isn’t going to match the angels. We can think we’re so incredible, but compared to God – we’re not. God has this really incredible talent of using simple things, and small things and doing crazy stuff with that, so that He gets the glory – and we don’t: like loaves and fishes that feed thousands of people, a small boy to defeat a giant, uneducated fishermen to change the world. This is a theme that you see throughout the Gospel, throughout the Bible.  On our part, it will take humility, it’ll take a broken heart for the lost, it’ll take us hungering and thirsting for righteousness, it’ll take obedience to Him. I ask myself all the time.

How many Christian artists are basing their success on righteousness, and obedience, and a broken heart for the lost? I think so many Christian artists are still basing their success on the world’s standards: records sold, likes on Facebook, hits on Youtube. They’re still missing it. Which is why I think, the Gospel is not that prevalent in so many Christian artists – unless you’re doing worship music. The Gospel doesn’t sell. Its not a very lucrative theme. So people don’t use it, because their definition of success is still worldly. Instead of defining success the way God defines success, which is obedience, and surrender, and eternal fruit – fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, you know? This is success. And this is what God does, really really well – Love, Joy, Peace. We need to collaborate with that creator to get this out.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an incredible artist, or the worst artist in the world. If you can humbly give what you have over to the creator of the universe He’ll make up the difference. If we just do our best, which is all he asks for, because he’s the king, and he deserves our very best, not because he needs it – or needs the most talented people, but because he deserves our very best cause he’s the King.  If we just give that to him, he’ll fill in the rest.

To talented people who can sing incredibly, or incredible artists, this might actually come across as rude, or arrogant, or demeaning to them and all those hours, the time, they’ve put in to practice. To those who are not so talented, this is life. This is hope. This is beautiful, you know? But the same is to religion. Jesus came, and said “it’s not by works that you’re saved.” That was demeaning and arrogant, and rude to all those really, really good religious people. And it was hope, and it was hope and life to those who knew they weren’t very good. So it kinda shows you, maybe, how for some people art is a religion to them – a way of earning favor. Its just something to think about.

I think we just need to remember that God can use everybody - not based on our talent, based on our heart - based on our humility. He can use Gideon’s army of 300 to defeat an army of 10,000. He can use Moses. He can use incredible sculptors to sculpt the Ark of the Covenant, but based on His design and obedience to Him – not their talent. Their success was in doing it exactly the way the Lord commanded them to do it, not because of their incredible craftsmanship. But God uses it, so  He uses everything, because its all about obedience, its all about surrender, its all about dying to yourself, its all about the right perspective and  being humble before the Lord in what you do, and doing it with all your heart. And then, letting go of your pride, getting out of the boat, and speaking the truth. Not just creating art for art’s sake, but giving hit hope. Not just the struggle, but the holistic view of the Gospel, not just the hard stuff.

So yeah. I think as Christians we need to redefine how we view success. Not based on our own talents, not based on our own limitations.

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