Friday, April 11, 2008

Adventures in Birmingham









The Opportunity

In January of this year the cast of The Surprise, as staged at last year’s conference, were called together to perform the play at EWTN in Birmingham, for recording and broadcast at a future date. We also performed a few dramatic vignettes for season four of The Apostle of Common Sense, which will air this fall.







The Cast of Characters

First, to set the stage, a word or two about our cast of characters, which included almost every member of the Ahlquist family – Dale’s son Julian as the King, his daughter Ashley as the Princess, his wife Laura as our costume mistress and stage manager, and Dale’s own sorry self as the Inept Guard, who in Act Two adds Inebriation to his Ineptness. In addition, we had Jeremy Stanbary of Epiphany Studios in St. Paul, who played the Author; Deacon Nathan Allen as the Friar; Catherine Trojack as Maria; and Mark Shea of the blog Catholic and Enjoying It as the Captain (and also as Innocent Smith in many of our scenes from The Apostle of Common Sense). Chuck Chalberg later joined us as GKC himself. And I did my bit as The Poet in The Surprise, and was just as excited to play a host of character parts in serveral episodes of The Apostle of Common Sense – including Clarence Darrow, Charles Dickens, Father Brown, a Chinese Mystic, a British Twit, an Ex-Seminarian, and others.





(Back row l-r: Jeremy Stanbary, Deacon Nathan Allen, Julian Ahlquist, Kevin O'Brien, Mark Shea. Seated l-r: Laura Ahlquist, Catherine Trojack, Lauara Ahlquist, Dale Ahlquist.)




We Gather Together



Almost all of us arrived on Tuesday, January 9 and gathered in one of the two houses where EWTN was putting us up (or is it “putting up with us”?). On this first night, Dale began the great tradition of “family prayer”. The cast would all say together a decade of the Rosary and add our intentions. Tonight we prayed the Nativity of Our Lord, because, I think, we are aware that on some level we are continuing the task of Incarnation. As we try to flesh out the words of Chesterton - as we, as all actors, try to bring words to bear on stage - we are continuing the great task of bearing God’s Word to others, thanks to this miraculous network.



What Sustained Us



On Wednesday, January 10, the filming began at 8:30 am, but we were all up at 6:30 to make it to Holy Mass, which is celebrated and televised every morning from the chapel beside the studio. Going to daily Mass was Dale’s idea and while it seemed like a good idea when he suggested it, it didn’t feel so hot when we crawled out of bed at 6 am every morning.

But praise God! This entire week, Masses were being celebrated by Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life (http://www.priestsforlife.com/), the most driven and passionate worker of our time. His work, which is serious and exhaustive for the pro-life cause, put our silly efforts at “dress up” to shame. It was a good and humbling perspective for us throughout the week


Suffering for Art


On Thursday, January 11 Deacon Bill, chairman of the board of EWTN, visits with us for breakfast. “Every month, we need 2.4 million dollars to keep this network afloat,” he tells us. “And every month, we start with almost nothing in the bank. We have to rely entirely on donations.” In that sense, they're still struggling Franciscans, not knowing where their next meal comes from. This is also the way Dale Ahlquist and the American Chesterton Society operates, the way Mark Shea, free lance Catholic apologist operates, the way so many of us operate. From such straits and despite temptations to anxiety and despair, Our Lord’s servants learn to rely entirely on Him and the charity of our neighbors for their daily bread. Deacon Bill then goes on to tell us about Mother Angelica and her condition. “It's Mother Angelica's suffering that is keeping this network going,” he says. “Everybody associated with Mother and the monastery suffers in some way.” Then he looks at us with a twinkle in his eye. “Welcome to the club!” he says.

This day is certainly marked by a kind of suffering - frustration. I am so used to acting on stage that this acting for the camera is maddening. Making a movie, you talk for long periods of time to your fellow actors and to the crew as you stand about waiting, then you act a little, but not too loud, and maybe for a minute or less, and then the camera stops and then they start again and you do your big monologue and you know you didn't do it that well, and they say, “Great! We'll go with that,” and you've lost the chance to do it again, and what you've just done, which certainly felt below par and may look even worse, will last for all time on tape and DVD.

Moments of eternity that we aim at as best we can while floating on an ocean of the mundane. Kind of like life.

At night we play Charades, and I am confident in saying that this is the only group of people on earth who would act out charade clues to “Rerum Novarum” and The Simarillion.


Acting Out Common Sense

SATURDAY, JANUARY 13. Having wrapped up The Surprise on Friday, today we begin filming bits for Dale's fourth season of The Apostle of Common Sense, many of which are filmed as Man on the Street interviews on location at a local mall. “Are you making a COMMERICAL????” a thrilled young shopper asks, seeing the cameras. “No, it's something for EWTN,” one of us tells her. “Oh,” she says, and turns away.


Dale buys us dinner at a barbecue place and our journey continues at this way-stop that feels more like a destination than an inn. I soak in the jokes, the discussions on theology, on history, on the Church Fathers - the love that fills the very air we breathe. This week has been more like the title of another Chesterton play – this week has been Magic.


The Captive Audience

SUNDAY, JANUARY 14. Today we make our pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Most Belssed Sacrament near Hanceville, Alabama, a beautiful place where Mother Angelica and the nuns live. We end up spending two hours at a truck stop waiting for breakfast, but as Chesterton said, “An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.”


At the Shrine, Dale gives a fine talk on Chesterton, but in this case the audience is better than the performer. The sisters sit behind a grate as Dale and the rest of us sit on the other side, their faces beaming, radiant with joy. They are filled with vitality, laughing at all of Dale's bad jokes, at all of Chesterton's best lines, overflowing with enthusiasm and joy. These nuns are young, beautiful, sweet, devoted to Our Lord and Our Lady, and shining forth, in the words of Mother Mary Francis, their “right to be merry”.

(BELOW: Dale with his captive adience.)






At night we find a local fish restaurant at which, in the grand Southern tradition, “everything is fried”. Dale is insistent upon avoiding chain outlets and supporting the Distributist ideal, even when it leads to high cholesterol.


Civilization Goes Home / The Discontents Remain



TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, & THURSDAY & FRIDAY, JANUARY 16 - 19. Tuesday morning most of the cast left, leaving behind a small contingent of us to carry on – Dale, Mark and I, with Chuck joining us Wednesday morning.

We keep having fun, but with the women all gone, things get sloppy and we end up drinking a lot more at night. Chuck adds some good material, but I'm sorry to say that debates that once were lively and inspiring, debates that were about art and beauty and history and heaven and hell and everything in between have now degenerated to -

DALE: Mark, turn the TV off.


MARK: Shut up.

But we do our best. And we wrap up all the scenes for Season Four of The Apostle of Common Sense along the way.At one point in the week, Dale, Mark Shea and I while passing through the lobby of EWTN see the feeds on several monitors on the wall. We see on these monitors the following: Nathan Allen’s appearance on The Journey Home being rebroadcast on the satellite to the Pacific Rim, Chesterton's debate with Shaw from Season Three of The Apostle of Common Sense being beamed via satellite feed to Europe, and Dale's appearance on EWTN Live being replayed by satellite to Africa and India.

“We've taken over the world!” Dale exclaims, throwing out his arms.Well, almost. At least we took over the studios of EWTN for ten blessed days, and may the Holy Spirit bless our efforts. May The Surprise and the fourth season of The Apostle of Common Sense continue to spread the words of our man Gilbert, who himself was spreading the only Word worth hearing.

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