Tips for Actors in Easter Plays

If you’re an actor in the Church, you’re probably rehearsing for a Passion Play or Easter Pageant this spring. Here are some tips to help you with your role.

Holy Week is coming, which means that rehearsals for your church’s Easter pageant are probably on your calendar. It also means that you, the mild-mannered pewsitter, will soon need to transform yourself into Peter, Mary–or maybe Jesus!

Perhaps you remember a few things from your high school drama class that can help. You know an actor has to memorize lines and attend rehearsals. That doesn’t seem hard–but there’s one thing that worries you. Your role calls for some pretty hefty emotions, and you aren’t sure you can pull them off. You need to convey Peter’s fear that leads him to deny Christ, or Mary’s grief while she watches her son’s crucifixion, or Jesus’ death agony on the cross. They didn’t teach about you that in high school drama!

Even professional actors can struggle with intense scenes like those. But there are methods that can help you crawl inside your character’s skin, bringing the redemptive truth of Easter home to your audience.

So let’s begin with the most important thing: Always remember your character’s humanity. Yes, Jesus is God. Yes, Mary was a woman who fully surrendered her life. But they were also something else–human. That’s why your first step should be to consider what your character wants.

People are very good at selfishly pursuing what they want, right? (Even Jesus, though not selfish, felt the same temptations that we do.) So don’t make your character’s “want” super-spiritual–make it a human desire we all understand. Then state it in the form of “I want/ need to . . .” followed by an action verb. That’s what theatre people call an objective.

Let’s look at some examples. If you’re Peter, about to deny Jesus, maybe you need to save your own skin. If you’re Mary, watching your son die, perhaps you want to rescue him from suffering. (You can’t, but that’s what makes the scene so poignant.) If you’re Jesus, it could be that you want to finish the work God gave you.

But wait–that last objective will lead to a calm, serene Jesus who is less than human. What else does Jesus want? Well, how about to be delivered from this agony? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Jesus desperately wants out, but he won’t accept deliverance, because he must finish God’s work. That approach is more Biblical than a bloodless Jesus without human feelings, and more engaging to the audience besides.

Now that you have an objective, use your imagination to place yourself in the scene. For the rest of this article, we’ll focus on Jesus as an example–the most challenging role an actor can play. So we’ll need to imagine the experience of being crucified.

Start by picturing the most intense pain of your life–a time when you truly wished you could die to escape. Remember the circumstances, picturing them in your mind until you almost feel the agony. Now, multiply it times fifty. Add in a dose of compassion as your own mother watches your death agony. Think of the oppression of being totally alone; cut off from friends, family–even God. Now you’re getting somewhere. Nobody said drama was easy, but this is how skilled actors communicate the truth of their roles.

Next, decide what you would do if you were really in the imagined circumstances. Crucifixion affects the body’s breathing, so one action you will need to practice is to heave yourself up on the spikes each time you have to draw a breath. Another action might be to look down at your mother, wishing you could wrap your arms around her in comfort.

The playwright (in this case, God) has given you a line where you cry out to heaven for relief–“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s a third action. Perhaps as you say it, you are tempted to ask for angelic deliverance, but then you look away from heaven, willing yourself to go on suffering to complete your work. Actions like that, grounded in a vivid imagination, will help you deliver a compelling performance.

A warning is in order at this point: Don’t pursue the emotion. Let it come naturally. If you try to make yourself feel something, you probably won’t succeed. Even if you do, you’re liable to fall back on clichés (like shaking your fist to show you’re angry). So don’t do it!

The imagined circumstances and real-life actions that you have rehearsed will produce feelings most of the time. And if the emotion doesn’t show up opening night, that’s okay. You still have something to give to the audience: The actions you have practiced, from breathing like a crucifixion victim to crying out to God.

Crawling inside your character’s skin is difficult–much harder than just memorizing lines. But remember, the audience is counting on you to communicate Truth. And no Truth is more important than the Passion of the Christ.

Copyright © 2012 George Halitzka. All rights reserved. This article was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of Let’s Worship.