Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Interview with Max McLean on Mark's Gospel, Screwtape Letters, and More

Several times in the last couple of weeks I've been playing a DVD of Max McLean doing a one-man show where the script is nothing more than the entire Gospel according to Mark. Hearing the whole gospel at once, performed well by a gifted interpreter and actor, has given me a fresh appreciation for this biblical book, along with the power of hearing (not just reading) the Word.

And now Max McLean has taken the production to a new level, performing it in Chicago at the Mercury Theater. The reviews by the secular press have been very encouraging. The show has been extended until June (and in fact, they are just now running a buy-one, get-one-free offer for those who want to attend the show).

I was recently able to talk to Max about the show--and also about memorizing Scripture and reading it publicly, how Screwtape Letters came about, whether they'll ever take the show on the road, what Lewis works they might do next, etc. At the end of the interview is a YouTube clip of a couple of excerpts from the show.

Can you tell us a little bit about your show, “Mark’s Gospel”--what is it, where it's playing?

Mark’s Gospel is a dramatic, highly theatrical retelling of the Gospel according to Mark told word for word from the NIV Bible. It is now playing at the Mercury Theater near Wrigley Field in Chicago through June 28, 2009. That’s the same theater where we produced C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.

How long did it take to memorize it?

About 16 months. The memory work wasn’t the difficult part. The difficult part was knowing it so well so that it became second nature. It was only then that I could commit my body, soul, and mind to telling it with the energy, passion, and conviction that the story demands.

What effect do you think it has on the audience hearing the entire Gospel in one sitting and presented in this way?

It is a very demanding and brilliant piece of writing. I think seeing it on stage brings out that aspect of the Gospel a bit more than what we usually get. Our familiarity with the story goes away and the gospel becomes something new, fresh, powerful, and different. It’s almost as if you find yourself hearing the story for the first time. The true heroic nature of Jesus becomes almost overwhelming.

Sometimes I think our emphasis on dissecting each verse for pedagogical reasons can drain the gospel of its power as story and narrative. When we look at our own conversion many of us first fell in love with Jesus because we discovered who he is through the Gospels and then we were motivated to follow him. Hearing Mark’s Gospel told as narrative in one sitting can re-capture that effect for some people.

How is the Chicago show different from the DVD presentation you did a few years ago?

This is the first time we have given Mark’s Gospel a full theatrical production with set, sound, and lighting designs to help bring audiences into the world of the play. We have also added a projection design that includes digital maps to highlight locations where Jesus traveled and performed so many of his miraculous deeds. I think the Chicago Tribune captured its purpose when they said that the projection design helped to convey that this “earth-shattering life” took place in a very small area. A big movement like Christianity had its origins in a remote land away from the power centers of the ancient world.

The video you are describing was produced in 1996. It was simple and basic. One of the objectives of the theatrical production at the Mercury Theater was to produce a new video.

I also know the story better, and my ability to get it across to an audience has improved a bit over the years. I believe that telling the story orally in one sitting is probably the closest experience to how the first Christians received the gospel. By the way, it’s almost impossible for video to capture the powerful essence of a collective mind engaged in live performance. Video can’t break through. It can only serve to show folks what is possible and serves mostly as a memory piece.

We have a piece of video on our website from our dress rehearsal [JT: see below at the end of this interview]. I never know if it helps or hurts. Most people in the theater world know that the final dress rehearsal with all tech in place is one of the lowest points in the process of making theater. It is the final element to tech week, which is as much about endurance and patience as it is creativity. It is a necessary part of the creative purpose. Doubts begin to emerge about whether or not our creative choices really work. You don’t know until you are in front of a live audience. In this case I believe we made good choices.

Do you have any counsel for those who want to grow in their ability to memorize Scripture and to retell it with integrity and creativity?

That’s an interesting question because my friend Warren Bird and I have written a book entitled, Unleashing the Word: Rediscovering the Public Reading of Scripture, that will be published by Zondervan this fall. It does not deal with my major theatrical productions but how churches can elevate the scripture reading to a central moment in the worship experience. Of course integrity and creativity are key elements of the process.

As for memorizing scripture, it works best for me if memorization is a byproduct of meditation. Certainly it is an objective to memorize the text. But the act of memorizing the text can be hollow if it is not a result of deep meditation. When I actively interact and engage with a text there is a conversation going on between the words I’m looking at on a page and my heart and soul. Of course that is the primary way the Holy Spirit works in our lives. The result is that the text starts speaking to me. As a result I find myself knowing the words of the text and how they fit together very well. The final act of memorizing becomes much easier.

Of course to keep it in your heart and head requires that you revisit that text regularly or you might lose it. When I’m doing a presentation and I go "dry" or forget my place, I usually stop and say to the audience something like, "You know when you hide God’s word in your heart, sometimes you can’t find it!" I usually get a pretty big laugh after that. They start to think, “Oh, he’s human after all.”

Can you tell us a bit about how the production of The Screwtape Letters came about?

For the past three years our concentration has been a trial-and-error process of making The Screwtape Letters as strong as possible. We’ve done four productions of it. The first one wasn’t very good. The second was a major improvement, and the third was even better. It must be said that our failures in the first production led directly to the show’s later success. We had to take a step back and look at the production with a clear eye and work to fix them one by one. This required a new design team, recasting a central character, and going back to the script to make sure we were telling a good story really well.

When you do theater from a Christian worldview, the stigma is so pronounced, in the mainstream theater and also with many in the church community, that you have to be intensely self critical in every aspect of how you execute; from the designs to the stagecraft to the performances and marketing. Otherwise the work will not get a fair hearing in the cultural marketplace.

I really like where Screwtape is now in terms of theatrical execution and how close it is to Lewis's vision. We knew that if we trusted Lewis’s language and supported it theatrically that it would do really well. People think there isn’t a story in the book. That’s not true. There is a journey. Screwtape has a dramatic arc that is satisfying to the audience and they walk away from the show much different than when they came in.

The surprise to us is how well it did as a mainstream, commercial theater event. It has always exceeded our expectations. It played in a 170-seat theater in NYC and to a 100% capacity for four months. In DC it ran in a 500-seat space and played to standing-room-only audiences for five weeks at the Shakespeare Theatre. Screwtape ran for six months at the Mercury Theater in Chicago when it was originally scheduled for six weeks. We also are negotiating for a sit-down invitation at the Pasadena Playhouse near LA for Spring 2010. The artistic director flew out to see the Chicago show and wants to find a slot in their schedule. This has little to do with any commitment to the Christian worldview, although there is an openness to worldview diversity as long as the gatekeepers think the product has artistic merit (i.e., they won’t be embarrassed) and that the product will attract an audience.

So what led you to do Mark's Gospel next?

Doing Screwtape is what gave me the impulse to do Mark’s Gospel. I believe it was the Holy Spirit. The purpose of doing Screwtape was to show how formidable the enemy of our soul really is. He is a roaring lion seeking whom he will devour. Yes its engaging and entertaining as all good theater has to be.

Mark’s Gospel reinforces that powerful truth that “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Of course it has to be entertaining and engaging. I’m very pleased how seriously the Chicago theater community has taken Mark. I believe it was because of the credibility we established with Screwtape that they were willing to give Mark’s Gospel a fair hearing. The Chicago Tribune made it a Critic’s Choice and it was recommended by the Chicago Sun-Times. We are very happy about that.

Have you ever thought about "taking the show on the road"?

We are making an effort to build a touring production of both Screwtape and Mark that can travel and set up very easily while still maintaining about 80% of the production values. This will be useful in mid to smaller markets where we can go for one night or for a weekend. The idea is to arrive on say a Friday morning, set up, do a quick cue-to-cue rehearsal and present a show that evening. That’s the goal, anyway, and we’d like to test that in one or two markets this fall.

Do you plan to perform any other biblical books on stage?

We’d like to do a new production from the book of Genesis. I did one about 12 years--but like Mark's Gospel, I think we can execute it better now than we did then (although I did like that show very much). We also have a few more people and resources around us now that we didn’t have then. So I think we have more capability to do a better job now. The last production was certainly a good foundation.

Will you be adapting any more works by Lewis?

We are looking closely at three Lewis books that we have asked for the rights to adapt. They are The Great Divorce, for obvious reasons, Perelandra, though I’m not sure we are up to the task on that one, and finally and, I think, surprisingly, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. I love that book. I think it is poignant and at times very funny. If Screwtape were converted this is the book he would write! We would have to find the story arc and build it much as we did Screwtape. Still, it’s very early in a long process.

I know you've done an audio CD, performing Martin Luther's famous "Here I Stand" speech. Have you ever thought about doing anything with Luther's life?

My colleague Jeff Fiske, who directs our show, has had a long love affair with Luther. This is most likely our next major project. Luther is a character of truly Shakespearean size that lived a dramatic life in an intensely dramatic historical moment. Again I’m not sure we are up to the task, but it is certainly worth trying and failing. Developing plays for the stage is a long, long process with a lot of trial and mostly errors. In many ways the journey is as important as the result.

We have to prioritize where we are going to put our limited resources first and then make slow, incremental process. All of this should keep us busy for a few years. In the meantime, the LORD may take me home, and he will bring in someone else to take it over.

Many thanks to Max McLean for taking the time out of a very busy schedule to talk about these things. You can go to their site for more information on the Fellowship of Performing Arts or to donate to the effort.

Here are some clips from Mark's Gospel at the Mercury Theater: