The Arena Theater KJV II performance on Jan. 15 was the culmination of a theater classes’ ideas and plenty of commitment from its cast of Wheaton students. These students took the ancient tradition of oral storytelling and melded it with music, acting, dance and technology to speak biblical truth to their audience.
The performance blended 21 Old Testament and New Testament passages into seamless segments. But Arena Theater Director Mark Lewis explained it was only a fraction of the numerous other Bible passages they had memorized.
Lewis began the first KJV performance three years ago as a project to gather students who were willing to memorize Scripture together and perform it. Assisted this year by Wheaton alumna, Felicia Birch, theater movement specialist, the KJV class worked tirelessly to create last week’s KJV II.
Last fall semester, Lewis and 16 students met every Wednesday to share the Scripture passages they had learned that week. Some week’s passages were assigned; other times student chose their own topics. Despite the pressures of school, junior Brittany Blue described entering a space of students speaking Scripture to be refreshing.
As a participant in previous Arena Theater productions, Brittany shared that “the biggest difference (in the KJV performance) was that we were not being characters … so there was a lot of pressure lifted from that in knowing that it’s just us basking in Scripture.”
As winter break approached, Lewis sent the team this prompt: “Come back with something you think you need to say in the show.” A few days after the festivities and seasonal indulging of Christmas and New Year’s, these students sacrificed a week of their break to return early to Wheaton and put together the entire performance before spring classes.
From Monday to Saturday, the group spent more than eight hours a day, every day, brainstorming, trialing and preparing for the upcoming performance. On top of the shortened break and numerous hours spent rehearsing, Lewis and Birch encouraged their students as they faced a different kind of challenge. Contradicting the notion that performance is a self-glorifying act, students had to give up personal ideas, expectations and even whole books of the Bible memorized for the sake of the performance and community. All done with prayer, group discussion and even tears, their hope was to end up with something better because it was done as a group.
Lewis shared this old adage they operated on, “You can go faster alone, but you go deeper with a group.” In doing so, the KJV II performance was a collaborative representation of Biblical texts, rather than a spotlight on specific individuals.
These students all brought their own talents and special skills to enrich the performance. Some students reinforced dramatic readings with live and original compositions from the guitar, violin and piano. Other students used their voices as an acapella soundtrack, while others wrestled to communicate the tone of the passage io the audience. Along with sparse and simple props like a ball of string, cobalt blue and amber lights made even the performers’ shadows become meaningful. The audience was rarely looking in the same direction as all were scissoring their glances across the corners of the room an excessive performance.
But none of these dramatic tools overwhelmed the weight of the spoken Scripture. The idea of the Bible as living and active was realized in a sensual-filled performance. The antiquated language of the King’s James Version suddenly became appropriate and relevant to the audience. The choice to use this version of the Bible was one made by Lewis who argued that the strangeness of it “inclines us to listen by making us work a little bit.”
Sacrificing ease and efficiency was a key element of this production. From the version of the Bible they chose to the hours of organic collaboration and debate, the performers who all returned early from holidays to develop KJV demonstrated a beautiful example of Christian community both on stage and off of it.
Each component of KJV II — its cast, directors, and tech support — all opened themselves to the power God’s word and were transformed into a multi-faceted testimony that stunned its audience speechless on its debut last Thursday. So engrossed and afraid to miss a detail, the audience remained silently fixated even as the performers walked off the stage — that is until professor of Christian Thought Timothy Larson enthusiastically began clapping, which prompted the audience to join in with laughter.