Actor Stefan Smart Talks About Performing the Complete Gospel of Mark With a Kitchen Chair
Almost 2000 years ago, the greatest story ever told made the front page news in Palestine and beyond, all over the great Roman Empire. The headlines proclaimed: Christ is Risen!
Of course, it was not quite like this. The Romans did not have any printed newspapers or digital media. The Gospel of Mark (the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’) might have been delivered to eager audiences much like British actor Stefan Smart does in his one-man show I Am Mark. Stefan’s partner on stage, however, would not have been known in the first century. Stefan performs with a kitchen chair! If your children - or you yourself - find it hard to enjoy reading the Gospel, watch the performance of I Am Mark and see Stefan tell the good news with all the fire and joy Mark himself must have felt. How about making this part of your Easter celebrations?
CMAX.TV has produced I Am Mark in a four part series.
I had the great privilege and pleasure to ask Stefan Smart some questions. I hope you will enjoy this interview. It is quite a story in itself.
Where are you from and what is your family back ground?
I’m from Watford in the UK. I wasn’t raised a Catholic but someone in my close family was Orthodox. I became a Christian when I was 24 and a joined a nondenominational charismatic evangelical church. Having said that I’m very contemplative in orientation and have recently found great solace and wisdom in Ignatian spirituality. So I’m fairly well versed in and sympathetic towards Catholic theology and practice. And have quite a few friends who are Roman Catholics. So I guess I’m a Protestant, with Catholic leanings!
You say you used to be a schoolteacher. How did you come to acting?
So I used to perform quite a bit while I was at university in student productions, and trained to be a teacher of Drama as well as English. I did this for over 25 years in a secondary (11-18) school in the UK. But I’ve only taken up acting again seriously in the last ten years.
The big question: What made you perform the Gospel of Mark on stage?
So, as an English teacher, I used to love telling short stories to my students. Not just any stories - ones with literary merit which would really relate to that age group. One such story was ‘Through the Tunnel’ by Doris Lessing. It’s about a young boy who challenges himself to swim under water beneath a great coral reef. He nearly dies in the attempt but makes it in the end, and it’s very very gripping. I used to love telling that story, and enjoyed using gesture and characterisation to enhance its appeal. I must have told it 30 or 40 times to various classes over the years. The thing I appreciated most was the way in which the students were completely mesmerised by the story, as was I. We seemed to be transported to an imaginary world, where our pale existences, with their attendant worries and preoccupations, faded into the background. It was as if I held them, so to speak, ‘in the palm of my hand.’ After one such telling, when the class were particularly electrified, I began to ask myself, how I could best link what seemed to be this gift for telling stories well to my Christian faith? Was there a similarly dramatic Christian story, one that I could perform and not just tell? It was then that I hit upon the Gospel of Mark.
You see, I knew that the Gospel had been performed in this way before, most famously by an actor called Alec McCowen in the 1970s, who had taken his one man show on to Broadway and the West End, to wow sell-out crowds. This was in the King James Version of the Bible, and what made it particularly appealing, I think, was that he performed all the characters and the narrator, Mark, himself. I thought to myself, If he could do it, then so could I!
The other thing about Mark’s version that grabbed my attention was that it was the most dramatic of the four Gospels. It’s full of twists and turns, and full on conflicts, pain and suffering, as well as containing some of the most moving scenes in the whole Bible. If I was going to make the Bible in any way exciting, then it was going to have to be Mark! Finally, I was comforted by the fact that Mark’s Gospel is very short; at only 11, 000 words, it’s the skimpiest of the Gospel accounts. This made it instantly attractive, from the point of view of learning all those lines!
That explains why I chose Mark’s Gospel on stage. What I feel I need to say a little more about is my motivation for telling Bible stories in the first place - this one in particular. Initially, I’ll be honest, I was simply trying something out. I wasn’t necessarily convinced that this was something that I had been ‘called’ to do; I just wanted to use my talents for God’s glory and to enjoy the experience. So to start with, I used to perform the odd passage or two in churches as a sort of entertainment, though I hoped that my audiences would find it edifying. The response was generally very favourable, indeed in a large number of cases, quite electric. But I still didn’t know whether this was a thing I was ‘supposed’ to do. Until that is, I went on a silent retreat for a weekend of recuperation. After I had centred down and got quiet, I went on a walk with God. And as I walked, the whole subject of Mark’s Gospel came up. I was basically having it out with God, as honestly and forthrightly as I dared. Had he called me to do this or not? And if so, where and when? For goodness sake, I argued, I hadn’t even got a name for the production! (I had of course used names before, but none of my previous choices had felt ‘right’). Even more frustratingly, I had recently had this outrageous idea of performing the whole of the Gospel at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, a famous UK institution where anyone can turn up, stand on a step ladder and start speaking their mind - all at the same time! But I just didn’t know whether it was something God wanted, or whether I was on one big ‘ego trip’. “Please God,” I cried out, “Give me a sign. Just give me a sign!” As soon as I finished praying, I found that my walk had taken me into a parking lot by a beach. And as I looked up I saw a notice for drivers which said, PARK MARK.
It was a sign - a literal sign! At once I knew I had found what I had been pleading for - a great, big YES from the Lord: YES to doing this in the first place; YES to the idea of doing it in Hyde Park; and, while we are about it, a fantastic idea for a name; that was obvious now: Mark in the Park.
So I took it to Hyde Park and all the other Speakers’ Corners in the UK, then to cathedrals and schools, then to a prison, then to a sellout run at a secular theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and finally on film for CMaxTV. By that stage it had acquired a new name: I AM MARK.
I tell this story because it illustrates my essential motivation in telling this tale. It’s great for Christians, don’t get me wrong. We churchgoers very seldom listen to the Gospels being read from beginning to end. Instead we read them in snatches. But this is not how they were originally intended to be read. Moreover in a largely oral culture, they were created to be read aloud, and performed as a dramatisation like I do it, not just recited. We lose the flavour and the finesse of God’s Word if we don’t have the opportunity to experience it in this way, in all its complexity and inter-connectedness. Not to mention the fact that, contrary to some people’s perceptions, Mark’s theology is extremely rich: it’s not just an exciting tale; it’s radical, revolutionary stuff, which, in my view, offers quite a challenge to polite Christianity.
But my adventure in the Car Park, particularly that divine invitation to perform in Parks, assured me that my main audience was meant to be the general public, not just Christians; that this was a story God wanted everyone to hear. So my mission is essentially evangelistic, though evangelism with a soft edge. No preaching or Bible-thumping, just an exciting story to stir the emotions and set the mind racing, with maybe an opportunity for some questions and a conversation afterwards.
Could you briefly describe your show? How long is it? How long did it take you to learn the text by heart?
It’s a one person word for word dramatisation of the whole of Mark’s Gospel with an interval and a Q&R at the end. So in full, the whole show lasts for two hours and forty minutes. That is what you can hear and see on the recent CMaxTV film version of the show, although you get to watch it in four distinct episodes of about 40 minutes each. Having said that, I tend to perform a much shorter show when I’m live on stage or in the open air. I generally do a ‘best of Mark’ production of about one hour and ten minutes, and follow that with a Question and Answer session with the actor.
It took me eight long years to learn it all by heart, though don’t forget, I was a busy school teacher in those days and I only performed excerpts to start with.
You say Mark is the greatest story ever written. Why Mark rather than the other Gospels? Why did you choose to perform Mark?
I don’t think I’m alone in claiming it’s the Greatest Story Ever Told. Mark himself implies as much in his very first words, a kind of announcement, which some scholars think is the title of the piece: ‘The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ Now that’s an awesome billing! Why Mark? I think I’ve answered that one already.
You say the Gospel of Mark was intended to be “performed” live and in one sitting. Please explain.
So, to extrapolate a little more, many scholars now think that Mark’s Gospel was meant to be performed by one person, not just recited. We know this partly because Mark included lots of memory tags in the narrative, which was of course written in common Greek. A memory tag is a repeated phrase at various intervals to help with the lines learning process. My understanding is that various deacons (both male and female) were trained up to learn the text and then travel across the Roman world to perform before the fledgling Christian communities. I also like to think that it was performed before secular audiences in marketplaces.
Why the chair and only the chair? Why don’t you use more props and costumes?
The chair is another character as well as being a prop. In fact some of my friends say it’s a much better actor than me, and far less wooden! Joking aside (lol), the chair makes this performance unique, in so far as the audience are constantly being surprised by how it’s employed. One moment it’s a fishing boat, the next it’s a mountain, or a pig, or a deaf person, or a demon-possessed boy, or a cornfield, or a tree, or a dinner plate, or a prison - the list is endless. Here I have to thank my wonderful director, Lisa Gilmour, who came up with most of the ideas! To be fair, it’s not the only prop. I do have some locusts, a jar of honey and a prayer shawl. But that’s about it. Otherwise, it’s a plain and simple kitchen chair - and me.
What happens to you when you act out the Gospel of Mark?
O my, what a good question! Well, when I’m on form, it’s a prayer more than anything else. I try to concentrate on Jesus, and imagine the scenes being enacted before me, and many many times I’ve found myself being swept away or utterly transported by the power of the words I’m proclaiming and what is happening on stage. They really are the word of God, you know, and they carry with them a power all of their own! The most poignant times have often been during rehearsal when I’ve come across a line and have been moved to tears by the poignancy of a sentence I’ve just spoken. Sometimes the words have seemed to speak right into my personal situation. My sincere hope is that, through the Holy Spirit, the audience will experience something of this, too, whatever their background or religious beliefs. For a sense of what happened at one memorable performance in Watford High Street in the UK - see the Facebook post below:
How do you explain your success?
In a word: God. I feel that once I said my YES to doing it to a largely secular and potentially hostile audience in Hyde Park, God set the ball rolling in a way that has seen the production take off rapidly. Basically, whatever my strengths or limitations as an actor, it’s anointed. Apart from that, lots of prayer and hard work! And brilliant suggestions from my director!
How do children and teens like your show?
When I’ve occasionally produced it in schools, I’ve been very surprised by how the students have reacted. Before I worked with youngsters I used to think that they would find my performance boring and, frankly, irrelevant to their lives, especially if they weren’t Christians or church goers. But in actual fact, my teen audiences, in public school as well as independent education, have almost universally been mesmerised. Though shorter than most, these performances are among my most treasured memories. The atmosphere on each of these occasions has been electric.
Are you planning more shows, the other gospels or other books in the Bible, or something completely different?
Yes! The big project for release next year is ‘St John in Exile’, another one man show by Don Berrigan, in which St John the Apostle, now imprisoned on the island of Patmos, tells of his recollections of Jesus, and what he meant to him. It’s very funny and very, very moving. In the meantime, I’m hoping to produce some enacted readings of the Psalms for video, and to start rehearsals for another Biblical street drama, a solo word for word dramatization of the story of Jonah, which I’m calling THE BIG FISH.
Can you tell us about Behold!
Behold! is the name of my fledgling Theatre Company. I started it this year having just retired from my school teaching job after 34 years.
Are you working with others on this project? Would you like them to be mentioned?
O yes! My current producers and supporters in the US deserve special appreciation: notably my Executive Producer, Deacon Darrell Wentworth, who believed in the show enough to have it filmed for CMAX.TV, David Mims, our Film Editor, CMAX.TV President and CEO, Ashley Zahorian, and Jeanie Egolf, founder of Perpetual Light Publishing, a Catholic publishing service focusing on good books for children and families. Nor should I neglect to thank the wonderful Mikey Oldfield, Tom Ensom and Phil Griffiths at SixthDayFilm. And finally huge respect and heartfelt gratitude go to my three directors, who, at various stages, generously gave of their particular expertise in producing what you see today - Janie Price, my erstwhile colleague and Head of Drama; Neil Maddock, my good friend and director and founder of MARTIS Productions; and last but far from least, Lisa Gilmour, also my ex Head of Drama and the spiritual as well as the artistic hub around which much of what I do flows.
Thank you very much, Stefan, you are a wonderful storyteller. Who could possibly resist watching I Am Mark after this interview? God bless you and your show.
I Am Mark is available in various formats from CMax.TV’.
Visit Stefan’s website www.iam-mark.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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