The Great Divorce

The Great DivorcePacific Theatre’s production of The Great Divorce is a creative and compelling rendition of C.S. Lewis’ unconventional meditation on heaven, hell and what may be in between.

The plot follows a narrator, who represents Lewis himself, that journeys by bus from a middling layer of hell to the foothills of heaven on a “vacation for the damned.” This new landscape is beautiful but hard and uncomfortable for all the passengers on the bus that now appear to be ghosts. After arriving in this hostile landscape each rider on the bus encounters a person from their earthly life who meets them in this neutral zone and challenges them to give up their vices, believe, and enter with them into grace. Eventually, Lewis meets an ethereal teacher who helps him to interpret each scene. Part allegory and part speculative fiction the work confronts the ways in which we hold ourselves back from grace.

Lewis, played by Evan Frayne, is appropriately earnest and inquisitive as he learns the ways of this strange world along with the audience. However, reality was not harsh on the feet of the actors. Pacific Theatre’s version of The Great Divorce did not focus on the physical difficulty that the characters in the original work feel while they struggle through the new and unfamiliar environment. Instead the actors focused on the emotional depths of the characters.

The spectral characters were surprisingly challenging and funny — a rare combination. They were acted in a way that often makes the audience laugh and also leaves them convinced of their obsessions. Masae Day was an outstanding example of this in the roll of Robert’s wife whose controlling personality is tragic and hilarious. By comparison some of the visitors from heaven seem two-dimensional when Lewis intends for them to be even more real and substantial than the shadows they are trying to help.

Costume design by Florence Barrett strongly reinforced the preoccupations of the characters. The ghostly figures wear tattered, post apocalyptic garments that reference a mosaic of time periods while their heavenly counterparts mirror the ghosts but in a lighter and freer way.

The costumes are so visually compelling they almost overshadow the competent lighting and sound design as well as the simple but striking set that reveals its secrets to great effect as the play progresses.

The Great Divorce is an engaging play that is even accessible enough for older children. It is a great launching point for lively debates about this life and the next, and at only 75 min with no intermission there is plenty of time to go out for a coffee after the show to discuss.

The Great Divorce will play at Pacific Theatre until June 18.

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Roots: not your typical church drama

Roots members in front of the Olympic Couldron in Vancouver“We wanted to collect the questions, stories and struggles we were receiving from young people and take them to the church,” said Jenny Salisbury.

Salisbury was director of a drama troupe composed of young people which toured Canada this summer. Roots Among The Rocks was presented more than 40 times in three months in churches and community centres from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island.

The tour was the brainchild of Salisbury and Judy Steers. The two direct the Ask & Imagine program at Huron University College, an Anglican school affiliated with the University of Western Ontario.

Ask & Imagine is a two-week leadership and theological formation program offered every May for young adults (ages 18-25) and every August for high school students.

When they pondered what they could do to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program, Salisbury and Steers came up with the idea of the drama troupe. It was a natural for Salisbury, who is a professional freelance director and playwright – in addition to working with Ask & Imagine, serving as part-time youth minister at St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Toronto and teaching a course in acting and script analysis at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario.

In the end, Salisbury served as director and and actor for the project, while Steers served as producer. This freed Steers from having to tour with the troupe for the whole summer.

It took about a year to get the idea approved and the funding in place. Then the two women began looking for young adults with acting experience willing to take on the project as a summer job.

In May, the assembled troupe began working on the script using a technique called called “collective theatre creation.” Each actor was asked to interview four people whose faith stories interested them, whether or not those being interviewed were committed Christians. During this “production month,” they also interacted with the young adults in the Ask & Imagine program, collecting more stories and questions. Altogether, about 70 people were interviewed.

The troupe then combined the interviews with research and improvisation to create a script. One actor’s research into St. Augustine became a significant component of the final draft.

The result was an episodic collection of various styles of music (from madrigals to rap), mime, drama and monologues, all tied together with recurring images and themes. The presentation became what Salisbury called “a journey through questions: Who is God? What is church? What is our identity? How can we be together in the twenty-first century?”

Roots Among The Rocks was presented mostly to church congregations, but some attenders were not church people at all. Crowd size ranged from 12 people to 400 people (plus 200 more online) at the Anglican Church of Canada General Synod.

A lot of people were surprised to discover that even though it was produced by young people, Roots was “a play for the whole church,” Salibury said. The point was to take the issues young people are wrestling with and present them to the church.

That is the way it should be, Salisbury suggested. “Youth ministry is not about separating the young from the old but about what happens when the barriers come down. Then we can be one collective body of Christ. There are things that move all of us.”

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The response from audiences was “extraordinary,” Salisbury said. Some came away challenged and disturbed. One man said, “I’ve often wondered that but didn’t think I was allowed to say it in church.”

A chaplain commented, “This was truth-telling at its best. It was a rare voice for the church; it’s what we need to hear, but so seldom hear.”

A university student added, “Honestly, I had low expectations. I’ve seen a lot of church drama. And most of the time, church drama really blows. But this was so powerful. I bet a lot of people are surprised when they see it. There’s so much in it. It’s really, really good.”

The experience was not only a learning experience for the churches but also for the troupe, Salisbury said. Each actor brought unique gifts and knowledge to the project, and the actors also learned a lot from the experience of working together. “We lived together in community,” she said, “and learned all sorts of things about each other and especially about ourselves, such as what we are like in a new situation with people not like us, how we react when we are angry, tired or frustrated.”

Besides Salisbury, the actors were young adults from across the country. Karyn Guenther from Abbotsford, B.C., is working on a fine arts degree in acting at Trinity Western University. Melissa O’Leary Glover of Prince George, B.C., has just graduated from Mount Royal Theatre of the Arts in Calgary. Magdalena Jennings of Vankleek Hill, Ontario, is a student in philosophy and German at King’s College in Halifax. Carolyn Pugh is studying mathematics and computer science at the University of Guelph in Ontario. John-Daniel Steele of Victoria, B.C., decided over the summer to enroll at Huron University College in the fall.

The troupe also learned a great deal about the church in Canada. The overwhelming impression Salisbury gained was of “the generosity of strangers.” This generosity included the contributions of the interviewees, who “shared the vulnerable parts of their lives – the sacred is never easy or clean-cut.”

The generosity also included financial support. Besides Huron, the troupe received backing from the Anglican Foundation, the Westminster Foundation, the Sacred Arts Trust and the Lilly Foundation.

The generosity also came from individuals across Canada who “opened their churches and homes” to the troupe “in unbelievably kind and caring ways.”

The other overwhelming impression Salisbury received was hope. “The church today is experiencing a lot of turmoil and struggle. There is an identity crisis,” she said. “But we discovered there is much hope and soil for things to grow.” It is not a naive hope, she suggested, but a firm conviction, that “things are not ending . . . that God is working through the turmoil and there are extraordinary things ahead.”

The cross-Canada tour is wrapping up with a final performance Friday, August 27 at St Christopher’s Anglican Church in Burlington, Ontario. But that is not the end, Salisbury said.

The troupe has been invited to present two shows and speak at the annual youth convention of the Anglican Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in November.

Salisbury and Steers are working at creating a DVD of the performance, along with a study guide for use in churches. The troupe may also do a “reunion tour” using the same play next summer. They may also do an all new show for 2013 to coincide with the next Anglican Church of Canada General Synod.

On their trip across Canada, Salisbury said, the troupe “picked up lots of new stories, enough to write four more plays.”

Badlands Passion Play draws thousands

A scene from the Canadian Badlands Passion Play

The Canadian Badlands create a stunning backdrop for triumphal entry as portrayed in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play. Mike Begg plays the apostle Thomas, D'Arcy Browning plays Jesus Christ, Dean Matheson is John the Beloved, and Brad G. Graham works as technical director. Photo: Randall Wiebe.

Although are mostly famous for their dinosaur fossils, the Canadian Badlands near Drumheller, Alberta, are now drawing thousands of people for another reason: the Canadian Badlands Passion Play, a large-scale retelling of the life of Christ that was recently voted Alberta’s top cultural attraction by Attractions Canada.

The play, while only running for two weekends in July, is expected to draw approximately 16,000 spectators this year to the natural ampitheatre that houses it in the unique geological setting which organizers say resembles Israel’s landscape.

More than 2300 people were expected to attend each of the play’s first showings July 12-16.

LaVerne Erickson, the founder and general manager of the play, was unsure the idea would fly when he first discussed it with Drumheller city directors nine years ago.

“We told everyone ‘don’t get your hopes up, this is just a pilot project.’ It’s such a big concept that people didn’t believe it would happen,” Erickson told the Drumheller Valley Times in early July.

But Erickson is used to big projects. He also founded the Rosebud School of the Arts, which runs Rosebud Theatre, a company with significant Christian links. Morris Ertman, a frequent director at Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, is Rosebud’s artistic director.

The play has grown to include more than 200 actors and a list of 1,000 volunteers, with two professional actors playing the role of Jesus.

D'Arcy Browning as Jesus

D'Arcy Browning portrays Jesus in the Canadian Badlands Passion Play.

Randall Wiebe is playing Jesus for the second time this year, with D’Arcy Browning as understudy, each acting the role in three performances.

Wiebe, who lives in Rosebud and owns a graphics design company, says playing Jesus is a “humbling” experience.

“I understand Christ to be fully human and fully divine — the one I can relate to, the other I can’t. I try to concentrate on portraying the human side as much as possible, and giving indications toward the divine, instead of falling into the trap of making him partially human so he appears more fully divine,” Wiebe explains.

The first time he played Christ, Wiebe says he wasn’t sure he could do it. This time, he says, “I know I can’t. It’s not me that makes it happen.”