Opinion: It’s the spirit of the matter

Opinion: Its the spirit of the matter

If you’re even roughly affiliated with Calvin’s quasi-subculture of people who get together to talk about faith, justice, the human experience, etc., you’ve probably heard of Dave Ellens.

He’s something like a vigilante/superhero, sitting at his day job answering emails and being nice to strangers in the Off-Campus Programs Office, but in his free time… he transforms into a playwright/professional punster who sits down with interesting people and creates space for them to share their stories.

If you’re thinking, “Wait a second, Evans, that’s not a very legitimate superpower,” well… You’re probably right. But that’s not the point.

The point is: Dave writes plays. He writes plays that are woven together from the voices of real people, taking transcripts from one- to two-hour interviews and piecing together verbatim theater that pulls people into a place of intense vulnerability.

Every show I’ve seen feels like two hours of meditation: a group of people dwelling on the challenges and absolute joys of human connection, disconnection, spirituality, love, fear, loneliness; we all know them, but for whatever reason it’s excruciatingly difficult to bring up our own suffering without a proper catalyst.

Dave’s work is that catalyst, and his latest play is no exception. My personal experience with his newest work, however, has been augmented far above the others – I’m one of the actors.

I’m hardly a practiced performer, so this show has felt incredibly raw. Memorizing another person’s story and retelling it for an audience is an intimidating thing, something like authorized fraud.

After our first performance, I had the chance to actually meet the individual whose story I’ve learned to emulate, and I was incredibly nervous (I had no idea that he was going to attend until I found myself shaking his hand and hearing his name).

I had never talked to him before, never heard his voice. Had I done it all wrong? Was he mad?

I was struck after the play by something that Dave mentioned in the ensuing discussion – that the crucial part of verbatim theater is actors capturing the essence, the spirit, of the person they’re playing.

Syntax, voice modulation, gesticulation, etc., are secondary to the energy that an actor brings to the table. At the risk of sounding extremely cliché, these words resonated with me like a renewed vision of the faith.

If my job is to mimic Jesus, a Jew born approximately 2000 years before myself and raised in a completely different language, culture, and social situation… Then I’m not doing so well.

I don’t speak Aramaic or Hebrew. I’m a white, American male, and I bring all kinds of baggage and prejudice to the table that comes with such an upbringing. I have no more of an ability to mimic (convincingly) the Son of God than I do to mimic the squirrel outside my window.

But we’re not called to mimic or imitate anybody. We’re told to bring Jesus’ spirit to the table. We’re told to bring love, grace, and forgiveness into every room we inhabit, a larger challenge still.

Mimicry is something to be done when others are watching, but a transformation of the soul encompasses deep change, imitation that moves from the inside out.

If we’re truly made in the image of God, we have all the room in the world to be wholly ourselves, and we have all the room in the world to emulate the spirit of Christ in everything we do. I don’t think he’ll mind if I don’t get the accent right.

I just have to bring the right spirit to the table. And if I meet him after the play, well… I can only pray that I didn’t screw it up. Although I don’t think he’ll mind that, either.

See you at the show.