by Donald Schell
Part 1 of 2
Last month my congregation offered a free week-long day camp called F.O.G, an apt name for a summer gathering in San Francisco with perennial summer weather report, “Foggy near the coast, clearing by noon.” I think the joke is deliberate, but as an acronym it also refers to the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa that Christian life in community makes us “Friends Of God.” To the fourth year of our summer F.O.G, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, St. Gregory’s associate rector and the founder of F.O.G. asked me to lead daily Bible drama workshops for the children, each day exploring a different Gospel parable through improvised dramatic enactment of that day’s Godly Play story.
Until F.O.G. my only experience of Vacation Bible School had been summers growing up in a fundamentalist church. I still treasure that first learning of Bible stories, and am also grateful for good support in conversations with my parents for shrugging off the creationism, anti-Semitism, and horrifying interpretations of the atonement some of the teachers offered. What caught my heart, even in that fundamentalist setting was the offering generous-hearted teachers made when they really gave us the stories with room to ask questions and make our own interpretative discoveries. And as we come back to the stories, the discoveries seem to on through a lifetime.
Over the years between that long ago Vacation Bible School and my happy experience with F.O.G., I’d begun doing drama work with Bible stories, starting in summer camp chaplaincies – Family Camp summers in Idaho when I did my first parish work there, and then a couple of decades of summers of both Family Camp and Kids’ Camps in the Diocese of California.
Improvising theater to encounter and interpret Bible stories uses imagination something like Ignatius Loyola’s method of using imagination and the senses to read ourselves into familiar stories to feel how the stories live for us when we’re in them. For my drama workshop version of Ignatius Bible study I’ve worked with stories about Jesus and with the stories Jesus offered as a story teller, the parables.
As preacher/teacher/theater director I learned to spend time ahead with the text, reading it over and over slowly and looking for ways to guide actors recruited from the congregation or gathering to make simple, wholly embodied, interpretative gestures and actions to flesh out the stories.
Sometimes the Gospel story gives specific gestures, for example, in Matthew’s version of the Syrophonecian woman,“…a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”
The Gospel says she “came and knelt,” two simple gestures to offer our actors in an improvisation. But each gesture contains more choices - HOW does the woman come and HOW does she kneel?
Does she approach very respectfully and kneel as if in church?
Or does she run to Jesus and throw herself at his feet?
And if she throws herself at Jesus’ feet, does she touch him?
Acting gestures need to be energetic and, as actors say, “specific.” How ever the preacher/director, actor or congregation decides the gestures should be enacted, “kind of walking” toward Jesus and “sort of kneeling” won’t give life to an improvisation.
Sometimes specific choices aren’t just the “how” of a gesture in the story, but discovering spatial arrangement and response of one character to another that aren’t given, but still have to be specific. As in Ignatian Bible study, we mae choices about gestures and movements that the Gospel story omits.
For example, in the story of the resurrection appearance to Thomas in John’s Gospel, does Thomas take Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds in his hands and put his hand in the wound in his side? When I’ve worked with this text and asked the congregation, we discover that some people feel strongly the text assumes that he did reach out and touch Jesus’ hands and side. Others feel equally strongly that for Thomas hearing Jesus’ invitation and seeing the wounds was enough – often those people feel the writer of John wants us to picture Thomas dropping his skepticism and doubts in a moment of overwhelmed worship.
Some questions of “how” only show up when we’re planning or even guiding the congregational volunteers creating an improvisation. In this same resurrection appearance, it simply says that eight days later Thomas and the other disciples were gathered again in the upper room. And then, “Jesus appeared.” Embodied enactment demands more specifics. Different, specific blocking (the placement and movement of our actors) shapes the story differently. If the actor playing Jesus “appears” by slipping in to stand between or among disciples facing our Thomas, Thomas may see Jesus’ first. The actor can use his face and body to show his startled transition from not seeing Jesus to seeing Jesus. The other disciples might see Thomas experiencing something before they see Jesus. But if our Jesus actor comes and stands directly behind Thomas --where other disciples see him before Thomas, perhaps Thomas seeing his friends’ faces makes him turn to face Jesus, even before Jesus speaks. Neither is the “right” answer of how to enact it, but we do experience something different either way.
In the first instance, perhaps we’d find ourselves wondering how the other disciples might see Jesus’ presence through Thomas’s revelatory moment, while in the second instance, we might sense how the other disciples’ faces and faith move Thomas to a very literal turnaround conversion.
One of our stories this year was Jesus’ parable of the pearl merchant. I’d never worked with that story before, in my difficulty preparing to work with that particular parable made some unexpected interpretative discoveries. The essay that follows this describes my difficulty, the process of discovery and what I and we learned about the parable from enacting it. But to conclude this first essay, I’d like to encourage readers to visit the F.O.G. website to learn more about embodiment in prayer and teaching. Sylvia Miller-Mutia has been developing Friends of God Day Camp for the children of St. Gregory’s and other children in the church’s neighborhood. Sylvia’s approach to inter-generational liturgy and storytelling, like mine guides a congregation to embody text and song together. You can see additional ways of praying with our bodies and our senses Sylvia has developed at the resource website she’s made for F.O.G. leaders and parents.
Seeing what she’s creating for children and adults, you won’t be surprised to learn that before becoming a priest, Sylvia danced professionally with the Utah Ballet and then in modern dance was a member of Carla de Sola’s Omega West Dance Company. Improvisational interpretation of Bible stories and Sylvia’s embodying prayer in movement invite experience and questions, like a Godly play “I wonder.” Rooting interpretation and reflection in imagination, feeling and intuition leads us to discover new possibilities in familiar readings.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.