Peter Atkinson is the founder and CEO of The Merry Beggars – A Catholic theater organization working with artists to reveal the dignity of man.
What inspired you to start The Merry Beggars?
I moved to New York City to start graduate school at Columbia University in their MFA Acting program. Unfortunately, most of the acting industry is fairly anti-Catholic. As a result, most serious Catholics either lose their faith or exit the industry. The net result? Most of the entertainment we consume is pretty anti-God and doesn’t lead people towards growing in virtue and, ultimately, freedom. So I felt pretty isolated and needed community to be able to thrive in the industry. The Merry Beggars emerged out of that experience which, I discovered, is shared almost universally by Christians and Catholics in the acting industry.
Can you tell us about what The Merry Beggars has been up to lately?
We have been through a lot! When COVID-19 hit, we had to abandon all of our planned programming because, as you might expect for a theater organization, it hinged on meeting in person. So we paused everything and then rethought all of our programs and events. Out of that emerged The Quarantine Plays, a contest for 10-minute radio plays responding to the theme of “Quarantine.” We received over 120 submissions from around the world and are busy producing twelve of the submitted scripts. You can listen to the first episode here: themerrybeggars.com/radio
Additionally, we’ve launched EQUIP, our online workshop series. We’re now offering workshops in voice, acting, movement, and writing to actors and artists throughout the United States. We’ve held one so far, with Jean McClelland of Columbia University, and are busy setting up the Fall’s workshops. It’s been really exciting to see teachers and students discover what’s possible with online live workshops! So far, nothing but rave reviews.
What have been the most difficult or challenging parts of starting this venture?
I launched this while I was in graduate school at Columbia, so I would be getting up at 4am to do video calls with our lawyer in Poland and then planning our next steps sitting in the back of some classes. It was grueling but extremely motivating, because I was spending every day in New York City, the heart of the entertainment industry (no offense, LA!).
Almost every time I share the mission of The Merry Beggars (to create theater that heals our culture), people respond with relief and excitement. Relief that there’s someone in the entertainment industry who is fighting this fight. Excitement for what The Merry Beggars will produce in the next few years.
It’s not easy. You have to have financial backing in order to produce work. You need trust in order to secure financial backing. And most people who are concerned about our culture put their money towards academia and politics (which isn’t a bad place to put it!). But if we lose the culture, we lose both academia and politics to boot. I heard once that culture eats strategy for breakfast, meaning that you can have the greatest plan for shifting our world but if peoples’ hearts are some place else, you’re not going to succeed.
Why did you decide to join a SENT Community?
I applied to the OSV Grant Challenge (spoiler, didn’t get it!) and, along the way, was connected by Jason Shanks to John Cannon, the founder of SENT. I had been yearning for a community of other driven, focused entrepreneurs to be in community with and this was something like an answer to prayer.
I need help with understanding the aspects of founding a business that I simply don’t know about yet. The first years of The Merry Beggars were filled with legal and accounting aspects – both of which I’m not exactly filled with passion by. I slogged through them and was able to make things come together, but I need a community to point me towards resources that can help me outsource those aspects of the business.
That and I can often fall into the “hustle fallacy,” where I think I need to just work harder and harder in order to succeed. That’s a dangerous place for me to be because I can start instrumentalizing relationships and making interactions transactional which isn’t where a Catholic entrepreneur should be. It also leads to burn out. One of the great things about the SENT community is that it points me back to Jesus and my faith within the context of my business to help me be fueled by the grace of God and His love for me. It’s pretty amazing.
What have been the biggest benefits or takeaways from your time in a SENT Community?
The first book we read, which John said is the backbone for SENT’s mission, is “The Soul of the Apostolate.” It really challenged me to trust God in everything. Instead of just rushing more and working harder, I need to trust God in the middle of my business, to surrender it to Him. It’s like St. Paul says: if I am filled with words but not with love, I am just a clashing cymbal. It’s the same with business and cultural non-profits: if I’m filled with fundraisers and hurried, rushed programming, I lose any chance I have to introduce others to Christ (let alone experience His love myself).
What would you tell other entrepreneurs on the fence about joining SENT?
Look, SENT might not be for you. But if you’re a Catholic who is committed about creating a business, seriously consider it. As Michael Hyatt says, “A coach can get you further, faster.” If you find yourself longing for a community that can understand and support you as you create a new business, SENT might be an answer to prayer. It was for me.
If you could sum up your SENT experience in one sentence, what would it be?
We, as entrepreneurs, have gifts that God wants you to use and thrive in. This is a community that understands and encourages that!
To learn more about Peter and The Merry Beggars click here