A few years back I attempted a dramatised “Noah and the Great Flood” for the Messy Church like event in our local church.
It was a failure.
Our church, which is long and thin, is not a good place to do drama. Apart from the first few rows no one can see the action. Usually I avoided this by having the action up and down the nave but this time the action was mostly at the front.
The church had just acquired a new black backcloth which offered many possibilities. I had planned to use this to represent the Ark, and for the animals (played by the children) and Noah to disappear behind it. However, I failed to think through the logistics. It took time to move the backcloth into position, especially as I hadn’t really explained to the helpers what was wanted. The actors stood and fidgeted. The audience did not grasp the nature of the backcloth and expected it to open to reveal the Ark!
As well the children did not understand what they were expected to do, and so poor Noah had no one to act with.
“If you’re going to do drama, you need to rehearse,” said my friend, pointedly.
I refrained from saying that it was difficult enough to find a time when people would come to the event let alone ask for extra commitment for things like rehearsals.
But she was right. As drama Noah and the Great Flood simply hadn’t worked.
It was a failure.
Or was it?
What if I was looking at it through the wrong lens? What if there was a different way of looking at it?
Viewed as performance it was certainly a failure. It was unrehearsed, the logistics did not work, and various small touches were simply missed out. It had little effect on the audience.
But was I aiming at performance?
Looked at differently Noah and the Great Flood had some redeeming features. Behind the backcloth was a semi dark space. There was an illusion of safety for the animals and me as we crowded in there together. When Noah set the dove free, we watched from the safety of the ark while she flew down the nave and back. This moment would have had far less impact on those simply watching from the pews. And finally, there was the moment when the animals themselves were set free…
What if I was aiming at creating an experience rather than at performance?
I was used to working in this way with our under 5s. The magi began their journey outside and took a winding route as they followed the star, we waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem and I rigged up a makeshift boat for calming the storm… Our crib services often included an element of the experiential – one year we turned off all the lights – and the heaters – to symbolise humanity being cut off from God.
If instead of aiming at performance I had aimed at the experiential, we could have made the ark into a well-defined space, dimly lit and a close fit. We could have invited all the children (not just the chosen few) to take the part of an animal if they so wished. Once they were all safely in, the adults could have been invited to join them (though probably with less success!) Inside, we could focus on the storm and the rising floodwaters. The script would prepare them for the rain easing, the sending out of the dove, their own return to freedom and God’s promise, as symbolised by the rainbow. It would be drama from within rather than from without, an active involvement rather than a passive one.
Why didn’t we do this? At the time it never occurred to me to try. I think this was partly to do with adult expectations, including my own. The adults expected performance. They expected drama to have impact, clean edges and be tightly controlled.
Creating an experience is risky. Adults can be self-conscious when they are watching and self-conscious when they are taking part. This can infect the children so that they too become self- conscious about what they are doing. It is hard to get past this. Recently we told the story of Paul’s shipwreck, and soldiers, sailors and prisoners either swam to shore or held onto pieces of wood and were helped along. Most of the children jumped out of the boat and took part with great enthusiasm.
The adults watched. What they saw was ragged, roughly improvised and included a lot of byplay and conversation from the children. But even the child who usually avoids the drama leapt forward to save her brother from the wreck as he struggled to shore…
Is there a middle way that combines the impact of performance with active involvement?
I was once asked to organise an Easter event for a cub meeting (they were doing their Religion badge). We divided the cubs into soldiers (red cloaks and swords), stall holders in the temple (black cloaks, doves and money) and people of Jerusalem (multi coloured cloaks, palm branches) and gave each group about 5 minutes to practise their role. The cubs (especially the moneylenders) stepped enthusiastically into their parts. The drama certainly had impact… but there was no audience; everyone was involved.
Rehearsal changes things. It becomes more about what the director thinks and less about what the children (and other adults) think. If I want to challenge their thinking, I need to work on ways of structuring the drama so that it is open ended. Perhaps I need to stop worrying about the raggedness, the interplay between the children and the feeling of insecurity…
Perhaps I also need to start talking to the adults…