"Go forth and make disciples of all nations" ~ Matthew 28:19
By: Chris Spilka
“Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret! Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating, right this way your table’s waiting.” Gosh, I love the stage! For those who have felt that nervous and exciting pit in your stomach on opening night, you know it’s a feeling like nothing else! That adrenaline rush that you get when your Stage Manager says “5 minutes to places”, wow! When you utter that first note after the orchestra has finished playing the overture, many times you’re left breathless. That feeling you get when you know you absolutely killed it on your monologue, solo or dance break makes the months of rehearsal so worth it.
The feelings that you get from being on stage are astonishing to say the least. To be quite honest with you, I don’t even know if there are words to describe some of things that I’ve felt standing in front of an audience. While reflecting on the memories of that time where I actually fell in love for real on stage, or that time that I actually cried singing ‘Little Fall of Rain’ while Eponine died in my arms during a production of Les Miserables, I thought about the things that make the stage real. As a thespian, so many times I think we forget about the meaning of what we are doing and why we do it. If you take a look at the common actor, I think you have to ask yourself a variety of questions. Are we up there because we want to showcase our talents, or are we up there because we want to portray an incredible life lesson to an audience member? Do we want to be casted as characters like Billy Bigelow in Carousel or Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray for the show stopping songs they sing? Or do we believe in their story and we believe we can make that story a reality? And then I thought to myself, ‘wow these are questions of faith!’
Your Universal Message
Pope John Paul II, one of the most revered Saints in our history, was a huge advocate of the performing arts. My love for this Saint originally came from two different ideals that have changed my life. For one, his 1983 call for a new evangelization in our Church is the reason why I have a job as a Youth Minister today. Two, his Theology of the Body series has quite honestly changed my life. Go JP2! The advice that he gives through these two missions call for us to change the way in which we relate and make the Gospel real for everyone. As a Catholic, I think that is a huge challenge when we face different walks of life everyday. We face people at work and school that have a polar opposite belief system as us. As an actor, you are called to relate your character’s story to your audience--an audience that likely consists of aunt Mable, the boyfriend who’s only there because he wants brownie points or the over obsessive theater fan who’s ready to criticize everything on stage from the set to the orchestra. It’s tough! However, it is your job as an actor to create a character who can universally relate their message to any audience member. The same is true as a follower of Christ. Creating a testimony that can universally relate to anyone is what builds the body of Christ and makes your story of faith real.
Make Your Story Real!
If you have followed me closely you know that I am a huge fan of Les Miserables! The story itself consists of a variety of themes from human suffering, despair, brotherhood, tragedy, love, hope, and everything else in between! It’s just very real. In 2012, I played Marius in a local theatre company’s production of ‘Les Mis’. Marius is a student revolutionary in 19th century France who quickly falls in love with a girl named Cosette. (Spoiler Alert!) After a barrage of attacks, Marius is the only one in his platoon to survive. Marius’ final solo, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” expresses his despair over the sacrifice of his lost companions. Before one of my rehearsals, I remember my Director at the time asked me to come over to where he was sitting because he wanted to have a chat. For you theatre gurus out there, when the Director calls you over for a one on one, it’s usually not a good sign! I stood there and he asked me “What would Chris Spilka do if he had lost all of his friends?” Perplexed by the question I said, “Umm I don’t know, be filled with anger?” He told me, “Nope. The Chris Spilka I know would be so sad that he would be moved to tears.” I was stunned. This was certainly an epiphany that changed my thought process on the character completely. That night during rehearsal I sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” with feelings of remorse, dejection and pain. My Director at end of the song was moved to tears. As an actor, if you aren’t connected with your character then you’re screwed. If you can’t understand whom it is that you’re portraying, then people have a funny way of smelling blood in the water. As a Christian, you need to discover who you are and what your relationship with God is. If you’re portraying an ideology to others or if you’re acting like someone that you aren’t, than its fair to say that you’re a hypocrite! And we all know what Jesus thought of those folks (Pharisees, Scribes, Judas, Etc.). Connect with God on an intimate level, pray to him often, follow his Commandments, and you will very quickly figure out who you are, where you are with your relationship with God and what it is that you need to do to make that relationship even stronger!
One of the most fun experiences I ever had on stage was when I did the show Xanadu. I played Sonny Malone and was graced with the chance to roller skate; wear shorts that definitely would not be approved on one of my Life Teen retreats and sing notes I barely used to hit before puberty. One of my idols Cheyenne Jackson was part of the original 2007 Broadway cast and this guy portrayed the role in a way that had me rolling on the floor. His singing was flawless, his pauses and portrayal of phrases were genius, and quite honestly Chris was a little jelly (That means jealous in teen world). I wanted to be Cheyenne Jackson! So what did I do? I went on YouTube and studied him constantly. After studying him I would go to rehearsal and imitate what he did in the clips. It was weird though, everyday I rehearsed I would get more and more upset that I couldn’t do what Cheyenne did. I didn’t hit the notes as clean as he did, I didn’t feel like I was as funny as he was and to be honest, he roller-skated way better than I did (I fell on opening night :/)! Remember earlier how I said if your Director calls you over for a chat it’s usually not good, well here we go again! My Director pulls me aside and says “Chris how much are you listening to the Broadway production CD’s?” Defeated, I said, “Umm just a little bit..” He said, “Chris I don’t ever want to hear you imitating someone else’s rendition of the song again!” Jesus left behind a way of life that we as Christians were meant to imitate. If you aren’t familiar with what those things are open that little Bible you have at home and take a look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), Jesus’ top commandment which is to love (John 13:34), and the mic Jesus drops when he tells us to take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). However, while we are meant to live a life where we follow in the footsteps of Christ, the way in which we do that should be different from others. God created everyone differently in His image and likeness. I have yet to find the verse in the Bible that says we are created in the image and likeness of St. Peter. I laugh sometimes when I hear some Christians say they want to devote their lives to imitating specific Saints. If you are sitting at home saying ‘I want to imitate Saint Paul’, I’m worried--that guy killed a crap load of people before he came to know Christ! The Saints provide us real insight as to how they followed Christ. They did so by imitating Christ in their own way. We are called to do the same. Follow Christ and be the Saint that He is calling You to be.
On stage you’ll have moments where you’re going to want to sing “Music of the Night” better than Michael Crawford, but fall short. Times where you try to impersonate Audra Mcdonalds rendition of “Summertime”, but get discouraged. When this happens, understand that you are apart of something bigger! Faith is crazy but it’s your faith. It’s not Michael’s faith, it’s not Audra’s faith, it’s your faith! Make it a real, don’t impersonate and God is going to have some big things in store for you. If you follow your Directors plan than you’re going to put on one heck of a show! If you follow God’s plan, than you’ll be the Saint that others revere down the road. I hope to God they’re revering and not impersonating. Maybe then my blog post will still be around for them to read!