Ahh, Christmas at the theatre. It's a weird, wild, wonderful place. People who haven't been to a a play all year will come out to see A Christmas Carol for the 27th time. It's kinda like church.
I saw two plays this weekend. It’s a Wonderful Life played out at the Coleman Theatre Beautiful in Miami, an amazing theater fully restored to its 1920’s grandeur, a genuine architectural treasure and reminder of how even small towns used to regard their theatres as centerpieces of civic community. The second was watching my 4 year old grandson participate in a nativity in the tiny fellowship hall of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Bixby.
I could write pages on the Coleman theater, and if you’ve never been it’s worth the trip. But it’s not going to come as too big a shock that I enjoyed watching my grandson more. But more than that, I enjoyed the performance more, and that is something of a shock, even to me, enough so that I had to think about why that was the case.
With apologies to my church friends, it’s not because I like the story better. The Nativity story (actually a mashup of two radically different Biblical accounts) is beautiful in its way. Apart from any religious belief, if you can’t be affected by a young refugee mother giving birth in difficult circumstances, I’d advise a heart check. And apart from religion, just looking at it artistically, it makes for a great still life tableaux, and has inspired some truly beloved music. But as stage drama it has serious drawbacks, that I won’t go into here. Whereas Wonderful Life the movie, in spite of the sentimentality and Jimmy Stewart’s silliness at the end, remains eerily powerful in places. There’s a reason it’s a classic. So no, not the story.
No, oddly enough, it’s the acting. Wait a second, I’m not saying the Miami Little Theatre has terrible actors, while the children at my daughter’s tiny church are precocious prodigies. OBVIOUSLY, from a technical standpoint the acting was stronger in Miami.
What was different was a sense of the importance of what was happening onstage. For the adults, it was play, a Christmas chestnut, nothing you’d want to take too seriously. For reasons you are free to scoff at or criticize, the kids thought what they were doing was more important than that, and it showed.
To understand that, you have to know that there was minimal adult input in the ‘production.’ The kids had almost complete ownership of everything that went on onstage. The recorder choir wrote its own harmonies and arrangement; the props and set pieces were cut from cardboard, detailed with Sharpies, and (obviously) constructed by the cast. There were no stage managers pushing kids onstage for their entrances. The older kids (oldest 15) helped shepherd the little ones, but every child hit their marks, picked up their cues, and spoke their lines in a clear, enunciated voice without prodding. No pauses for dramatic effect or waiting for an entrance, no show offs, no flubbed lines or giggles.
What the hell? How can these kids do on their own what I spend 6 weeks with an adult cast working on?
The only thing I can figure out, is that they thought what they were doing was more serious than that, and too important to screw around with.
For the love of heaven, PLEASE don’t think I’m saying that Christians or religious people in general make better actors, because in my experience that has usually not been the case. The baggage that Christians carry (for good or for ill) sometimes gets in the way of them reaching their full potential onstage, though that is by no means true in all cases.
What I am saying is that people’s motivations matter. Doing it for yourself is not the same as doing it for the group. Doing it with your head is not the same as doing it with your heart. A reenactment is not the same as a creation.
Again, you will have your own ideas on church plays, church, kids and church, Jimmy Stewart, and me writing about my grandson. In fact, I invite you to share any of those ideas freely in the comments (this goes for any of my posts). Why should I have all the fun?
Thanks for reading.
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