Drama explores power of conscience

We Are The Body rehearsal with actors John McIver and Heather Pattengale.


We Are The Body rehearsal with actors John McIver and Heather Pattengale.

May 18, 2015

Coptic Christians calling out to Jesus during their execution on a Libyan beach.

Gunmen storming Garissa University College in Kenya, targeting and shooting dead scores of Christian students.

Iraqi Christians trapped in the mountains fleeing Islamic State persecution.

That Christians being killed for their faith has become a regular story on the evening news makes We Are The Body, a new play from Calgary-based Burnt Thicket Theatre, tragically relevant.

"I don't think anybody can look at the news and not say this is a relevant question – the question of religious persecution and how does a person hold on to their belief," said Stephen Waldschmidt, director of We Are The Body.

The play tells the story of Elsie, Richard and Micah – three prisoners of conscience in 1950 communist Romania.

Tapping to each other in Morse code – the only form of communication for the prisoners in solitary confinement – is one convention stylized in the play.

The character Richard, a pastor, is based on Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Christian minister who was imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs. His sermons, tapped out with a pebble on a water pipe, are a lifeline that helps his fellow prisoners survive.

But the play, said Waldschmidt, is no sermon. "It's not a proselytization piece; it's not an apologetic for Christian faith.

"It's more of an exploration of these Christians' particular experience and I think it will be received as that and not as a sermon."

The way people learn things from stories and theatre is different from learning through a lesson or a sermon, said Waldschmidt.

They learn, he said, by imaginatively entering into another person's skin for the duration of the play, getting to know the people behind the characters and wrestling with their point of view.

"I think Christians will be deeply touched and impacted and find much to wrestle with in the play in terms of faith in Jesus and the fact that we are the body of Christ across denominational lines, across international lines, that we are brothers and sisters," he said.

"But I think a general audience will also be touched and see that actually it's not just Christians who are one in some sense, but that we are all beautiful creations of a loving God and that we share in our humanity.

"We are connected and we can stand with our brothers and sisters as humans."

Waldschmidt said his Christian faith does impact his work. He seeks to approach his work as Jesus would if he were the director or actor of the play.

"I believe that anything I'm working on I'm working on in partnership with God," he said.

Heather Pattengale, the actress who plays Elsie, drew from her personal experience as a Christian and a wife to bring the character to life.

The script, written by playwright Andrew Kooman, made it easy to just jump into the role, Pattengale said.

"The way that Andrew has written it, it's really easy to just jump into this rollercoaster, just say the words and the emotion is just tied to them," she said.

Pattengale loves playing her character Elsie, she said, an atheist who ends up in prison after converting.

"She's spicy and fiery and gave me permission to tap into those parts of myself," said Pattengale.

"I totally latched onto her and her creativeness and her defiance and also her great love for her fellow prisoners and the people in her life before the war."

The world premiere of We Are The Body opened May 5, at Scott Block Theatre in Red Deer. The tour continues with a run at Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary May 13-23.