Jasonpost 1: prophecy

We have to be careful when we say we have discerned God’s voice in our lives. The patterns and sequences are often mis-leading, and God works on eternal time, our lives being nano-blips on the divine radar screen. Just before I got my letter from Villanova, I was in a silly Irish play playing a Catholic priest. “Ah ha”, I thought, “surely God is telling me that I will be granted tenure by the Catholic university I work for”. And so I am wary of saying that through Shannon and Abbey, God is urging me along in my Quaker theatrical exploration. But I am certain of this: I am finding no resistance to it, and the signs, if that is what they are, are good ones. Certainly, I am grateful that the people I work with know what I am about, and support me. At the very least, I am sure of this blessing: I work in a community in which the people are bound together by something far greater than the thing being made. The theatre we make is right size.

Thursday Shannon split us into two groups and asked us to create a movement theatre piece illustrating the background myth to Jason: that of Phrixus and Hellas being saved by the golden ram who flies them to safety before being sacrificed, thereby transforming into the golden fleece. Here was an example of the practical payoff of maintaining a company of actors familiar with each other. I couldn’t imagine working with a group of strangers the way I instantly began working with my little group. In less than hour, each group had a three-minute play with movement and sound, which we performed for each other, Shannon and stage management. Chris, who is designing sound and creating music for the production, had us underscore the other groups’ play with spontaneously created music using a variety of simple instruments and noise makers. Both Shannon and Chris received a bunch of ideas from both groups about how to stage this little play within the play, which appears in our production as a Goddess’s vision. It also jumped out at me as an example of the kind of group theatre that Revival might lead to.

Saturday I got to work on Phineas on my feet, with playwright John Olive present. It’s always an honor to work on a new play in front of the playwright, and a bit intimidating. There’s a part of me that fears him standing up abruptly and shouting, “No, no, no! What are you doing to my play?!” But John is a quiet and friendly presence, and instantly begins making changes and handing out re-writes, partly based on the work he’s watching us do in rehearsal. “So where does Inos come from? I ask him.

“Oh, I think I had Calaban dancing around in my head when I wrote him” he replies.

I decide to work with two canes as the feeble, bent over, blind Phineas, in a kind of homage to Anthony Sher and his memorable Richard III, a process of actor discovery beautifully documented in his journal, The Year of The King. He and his book have been on my mind a lot, since it’s the only example I’ve read of an actor linking his personal life with his creatively so intimately in print. I’m no Tony Sher, but at least there’s a precedent. My favorite line I have to say in the play belongs to Phineas, as he tries to dissuade Jason from receiving a prophecy from him: “The truly courageous face the future blind”.

Sunday arrives and I have miss meeting for worship because of rehearsal. This always makes me grumpy, but Shannon has gone so out of her way for me, letting me go early three days a week, I can’t ask her for any more favors. In my dream theatre, any artist is unconditionally released for any religious observance. Actually, in my dream theatre, we all work the same hours as the rest of the world, 9 – 5 Monday through Friday and weekends off until tech week and performances.

The morning is spent staging and working on some new pages John has given us. He has to leave this evening and so is now dictating small changes to us, rather than having the assistant stage manager run and make copies of new pages. It is through the playwright’s presence that I feel something new is coming to life. It really is special.

In the afternoon, we perform our “assignments”. I have gone around the bend on mine – the prophesies. I came to Shannon in a panic about it Saturday, and she assured me she was just as interested in hearing about the panic and the failure on Sunday, as she was in having actual prophecies handed out. So I outlined what I was up against to share with the cast. I decided that I would take this assignment seriously, and not come in and pretend to read someone’s palm and tell them they were going to come into money. I realized this was an opening to bring the Revival work in to the Jason setting. Looking at Quakerism, I realized that there is a prophetic tradition. Fox and some of the Valiant Sixty had pure visions which they describe in their journals and pamphlets. Since then, Quaker prophesy has come through the powerful vocal ministry of Friends gathered with others in meetings for worship. In Jason there are exact prophesies (a man with one sandal on will overthrow you), inexact prophesies (you won’t die by drowning and you’ll live into old age) and suggestive prophesies (here’s an image – a beautiful yet threatening woman calling out for you). Friends tend to work in the latter two, but will be moved to change the entire course of their lives if they discern that God is speaking to them directly and powerfully. The test for Friends is the response that prophetic witness receives from that Friend’s meeting. Friends don’t let Friends change their whole lives without a thorough threshing of the prophesy at hand.

So I determined that I would lay all of this out for the group, my process in working on this task, as well as my misgivings. The first question you have to answer is, do you think prophecy is possible at all? If the answer is no, then that’s it. No point in going forward. I decided that I thought it was possible. Then you have to ask, well what exactly is prophecy then? Psychological empathy? Statistical expertise? God? And if God, what does that mean to you and how does God become involved in prophecy? Because here’s the big problem if you really think it’s possible: you might see something in your friend’s future which is horrifying. This is exactly the situation Phineas encounters with Jason. Luckily for Phineas anyway, Jason breaks out of the prophesy when the beautiful woman Phineas channels to him spooks him. This is, of course, Medea, and so Phineas gets off the hook without having to transmit the unpleasant business of her killing Jason’s children and all that.

Other cast members presented other assignments. The actor playing Orpheus recited a hilarious poem he had written about coming to the first day of rehearsal. The actor playing Jason gave a political speech. When my turn came, I essentially recited to the cast what you’ve just read, and then invited them to have 15 minutes of worship in the manner of Friends with me. I asked for any who wished to be the focus of that worship to come into the center of the circle, and we would see if any prophecy came out of that worship. I stressed that no one need say or do anything. Mary Beth and Miles came forward and sat in chairs in the middle of our circle. Revival had begun, in a completely unexpected way.

Friends, there was rich, though perhaps too quick, ministry. What I remember of it was one of us rising to say that he felt both of them may have to leave us for a time, but that he hoped they would return, and that we would welcome them. Another rose and spoke about both of them being embraced by this small circle, which was embraced by a larger circle: circles embracing the uncertainty they both faced. And lo and behold, e.e. cummings made another appearance, but through a different poem. Afterwards, there was that paradoxical sense of calm exhilaration one feels after genuine worship. There was a general feeling that “something happened”, that the energy in the room had changed. Miles cried and had to leave the room to regain composure. When he returned, he said, “I knew this was going to happen. I just knew it”, and he smiled. Someone said, how can I take this feeling home with me? Another agreed, I want this rehearsal to go on forever. And I thought, these are glad tidings indeed.