How can you bring the Bible alive through drama? Getting the balance between being creative and being biblically accurate can be a tricky thing. Chris Neilands helps run Play it by Ear, a Christian drama company based in Northern Ireland. He shares a bit about how they are helping people engage with the Bible…
‘How about when Moses goes before Pharaoh, he sings a Frozen parody?’
‘How about calling it Jonah and the Giant Sea Monster of Doom?’
‘How about Naaman’s servant girl raps the whole story?’
I spend a lot of time with my friend Ross asking questions like this, not because we’re slightly crazy (despite what some people say) but because we run a Christian drama company called Play it by Ear. We look to resource the local church to use drama by providing performances, workshops and scripts.
It’s a real privilege to help people engage with the Bible, whether that is through hearing a story for the first time or maybe helping them see a story they have heard a hundred times from a slightly different angle.
The Bible is perfect for drama- it is full of stories with twists and turns and so many different characters, some were courageous, loyal and ready to listen to God; others were cowardly, selfish and quick to turn away from God, in many cases some characters managed to be all of those things!
We don’t just want people to hear and know these stories, we want them to be able to connect with them, to see how the big story of the Bible, of a God who loves his people and his plans and promises for them, is meant to shape their own personal stories.
This past week we have been working on dramas for family worship at an event called Castlewellan Holiday Week. It’s our job to write dramas that will tell the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis and to take this tale of jealousy, sex, dreams and death and present it in a way people from the ages of 5 years and up can get something from it and explore how this story points to a God who journeys with us through the ups and downs of life.
A simple job…
Whenever we are writing a Bible based drama we asked ourselves these three questions:
Who is the drama for?
Who your audience is has a massive impact on how you present your drama.
In the case of our dramas on Joseph, we could sit down and write a couple of really good, reflective monologues that do a great job at exploring how different characters experienced the story of Joseph but no matter how good they were, it probably wouldn’t work in the environment we are performing at Castlewellan Holiday Week- an all age family event.
Thinking about our audience helps us work out what form we want the drama to take, in this case we want it to be full of big characters, lots of jokes and the key is to keep the story as fast paced and simple as possible. We want people from across the generations to leave the marquee having laughed and had fun, but more importantly to have been given a really clear sense of what was going on in the story.
How do you think the characters would have been feeling?
One of the real strengths of using drama to communicate the Bible, is that it helps take the characters people have read about for so many years and bring them to life. Whether we are doing a really serious drama, or something very light and funny, we spend a lot of time asking ourselves how different characters would have felt as they experienced the story.
With the story of Joseph we focused on trying to help people think about how Joseph would have felt when things kept going wrong. Whilst most people probably won’t end up being thrown down a well, flirted with by their boss’s wife, chucked in jail, made to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and help govern Egypt (although we’re not ruling it out), they can connect with how Joseph might have felt and learn from his faith when dealing with their own ups and downs in life.
Is the drama biblically accurate?
In a surprising development, this is the most important question we ask ourselves. Every time you write a drama there is a tension between creativity and biblical accuracy.
With the Joseph story, we have used a bit of creative license, for instance when Joseph is reunited with his brothers, they burst into a musical number. That isn’t in the Bible (although we haven’t checked The Message yet) but for us that is okay because whilst we are having a bit of fun with the form of the story, we aren’t tampering with the message and it’s easy for people to see which is the bit we’ve created and which is the message of the Bible story.
Obviously when you write a drama based on a Bible story it will be coloured by your interpretations of the story, your theological bent and the parts of the story that really grab your interest; that’s okay, in fact it’s a positive thing, it can help people see a story in a different light but occasionally when writing dramas, you find yourself wishing characters had done something a bit different or said things in a certain way because it would fit your message a bit easier. This is where you need to be careful because the subtle changes might not be picked up by the audience but can have a real impact on their understanding of the passage.
Our golden rule is when having to choose between being as creative as possible or as biblically accurate as possible, always go for being accurate!
Now, bearing those three questions in mind, I had better get back to finishing off our Joseph series- we’re trying to work out if Joseph should sing or rap at the end. Decisions, decisions…
If you would be interested in finding out more about Play it by Ear, purchasing scripts or booking them for a workshop or performance, you can find out more at playitbyeardrama.com or facebook.com/playitbyeardrama