Godspell Mode

I’m in Godspell mode these days.  I’m singing the songs when I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking about scenes and ways to make them better, I daydream about the poster design, I’m reading the book of Matthew nonstop– yep, there’s a lot of Godspell in my life.  And I love it.  So, in the “spare time” (what spare time) I have, I’ve been doing more Godspell research because I’m in the mode.  Lauren told me about Stephen Schwartz’s directors notes being very helpful and indeed they are.  If you ever find yourself directing Godspell (haha…”find yourself directing”, it’s like those dreams when you realize you’re the lead character onstage and you don’t know any lines and have never rehearsed it), but really, if in REALITY you’re directing Godspell, read this note from Stephen Schwartz.  It’s very grounding.  And true.

GODSPELL – Note from the director – Stephen Schwartz 1999 AUTHOR’S NOTE TO THE DIRECTOR

GODSPELL is a deceptively difficult show to direct.

This is primarily because much of the dramatic action, and virtually the entire action of the first act, is sub-textual. The text of Act One is, after all, essentially just a series of lessons and parables in what appears to be no particular order. And while Act Two follows more typically the Passion story, with such familiar scenes as the interrogation of Jesus by the Pharisees, the Last Supper, Gethsemene, and so on, it is still interspersed with stories and teachings. So it is easy for the show to appear formless, or worse, for the ten performers to degenerate into ten stand-up comics vying with one another for laughs and attention. This is the diametric opposite of what GODSPELL is about.

Above all, the first act of GODSPELL must be about the formation of a community. Eight separate individuals, led and guided by Jesus (who is helped by his assistant, John the Baptist/Judas), gradually come to form a communal unit. This happens through the playing of games and the telling and absorption of lessons, and each of the eight individuals has his or her own moment of committing to Jesus and to the community. When Jesus applies clown make-up to their faces after Save the People, he is having them take on an external physical manifestation that they are his disciples, temporarily separating them from the rest of society. But the internal journey of each character is separate and takes its individual course and period of time. Exactly when and why this moment of commitment occurs is one of the important choices each of the actors must make, in collaboration of course with the director. At the end of the first act, the audience is invited to join the community through the sharing of wine (or grape juice), mingling with the actors during the intermission.

In the second act, after an opening number that continues the sense of playfulness and includes some good-natured teasing of Jesus by his followers, Jesus announces: This is the beginning. By this he means that now that the community has been formed, they are ready to move through the challenging sequence of events leading to the Crucifixion. When Jesus removes their make-up, just prior to the Last Supper, he is saying that they have assimilated his teachings into themselves and no longer need the outward trappings that brand them as disciples. And when Jesus is taken from them at the end, the rest of the company remain fused as a community, ready and able to carry forth the lessons they have learned.  If this basic dramatic arc is not achieved, GODSPELL does not exist; no matter how amusing and tuneful individual moments may be, the production has failed.

A few other general issues: It is important that Jesus be the leader at all times, that the energy and attitude of each game come from him, particularly in the first half of the first act. Even when a game or parable is initiated by another of the troupe, there should be a clear sense that it is done for and with the master’s approval. It is easy for the show to appear to be Jesus and his Nine Zany Friends; this is wrong. If a misplaced reverence for Jesus causes him to be played as too serious or passive, the balance of the show is distorted. He is, if you will, the Chief Clown, and must drive the action at all times.

—-(cut out a section here about casting)—

The style of playing is also important to mention. We used to tell cast members in the original production to imagine that the audience was composed of half adults and half children, some of whom were blind and some of whom were deaf. The parables had to be made clear and entertaining to each of these groups. Thus the use of both sophisticated verbal humor and broad physical comedy, to appeal to all the age groups, and the reliance on acting out the stories visually (for the deaf members of the audience) and through the use of different voices and sounds (for the blind members of the audience.

A last issue to discuss here is that of level of production values and tone. When John-Michael Tebelak first conceived and directed GODSPELL, it was set in a distinctly urban and gritty environment — a brick wall at the back and a high chain-link fence that enclosed the action and suggested an inner-city playground. Three unfinished wooden planks and two sawhorses provided the rest of the scenery. All of the props and costume add-ons used in the show came out of garbage bags on stage or were hanging on the fence at the top of the show. In other words, there was an emphasis on simplicity, on Theatre of Poverty, on theatrical magic created by the actors without production values. Above all was the sense of fun and beauty created from urban garbage, like the Watts Towers in inner-city Los Angeles.  The lighting, while colorful, was deliberately rudimentary. In other words, if the set looks too pretty or designed, the lighting too elaborate, or the production too polished, the essence of the show has been lost. And while the setting need not be a graffiti-covered inner-city lot, a feeling of urban blight and poverty is integral to the mood of the show.

In the script that follows, I will attempt to include stage directions that describe what was done in the original production and discuss the underlying idea and purpose of the action. While a creative director is free to alter the specifics, it is important to remain true to the subtextual content, motivations, and dramatic structure. — Stephen Schwartz


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