"Break a Leg!": Using drama in a seeker service

"I love playing the heavy!"
"I love these plays. They're a great way to get to know other people in the church."
"I've been impressed with what a powerful impact they have."
"It's a way I can give something to the church. Maybe the Lord can use me to reach someone."
"So often people have said that the drama really spoke to them."
"They're just so much fun!"

That's what members of Shawnee Park Church are saying about the dramas our congregation presents each week as part of our contemporary services. We've had a lot of fun with this new form of outreach—and we're convinced it really has an impact on those who attend our seeker services.

What's so special about our drama? The skits used in contemporary services are a new kind of religious drama that has developed only in the last several years. Each script is short (usually less than ten minutes), pointed, and often outrageously funny. These skits are simple and inexpensive to produce—yet are rewarding for performer and viewer alike.

A Long Way from Shakespeare

My own experience with this kind of drama has been a sort of pilgrimage. I started out a scoffer and became a cheerleader.

I attended my first contemporary service about a year ago at a church in the Grand Rapids area. The service contained the four basic components of the seeker service: music, testimony,drama, and message. I was particularly interested in the drama since I had been asked to report on it to a committee in my own congregation.

As the skit unfolded, I could hardly believe my eyes. In place of the polished play I had expected was a production that resembled the skits we used to do for stunt night at camp. But somehow it worked! As I watched, I remember thinking that the drama made its point so well (and so obviously) that the message was almost superfluous. Worse yet, it hit home. It focused on an area in my life that I needed to deal with. Even now, a year later, I still remember that skit in detail.

What did I tell the committee? I told them the drama was awful, but that for some reason it had impact. I explained that, in a way, watching that skit was culture shock for me. I was an English teacher, schooled in the great dramas of the past. And here was this "something" people were calling drama—hardly even country-cousin to the drama I had studied. I wrestled with my feelings for a while, reminding myself that the drama of the Middle Ages had evolved from simple enactments of biblical material to lively, humorous enrichments of Bible stories and Christian themes such as those in The Second Shepherd's Play and Everyman. What these "enriched" dramas were attempting to do was to reach out to those who were tired of hearing the same stories over and over, and to entice their interest with humor and relevant situations. Contemporary religious drama seems to fulfill that same purpose.

Ellinore K. Jensen is a drama director for Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Modern Parables

Shortly after that first experience, I attended a religious drama workshop where I saw many of these dramas performed well. I was fascinated with them and came to the conclusion that these little sketches are visual parables. Like the parables of Christ, they use an everyday situation to help us see more clearly and understand more fully. Because they are so simple, they are easy to remember and to come back to and think about again and again.

Since I've been working with this kind of drama (I direct two dramas a month in our contemporary services), I've become even more impressed with its ability to bring the message to life. Recently, for example, we had a series of four services on love. The topic for the third Sunday was "Tough Love," for which we used the drama "The Deception of Diane."

The setting is a college dorm room, and the story focuses on two roommates. One of them, Sarah, is well liked. The other, Diana, is rich, spoiled, and self-centered; people try to avoid her.

As the play opens, a friend who has just flunked an exam stops by to talk to Sarah. Diane walks in on the two girls and promptly turns the conversation to herself. As the friend leaves in disgust, Diane spills her soft drink on the floor. She busies herself cleaning it up and is out of sight as two other girls stop by to invite Sarah to go with them for pizza. Sarah tells them she would like to go but wants to check first with Diane. The girls protest, saying they don't want Diane along. She's "a disease that everyone avoids," they tell Sarah.

Sarah declines their invitation, well aware that Diane is listening to the entire conversation. After the girls leave, Diane asks Sarah if it's true that people feel that way about her. Sarah tries to protect Diane, telling her not to pay any attention to the girls. But when Diane persists in her questioning, Sarah admits that it's true. "Why didn't you ever tell me people felt that way?" Diane asks. Sarah explains that she didn't want Diane to be mad at her, that she didn't want to hurt Diane's feelings.

Diane counters by saying that it would be better to suffer hurt feelings briefly than to go through life having people dislike her, and asserts that a real friend would have told her the truth. Sarah admits that what Diane says is true. She begins to be honest with Diane, even taping Diane's mouth shut to make a point. She then calls the other girls back, and they all go out for pizza. Diane pays the bill and puts the tape back on her own mouth when Sarah reminds her she's talking too much.

The day we presented this drama, there were many college students present, and the audience reaction was probably the best we've experienced. When the minister delivered the message, he referred to the play often. He talked about tough love and the difficult things it might require of us—things like telling a friend he or she is obnoxious. The Scripture printed on the bulletin pointed to a time when Christ used tough love with his disciple: "Peter, do you love me?"

The Search for Scripts

Finding a script that's as appropriate for each service as "The Deception of Diane" was for our service on tough love isn't as easy as it might sound. The purpose of drama in a contemporary service is to enhance or reinforce the message of the day; to point people to the theme of the service; to provide a lead-in for the pastor.

The first thing we learned is how difficult it sometimes is to match the drama with the message. There are many plays on general themes like friendship or sharing or forgiving, but if your minister decides to talk about food, as ours did—PANIC! We searched in vain for an appropriate script. Finally, we wrote one.

The Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, a pioneer in this type of service, offers a catalog of scripts, along with suggested message topics. Their material is probably the best available because they write it for their own contemporary services. (Information on ordering this and other sources is provided at the end of this article.)

Setting the Scene

Props for these short dramas can almost always be pulled together by the cast. Let each person be responsible for her own costume, and, if possible, the props she uses.

Performance space is usually the front of the worship area—either on a podium or a stage. The director needs to watch that the staging area is not obscured or crowded by instruments and/or amplifiers. When musicians and actors are competing for the same small space, some diplomacy and a lot of give-and-take are required. To avoid this problem, it's wise to have a set-up crew that simply moves microphones and such out of the way when necessary, and returns them to their places when they are needed again. Some action can take place in the aisles, and offstage voices (for example, of God or of Gabriel) can effectively come from a balcony.

Sets should be kept to an absolute minimum. For a sketch of ten minutes or less, it is not even thinkable to build a set. Most settings can be suggested with chairs and perhaps a table. Let the audience use their imaginations. That's what drama is all about!

Just recently, I asked someone to make poster-size silhouettes of a church, a city skyline, and a house to suggest the locales a script called for. I had planned to put them on easels around the stage, but I learned thirty minutes before performance time that our easels had been thrown out. No one had told me! We solved the problem by asking for volunteers from the audience to be our easels.

Sound and Light

While props and setting may be easy to create, amplification, essential in such productions, can present some problems for the director. Churches are built with the idea that the minister will use a microphone. How much more necessary amplification is for those who are not accustomed to public speaking, and who may never have "projected" in their lives!

The word from our sound people is that the actors should speak with enough volume that they won't need a mike—then use the mike anyway. It's easier to lower the volume than to try to raise it electronically, causing those awful mike noises. We use two floor mikes.

Lighting is not nearly as important as one might be led to believe when reading a script that says "spot here" or "light fades." Most pulpit areas are lighted well enough for the players to be seen, and effects sometimes created by special lighting can usually be achieved in some other way. Recently, for example, we did a play in which six characters were to be on stage in turn, briefly. The script called for total darkness, and for spotlighting the characters who were "on stage." Instead, we had all the characters on stage at once, seated in a row of chairs. Those "on stage" at a given moment stood up and spoke their lines, then sat down. Audiences catch on very quickly to such techniques and enjoy the challenge. The thing to remember is that plays don't have to be performed exactly the way the directions indicate. It is the director's prerogative to be both practical and innovative.

Working with New "Actors"

Personnel needs for a drama program such as ours are many and varied. At Shawnee Park, we have a different team for each Sunday of the month. Each team consists of a director, actors, a drama assistant, a set-up crew, and sound technicians.

The drama assistant makes phone calls, sets up rehearsals, gets scripts to the actors, and finds props if necessary. This saves time for the director.

The director, ideally, should be one who has real interest in drama and who has seen a number of plays—someone who can draw on what he or she remembers. It's important to recognize that the actors in such a drama program are volunteers (church members), many of whom have never done anything like this before. Some will be so inexperienced that you'll have to start with "never speak with your back to the audience." They will be understandably apprehensive, and you'll discover that humor and kind encouragement are more likely to get results than any other approach.

Adequate practice is essential for such a group. Most people seem able to memorize lines, as challenging as that is for some, but nearly all new actors discover that it is different interacting with others. They find that while they knew their lines when they came to rehearsal, when they start speaking in turn and remembering what to do or where to stand, they forget much of what they memorized.

I have found that two rehearsals of ninety minutes each is about what is needed. Frequently, not everyone will have learned their lines by first rehearsal. But it is often possible, since the dramas are so short and simple, to run through a play enough times at first rehearsal that people are well on their way to having their lines memorized by the time they leave. Sometimes it works to go over just the first conversation until it is under control, then go on to the next, and so on.

Setting up rehearsal times can be a real struggle with a volunteer drama group. That's why it's important to remember when selecting a play that the more people there are in a cast, the harder it is to get them all together for rehearsal. A cast of two or three people is ideal. Even four is alright. When you get to five or six, you have problems. I have directed plays for which we never had a completed cast rehearsal. I had to work with actors only as they interacted with each other. In such situations, the director must be flexible.

Setting Your Style

Finally a word about style. The dramas that are available range from serious and realistic to exaggerated and farcical. While it is quite possible to do serious drama very effectively, even with amateurs, I believe plays that are humorous, farcical, and exaggerated make the most lasting impression on the viewers in the contemporary-service setting.

Many of the dramas that are available are clever and witty and lend themselves to innovative production. We did one recently in which a little boy and a little girl were portrayed first, then the same two as adults. We could have used child actors, but it was much more fun to dress our adult actors as children. The man, with his receding hairline and mustache, wore his trousers tucked into knee socks (giving the appearance of knickers), red suspenders, and a huge red bow tie. He carried a balloon and affected childlike speech. His female counterpart wore two ponytails and managed to dress "little girlish." When they had to become adults (with less than a minute for scene and costume change), we had them turn their backs and make appropriate changes in full view of the audience. The lady loosened her ponytails and pulled on a more sophisticated sweater. The man pulled his trouser legs out of his knee socks, took off the big bow tie, and put on a man's tie and sport coat. They grew up before our very (delighted) eyes. Audiences love this kind of problem-solving. And look at the time it saves!

There is more to be said, of course. But you will make your own discoveries as you go. I can promise you that the time and effort put into a drama program will be repaid in good fellowship, in development of skills and talents, and in a sense of joy at having done your best for the Lord. The impact of a drama program on "seekers" may never be fully known, but the rewards for the church producing the drama are great: people get acquainted who otherwise might not; people get involved in service who otherwise might not; and actors and viewers alike face spiritual truths in unexpected situations.

"Break a leg" is how the theater world says "good luck" before a performance. To those about to begin a drama outreach, I say, "Break a leg—and God bless!"

 

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RESOURCES

Developing a Drama Group—A Practical Approach for Director, Actor, & Designer. Lambs Players. Ed. Robert Smyth. World Wide Publications, 1303 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403,1989.

15 Surefire Scripts. Lamb's Players. Ed. Kerry Cederberg Meads & Robert Smyth. World Wide Publications, 1303 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55403, 1989.

Sketch Catalogue. Willow Creek Community Church. 67 E. Algonquin Rd., S. Barrington, IL 60010.

Also consider writing for catalogs or lists of short religious drama from the following:

Abingdon Press, 201 Eighth Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37202

Augsburg Publishing House, 426 S. 5th St., Minneapolis, MN 55440

Baker's Plays, 100 Chauncy St., Boston, MA 02111.

Broadman Press, 127 9th Ave. N, Nashville, TN 37234.

Contemporary Drama Service, Box 7710, Colorado Springs, CO 80933.

Eldridge Publishing Company, P.O. Drawer 216, Franklin, OH 45005.

Lillenas Publishing Co., Box 527, Kansas City, MO 64141

Meriwether Publishing Ltd., Box 7710, Colorado Springs, CO 80933

Plays, Inc., 8 Arlington St., Boston, MA 02116.