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15 Sketches for Youth Group, Worship, and More
By Beth Miller
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Before you use drama in a Christian setting, ask yourself, "Why do I want to use drama?" Drama, like preaching, can be a powerful tool for transformation. However, drama is abstract and more multisensory; it evokes not just thought but feeling. A statement by a seminary professor more than thirty years ago has stuck with me. He said; "If you can say it better in a sermon, do so." Drama is implicit; sermons are explicit.
Misuse of drama in the church includes a sort of sledgehammer approach. The message is too obvious. I once saw a Christian drama troupe where every character quoted the Bible or actually stated the message of the play. Each of their sketches included a Christ figure; and at the conclusion, someone was converted, in the traditional sense of the word. In a couple of the plays, a character actually preached. I felt that they were attempting to tell the whole gospel at once. Rarely are these expressions true to life. Often they feel like a bad Christian soap opera.
The plays in this book were written to help the audience ask the right questions, not to provide all of the answers. The sketches should stimulate opinions and attitudes that lead to renewal. More direct forms of communication, such as preaching and Bible studies, are far better at delivering information. These plays were written to wake up the audience, to provide an "ah-ha," or evoke an uncomfortable laugh. The scripts are tools for communicating the Word. They offer another venue for touching the heart, another means of transformation.
Why you decide to do drama will determine the type of play you choose, the actors you select, how you direct, and the audiences for whom you perform. Although many reasons are valid for doing drama in church, the ones below are foundational for me.
DRAMA PROVIDES AN EXPERIENCE OF THE HEART
For those who know the gospel well, drama can provide fresh insight, another view, and an experience of the heart. The Strangely Warmed Players had just finished performing "The Prodigal Son" at a small church in north central England. At teatime, following the performance, the clergyperson pointed out what she described as a rare sight: two gentlemen shaking hands and sharing a lively conversation. What was so unusual about that? I know that the British have a reputation for being reserved, but this exchange didn't seem extraordinary.
As it turned out, these two church stewards hadn't spoken to each other in more than a year. They had had a disagreement over church policy. The pastor had preached several sermons on reconciliation and had even brought in a denominational mediator, to no avail. I was nervous as the gentlemen approached. A common foe often brings together the worst enemies. Perhaps they thought that our humor was inappropriate for worship? The Lord works in mysterious ways. I took a deep breath and listened. The elder of the two explained, through misty eyes, that in the midst of the performance, he was overwhelmed with the need to forgive his brother. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle described the experience of drama as catharsis, a purging of the emotions.
DRAMA CAN COMMUNICATE ETERNAL TRUTHS
Jesus used the power of story to communicate eternal truths. In addition to preaching and teaching, Christ also told stories, parables. His stories were much different from his preaching. Parables are not true in the sense of being factual, but they embody truth. Drama is another form of story. The story might not be true, but it must be real enough to convincingly surprise the audience. The audience must be able to identify with the characters and action in the play. Sometimes preparation is needed for the type of drama you are using, especially in the church. If humor is not a usual part of worship and you are performing a funny sketch, remember to say so in the introduction. Give the audience permission to laugh.
The opposite is also true, if you are portraying a serious matter, you may wish to alert your audience. Our troupe learned this the hard way. The youth were giving a series of serious monologues written about painful experiences. Kim, who in real life was the homecoming queen, portrayed a homecoming queen who used purging to keep slim and beautiful. Following the performance, a woman thanked her for her courage in admitting her eating disorder and sharing it with the congregation. She prayed that Kim's story would make it easier for someone else to seek help. Kim shared that prayer but didn't tell the woman that she was just acting and had never had an eating disorder. Branden was worried after that performance because his character had admitted to using drugs and alcohol.
DRAMA IS A POWERFUL VENUE FOR OUTREACH
Drama is a powerful venue for outreach, presenting the reality of God's presence and revealing Christ's nature. For the biblically illiterate, hearing the gospel for the first time through drama can provoke interest, hunger, and acceptance. Our troupe did a series of assemblies, followed by drama workshops, at schools in England. At one particular school not far from Bristol, the head master introduced the troupe, explaining that we were a United Methodist youth group touring the U.K. Most of the students had heard of John Wesley from British history. Our performance for the older, high school aged students included "The Prodigal Son." The head master asked the assembled students how many of them were familiar with this story. Not one hand was raised. He then asked the students whether they had questions for the group about the plays we had just presented.
The subsequent dialogue was incredible. One young man found it absolutely implausible that the father of the prodigal son represented God. "Do you really know that God is that forgiving?" he asked. "Absolutely!" cast members responded. The questions came like wildfire. The dramas provided a spontaneous and sincere opportunity for faith sharing. After school, many of students came back to the auditorium to talk with the cast and exchange e-mail addresses. The head master was pleased. Our subtle approach was very effective in reaching a group of unchurched young persons. The plays portrayed theological concepts that were new and convincing.
DRAMA CAN BE TRANSFORMING
Drama can quickly get to the depth of meaning, the significance of our experiences.
Drama has a feeling tone. Acting out the Bible is much more compelling than reading the Bible. The process of characterization requires empathy with each role. It develops compassion and sensitivity to others. It requires responsiveness and thwarts greed, apathy, or cynicism.
On a winter ski retreat, the youth group worshiped at a local country church. The text for the day was John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana. "Wendell's Wonderful Weddings" had been part of our repertoire for ten years. Everyone in this group had either watched several performances or portrayed one of the roles. The youth exchanged knowing looks and nudges as the Scripture was being read. Garrison, who had portrayed the servant, mouthed, "There were six stone water jars ... each holding three firkins." Megan repeated, "Woman, my time has not yet come." At this point, several youth could not contain their giggles, recalling our interpretation of the story and Mary's response to Jesus. Nathan, as Wendell, the wedding consultant, had the lines, "Everyone serves the good wine first...."
After the service, the minister commented that the group seemed very attentive to the story. I apologized for the giggles and explained why they related to the narrative. Two things were apparent: The group not only knew the Scripture, to the point of having most of it memorized, but they knew the story intimately. They knew the details of the story, and they understood the meaning. They identified with the characters. Acting facilitates becoming part of the story in an unforgettable way.
Actors experience vicariously the story they are telling. Good acting requires the actor to create believable characters on stage. Stanislavski, the renowned Russian actor and director from the 1800s, taught that acting is "Thinking the right thoughts." Acting is not feeling the part but thinking the thoughts of the character you are portraying.
DRAMA CAN BE A POWERFUL TEACHING TOOL
I will often intentionally cast someone in a role that is contrary to his or her personality. The challenge of creating a character different from oneself pushes the actor to stretch and go deeper. This method helps good actors become better. Two brothers, Joshua and Nathan, were preparing "The Prodigal Son." Nathan, the eldest, was the one more likely to push the boundaries. Nathan was not an overachiever; however, Joshua was. Joshua was cast as the prodigal son. and Nathan was cast as the elder brother.
Joshua reported that he was uncomfortable with the way the other characters in the play began to treat him. He wasn't used to being the wild one, the one breaking the rules. At one point on the tour, he had a serious disagreement with the person playing the father. As the director, I was concerned about that evening's performance. Harmony among the cast was important—not only for the performance, but for living closely together in Christian community. My concern was expressed through private prayer. The forgiveness scene between the father and the prodigal son that night was provocative and compelling. Thinking the right thoughts for the characters they were portraying led the actors to real forgiveness. The tears were genuine—as was the forgiveness. The action of the play touched the hearts of the actors and the audience that night.
Portraying characters on stage can help actors develop tolerance for persons who are different from them. Anna is a straight-A student, the captain of the varsity basketball team at her private school, president of her class, an active church member, and a leading actress in the drama troupe. One of her most believable performances was that of a loner rejected by her peers, a person used to losing, messing up, and failure. After playing that part, Anna expressed how she is more aware of others who fall into this stereotype. She has more compassion for what they must be feeling, and she works to reach out to them in meaningful ways. When portraying someone else, an actor cannot remain objective; an actor must attempt subjectivity. Acting encourages persons to develop an appreciation of, a compassion for, and a respect for others.
DRAMA IS AN EXCELLENT TEAM BUILDER
Rather than focus on "Are my needs being met?", acting forces the cast to work for the good of the whole. Putting together an ensemble troupe each year to produce these sketches is an amazing process. The youth are usually from five or more high schools, from different grades, and not close friends. Variety in appearance and temperament is important for casting. Members of The Strangely Warmed Players are not chosen for their dramatic talent. The criteria include dramatic potential (difficult to estimate), willingness to commit to a rigorous rehearsal schedule to produce a high-quality acting troupe, maturity, flexibility, ability to get along with others and take direction, and commitment to the Christian faith that includes intentional participation in faith growing opportunities. Each troupe has become a wonderful Christian community. As the youth become more comfortable with themselves, they also learn to be more open and responsive to others.
On one trip, a cast member was unable to participate; so Megan Jo met us at the airport with her scripts. She had not been part of the six months of rehearsal preparing for our Ireland tour. Megan Jo was younger than the others and attended a different school in another city. The group was acquainted with Megan Jo from youth group but didn't really know her. Megan Jo was an introvert, eager to be a part of this particular tour but feeling overwhelmed and not connected with the troupe.
The last-minute addition of a new actor demanded intense rehearsal time wherever it could be found. A three-hour layover at the Toronto airport was our first rehearsal opportunity. The six other cast members encouraged and commended Megan Jo. On the plane, the group rehearsed their lines. The group felt as much of a responsibility to Megan Jo as she did to the troupe to present the best drama we could for the glory of our Creator God. Megan Jo was hesitant, holding back even from group photos. The others drew her into the group at every opportunity.
Megan Jo later described this tour as a life-changing experience. She developed deep friendships with fellow cast members. The process of rehearsals, the experience of performing, and the seeking of a common purpose within a Christian community provided a means for fellowship and inspiration. A drama team with Christian values at their core can provide a setting for spiritual and personal growth. Acceptance, non-competition, and respect for each individual in the group is important. Trust is an imperative element for a good ensemble troupe.
Actors who are committed to achieving excellence and growing in their performing skills encourage one another to be exceptional. I've too often heard a group's excuse for not learning lines and giving a mediocre performance—"It's only for church." Performing during worship should be what motivates us to do our best. Drama in worship is an offering to God. Using our finest creativity and talent seems a reasonable and appropriate goal. Giving our best is an act of gratitude to the Giver of our talents.
DRAMA CAN BUILD SELF-ESTEEM AND CONFIDENCE
Casting is a delicate process. Actors need to be challenged but not overwhelmed. Casting for success, not only for the play but for the individual, is important. Each role should build the actors' self-assurance and ability. Catriona was. at first, a reluctant player. She never sought lead roles. Happy to be part of the troupe, she was quite satisfied with minor roles. Besides, the saying that "There are no small parts" was ingrained into our group's collective psyche. Slowly, Catriona became more and more creative with very small parts. A turning point came in Catriona's acting as if a light had been turned on. I sensed a newly found freedom of expression in her performance one night on tour, a confidence on stage that came after years of performance. This seems to come to each committed actor in his or her own time. A year later, watching her perform a lead role before an international audience of thousands, I was overcome with tears. She had the entire audience in the palm of her hand. Her performance was electrifying, superb. The entire cast was on the money and deserved the standing ovation they received. It was one of life's meaningful moments.
Deep within every person is a fundamental need for creative expression. The arts provide activities for emotional release and stimulation of the imagination. In the beginning, God created; perhaps when we are able to create, to imagine, we are relating to the nature of God.
DRAMA CAN TEACH PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS
Not only do actors learn communication skills and confidence in presenting ideas and information, but they learn new problem-solving skills. No two performances are ever alike. I have an unbreakable rule against breaking character. Actors are expected to thoroughly learn all of the lines, not just their own. Even the best of actors forgets a line when it is least expected. Training the ensemble how to respond to a dropped line is important. Actors must never mouth the line to the person who dropped the line. Good actors know how to say the dropped line, rephrasing to fit their character. Good actors listen and respond in character, ad-libbing or cutting part of the script and going on. Some of the best performances come when something goes wrong and the members of the cast, while staying in character, resolve the problem.
Excerpted from Worship Feast by Beth Miller. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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