Magazine article The Christian Century

Stand and Deliver

Magazine article The Christian Century

Stand and Deliver

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS 12 and far more interested in horses than high culture, my father dragged my sisters and me to a student production of The Pirates of Penzance in the gymnasium at the University of Alabama. I had seen plenty of movies by then and had watched plays on television, but nothing prepared me for the experience of live theater. For two hours I barely breathed as I watched people in opulent costumes animate a world I did not know existed. As they sang, danced and fought with swords, I twitched in my seat. Every emotion I saw on stage flew into any own body. When it was all over, it had all happened to me. Without opening my mouth, I had just played every part in my first comic opera.

By now I have spent a small fortune on theater tickets, standing happily in long lines before box offices all over the world, but throughout this long love affair I have never wanted to be on stage myself. Recurring nightmares of losing my sermon manuscript at Washington National Cathedral are enough for me. Why augment those with bad dreams about forgetting my lines?

So when I attended recent auditions at Piedmont College for Jane Martin's 11-woman play, Talking With ... I went to support the students. I did notice one monologue for a 65-year-old woman, but my only conscious interest in her was to find out who got the part. For hours I sat in the dark watching bold young actresses become baton twirlers, snake handlers, street people and rodeo riders. Then one of them read for the older woman's part, turning her into such a palsied crone that I thought I might have to file a class-action suit.

When you are 20 with perfect skin, 65 may sound really old to you, but when you are in your 50s, then it is possible to imagine that a woman in her 60s might resemble Kate Hepburn in The Lion in Winter more than Granny Clampitt in The Beverly Hillbillies. Before I fully grasped what I was doing, I was stumbling toward the stage. Acting could not be that much harder than preaching, I thought, at least until I reached the far side of the footlights and turned to salt. I lost my voice. I ate my lines. I got the part.

Now, halfway through a four-night run, I have a whole new feel for the mystery of the word made flesh. My monologue is only six minutes long--about as long as it takes to read the first chapter of Mark's Gospel out loud--but within those six minutes I have had hundreds of decisions to make. The most obvious ones concerned how to say my lines. Even a line as simple as, "The older I become, the more I'm drawn to light," can be said half a dozen ways, each of them revealing a different character. …

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