Monday, October 22, 2012

Reflections On "A Night Of Drama"

It's Blue Monday, the day after the close of another great drama production. I'm exhausted, as I know we all are. I'm relieved that everything went remarkably well (no dropped lines, no obvious miscues that I could tell). And I'm a little bummed that it's all over – the camaraderie, the friendships formed (and/or renewed, and/or strengthened), and yes, even all the hard work.

If you were able to be a part of the Night of Drama production, whether as a participant or an audience member, you will understand – or at least recognize – all the hard work that went into a presentation such as this. For those of you who didn't get a chance to see it, or did but don't know much of the inner workings of a dramatic production, I'd like to take you behind the scenes a bit.

It all started back in June or July, when I spent as much free time as I could find in searching for scripts that might be suitable for our theme. In conjunction with our pastors, I'd picked the theme of evangelism several months earlier – during the Easter production, if memory serves me. At that time, my wife and I did not yet know that we were expecting a child. (We found out in early May.) By the time I was searching for plays, we had found out, and we knew that our lives were about to be changed forever. Needless to say, I was a little – no, a lot – distracted in my searches for skits. It somehow seemed a lot less important to me then.

To be quite honest, there were times when I considered the idea of not having a Night of Drama production this year. I didn't think I could devote the time and energy I needed to, as well as devoting time and energy to preparing for parenthood. Couple that with the fact that we were trying to get our house ready to sell (it still hasn't), and the fact that – just days before we found out we were pregnant – I had volunteered to act in the VBS play, at times I just couldn't see it happening this year. Not with me heading everything up, at least.

But I persevered, and continued my script searching as time allowed. By late July or early August (memory does not serve me here), I had found four scripts that I really liked and a handful of others that were "just okay." In the past, we have always done five skits, the total length of which filled an entire Sunday night service. I knew that the four skits I liked were not long enough to fill the time, but I was reticent to pick a mediocre fifth script as "filler." So I presented the four good scripts to the pastor who oversees the dramatic productions (my "boss," so to speak), and proposed the idea of having our new Outreach Pastor (and "old" youth pastor) close out the service with an evangelism-themed mini-sermon that would tie the messages of the collective skits all together nicely. Long story short: The scripts were approved, and our Outreach Pastor, Adam Carnes, was on board to speak at the end of the night.

The next step was finding enough people who were willing to be involved to people the casts of the four skits. I needed around 20 people, and the needs were fairly specific. Seven of them had to be teenaged, or thereabouts. Several had to be middle-aged adults, based on the characters they would be playing. Some parts were not as age-specific or gender-specific, but most were.

I posted the signup sheet later than I had hoped, and was only able to have it available for signups for about a week. As a result, the signup numbers were lower than expected. And there were fewer people signed up than there were parts available. Once again, I considered canceling the production. I even spoke with the pastors about that possibility. But in the end, a few more folks signed up, and I crunched the numbers, and realized we would have just enough people to fill out the casting requirements.

For "The Heart Department" skit – a Monty Python-style comedy sketch – there was a part that I was really excited about taking for myself. It would give me the opportunity to use the British accent I've been cultivating (but have never used onstage) for more than 20 years. The skit was silly but meaningful, and its participants would have to be willing – as I was – to somewhat make fools of themselves onstage. At first, I assumed that my castmates would be adults. The other two roles were not age-specific or gender-specific, but they didn't necessarily scream "teenagers!" As it turned out, though, teenagers – albeit 17-year-olds – are exactly what I got. And it couldn't have worked out better. I'd worked with Chris Wiseman in four previous plays, and knew his talent was immense. I also guessed (but didn't know for sure) that he wouldn't mind getting a little silly for the sake of drama – he's always a good sport in whatever part I saddle him with. The "Brain Department" character needed to appear a bit ditzy, but not stupid (the character takes a serious turn toward the end) – and he or she needed to be okay with being laughed at (a lot) by the audience. And, of course, this person also had to be okay with being utterly silly onstage. In the end, Taylor Evans (who has inherited a great knack for comedy from her super-talented mom, Cindy) was the perfect fit. We practiced our skit, for the most part, during the Wednesday night services over the past couple of months. Being a short skit, we could go over it four or five times a night. And with the fast pace and rapid-fire timing that the skit required, we needed the repetition in practice. All in all, it came together quite nicely, and – despite one dreadful run-through the night of our final dress rehearsal – it went very smoothly each time we practiced it. And last night, the skit went off virtually without a hitch.

For "The Road To Bandania" skit – an allegorical, almost Bunyan-esque sketch – which I was also directing, we needed seven talented kids (teenagers) to round out the cast. Fortunately, we had nine talented kids sign up (I stole two of them for "The Heart Department", as aforementioned). Then it was just a matter of pairing each kid up with the part that suited them best. Most of the kids who signed up for this year's Night of Drama were also a part of the youth skit last year. Keeping that in mind, I tried to give the kids who had smaller parts last year more significant roles in this year's youth skit. Thus, Cole Anderson (a seasoned veteran of the Unity stage at age 13 – I think that's how old he is) and Tracy Wiseman earned the "lead" roles in this one. And they didn't disappoint, either. Both of these kids worked extremely hard on their parts, and – despite having the most lines in the skit – learned all their lines very early on. Next up, I needed a "jock" kind of a guy and a "Miss Popular" girl, and Nate Davis (as hard-working backstage as he is onstage) and Rachel Browder (also a Unity drama veteran) were the perfect fits for these roles. Nate seemed to enjoy calling Rachel "Babe" (as he did in the skit) on and off the stage (probably to annoy her), and Rachel seemed to enjoy bossing him around onstage (probably to annoy him) – but all joking aside, these two worked hard and really acted as peer leaders for their fellow castmates. Tyler Justice, a relative newcomer to the Unity drama ministry (aside from youth Christmas productions, that is), was a great fit for "Wounded," and really worked hard to develop his character well. Not being naturally a loud-speaking person (how did that happen, with Kevin Justice as his dad? – just kidding, Kevin!), Tyler had to be reminded frequently to "speak louder" – but he always listened, and was constantly improving. Ever-energetic and enthusiastic, Anna DeCresie was the obvious choice for the "cheerleader" part. Not being able to wear her glasses underneath her bandana, Anna really couldn't see where she was going that well and convinced the audience of her blindness by stumbling into the back of the stage on her way out last night. (I may or may not have chuckled at the sight of this – I'll never tell.) Seriously though, Anna worked hard and continued to show improvement throughout the course of the rehearsals and really nailed it in her performance last night. Last but not least, Christopher Beckett – who excelled in his "lead" role in last year's youth skit – gamely accepted a smaller, but no less important role in this year's skit. And Chris truly made the most of his part. The dramatic pauses that had everyone in the audience dead-silent and listening – those were his additions to the role, not mine. All in all, these kids really made me proud (in the right sense of the word) – for the hard work they put in, the maturity they showed (for the most part), and the joy with which they served their Lord through drama. I'd gladly work with any and all of them again.

For "The Bus Stop" skit – a two-person comedic sketch – we needed two people, a male and a female, who had great chemistry onstage, and could bounce fast-paced lines off each other with relative ease. Who better than an actual married couple? And Jimmy and Lori Bowen are probably the most talented husband-and-wife combo we have in our entire drama team (most of our husbands, wives, or significant others don't also act in plays). Having two small boys to care for, it's often difficult for Jimmy and Lori to both be involved in one of the dramas at the same time. Their kids have to come to the practices with them, which isn't a problem for the rest of us, but it does somewhat complicate things for them. But on the rare occasion when we have a two-person skit like this one, Jimmy and Lori can both be in it together and they can practice at home, on their own turf, on their own time. And that's just what they did. I didn't even see them perform their skit for the first time until the first dress rehearsal just one week ago, and by that point they had nearly perfected it. Last night, they got a few more laughs than even they expected, and that was a testament to all the hard work they put in to work on it, and we appreciate them both – and their patient kiddos – for their commitment to excellence, even when having to self-direct like they did.

The "Take The Plunge" skit – a three-scene dramatic sketch – was by far the most "dramatic", in terms of offstage eventfulness. Michell Smith, a newcomer to our church, did a great job directing her seven-person cast. But she was not the skit's original director. Originally, Teri Pritchard was slated to direct the skit, and had in fact held a practice or two with the cast. But then Teri's mom – who's battling cancer – was admitted to the hospital in the Triangle area, and Teri and her sister were taking turns going back and forth to visit her. Then Teri's mom came back home (to Greenville) and needed almost constant care, which also fell to Teri and her sister. Taking that and her job into account (school had started back during all this), Teri had neither the time nor the energy to helm a skit – and understandably so. I told her from the beginning – if she ever felt like she just couldn't do it, to let me know, and we would work it out. That time eventually came. Michell, who had experience directing dramas at her previous church, had been assistant-directing "The Heart Department" with me for the first few weeks of our rehearsal schedule – since I was in the skit myself, it was difficult to see and identify problems as easily, and Michell was helping out a lot. When Teri was unable to continue as director for "Take The Plunge," I asked Michell if she would be willing to step in and take charge of it. Michell graciously agreed, and the skit continued with a new director.

Consisting of three different scenes that are all thematically linked, I thought it would be a nice touch to have one actor bridge the gap between the scenes by appearing in each. Todd Browder, an incredibly talented actor, hasn't been able to be involved in the dramas for the past few years for one reason or another, but was going to be able to be a part of it this year. Making the most of Todd's ability was paramount, in my opinion, so I cast him in the role of the Father in the first scene, the Husband in the second scene, and the Narrator in the third scene. Todd told me he didn't consider it to be three different roles, but three different aspects of the same character – which makes a lot of sense, actually. Bryce Kime, an ├╝ber-talented regular member of our drama team, was the perfect choice to play Todd's son in the first scene. The two of them interacted well onstage, and the scene came together quite nicely, thanks to their combined talent and Michell's direction. The small role of the Waiter was eventually played by Tim DeCresie, who happily ad-libbed his two scripted sentences into at least four by the time he performed it last night. But Tim D. was not the original Waiter. Another actor (who I will not name here, to avoid embarrassment) had signed up to be involved in the drama, and was cast in the role of the Waiter. Halfway through the production schedule, this actor had not shown up for a single practice, and repeated calls and emails to the actor by both Michell and myself were unanswered. With time running short, the decision was made to replace the actor with Tim DeCresie. A veteran of the Unity stage (and frequent Jesus portrayer), Tim made the brief role his own, and we're all grateful to him for stepping in at the last minute and doing a great job.

The second scene, which involved a Doctor and a Husband (Todd) and Wife, was actually one of the last to be cast in the grand scheme of things. I had worked with Howard Corey in the VBS play earlier this year, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Howard had been the VBS emcee the past couple of years, and had done a great job, but had never ventured into the realm of Easter or fall dramas at Unity. At the end of our VBS run, I asked Howard to consider being involved in the fall drama – being a little more laid-back and less practice-intensive, the fall drama, I told Howard, could be a good starting point for him if he was ever interested in doing more dramas. He said he'd think about it. At the end of our signups, we were still a person or two short. I approached Howard again about the fall drama, and he said he'd like to give it a try. A master ad-libber, Howard was a little worried about having to be "on-script" and having other actors depend on him to say his lines exactly as written. As it turns out, that wasn't an issue at all. Howard worked hard on his part as the Doctor, and really brought a depth of character and a genuine sensitivity to the role. This brief yet poignant scene was easily the most gut-wrenching of the night. Casting Cindy Evans in the role of Todd's wife in this scene was far from a no-brainer. Up until this point, Cindy had always played comedic roles, at which she excels. Cindy is a truly gifted actress, but I had previously thought that comedy was all she could do. Boy, was I wrong! In her few minutes onstage with Todd and Howard, she ripped my heart out (and everyone else's, too, I believe) with her gutsy, emotion-filled performance. Needless to say, I will not be underestimating Cindy Evans again anytime soon!

Kim Evarts is also a superb comedic actress, whose talents have not gone unnoticed heretofore. A veteran of the Unity stage as well, Kim has done both comedic and dramatic parts with aplomb, but really excels whenever an energetic, enthusiastic, or even ditzy part is given to her (to be clear, Kim is quite intelligent – but she plays ditzy well!). As the clueless, self-absorbed Lady in the third scene, Kim was awesome – she was unbelievably aloof, but also disturbingly realistic. I think anyone watching that part was more than a little uncomfortable, because they – as did I – saw a little of themselves in her character. Tim Wiseman was remarkably convincing as the Homeless Man. But he, too, was not the original choice for the part. Erick Henley was originally cast in the role, but had to drop out about midway through the production schedule, due to a conflict with the performance night that he was unaware of when he took the part. Per my request, Erick recruited his own replacement, and came to Michell with a good-news, bad-news scenario – "I have to bow out, but Tim's taking my place." Tim really embraced the role, and made it his own – which didn't surprise me in the least, as Tim always devotes great time and energy to his acting parts.

Offstage, a number of folks played an active role in making A Night of Drama the "success" that it was as well. Michell Smith, who directed "Take The Plunge," also coordinated the finding and gathering of all of our props. Bill Cox worked out and operated the stage lighting for all the skits, while Tim Stox devised the microphone exchanges (19 actors shared 8 microphones, all but one of which had to be exchanged between actors at least once, and sometimes twice) and ran the sound board for the production. Adam Carnes not only gave a mini-sermon following the drama portion of the evening, but he also designed the programs, the Power Point backgrounds, and the Night of Drama posters. Nate Davis and Alexis Whisner were in charge of executing all the scene changes on the stage left side, while Chris Wiseman and I handled all the scene changes on the stage right side. (Were the blackouts between scenes short and barely noticeable? If so, then we did our jobs.) Kevin Justice not only led the singing at the beginning, but also selected the music that was played during the scene changes. Countless folks lifted us up in prayer for several months as we were preparing for last night, and we truly can't thank those folks enough.

Ultimately, our Night of Drama production went extremely well. My hope is that God was glorified through the dramas, that the messages of each skit came through loud and clear, and that maybe the hearts of a few in attendance were pricked because of them. If so, then it was worth every minute of it.

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