Tag Archives: Stage

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.”

Once in a While, I’ve Gotta Stop Looking at my Feet

“Announce and proclaim among the nations,
    lift up a banner and proclaim it;
    keep nothing back, but say,
‘Babylon will be captured;”
Jeremiah 50:2a (NIV)

Just yesterday I read an article about living in the later stretches of life’s journey. A few years ago I would have simply passed that article by. All of a sudden, it seems more relevant.

When I was a young man, I remember our (somewhat) annual family gatherings at the lake. I would never have imagined during that stage of the journey that my folks would buy a place here, that I would eventually own it, and what life would be like spending chunks of each summer living, working, and hosting family and friends here. In those days, I was just trying to get through each day and living week-by-week. I gave little thought to anything beyond the stretch of the journey I was in at that moment. My eyes were focused on my feet as I put one foot in front of the other.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s prophetic anthology is a fascinating. For most of the 50 chapters through which we’ve waded, the nation of Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar have been prophetically revealed as “God’s servant” gobbling up both Judah and the surrounding nations. Now, Jeremiah’s vision extends further down life’s road when Babylon will be defeated and suffer the same treatment they’ve dished out for years. At that time, the remnant of God’s people will return to their land. Jeremiah looks beyond the next chapter of the story to the subsequent chapters and the events in the plot line.

As a young man I had experienced relatively little of Life’s journey. Without the perspective that comes from experience, I found myself myopically focused on the day-to-day and the next milestone in view. The further I progressed and experienced more and more distinct stages of life, the more capable I’ve become at looking ahead. I can see past today. I can look past the next milestone. I can begin to envision that there’s not only a new chapter of life after this one, but also another one after that, and one after that. It doesn’t mean that I worry about the future, mind you. As Jesus reminded us in yesterday’s post, those tomorrows will take care of themselves. It is what it is. What will be will be. It does, however, give my today some much needed perspective.

This morning I’m reminded of a few specific stages of Life’s road that I thought would never end. There have been stages which required so much thought, energy, emotional, and spiritual resources that I couldn’t see beyond them. I can imagine that those taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and hauled off to Babylon felt that way in the midst of their exile. But Jeremiah’s message in today’s chapter stood as a reminder that there’s more to the story. Past this chapter of the story is another chapter, and then another, and another.

I can’t always see what lies ahead on Life’s road, but I’ve learned that it’s wise to stop looking at my feet from time to time. One in a while I need to look up, look out, and search the horizon. I can’t see clearly what’s coming, but I need the reminder that there’s more to the story. I will get there.

As for today? Press on.

Line Gisters and Line Nazis

Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but you have done nothing but bless them!”

He answered, “Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?”
Numbers 23:11-12 (NIV)

I have found among actors that there is a rarely discussed spectrum. It parallels the ongoing legal debate about our Constitution here in America, between those who interpret the Constitution as a “living document” versus those who interpret it in context of its “original intent” as written.

On one end of the on-stage spectrum are those who memorize their part of the script and present the general gist of a line. They call it good. Let’s call them the “Line Gisters.” At the other end of the spectrum are those we will lovingly refer to as “Line Nazis.” Line Nazis are rabid defenders of the script, word-for-word, as written.

The playwright wrote these words for a reason,” a Line Nazi will passionately admonish his/her fellow actors. The Line Nazi then explains that changing a word or two here or there can change the entire interpretation of a line (and thus the play itself, and the intent of the playwright).  In my experience it’s at this point that the “Line Gisters” proceed to roll their eyes, the Line Nazis grumble in frustration, and the rehearsal continues.

I’ll confess to you that I have spent most of my theatre journey at the Line Gister end of the spectrum. Then, I actually wrote a couple of plays and had the privilege of watching them being produced. For the first time I began to feel personally what my Line Nazi brethren had been preaching to me all along. I was suddenly on the other side of the spectrum seeing things from a different perspective. Line Gisters would memorize and deliver a loose version of the words that I had written. Sometimes it wasn’t a big deal, but other times I had specifically crafted that line for a reason! Just getting the “gist” of it didn’t cut the mustard.

In today’s chapter, the mysterious seer Balaam continues his cameo role in the story of the Hebrews wilderness wanderings. King Balak of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Hebrew hoard camping on his borders. Multiple times Balaam speaks the words God gives him, and each time it is not what Balak paid Balaam to say. Rather than cursing the Hebrews, Balaam blesses them.

Must I not speak what the Lord puts in my mouth?” Balaam asks his prophetic patron.

Balaam understood that it was important to deliver the line as written.

God’s Message is just like the Constitution or any playwright’s script. Words can be interpreted in context or out of context. Lines can be quoted verbatim or butchered in an effort to communicate the gist. The words end up in the hands of the expositor and out of the control of the originator and/or author.

As a reformed Line Gister I confess that my years on that end of the spectrum were rooted in a generous portion of laziness and a general lack of discipline. This morning I find myself appreciating Balaam’s fidelity to deliver the words as given to him by God, heedless of the reaction of his patron. I find it honorable. I’m not sure you can call me a full-fledged Line Nazi (still working on that laziness and self-discipline), but it is a character trait I increasingly desire to exemplify in my own life, both on stage and off.

(Line Nazis Unite!)

Embracing That Which You Cannot Fight

Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the Lord said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.”
Joshua 13:1 (NRSV)

It’s perhaps funny that references to old age are leaping off the page at me here as I approach my 50th birthday at the end of April. I’m not feeling old and I’m trying not to obsess too much about it. I am, however, thinking a lot about how I want to approach the final acts (Shakespeare always had five of them!) of this story.

In a bit of synchronicity, the Wall Street Journal published this quote from a script by the Roman philosopher Cicero:

Cato: I think, my young friends, that you are admiring me for something that isn’t so difficult. Those who lack within themselves the means for a blessed and happy life will find any age painful. But for those who seek good things within themselves, nothing imposed on them by nature will seem troublesome. Growing older is a prime example of this. Everyone hopes to reach old age, but when it comes, most of us complain about it. People can be foolish and inconsistent.

They say that old age crept up on them much faster than they expected. But, first of all, who is to blame for such poor judgment? Does old age steal upon youth any faster than youth does on childhood? Would growing older really be less of a burden to them if they were approaching eight hundred rather than eighty? If old people are foolish, nothing can console them for time slipping away, no matter how long they live.

So if you compliment me on being wise—and I wish I were worthy of that estimate and my name—in this way alone do I deserve it: I follow nature as the best guide and obey her like a god. Since she has carefully planned the other parts of the drama of life, it’s unlikely that she would be a bad playwright and neglect the final act. And this last act must take place, as surely as the fruits of trees and the earth must someday wither and fall. But a wise person knows this and accepts it with grace. Fighting against nature is as pointless as the battles of the giants against the gods.

When our girls were babies I told myself that I was going to fully appreciate every stage of their growing up for what it was, both the positives and the negatives. I can’t change it, but I can choose to embrace it and find the joy in each stage. I was glad that I did that. While certain stages were more enjoyable for than others, I can honestly say that I’ve really enjoyed the entire journey of watching them grow up.

Now, I’m saying the same thing about growing older. I can’t change the way God has designed things. I might as well embrace that which I cannot fight, just as Cicero stated. It brings to mind the Cubs’ (they’re 3-0!) wise skipper, Joe Maddon, who has been telling his young ball club to “embrace the target.” No use fighting it. I might as well embrace it and find joy amidst each stage. Wendy says she’s going to hold me to that (she knows my penchant for falling back into pessimism). And, I’m sure she will. I’m hoping she doesn’t have to. I don’t want the home stretch of life’s journey to bring out the worst in me. I want it to be the fulfillment of the best in me.

chapter a day banner 2015

featured image: kasrak via Flicker

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.