into the story
I was a promising young actor. At 12, I was doing Shakespeare on the big stage at our local university. I was cast as MacDuff’s son - exchanging bed-time banter with my stage-mom until the murderers broke in. I died, convincingly, after being lifted off my feet and repeatedly stabbed, then dropped into a limp heap where I remained until the lights went out. By 13, Shakespeare was passe - I’d been there, done that. I was ready for an edgier, more modern role, so I lined up a part as a mailman in some show in 8th grade. I don’t remember the play, or any of my lines, but there’s no reason to believe I was anything less than the best damn mailman ever to appear at Holmes Jr. High. I liked the attention and being in front of people. I liked the production process and the camaraderie of the crew. But, if you stay in theater long enough, you’ll eventually get cast in a part where you have to sing or take off your shirt, and I wasn’t gonna do either of those things in front of people. I lost my direction, my motivation, and my nerve.
After that mailman role, I retired from the theater - went out at the top of my game. But I’ve never completely dismissed the possibility of going back on-stage. I see the casting calls for the community theater in the newspaper and think, “next time”.
Well, next time is here. It’s been thirty-seven years, and by the time you read this, I will have made my return to the stage - I’m sure to rave reviews. I’m cast as a Roman soldier in the church’s Maundy Thursday Living Last Supper. I didn’t even have to audition. They practically begged me to take the part. The senior pastor obviously has an eye for talent.
The scene is this: it’s the night of the Last Supper. Jesus and the disciples have met in the upper room, shared the Passover meal, served Holy Communion to the audience, and each disciple then delivers a short monologue of introspection - questioning if he will be the one to betray Jesus tonight. The disciples and Jesus then exit, headed to the Garden of Gethsemane. That part of the production is the same year after year. But there’s a third scene that changes annually - that’s where I come in. After a few minutes of narration over a dark stage, I enter the upper room as a Roman soldier. I’ve come from the garden. I was present when Jesus was arrested, and am now hunting for the disciples who have “scattered like scared sheep”. I retell, for the audience, the events in the garden and then Peter shows up. In the process of placing Peter under arrest, he and I have a dialog about who this Jesus guy is, because, while I take my orders seriously, I witnessed a miracle in the garden, when Jesus healed Malchus’ severed ear and I’ve never seen anything like that before.
Peter and I both have a lot of lines to learn. For about ten minutes, we’re the only ones on-stage. In just two rehearsals, we’ve learned to work together to get the story told. I tend to ad-lib a lot - playing the role in my own language rather than strictly following the script. It’s working pretty well, but as I slip deeper into character, there’s a real danger that I’ll refer to the disciples as “those sonsabitches”, which might be be authentic for a Roman soldier, but is wholly inappropriate for the audience or the venue. I have to be cautious to not over-act.
The Living Last Supper is an annual tradition at my church. As the media guy, I’m always involved behind the scenes - taking pictures, setting up lights and mics, etc. When you hear “church play” you’re probably envisioning guys in their bathrobes and angels with bedazzled cardboard wings, but this is actually a pretty decent production. A few of the disciples have been doing this for years and they really get into their characters. Through some re-programming of our sanctuary lights, and the lavishly-set Passover table, we’re able to draw most viewer’s attention away from the fact that there’s a pipe organ in the upper room.
From time to time I wonder if we’ve been doing this play long enough that the tradition needs a rest. Maybe it is time to do something different for Maundy Thursday. As the senior pastor and I talked about this, we just can’t think of anything else that tells the story and provokes thought the same way this play does. We could just have a regular worship service, with scripture readings and communion and a sermon, but this production gives a voice and a personality to each of the disciples … it helps the viewer to not just listen to a story they’ve heard a hundred times, but to actually identify with the characters as real people with emotions and motivations and questions. The script probably qualifies as historical fiction, but it is at least as authentic and certainly more meaningful than the inane and manufactured drama that Kim and Kanye serve us. It ends up being a powerful way to place the congregation into the story and bring them some feeling of the tension and magnitude of that night.
I don’t know if I’ll agree to act in this play again. I already have enough to do covering the technical aspects of the show, but I have to admit it has been fun to position myself as something I’m not … a heavy character with a desire to run my sword through a disciple or two. I enjoy putting myself in front of the crowd - as long as I can keep my shirt on. And, it is certainly satisfying to be a part of telling the old story in a new way - bringing new life to the words we’ve heard so many times. Actually, it’s just a different form of what I’m blessed to be able to do for a living … keeping the scriptures and the text of the Bible in front of people in the 21st century.
It’s Saturday morning. The play was two nights ago and it went well. A glitch with some technical controls shed some unexpected light on the production, but it was otherwise nicely executed by everyone involved. Yesterday was Good Friday and tomorrow is Easter. I don’t position myself as a “Christian Blogger”, but I am a blogger and I am a Christian. I write about whatever is on my mind: sometimes it’s bicycling, relationships, or farting, and sometimes it is faith. My prayer for you is that sometime during this dark Saturday you can reflect upon the events of the Holy Thursday and Friday and place yourself into the story to the point that you feel something: maybe guilt, maybe shame, maybe awe, maybe exultation … something … so that when the sun comes up tomorrow, Easter morning, you’ll have the same sense of celebration that I do. Happy Easter.