Volume 6 Number 1
An Unpredictable Plot: From Broadway to Princeton Seminary
“Princeton is the next step in obedience for me,” says Cress Darwin, M.Div. middler. He had successful careers as a professional actor in New York City and then as cofounder of a production company that made eighteen biographies (including of Tony Bennett, Charles Schultz, and Jimmy Stewart) for the cable channel A&E. But the storyline changed, and Darwin found himself studying at Princeton Seminary, sharing a dorm room in Hodge Hall, and taking the lead role in the Seminary’s production of Job: A Mystery Play.
“I always was involved in the arts,” he says. “I came to New York in the early ’70s as an actor. I could sing, I could act, I could dance, and I had my union card. So I had a good career, primarily in musical comedy.”
While acting and later producing, Darwin was also involved in ministry at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City—serving as president of the board of deacons, helping start a homeless shelter, serving on session three different times, and chairing the communications committee. “I had a relationship with Christ, and I would let people know about my faith,” he says. “But it never seemed right that I should go into ministry in a formal way.”
Then one day a church phoned the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church looking for someone to fill in as pulpit supply. All the pastors were busy, but someone thought of Darwin, who had given a few homilies at Fifth Avenue, and recommended him.
“It changed my life,” he says. “Everything I had worked on my entire life in terms of writing, producing, acting, just really crystallized in the preparation and proclamation of that sermon.”
Meanwhile Tom Tewell, Darwin’s pastor, a PTS trustee, and a Class of 1973 alum, was encouraging him to take another step in the direction of seminary, something Darwin had considered occasionally—though he had never found the timing quite right.
Tewell kept saying to Darwin, “Cress, you might think about seminary.” Darwin kept replying, “I don’t have time. I couldn’t get in. I’ve been out of school for so many years.” Tewell suggested he just take the first step and apply. “So eventually I applied to Princeton…and I was accepted,” says Darwin. “But then I thought, Well, holy smokes, what do I do now? And then it was just a series of next steps, next steps, and next steps. That’s how I ended up in Princeton.”
Attending Princeton entailed a considerable shift in lifestyle. Darwin commuted back to New York City on the weekends to the apartment he shares with his wife of twenty-one years, Rebecca, who is a successful businesswoman (and was at one time the first woman and youngest-ever publisher of The New Yorker).
During the week he enjoyed his classes—Prolegomena to Philosophy and Systematic Theology were his first-year favorites—though it was a challenging transition back to the classroom. “I hadn’t taken a test in thirty years,” he laughs. “And no one wanted to know whether I could write a good script! They just wanted me to analyze the texts they gave me. So it’s been a wonderful discipline, as long as I’m willing to surrender. There’s a lot of relief, a lot of strength, a lot of blessing in being willing to surrender one more thing, in being willing to be taught.”
As well as taking this opportunity to learn, Darwin took the chance to share his talents with the PTS community by taking the role of Job in the student-written (Sandra Kunz), faculty-directed (Rob Lancaster), student-acted Job: A Mystery Play.
“I hadn’t really been involved in theater since I did professional theater—which had been about fifteen years,” he says. But he liked the script, he liked the idea of playing the lead (he laughingly admits), and the character of Job was the right age for him to play. It seemed like another step God was inviting him to take.
“The more I got into the play, the more I thought all of us in the cast were called together at this point, in this place, to do this play,” he says. “I really believe that. Because there were parts that were really demanding, that not just anyone could do. So there was a very particular group of talented people with the commitment to do it. The music was terrific. Everyone worked really hard. The more we got into it, the more we realized, ‘There’s something really going on here.’
“And I think living within this character of Job will inform my ministry as I move forward. To a certain extent [stepping into the character of Job in] rehearsals felt like entering a bad, abusive domestic relationship where I was abused, maligned, physically harmed. This relates to ministry because I believe we have to have some sense of identification in ministry. Some sense in order to empathize. It’s not that we have to become victims of domestic abuse [for example, in order to minister to domestic abuse victims], but having gone through this experience [of identifying closely with Job]…well, I believe God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called. I believe part of my playing this role was my being equipped for ministry.”
Darwin is not sure exactly what he’s being equipped for. He didn’t come into seminary with parish ministry necessarily in mind, but he has since joined the ordination track (another step). He recently formed a new company called Next Step Productions and is helping the Center for Barth Studies with a documentary on Karl Barth. This summer he and his wife sold their house in the Berkshires (“God has a way of calling one from comfort”). They plan to live in Tennent Hall next year; Rebecca, too, is taking the chance to look at new possibilities.
When God is the author, one can never be sure what plot twists the script will take. But, as Darwin said of playing the part of Job, “Ultimately, the story affirms my sense of a God who I can trust.” Which makes all the difference in taking the next step.
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary