Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Persons of the Drama

PERSONA: 1. The name for the mask Greek actors would wear to portray their characters (possibly from Latin per+sona, "sound through", as their voices would "sound through" the speaking hole in the mask); 2. A character in a drama - plural "personae", as in "dramatis personae"; 3. The personality (persona-lity) we present to the world, our public "mask".

The story of our patron St. Genesius is the story of a dramatic conversion - literally. That is to say, it's the story of a conversion that happened during a drama on stage.

Genesius had the opportunity to perform a show before the emperor in Fourth Century Rome, a show mocking those pesky Christians. This would clearly be a great boost to his career! He would be playing a Christian-wanna-be in a scene mocking that ridiculous superstition Baptism. And so, like all good actors, he decided to research his role, which meant, in his case, pretending to be a catechumen - a pagan desiring baptism. So he hung around a group of Christians for a while and received instruction in the faith and then split - sort of like a young guy sleeping with a gal until she starts pressuring him to "commit". He had all the info he needed, after all.

And then it was opening night! A full house, and there was Diocletian in the V.I.P. seats! If the emperor liked it, Genesius had it made! A contract with Fourth Century Fox, money to buy a new house with a two-chariot garage, a Rolex sun-dial strapped to his wrist, all that stuff.

But, you see, there is something about Acting, and that something is the truth of the Incarnation.

One of the things God does is He sends ripples through the universe. One event, such as the Incarnation, is recapitulated both symbolically and actually throughout time. In this case, the artistic expression called Acting in its very essence reaffirms the truth of the Word become flesh. Acting is taking the Word and bringing it to bear: it is taking words on paper and fleshing them out on stage. It is taking a form and an idea and living it out in time, space and matter. All art does this, Acting more so than any.

All art is incarnational, and in that way it bears witness, even mutely, to the truth of the Incarnation.

This means that any good actor somehow becomes the character he portrays - but not in the way most people think. We don't really have identity crises based on the roles we're playing - "Am I Hamlet or am I John Smith? Who am I???" After all, our lives as actors are typically full of identity crises anyway, day in and day out (we're not the most mature or balanced of people) - so the roles we play don't really mess us up much more than we already are.

But it is true that certain actors are cast for certain parts because they "get it", they understand the part in their bones, the character is something they really are somewhere inside and so they can pull that part of them out and give it voice.

This is the mystery of Acting, the empathy behind it, the mystery of being, the mystery of pretending, the "virtue of IF". For the actor there is a safety in donning the mask, for the audience a distancing in sitting in the dark and watching life through a frame. In the midst, then, of this fiction, this hypothetical reality, we are free as actors and audience to become something new, even provisionally, even vicariously.

And thus we can see the two sides of the question raised by my post You Hate Me! You Really Hate Me!.

Regarding that post, my friend Kelly Kerr says, in so many words, why would non-Christian actors freak out when playing Christian parts? Isn't it the actors job to take on any part he is assigned?

While my friend Mark Holgate says, in so many words, what makes you think you can cast non-Christian actors in dramas or comedies that are spreading the message of Christ? Mark continues, "It's funny, isn't it? The same people [actors] think nothing of clumsy nihilistic preaching and ranting (it's 'realistic' and 'authentic') but mention Jesus in a show and they run for the hills. Power in the Name, methinks."

Kelly is looking at the artifice of acting, the mask; while Mark is looking at the truth the mask reveals, the word spoken through the persona of the mask.

When we began Theater of the Word Incorporated , I was willing to trust God, but only to a point. I had written shows for a four-person touring troupe, and I knew that it would be impossible to find three other actors who were

1. Talented

2. Reliable

3. Christian

4. Available to tour.

It's hard enough in St. Louis to find actors who are talented, or who are reliable, or who are available - and I did not know of any who were Christian, except one or two who were not available to tour.

And so I figured I would be the point man, the Christian actor in the troupe, and the others would simply play their roles and don their masks the way good actors should.

And, as it turned out, we had a few conversions along the way - one actor went from atheist to "I think I'm Christian now"; two others went from "I'm Christian, but I'll never be Catholic!" to full communion with the Catholic Church.

But, as a rule, the non-Christian actors could NOT simply "play their roles". Perhaps they could at first. Perhaps touring would be fine for a while, the acting good, the attitude acceptable ... but sooner or later I'd notice the actors would either

1. find themselves drawn to a more intimate relation with Christ


2. find themselves angry and uncomfortable with being in plays that (even in subtle ways) glorified Christ

The upshot of reaction number two has been actors getting difficult, quitting in a huff, or me no longer casting them, and then, apparently, spreading the word in town that I'm a horrible man to work for and a horrible man period. But that's the whole sign of contradiction thing. And it's all about Him, not me.

For, in the same way the Incarnation ripples throughout time in places you'd least expect it, so does the Crucifixion. If Christ were indeed simply a benign prophet, as the atheists and new pagans try to make Him, then there would be plenty of neutral ground in people's reaction to Him, as there is in our assessment of Buddha or Mohammed. The Cross still lives in that we either worship Him as God or crucify Him as an annoying thorn in our side, a disturbing voice in our ear that we dare not listen to.

He still lives, you see. And He is still being denied and crucified by all of us in one way or another.

In my own way it was my unwillingness to trust that God would provide His theater company with actors who were willing to follow St. Genesius the way St. Genesius followed Christ.

For, in the very moment the water was poured on his head, the moment the sarcastic cynical comic scene mocking these fools for Christ was played out before the emperor and the audience, something clicked in Genesius' brain, in his being. The instruction in the faith, the catechumenate that he thought was only an exercise in Researching a Role 101 must have touched him in a deep and hidden place, and the mask brought forth the true man, the persona on stage made the person beneath sound through, and our patron experienced a miracle. The pretend baptism - a baptism of mockery and vulgarity, a sick and cruel joke made by a sick and cruel culture (cf. any situation comedy currently on TV) - became a sudden "baptism of desire" and Genesius "went up", leaving the script behind and improvising a witness to the Living God who died and rose again - a witness to life - that would end in the end of the life of this particular actor, the beheading of Genesius - for we are "baptized into His death" (Romans 6:3) so that, like Him, we should walk "in newness of life".

G. K. Chesterton pointed out long ago a truth that was old even then, "As soon as you stop being against the Catholic Church, you find yourself oddly in favor of it. There is no in-between. There is no neutral ground."

And once I decided to trust God just a wee bit more, took the risk of dumping the actors who were resisting us and our mission, He suddenly sent me the impossible - an amazing cast of talented, reliable, available Christian actors.

The actor who told me I was intolerant last week was just an example of me putting my hand to the plow and turning back for a bit, of thinking it's impossible to find a good Christian actor to play a role in a show that's only mildly evangelistic, of making the old mistake over again.

But I should know better. After all, the old life is dying and the New Life is sounding through.


Gary Keith Chesterton said...

Kevin, have you ever seen "A Double Life" with Ronald Colman? Fascinating old movie about an actor who really does have an identity crisis: Am I Othello or am I Anthony John, Famous Actor? Talk about taking The Method too far.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful reflection!

Do you think it works the other way too? I'm thinking of Heath Ledger and his role as Joker. I heard method acting can be harmful.