Tag Archives: Theatre

A Spiritual Lesson from Acting 101

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
James 2:18 (NRSV)

I’ve always believed that acting is the creation of an authentically believable character from the inside out. It is not just the manipulation of body and voice but the understanding of internal need, intention, motivation and thought which then translates into words, movement, and action.

My theatre professor in college taught us that one of the most important tools for the actor is observation. Watch people. We were sent to the local mall to watch people. Really watch them. It’s the Sherlock method of beginning to understanding character. What do you deduce from what you can readily observe in people? What can you tell about that couples’ relationship by the way they walk four feet apart? What does it say about them as a couple when she’s carrying on a conversation but her eyes are always looking over his shoulder at the people walking by? What is that teenager trying to say when he walks with that pronounced strut? Look at that old man, shoulders hunched over as if he’s protecting his soul, shuffling slowly with his eyes glued to the floor as though he’s afraid to look anyone in the eye. What in life led him to walk like that?

James’ discussion of faith and works in today’s chapter has created firestorms of controversy among theologians throughout the centuries. Some have even suggested pitching James’ letter from the canon of scripture altogether. Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, and that it’s not of works. But James writes in today’s chapter that faith without works is worthless faith. So, which is it?

I’ve never been that stressed out about seeming contradiction. Following Jesus is a journey fraught with paradoxes. You have to die to live. You must lose in order to gain. You must give away to acquire. Faith and works is just another spiritual paradox in God’s economy. Theatre learned long ago the spiritual principle required for holding the tension. It’s called “Yes, and.” Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, and yes, faith without works is worthless faith.

James was simply tapping in to Acting 101 class. Watch yourself. Really watch yourself. I should observe myself as others do. What do my words say about me? What can someone deduce from the way I treat my employees, my family, or as James suggests, the poor and needy? My inner spiritual realities are evidenced in my outside behaviors. If I really believe what I say I believe, the internal faith will continually work itself out in my words, actions, and relationships.

This morning I am feeling convicted. The process of honest self observation is never comfortable. Though I’m quite sure I have blind spots, I know most of my major shortcomings acutely. A self-inventory leads me to uncomfortable conclusions. And, I think that’s also ultimately James’ point. Discomfort prompts change, which creates movement, which propels me further in the journey towards Life. Comfort prompts apathy, which creates stagnation, which eventually becomes death.

Faith or works?


The Challenge of Words

“You shall not profane my holy name….”
Leviticus 22:32 (NRSV)

Wall Street Journal columnist, Ben Zimmer, writes a weekly piece in the newspaper’s weekend edition that explores a different word or phrase that has been in the news that week. It’s one of my favorite columns to read over coffee on Saturday mornings.

I have become increasingly fascinated with words as I’ve continued in my life journey. I’m fascinated with their origin, how they become part of our vocabulary, their meanings, and how we use them. I’m intrigued with how our society perceives words as positive or negative, good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable.

Wendy’s and my adventures in community theatre often take us into debates about words. Should we use a word that will likely offend our audience here in rural Iowa? Can we legally change the copyrighted work by using a different word? If we do have the actor use a different word, will it change the play’s character and how the audience perceives him or her? Why would that word offend the audience? Should we risk the offense and challenge our audience to consider their notions about vocabulary? They are challenging questions that prompt fascinating and equally challenging discussions.

Toward the end of today’s chapter God tells the Hebrews not “profane” His name. I was given a definition of the word profane by a professor in college that I’ve never forgotten: “to empty something of its meaning.” I can still remember the word picture as the professor stood in front of the class and mimed turning a cup over in his hand, emptying the contents of the imaginary vessel on the ground.

I’ve always found that an apt understanding of God’s zealous protection of His name. It’s really no different than we as human beings. We don’t like people making fun of our name. We don’t want our name mocked or “drug through the mud.” In Arthur Miller’s classic play, The Crucible, John Proctor tells the witch hunters in Salem to go ahead and kill him unjustly but then begs: “give me my name!

Of course this opens a fascinating and challenging conversation about the name of God. As a child I was taught never to use the word “God” as in “Oh my god.” But, “god” is a impersonal noun that could refer to your generic pagan idol as it could refer to Yahweh (the name God gave Himself to Moses in Exodus 3). The name “Jesus” is much more specific and it packs all sorts of meaning and power. Jesus told His followers to do all sorts of things from prayers to exorcisms “in my name.” History records many signs and wonders that happened “in the name of Jesus.” If I then turn and use “Jesus” as an exclamation of disgust when the restaurant brought me the wrong order it certainly appears that I’ve taken something of spiritual power and authority, emptied it of its meaning, and used it for common swear word. I’ve profaned it.

This morning I’m once again thinking about words. It’s fun and challenging to debate the particulars of words and their usage. Despite the hairsplitting, it’s obvious that throughout God’s Message I’m reminded that words have power to heal, encourage, and build others up. They also have the power to sully, divide, tear down, and profane. I am reminded that the words we choose should be gracious, wise, and kind. May the words of my mouth always exemplify those basic guidelines.

chapter a day banner 2015

featured image by dorkmaster via flickr

The Latest 02-28-2016

It was one year ago today that Wendy, me and a small army of friends, moved our stuff into our new house. It was a typically chilly February day in Iowa and the snow was falling ere we finished lugging in all the boxes. What a difference a year makes. It was 70 degrees and gorgeous yesterday as Wendy and I walked around the neighborhood. We sat on the glider rocker on our front porch, soaked in the sun. We reminisced about all the ways VW Manor has taken shape over the past twelve months, talked about our queue of things we still need to do, and dreamed of possibilities way out in the future. Bottom line is that we are continuing to feel extremely grateful and blessed.

Drinks, Cuban Cigars, and treats on the patio at McQuade Pub!
Drinks, Cuban Cigars, and treats on the patio at McQuade Pub!

The weather was warm enough last week for Kevin and I to enjoy the year’s first cigar on the deck at McQuade Pub. I had been given a precious gift of Cuban Cohiba cigars late last year and have been itching to have one. Miss Linda prepared a lovely tray of goodies for Kevin and I to enjoy as we quaffed and puffed away in the bearably chilly evening. The Cuban contraband was awesome (thanks, Matthew!).

The past couple of weeks has been marked by concern for my folks. Dad has had a long struggle with his heart going out of rhythm. Meds haven’t worked to remedy the problem and last week he was scheduled for a heart ablation that was abandoned after it began when his heart abruptly went from atrial flutter to atrial fibrillation. He spent three more days in the hospital as they tried yet another nasty med (when they require hospitalization for the first three days of taking it, you know it’s not aspirin). While Wendy and I were with the folks at home on Thursday afternoon his heart went back out of rhythm again and now there’s a big question mark regarding what’s next. Dad’s string of health issues from cancer to cardiac arrhythmia, coupled with mom’s slow but unstoppable descent into Alzheimer’s, has layered life with  a certain worry-tinged melancholy. Nevertheless, we’re so thankful for their supportive and loving community at Woodlands Creek, and we’re looking forward to taking them out for dinner tonight!

One of the things that I’ve learned as the father of young adults is that they will incessantly make a liar out of you. Two weeks ago when I wrote my last installment of The Latest I reported that Madison was staying in Colorado Springs and had made application for an apartment there. A few days later she called to report that she’d decided to make a counter-offer on a job she’d turned down in South Carolina and it was accepted. So, Maddy Kate is making plans for a move to Columbia to work as a territory manager for Laura Geller cosmetics. Well done, MK!

Taylor has continued to make inroads with the Alzheimer’s Association as she passionately pursues her creative calling to tell the stories of those with early onset Alzheimer’s. She continues to apply for positions on both sides of the pond and to do whatever she can to make ends meet and pay the bills. We were so blessed that Taylor was able to (put that CNA training to work) help out with grandpa and grandma this past week.

Playhouse high water mark
The line of dirt across the yard and sidewalk shows how high the flood waters reached over the holidays.

I made a business trip to Tennessee this week, taking the opportunity to make the drive and make an overnight visit to the lake on both the way there and the way back. It was great to check on the Playhouse and make sure all was well. There was record flooding on the lake back during the holidays and it was fascinating to see the dark line of debris across the yard marking the high water. It was good to be there, even if was only for a few hours. It means summer is coming and we’ll soon be grilling out, taking sunset rides in the boat, and enjoying listening to Pat and Ron calling the Cubs’ game as we sip our drinks on deck and/or dock!

Director Kevin McQuade directs Spence Ver Meer and Jana DeZwarte in USP's "Almost, Maine."
Director Kevin McQuade directs Spence Ver Meer and Jana DeZwarte in USP’s “Almost, Maine.”

Rehearsals for Almost, Maine continue. We’re just over six weeks from opening night and are off-book. Wendy and I continue to relish the opportunity of working with our friend and director, Kevin McQuade. Our fellow cast members have been focused, hard working, and a joy to work with. It is going to be an amazing show! Do yourself a favor right now and mark your calendar for a date night on April 14, 15, 16, or 17. Make a trip to Pella for dinner and a really inexpensive evening of  really good live theatre. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Theatre Central "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"

Speaking of dinner and live theatre, Wendy and I enjoyed a night out with the VLs on Friday night and last night we had a date night ourselves with dinner and a performance of Theatre Central’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Pella Opera House. We then enjoyed drinks and conversation after the show with the McQuades and a few of Central’s profs.


The Latest 01-31-2016

January was an unusually busy month for me. Along with two business trips there was a lot of extra-curricular activity that filled our evenings and weekends.

Rehearsals continue for Almost, Maine. Wendy and I have really been enjoying the 3-4 rehearsals each week. The fellow cast members are awesome to work with and we’ve loved the ensemble. Our friend, Kevin McQuade, is a blast to work with as a director. Wendy and I play three scenes together as three different couples. We’re loving the challenge of developing completely different characters and quickly moving from one to another. On Thursday night Kevin called an early halt to rehearsal and took the cast to Kaledra for drinks. He knows how to keep his cast happy! Almost, Maine will be performed here in Pella April 14-17.

Taylor will be moving out next weekend. She’s decided to move to Des Moines and live in the Catholic Worker community full-time. She’s working on a couple of different creative projects and has taken up gaining a more in-depth understanding of photography. She and I took a couple of hours this week to play around with light and lenses in my office studio.

Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.
Matthew and some of the men who attended the More Than Conquerors workshop at Westview.

My friend Matthew Burch and I have been doing a four-week series of Sunday morning messages in the Third Church auditorium on the subject of shame (audio here). The messages were a microcosm of our men’s workshop, More Than Conquerors which we then presented at Westview this past Friday evening and Saturday. Wendy and I headed to Des Moines on Friday. While Kevin Roose and I were at the workshop, she and Becky enjoyed some girl time and Wendy helped Becky organize their basement storage room.

The More Than Conquerors workshop uses Shakespeare’s trilogy about King Henry V as a backdrop to discussing issues of shame. We loved our time with the 24 guys who attended. It was a great journey. How did it go? I think the answer to that question is in the picture (above) I snapped of Matthew sitting at a table of guys who stayed well after the conference was over to ask more questions and continue learning. When men give up their weekend, sit for almost 12 hours listening to you, and then want to stay for more…I’ll take that as a good sign.

Wendy and I are looking forward to a quiet day today. Here comes February.

The “Sui Generis” Moment on Stage

It happened last night at rehearsal for Almost, Maine. It surprised me. It’s early in the rehearsal process and, while it’s not unheard of at this point in that process, it’s relatively rare in my experience.

The Latin term “sui generis” means “one of a kind,” and there is an experience that occasionally, mysteriously happens on stage that I find to be sui generis in life. It is an experience I have found unique to the art of acting, and actors who experience it once usually long to experience it ever after. It is a moment on stage that is other worldly, when actors cross over into another dimension, into the reality of the scene they are playing. It doesn’t happen all the time. You can’t predict it and there is no formula for conjuring it. But, when it happens you never forget it.

When this moment happens, when you cross over, you feel the emotions your character feels and think the thoughts that are flying through your character’s brain. You are at once in both dimensions: being two actors on the community center stage in Pella Iowa, and being two characters in a living room at 9:00 p.m. on a dark winter’s night in northern Maine.

It is an indescribable experience. It is sui generis.

Wendy and I were rehearsing our scene Getting it Back last night. We haven’t rehearsed it many times. Our lines are not memorized, we don’t have all our props, and we’re still struggling to remember our blocking. Yet, as our characters began to argue and things escalated between Gayle and Lendall, it happened. We crossed over. It was incredible. When it happens, I can sometimes also feel those watching being ushered into the moment with us. That happened last night, too.

Wendy and I often comment that we love the rehearsal process almost more than performances. Last night was an example of why. It is in the rehearsal process that you do the work of excavation and exploration. It is in rehearsal that you seek out the doorway to that sui generis moment. Like the portals into Narnia the portals to those moments can mysteriously appear and disappear. The same entrance can sometimes usher you to that moment multiple times. Then, suddenly, the way is shut and you pick up the quest once more.

The quest for that sui generis moment is part of the mystery and magic of acting. It is what draws me back again and again. And when the moment surprises you, like it did at rehearsal last night, it is a one of a kind experience of Life.

I can’t wait for rehearsal on Thursday.

Power of the Art of Acting

I have observed along my life journey that acting is largely misunderstood and under appreciated as an art. To many who have asked me about my experiences on stage, acting is perceived to be nothing more than adults engaged in a child’s game of make believe. That notion certainly contains a nugget of truth, as good actors tap into a child-like sense of play and imagination. It does, however, fall short of the whole truth. One might equally say that a painter is simply “coloring” or a composer is simply “making up songs.” In every one of these examples the notion falls far short of understanding both the art form and the work of the artist.

Acting, to steal a term used by Tolkien and Lewis with regard to their writing, is a form of sub-creation. It is the art of creating an individual being, from the inside out, in all of his or her (or its) infinite complexities. Think how intricately layered each one of us are in our unique experiences, gifts, talents, intentions, thoughts, feelings, desires, quirks, flaws, handicaps,  strengths, and idiosyncrasies. What a Herculean task to start with nothing more than words in a script and attempt the creation of a living, breathing, believably real human being on stage. Even more challenging is the fact that the actor must fulfill this task utilizing his or her own existing body and voice. Imagine a composer being asked to take exactly the same notes, key, and time signature that exist in one piece of music and rearrange them to make a uniquely different work.

An actor’s task is made even more difficult when his or her creation must interact with others on stage whom they do not control.  Your creation, in all his or her uniqueness, must react and respond to others in the moment without the assurance of knowing exactly what will happen or be said (or not said) in that moment. Like all other artists actors put their creation out there for all the world to see. It is a courageous act fraught with the risk. Unlike artists in other mediums, actors are, themselves, the canvas, the composition, the sculpture, the sonnet. When actors step on stage they present their own flesh and blood as part and parcel of the art itself. The risk is more personal and more public than almost any other art form.

In the process of creating this living, breathing creation on stage, the actor becomes psychologist, historian, private investigator, sociologist, theologian, and priest. Actors become among the world’s most accepting and empathetic inhabitants because they are required to find understanding and empathy for some of literature and history’s most heinous villains. In this pursuit of the embodiment of a real person on stage, an actor comes to embody love and grace that believes, hopes, and endures even for the most tragic of characters.

As with all art mediums, there exists in this wide world of actors a diverse panacea of education, talent, experience and ability. You may not find Olivier, Hoffman, Streep, or Theron at your local high school, college, or community center. You may, however, be pleasantly surprised if you take the risk of venturing out and buying a ticket. You will find courageous actor-artists stepping into a real world created on the other side of the fourth wall. They will transport you to another time in another place. You may just find yourself swept up in a story that not only entertains, but also causes you to think, laugh, weep, and feel. Your disbelief may be suspended just long enough for you to care, truly care, about these characters, these persons, these living, breathing, real creations and their stories. That is the power of the art of acting.

Related Posts

10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Past
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Script
Preparing for a Role: The First Rehearsal
Preparing for a Role: Digging into the Character
Preparing for a Role: The Rehearsal Process
Preparing for a Role: How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?
Preparing for a Role: Bits and Moments in the Grind
Preparing for a Role: Production Week
Preparing for a Role: Keeping Focus When Siri Joins You on Stage
Preparing for a Role: Ready for Performance
Theatre is Ultimate Fitness for Your Brain!


Photo: Arvin Van Zante, Wendy Vander Well, and Karl Deakyne rehearse a scene from Ham Buns and Potato Salad. Pella, Iowa.

“Almost, Maine” Rehearsals Begin

Last night the rehearsal process for Almost, Maine began in earnest and it killed me not to be there as I’m traveling on business all week. Wendy and I were cast as part of the ensemble back in December and the show will be performed in Pella April 14-17.

Almost, Maine, is likely unknown to many people though in a short period of time it has become arguably the most produced play in schools and community theaters across America in the past few years. It is a wonderful script.

The setting is a moonless night in the dead of winter. The action takes place in the mythical, unincorporated small community of Almost in northern Maine. A solar storm has kicked the the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis into a spectacular display of heavenly fireworks. At exactly 9:00 p.m. there is a magical moment for several people in Almost.

In a series of eight scenes (plus an ninth story that acts in an overarching theme) we meet and witness that magical 9:00 moment for 18 people who are all searching for and struggling with love. The show is poignant and thought provoking. It’s the perfect show for a date night or a small group evening out to the theatre.

A few reasons I’m excited about Almost, Maine:

  • Wendy and I get to play opposite one another in three different scenes and there is no one I enjoy being on stage with more than Wendy. We’ve had precious few opportunities to actually act together, and I’m so pumped to work with her.
  • The show is being directed by our friend, Kevin McQuade, whom I love and respect as a fellow lover and student of the stage. I am really looking forward to being directed by Kevin, exploring the world of Almost, Maine, and putting together an awesome show.
  • The ensemble cast and crew are a spectacular group of talented individuals. Some I’ve worked with before and a couple people are new to me. It’s so much fun working with a great team.
  • In the course of two hours I get to play five different characters. While I’ve occasionally played dual roles, often that means one or more characters are smaller, secondary roles. In Almost, Maine I get the challenge of creating five fully developed characters and presenting them to the audience in a way that their unique differences are distinct and believable.

featured image by Mat Kelly