In this or any church play there are people who do not aspire to be actors. They just got drafted.
Their whole aim might be to stand in the right place and say the right words. That’s a great first step. However, it doesn’t make a play work for the audience.
To grab an audience’s attention, each actor needs to dive into the story. It becomes acting when the players know what their characters are feeling, and sense how they are changing as the story unfolds.
Every character needs to convey feeling, tension, conflict, or change. That may happen in ten seconds on stage with one spoken line, or throughout the story from beginning to end.
So I tried to think of something brief to say to help each actor find a way inside each character.
St. Ignatius as Drama Coach
The process of finding my own way into the inner world of the characters reminded me of an approach to prayer taught by one of the greats of Christian history: St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.
Ignatius taught people to pray their way through biblical passages using their imaginations and their senses. He had them try to imaginatively see what would have been present in the scene. He had them listen, not only to what was said in the Bible but for the sounds the text doesn’t mention.
(It is a rich way of praying with Scripture and listening for God. If you want to explore it, check out the chapter in my book Kneeling with Giants.)
So thinking through what to tell the cast turned out to be a rich meditation on Scripture for me as the director. Here’s what I said, character by character:
Narrator: This is the voice of the gospel writers themselves. The narrator is sort of all-knowing, but has to be close to the action, feeling every feeling along the way.
Law and Prophets: This is the personified voice of the Old Testament, which is quoted fairly frequently by the gospel writers. Standing to speak, scroll in hand, there is some danger of comedy. Instead the actor must know that this is something serious: the voice of God promising salvation down through the centuries.
Gabriel: The actor playing Gabriel needs some imagination and some tenderness.
- Imagination because, quite clearly in Scripture, when an angel appears it is a fearsome experience. He or she has to imagine glowing with the light of heavenly fire, having come from the presence of God. Gabriel needs to know the full authority in which he or she comes.
- Angels also bring pastoral care: “Fear not!” is usually their opening statement. Gabriel needs to know what feelings his or her presence inspire, and tend to those feelings so the divine message can be shared.
Mary: This young woman calls herself “the handmaiden of the Lord”. She should start out feeling both the fear and the excitement of being on the edge of adulthood. During the play she moves from shocked fear, to humble obedience, to awe. Ideally she will hold on to the memory of the fear and the attitude of obedience while she’s filled with awe.
Elizabeth: The actor playing Elizabeth needs to know that she has suffered in the course of life, being childless into old age. The miraculous pregnancy seems at once to fill her with confidence and a desire to hide. She is much older relative of Mary, with a motherly or grandmotherly affection. Holding an infant son must have been like water in a desert.
Zechariah: He too has suffered, and perhaps been embittered, by lifelong childlessness. There is excitement in being chosen to offer incense. There is fear at the presence of the angel. Bitterness bears fruit in doubting the Angel’s message. Frustration shows at losing his ability to speak for most of a year. The events humble him and soften him. Joy, pride, and awe come at holding his son at last, and knowing John’s role in the story of salvation.
Joseph: Joseph has a quiet strength and kindness as husband of Mary and foster-father of the Christ child. He also has enough openness to the Spirit to receive repeated visits from an Archangel, and the kind of obedience that unquestioningly took up deeply challenging tasks.
Innkeeper: Since Joseph travels to his ancestral home, one might imagine the innkeeper as a distant relative. But even if the innkeeper is simply an innkeeper, his disposition and calling are to be hospitable. He needs to feel embarrassment and responsibility when he cannot give a room to a woman in labor.
Shepherds: The shepherds need to move from boredom, to fear at the Gabriel’s presence, to excitement at getting to go see the Savior, to joy at telling the news to others.
Angels: The angelic host should sense the unique privilege of sharing the joyful news of God’s Son’s birth. It is such an astonishing moment for any resident of heaven that in one way or another they just need to dance.
Wise Men: The Magi should see themselves as scholars, even scientists. They have studied the world and its patterns. On their own they have, to our surprise, discerned that a king has been born. They are seekers after truth, and there is goodness in this. They are from another nation with another religion, but God saw fit to lead them to Christ and to use them to help preserve Christ’s safety.
Herod: Herod is full of his own lust for power. Serving himself from a seat of ultimate authority has formed him into a deeply dangerous man. In a moment of rage he commits mass murder. Think of him by analogy to Hitler, or Pol Pot, or one of the current leaders on the global scene who would turn chemical weapons on their own people. He is not funny.
Anna: If played by the same actor as Elizabeth she must age at least 20 years as she rises to speak. Her life is marked by long-standing prayerful devotion, and patient eager waiting. She must have loved God with remarkable passion.
Simeon: If played by the same actor as Zechariah he too needs to age 20 years as he rises to speak. He has been touched by the Spirit, and given an incomparable gift: knowledge that he will see the promised Savior. He must be a gentle priestly presence, ready to bless the holy family. He must be a prophetic confident presence, foreseeing Christ’s death, and Mary’s suffering.
I hope you can spend some time meditating on the characters of the Christmas story this Advent, whether you are in a play at your church or not.
You can find the whole story from three Gospels all packaged conveniently in a short book on Amazon. It’s called “Christmas Play.” You can get a copy for your Advent devotions by clicking here.
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