Tag Archives: Acting

The Cloud of Unknowing

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Corinthians 2:2 (NIV)

There is something mystical that can happen on stage for an actor. It’s a rare thing, and I can only claim to have, perhaps, touched it maybe once or twice. I’ve read others’ accounts of the rare occurrence and have corresponded with those who’ve experienced it. It happens when one gets so lost in the reality of the characters and the scene in the world of the play you’ve created that you lose your rational knowledge that you are an actor, pretending to be a character on a stage with other actors. It’s like slipping into a different reality and briefly letting go of the one you’re actually in. I know it sounds weird, but it happens and it is both wild and disconcerting when it does.

This past weekend I was introduced in my quiet time to the writings of an anonymous medieval mystic entitled The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s a bit of a slog to wade through given the vocabulary and middle english language of the 14th century. Nevertheless, I found myself in the quiet of the wee hours inspired by the author’s message.

Mystics also call themselves “contemplatives.” The concept is that we can learn, and even experience, much in disciplined contemplation. Kind of like the mystery of losing one’s sense of rational presence on stage, The Cloud of Unknowing is a state of being that the author describes as a place where one knows nothing but the feeling of a “naked intent unto God“:

“Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection.”

In Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, he touches on this concept of knowing and unknowing as part of the spiritual mystery of being a follower of Jesus. He tells the believers that he resolved “to know nothing” while he was with them “except Christ and Him crucified.” It sounds a lot like he intended to exist in a cloud of unknowing. He goes on to speak of the reality of a relationship with Christ in terms of a mysterious wisdom that is hidden from those who are wise in the rational realities of this world.

Jesus also touched on this mysterious wisdom:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Matthew 11:25 (NIV)

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Luke 19:41-44 (NIV)

This morning in the quiet I find myself mulling over both the rational and the mystery. I find myself a player on Life’s stage, as Shakespeare aptly put it, making my routine daily entrances and exits. The further I proceed in my journey the more called I feel toward a wisdom that lies, not in the nailing of my lines and hitting my cues, but in finding that rare place that can only be found somewhere in the mystery of unknowing.

 

“What’s My Motivation?”

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 1:3 (NIV)

In the art of acting there’s a lot of talk about motivation. It’s sometimes called “the want.” Let me give you an example.

An unlearned actor named John goes up on stage. He walks from point A to point B and says the line highlighted in his script. You ask John why he just did that and he tells you: “The Director told me to. It was at our last rehearsal. I have it written right here in pencil in my script. It says walk right then say the line.” As an audience member you’ll probably see John mechanically waiting for his cue, dutifully walking to a prescribed position on stage, and then saying his line out to the audience.

Now an accomplished actor named Tony takes over the role. Tony has internalized that he’s embodying a character named Ricky who is head-over-heels in love with a girl named Jill. In the previous scene Jill has sent a message to Ricky revealing that she mistakenly believes he’s cheated on her. Now, Ricky sees her for the first time since receiving the note. Actor Tony internalizes what Ricky is thinking and feeling at that moment. He is Ricky, seeing the woman he loves. He makes a b-line to her, looks her right in the eye and says his line with a sense of emotional desperation. You ask Tony why he just did that, and he tells you without hesitation: “I want to convince Jill that it’s not true I cheated on her! I want her to know I love her! I want to spend the rest of my life with her!

As an audience member I can tell you, without a doubt, that you’ll have a much different experience, and a much better one, watching Tony play the role than you will with John.

Motivation is at the heart of great acting because motivation is at the heart of who we are as human beings. There’s a reason we do the things we do and say the things we say. There’s always something motivating and driving our behavior, though many people live their entire lives without ever thinking about it. When we begin to examine our motivations, we begin to understand ourselves on a whole new level. And while most Christians I know think that God only cares about the purity of their words and the morality of their actions, Jesus made it quite clear that He was most concerned about our motives. He knew that if the latter in order, the former will naturally fall into place.

Paul begins his letter to the believers in Thessalonica by complimenting their accomplishments, their ongoing toil, and their perseverance in the face of adversity. What’s fascinating is that Paul examines and calls out their motivations for each:

Faith has motivated the works they’ve accomplished.

Love has motivated their ongoing, laborious toil.

Hope has motivated their endurance amidst persecution.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to learn that motivation is just as crucial to things of the Spirit as it is to the actor on a stage. Religious people often do and say religious things because they are motivated by any number of things:

  • to keep up appearances in a community that values being religious
  • to earn admittance to heaven
  • to have an insurance policy keeping me out of hell
  • to build my business network with all those potential customers who go to that church

Motivation matters. Jesus called out the crowds following Him one day. He said, “You’re following me because I fed you fish sandwiches. You want to follow me? Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Jesus didn’t care about the number followers He had, He cared about what motivated their following Him. The resurrected Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then followed Peter’s affirmative answer with a command to “Feed my sheep.” What was important to Jesus was not Peter’s accomplishment of the task, but the love that motivated it.

In the quiet this morning I once again find myself examining my own motivations. Why do I do the things I do? What is driving me? What do the things I do and the conversations I have reveal about what it is that I really want in life? Spiritually speaking, if I don’t have the motivation right, all the saying and doing won’t matter.

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Note to my regular readers:
Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers is  spending most of an entire year (Sep ’18 through Jul ’19) studying the book of Acts. In conjunction with this study, I’ve decided to blog our way through all of Paul’s letters in chronological order. The exact chronology is a matter of scholarly debate. We began with Paul’s letter to the believers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia. Today we’re moving on to his letters to Jesus’ followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica. Many scholars think these two letters preceded his letter to the Galatians.

At this writing it has been roughly 20 years since Jesus’ resurrection and 16 years since Paul’s conversion. Paul had spent just a few months in the provincial capital of Thessalonica. He was forced to leave town quickly because his life was threatened. He didn’t get to spend as much time with the believers there as he had wished. It’s now a year or so down the road and he writes to encourage his friends whom he’d quickly left behind.
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The Junior Babcock of History

He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem.
2 Chronicles 27:8 (NRSVCE)

The very first role I had in a main stage production was my freshman year in high school. I played the role of Junior Babcock in the musical Mame. Remember that one? Didn’t think so. I still remember the day scripts were handed out. My script had one page in it which contained both of my monumental lines along with the last few words of the “cue line” or the line just before mine. That was it. I had no idea what the context of my lines or where it fit into the storyline of the musical.

I had a great experience in Mame. Along with my walk on, walk off part as Junior Babcock I got to sing and dance in the chorus. I learned the jazz square. I dressed in a tuxedo for the first time. I met a ton of new friends, including some Juniors and Seniors who actually treated me like a real person. I even got invited to cast parties. My unremarkable role was such a great experience that I decided that being involved in theatre was something I wanted to explore.

Today’s chapter is a short one. The Chronicler slips in one paragraph (only nine verses) summarizing the sixteen year reign of Judah’s King Jotham. Poor Jotham gets the Chroniclers thumb’s up rating for being a good king and following the ways of the Lord. Yet even with that Jotham only gets one paragraph, and two of the sentences in the paragraph are basically repeated word-for-word!

Jotham’s reign appears to have been unremarkable in the mind of the Chronicler. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players.” Jotham appears to have been cast as Junior Babcock.

This morning I find one of my life verses welling up in my spirit:

“…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

As I’ve shared in the past, I’m a Type Four on the Enneagram. Type Fours are all about having purpose and significance. It’s easy for types like me to equate purpose and significance with greatness, the spotlight, and starring roles. Yet along my life journey I’ve learned and have been continually reminded that there is both purpose and significance to bit parts and roles in the chorus. My unremarkable role as Junior Babcock had all sorts of purpose and significance for me and my journey. In fact, I’ve had a few “lead” roles which were not nearly as significant or purposeful.

Most all of us are part of the Chorus in this grand production of Life. Like Jotham we will play our unremarkable part and get a paragraph (maybe two) in the Obituary section of our town’s newspaper. Today’s chapter is a good reminder. I want to make sure I nail my couple of lines, hit my cues, support the production, build great relationships with other members of the Chorus, and play my part well.

“Places.”

The Motivation Behind Life’s Blocking

Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp.
Numbers 14:44 (NIV)

Faith is an amazingly powerful, amazingly mysterious spiritual root force. Jesus said that faith as small as a speck could move mountains.   Repeatedly, Jesus told those whom He healed that their faith was the active ingredient in their healing. The author of Hebrews wrote that without faith it is impossible to please God.

Today’s chapter is an object lesson in faith (or lack thereof). Yesterday the Hebrew tribes spy out the promised land, but swayed by the exaggerated claims of ten of the twelve spies, the people doubt that their conquest will be successful. Swayed by their fears they speak of going back to slavery in Egypt and threaten to stone Moses to death.

When a mysterious plague afflicts the ten doubting spies, the people’s’ fear of God becomes instantly more powerful, in the moment, than the fear of death in conquest that had felt so powerful the previous day. Their fear prompts a hasty decision to move forward with the conquest despite Moses warning that their impromptu actions is doomed to fail. Why? They were acting out of fear, not faith.

What a word picture the tribes provide for fear-based thinking and reasoning. Their actions over the past few chapters have perpetually been motivated by what they feared most in the moment: starvation, discomfort, death, or plague. Fear is the constant and consistent motivator; It is the active ingredient in their words, decisions, and actions. Their fear leads them to false presumptions on which their decisions and actions were based.

This morning I’m reminded that it is that which motivates my actions that is critical to my spiritual progression in this life journey and the activator of spiritual power. If I am primarily motivated by fear or shame, by pride or personal desire my actions will certainly propel me down life’s path just like the Hebrew tribes climbing the hill. My movement, however, will be void of any real progress or direction of Spirit. As any well-trained actor knows, it is the motivation that drives the action of the character. Blocked movement disconnected from the characters underlying motivation becomes prescriptive, mindless action that empties the performance of any real power.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the actions on my multiple test lists. If, as the Bard wrote, “all the world’s a stage” then my task lists are my prescribed blocking in life’s script. Go here, do this bit of business, then go there and do that bit of necessary action so that she can proceed with her bit. Family tasks, business tasks, personal tasks… What’s the active, motivating ingredient?

Is it faith?

Playing the Line vs. Playing the Want

This is what the Lord says to Israel: “Seek me and live;”
Amos 5:4a (NIV)

One of the core activities in the acting process is discovering what is motivating your character; Understanding what it is your character wants in each action and conversation. Whenever I get a script for a new part, whether the part is large or small, I first go through and break scenes down into “beats” which are small sections in which my character is focused on a particular action or dialogue.  I then go back and determine my character’s “want” for each beat.

I want to know if my uncle killed my father.
want to be with Juliet so bad I can hardly contain it.
want to be King of Scotland.

The beats and “wants” may change during the rehearsal process as I make new discoveries and my character runs up against how the other characters are playing their respective wants. As the rehearsals progress, I identify my characters overarching motivation in the entire play.

Good actors play more than just the lines, they play the want.

This came to mind as I read this morning’s chapter. The prophet Amos is writing a prophetic poem focused on the ancient kingdom of northern Israel. Connecting the poem together are three direct commands:

Seek me and live.” vs 5

Seek the Lord and live. vs 6

Seek good and not evil. vs 14

The question for Israel that Amos was poking at is the same question an actor asks of his or her character: “What (or who) are you seeking?” What is motivating you? What is it you desire?

It didn’t take me long as a young actor to realize that the acting process is applicable as the living process. It’s crucial that I examine and understand my own motivations in life, in my relationships, in my words, in my actions, in my activities, and in my work.

Along my life journey I’ve observed that uptight religious people (I know because I have been one) are immature actors playing just the lines of God’s Message. Their focus is the surface of each black and white command. I have found, however, that the Great Director is always calling me deeper into life’s script. He wants me to play more than just the religious lines. He wants me to play life from the most critical, core motivations…

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands [and motivations] are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

What am I seeking?

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?

Yes.

Costumes & Perceptions

But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning….
Joshua 9:3 (NRSV)

Last night at rehearsal for Almost, Maine, I was in five different costumes over a two hour period, playing five different characters.

Pete is on a very important date and dressed to impress in a fashionable leather coat, along with his hat and gloves to keep him warm as he and his date gaze at the stars and the northern lights.

Steve is an awkward young man who is both simple and cautious. He wears simple jeans and a simple plaid button down. He buttons every button on his shirt out of his need for caution. You’ll have to see the show to understand why.

Lendall is in construction and roofing. He’s dead tired after working hard all day and already in bed. Thus, when his girlfriend of eleven years comes knocking, he’s in his underwear and an old worn, bathrobe.

Randy works for Lendall. He’s a single young man who hasn’t had much luck with the ladies. There’s a reason for that. He’s still wearing his worn and weathered work coat, snow boots he hasn’t taken the time to tie, and a hat that’s not very becoming.

The fifth man, is home watching television in his sweats and zip-up hoodie. He is very different than all the rest. Hate to get all mysterious on you, but you really have to come to the show to learn more about him. [tickets here!]

Five different characters. I exit stage right, take off one set of clothes, put on another, and in seconds I am transformed for the audience into a completely different person. It’s amazing what a costume and a few hand props can do.

In today’s chapter, the people of Gibeon knew the power of perception. They knew that an effective costume and a few hand props could transform them in the eyes of Joshua and the Israelites. It worked. Joshua saw their dirty clothes and dusty sandals. He saw their moldy bread and broken, dry wineskins. Perceiving that these characters were from a distant land, Joshua and the elders made a peace treaty with the shrewd actors, only to find out that the Gibeonites lived right around the corner.

It is said that “perceptions are everything.” We create perceptions with our clothes, our look, our words, our physicality, and our actions. Do I give mind to these things? This morning I’m reminded of two, make that three, things, and asking myself two questions:

  1. When Jesus sent his followers out to do ministry among the people and towns of their region, He was careful to instruct them to go with nothing but the clothes on their back. He wanted them to be perceived as simple, honest men. How does Jesus want me to present myself, and to be perceived?
  2. Jesus once told a fascinating story about a man hired to manage his masters accounts. When faced with impending dismissal, the manager shrewdly prepared for his future by going to his master’s debtors and telling them to reduce the amount they owed his master. In doing so he earned their gratitude and favor.  Jesus complimented the manager and his shrewd ability to use what was in his means, not unlike what the Gibeonites did in today’s chapter to ensure their survival. How am I to be wise and shrewd with the means given me?
  3. Shakespeare wrote: “…the play’s the thing.” Indeed.

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