Monday, December 20, 2010

Kenyan Christmas Drama

A fair amount of theatre takes place in Nairobi, at least, around Christmas. At least one church I know of has a drama and music talent show every year on Dec. 19, where each group puts a presentation together around the theme for the year (this year it was "Christ the King"), then present for the church and a panel of judges.  The judges then decide who's piece was the best on the basis of theme, presentation, and overall quality.  I was a judge one year but had conflicting engagements this year.  It's a great community builder and talent developer for the congregation.

Another popular event in the city is the Mavuno Church's "Village Christmas" play.  This began about 5 years ago as a variety show - sketches, musical numbers, etc., and has gradually developed into a full-fledged musical play that is televised and shown on local TV stations.  I've had the privilege of working with, and training, a number of the young adults involved (both as actors and the writers/directors/producers).  They are a talented group of people and have put together a great show.  This year's piece went through numerous rewrites and workshopping. The music is also locally written and produced.

The captain discusses "business"
Overall, the piece is a good reflection of contemporary urban youth in Kenya—it is much more akin to a Broadway musical than a "traditional African village," because the art forms of urbanites is much more Western.  The storyline is rooted in Biblical tradition, yet contemporized for an upper-class African family (albeit living in Bethlehem).  Many of the complaints of "The Carpenter" family (Joseph's family) resonated with the audience because of the similarity of issues faced—the need to pay "protection tax" to soldiers who are already paid to protect, overall taxation issues, business expansion, succession issues (a subtle reflection perhaps of presidential succession issues), and also the more universal issues of internal family conflict, sibling rivalry and personal ambition.

The trio reacts
The delightful "traveling trio" of household servants operated within the play in much the same way as the group of servants and others in "Twelfth Night" (Maria, Sir Toby Belch, etc.).  They have their own lives and dreams, they are the comic relief, but they also serve as commentators and narrators of the drama of the family they work for.  The two levels of society that existed in Shakespeare's plays finds continuing relevance in contemporary Kenyan society.

Brothers Judah and David
Much of the hilarity in the play came from the "in" jokes—plays on contemporary events, such as WikiLeaks (how classified news from Herod's palace managed to reach the common people, or servants), a hilarious sequence parodying the Nigerian "marriage" pastor who held a conference in town that was swarmed by single women wanting husbands, and numerous other local references.   The challenge becomes how not to let the comic relief overwhelm the main message the play is trying to bring.  In this case, the dramatic story managed to hold its own—not an easy feat.

Monday, November 22, 2010

More reflections on Oberammergau

I'm waiting for a book on the Oberammergau Passion Play, written by a Jewish scholar who did an in-depth study about the cultural and historical factors surrounding the passion play in Oberammergau.  Reading reviews of the book I am struck again by how drama has the capacity to engender dialogue.  In the case of Oberammergau and the passion play, the dialogue focuses around the source material.  In the case of the book, the research is into the dialogue between the source material (the Biblical account of Jesus and his crucifixion/resurrection) and anti-Semitism, and the attitudes of the townspeople through history in this dialogue.  The interpretation of the story by the director and scriptwriter is influenced by culture and history.  The source material may remain the same, but how it is presented depends very much on the prevailing culture and ideologies.  Apparently the play has been used in past generations to further a very anti-Semitic view (such as praised by Hitler).  At the beginning, it was a show of religious faith as understood at the time - a vow of perpetual performance in exchange for release from the plague. The religious culture at the time operated in this way and the play was an accepted way of expressing their obligation to God.

In successive years, the script changed, depending on the culture of the day.  Humorous, crowd-pleasing portrayals probably reigned at one point.  In the 1800s, the parish priest rewrote the script to express a more solemn view of Scripture and tableaux were introduced between scenes to give teaching on doctrine (showing Old Testament typology - events in the New Testament that served as illustrations for the events and life of Jesus).  During the World War years, the play obviously contained much more overt semitic tones.  Toward the end of the century, culture and ideology had changed and the desire to return to the roots of who Jesus is predominated, as well as the desire to distance from the Germany and anti-Semitism of Hitler's time.  A cultural ideology is more inclusive now, shying away from demonizing one set of people or religion.

But where does the balance lie between historicity and ideology?  The passion play evokes much strong feeling because of its history, but also because of the source material.  It is history, not just a story, and I think that's why the debate rages.  Subsequent histories have layered themselves onto the interpretation of the message and life of Jesus, and the attempt is being made to get back to the original source.  However, it will still be influenced by the prevailing culture of the day in how it is presented (through wording, structure and character interpretation), because drama is a reflection of culture, no matter its source material.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Creating Dramatic Worship Services

My church here gave us the unprecedented step of taking over every 5th Sunday service to be a drama service this year.  Basically, we can do whatever we want dramatically and musically!  This has allowed us to try a number of different things through the year:  In January we incorporated Tom Long's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Jericho"- a funny take on the parable of the Good Samaritan where the Scripture reader keeps taking a different part and finding the whole play shifting to make her the central character.  Interesting thing about doing it in Kenya -- it was challenging for some of the congregation to make the process of discovery and keep up with the changes ("what's going on?  What was that about?").  Others found it very deep.  Side note on this: When doing my doctoral research here I discovered, when working on a Swahili-language parable, that they don't go for the 'surprise ending.'  I was told there was a way to word things so that people knew what was coming up and wouldn't be taken aback by a new development at the end.  In many ways, it is the medieval morality-play mentality (those actually go over very well here).  

OK, moving on... May:  Did Paul McCusker's "Work in Progress," a series of sketches showing Christians as works in progress in their faith journey.  That took most of the service, with music bookending the play. Again, very well received.    In August the choir did a special program, so we are now facing October - coming up this Sunday!  We have chosen to do a reflection on the Ten Commandments (the topic of teaching this year).  We will use supporting Scriptures, short video clips from sermons, music and drama scenes to help people reflect on what the 10 commandments are all about in our lives.  We'll see how people handle having no sermon!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Drama training in Kenya

I had the privilege of giving another "Drama in the Ministries of the Church" class at Daystar a few weeks ago.  This was the best group yet!  Pastors and drama leaders from 6 churches across Nairobi, all diehard drama fans and eager to deepen their understanding of communicating and ministering through the creative use of drama.  I was also spurred on by Birte Papenhausen, a fellow drama enthusiast who works in Mongolia; we were able to demonstrate more forms of drama in the class, as a part of our devotions and learning.  The class looked at the Biblical basis for the arts, why drama is a powerful tool for communication and learning, and all the ways that drama can be used in church (and out!).  Students said they learned more than they could have imagined, and had their horizons stretched as they saw that there is more to drama than the standard "skit" or play; how about dramatizing Scripture?  Or storytelling your way through the Bible?  Or using tableaux, or or playback, or participatory theatre to discuss issues facing Christians and possible solutions?  God is a creative God and we certainly must be willing to explore creative ways of communicating truth!

 I am up to 34 different forms of drama that can be used in performance, teaching, or discipleship. Here's one, to go along with the Storytelling Festival that just happened here in Kenya— Sigana.  This is based on a traditional African form of drama that uses storytelling, dance, music/song, riddles and audience participation.  The result is a modern fusion theatre that is uniquely Kenyan.  One of my students caught a vision for an "urban sigana" that could be used in their church.  I hope it will come to pass soon!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oberammergau Passion Play 2010 Part 2

Other interesting points about the passion play:  the script.  For a first-person view of the script from the directors for this season's play, click here.  The viewpoint of the director, Christian Stückl, is very interesting. 

Passion plays generally limit their text to the time period between Jesus' cleansing of the temple through his death and resurrection.  This is the pattern that the Oberammergau play has followed over the centuries. However, the village is proud to point out that the uniqueness of their play is that the script is constantly evolving rather than remaining static or tied to one point of view.   It is said that the early versions of the play were written in rhyming verse. 

The oldest manuscript of the Oberammergau Passion play in existence originates from 1662.  In the Oberammergau museum.
It was not until 1810 that a monk from the nearby Ettal monastery wrote a prose version, which was then adapted in 1860 by the parish priest, Josef Alois Daisenberger.  Daisenberger's adaptation forms the basis of the play now performed.  The music used now was also composed in 1820 by an Oberammergau villager, Rochus Dedler.  Adaptations were made from that to suit this season's play. 

Costumes used in the Rosner script 
Historically, passion plays performed throughout Europe began as an expression of faith and rapidly became "people's theatre" or "popular theatre," with plenty of allegory, humor and crowd-pleasing spectacle taking place (such as Judas being accompanied to hell by roaring devils, or falling down dead and spilling his innards, which were represented by sausages spewing out to the audience).  This approach was banned during the Enlightenment.  In 1977, the village of Oberammergau held test performances of the Rosner script of the passion play.  The Rosner Experiment, as it was called, staged a revised version of the play written by the Benedictine monk Ferdinand Rosner (1709-1778), as an alternative to the Weis/Daisenberger script.  The experiment was preceded by decades of discussions on the problems of how to use this text.  The main different the Daisenberger text lies in the fact that in the Rosner version allegoric figures play a key role.  Lucifer and the Demon Spirits symbolize human vices, which ultimately bear the responsibility for the death of Christ on the cross.  The villagers voted on their preference by referendum and ultimately chose to stay with the Daisenberger script.

Concern over anti-Semitism within the script caused the village to look at revising the script further.  Stückl , particularly, has been very concerned over removing anti-Jewish elements from the play, studying the issue long before he became director of the project.  Since taking over the directorship in 1990, he has step by step removed elements which served the stereotype of the evil Jews who crucified Christ.  He and Otto Hüber, among others, have consulted with Jewish rabbis and leaders, as well as consulting with Catholic theologians, in order to present an accurate, yet fair, script that focuses on the person of Jesus and the complex society he lived in.  They have an ongoing dialogue with, and exploration of, the Biblical text, what it meant 2000 years ago and what it means today.  Stückl told me that the more he studied the scriptures, the more he was drawn to the person of Jesus and his message.  He has moved from presenting Jesus as a revolutionary (in 1990) to the current production that seeks to show more of who Jesus was and what he stood for, and not focus only on his suffering and death, as is traditional.  This year's Jesus is rooted in his Jewishness, praying the "Shema Israel" after driving the merchants fromt he temple.  His love for man and concern for justice is also seen by the inclusion of large portions of earlier gospel portions into the passion week (for example, large portions of the Sermon on the Mount given while he is in the temple).  In the words of Stückl:  "The life of Jesus cannot be reduced merely to his suffering. First and foremost, our concern must be for the teachings of that young man from Nazareth, on his challenge to us which in the Greek of St. Matthew's Gospel reads "Metanoeite", translated as "Rethink!". Jesus expressed this demand of a radical rethink most explicitly in his Sermon on the Mount. It shows clearly that there is no higher commandment in his eyes than that of love, love for God and for human beings."

Oberammergau Passion Play Time Line
First performance of the Passion Play in Oberammergau.
Schedule changes to a ten-year cycle in years ending with zero.
New Passio Nova script by the Benedictine monk Ferdinand Rosner (1709-1778). Rossner's text becomes a model for other Bavarian passion plays.
Two performances for an audience of 14,000.
A royal edict forbids all passion plays in Bavaria, including Oberammergau.
The Napoleonic Wars reduce play attendance to 3,000 - with a loss of 205 guilders.
The 1810 performance is delayed by a year and uses a revised script by the monk Othmar Weis.
King Ludwig I allows the play only under the condition that it be moved from the church graveyard to a new 5,00-seat theater north of town. Ten performances draw only 13,000 spectators.
French and English media report on the Oberammergau play for the first time.
Joseph Alois Daisenberger makes a major revision of the script.
40,000 spectators see the play, including Crown Prince Edward of England.
174,000 guests from many lands see the play in a new covered theater with 4,200 seats.
WWI delays the play by two years.
A special production marks the 300th anniversary of the play. Hitler praises the play as important for the Reich.
WWII prevents any production in Oberammergau.
This year’s 480,000 visitors include Germany's first Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the Allied leader Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Despite growing criticism of the play's anti-Semitic elements, only minor changes are made.
American Jews boycott the play to protest the lack of revisions.
The town is split over reforms, but only minor changes are made to the play's anti-Jewish text.
The 350th anniversary performance.
The 25-year-old woodsculptor Christian Stückl is chosen to direct the 1990 play.
A growing battle over anti-Semitism leads to only limited changes.
This year, under director Christian Stückl, marks the biggest revision of the script since 1860. Some 520,000 guests see the play.
The 41st production year incorporates more changes to reduce anti-Judaism in the play.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Oberammergau Passion Play 2010

Oberammergau... so much to think about and digest about the passion play that has been associated with the village for the last 376 years!  I first became aware of it 20-30 years ago and have wanted to see it ever since.  It's quite an investment in time and money though -- and that is reflected in the audience composition; lots of gray hair to be seen.  I felt like quite a youngster!  On the day of the play I did see some small groups of young backpackers, some families with teenagers, and a scattering of young adults like myself but the majority was certainly tour groups with older people.  One lady explained that it's because this age group has the disposable income to put into a trip like that, and also realize that if they wait 10 years for the next play, they may not be alive or mobile to make it!  I met with Britons who had popped over the channel for the weekend to see the play, Germans who were visiting friends in the area and were given tickets, other German-speaking people who made the pilgrimage to see the play, and Americans and Asians who were there with tour groups.  

OK, for those who are wondering, what is the Oberammergau passion play?  Oberammergau is a small village in the Bavarian Alps, Germany (about 5000 people).  The passion play is inextricably linked with the history of Europe and the Black Death, or Plague, that decimated the continent in the 1600s.  The story is that in 1633, the plague came to Oberammergau.  The villagers prayed for deliverance from the plague and made a vow that they would perform a passion play (showing the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus) every 10 years forever after.  The deaths from plague ceased and the villagers kept their vow, mounting the first performance of the passion play in 1634 on a stage built over the graves of the plague victims.  The villagers' descendants have kept that vow ever since and the play has been performed, more or less every 10 years with few exceptions, ever since.  This year, 2010, it had its 41st showing.  Their website (click here) contains more historical information and further details about the play.

The front of the Passion Play Theatre
The village keeps the play "in the family":  only those who have been born in Oberammergau or lived there for at least 20 years can participate in the play.  There is no attempt to show the play outside of the village.  A 4700-seat playhouse has been built to house the play every 10 years.

The play is inextricably linked with the life and history of the village, with families involved generation after generation.  The current dramaturg of the play, Otto Huber, mentioned that he had an ancestor who died in the plague, and another who was one of the actors in the first passion play.  His family has been involved ever since.  Villagers can start their involvement as children, playing children in the crowd scenes of the play, or play in the orchestra, sing in the chorus, help backstage or audition for larger roles.  Someone who plays a child one year may play the disciple John 10 years later, Jesus 10 years after that, then Caiaphas 10 years later.  The village priest told me that the villagers often identify events in their lives by the passion play:  "We were married during the 2000 passion play."  When asked about the relationship between faith and tradition in performing the passion play today, the answer I invariably got was that it was impossible to separate them.  There are some for whom the play is definitely a faith journey and an expression of their personal faith, and others for whom it is a tradition that they enjoy being a part of, but for all it is an inherent part of who they are as a village.

Continued in the next post!....

Friday, August 13, 2010

More on Asian Christian Theatre and hand movements

The comment about the interest struck in mime-types by the hand movements in Thai dance made me want to write just a little bit more about it.  I imagine there is a strong historical link between classical mime, and its codified movements, and Asian dance forms.

There is certainly a shared history between Thai dance-drama and Indian dance-drama, with some speculating that the original dance movements came from India.  This would be borne out by the Natyasastra, a comprehensive dramaturgical manual, attributed to Bharata, a sage. The book came into existence sometime between the second and eighth century A.D., and lays out detailed description of every aspect of drama, from its origin with Brahma, to the prescripted hand, feet, eye and body movements, from the types of plays and characters to descriptions of emotion and action. 

A large portion of the Natyasastra is dedicated to the detailed description of body movements and their meanings. It is a complete body sign language. This includes mudras (meaningful positions) for the hands, feet, eyes, head, positions for the body (placement of hips, legs, torso), and combinations of each.  For example, the "Pataka" is made with thumb bent and other fingers stretched out. This conveys striking, driving, joy, pride and so on. If both hands and fingers are moving, it suggests rain, showering of flowers, etc. The precise positioning and meaning of each are prescribed in the Natyasastra and form the basis of all Classical Theatre/Dance movements. The effect is that of mime combined with dance, as dancers emote with their faces and let the emotion and action come through their movements. Only specialists are versed in the meaning of the mudras, but the beauty of the movements is widely appreciated.

(This information is taken from my doctoral dissertation when discussing how drama differs in its various aspects from culture to culture.)

For a great article about Christian Thai Likay dance-drama, go to this link:  It is an article written for Lausanne World Pulse e-mag by Allan Eubank.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Asian Christian theatre

I think I will need to take several posts to talk about my Oberammergau experience and reactions, so let me begin by briefly mentioning the wonderful ethnic arts experienced at the latest Global Consultation on Music and Missions.  Many years ago I heard about Thai folk drama being used to give Biblical messages. The piece mentioned was "The Prodigal Daughter" in Thai Likay form.  Likay is a traditional folk form of drama that uses Thai dance, song, music and melodrama to tell a story. They also incorporate a lot of the classical Indian dance movements - particularly with hand gestures, where each position of the hand has meaning.
In the 1970s, Allan and Joan Eubanks, of Christian Communications Institute in Thailand, developed the first Christian Likay drama, "The Prodigal Daughter," with students from Payap University.  It has been performing ever since.  And they performed an excerpt of it at GComm!   What a thrill to see it in person!  CCI has gone on to develop many more Likay dramas as well as contemporary plays bringing out Scripture and Biblical principles.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Well, I'm finally getting around to this whole blog business!  I use the internet so much to see what's going on around the world but just haven't taken the time to put my own thoughts and experiences down here, particularly as related to drama and theatre around the world. 

This whole area of ethnodramatology has been my interest since high school days (way back - don't ask!).  Working in the US for 20+ years in drama and ministry, and now based in Kenya teaching drama and traveling around the world giving seminars and viewing plays and dramatic events has given me lots to think about.  I've met a growing number of people interested in ethnodramatology.  I hope we can continue to share our experiences with one another, learn from one another and have fun with drama!

In this blogspot I want to write about experiences I've had with drama around the world.  I hope it will be useful and interesting!