Doing whatever kindles love
Actors play roles. They tap into another persona, place themselves in a world that is not their own and develop a character. Sometimes the roles are fictional; sometimes they are based on real people. It can be difficult to emulate a character whose story is real, because that is when emotions are most real, stories most poignant and messages most challenging.
Those are just the sort of emotions, stories and messages that Bluffton students embraced in order to perform the fall theatre production of Whatever Kindles, a fictional docudrama about Christian Peacemaker Teams and individuals' responses to Jesus' call to peacemaking in the world. The production ran Nov. 12-16, 2008.
Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) began in 1987 as an effort by Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren to explore alternatives to war and violence. The organization sends individuals who are trained in methods of nonviolent intervention into areas of conflict around the world. Written by former CPT reservist Tricia Gates Brown, Whatever Kindles depicts the struggles and triumphs of CPT workers in Colombia, Iraq and Palestine.
Director Dr. Melissa Friesen was attracted to the play's message and its timely connection with Bluffton's yearlong civic-engagement theme "Living with Uncertainty in a Complex World." "I am constantly seeking scripts for production which will not only challenge our student performers, technicians and audiences aesthetically and intellectually, but also connect to Bluffton's mission," says Friesen, who is associate professorof theatre and communication and the Mary Nord Ignat and Joseph Ignat Chair in Theatre. "Scripts which specifically address nonviolence as a tool for social change and an ethical and moral imperative are rare."
In choosing such a script, the possibility that the performance would stir a lot of emotions both for the cast members and the audience became real. Rehearsals began in late September, giving students a little more than one month to step into their roles.
"As actors, we had to tap into different facets of emotions in a short time," says senior Nicole Bontrager (Goshen, Ind.), who performed the role of a Colombian CPT member. "Hopelessness. Fear. Strength. Frustration. Abundance of hope. It's hard to switch back and forth, but you appreciate more and more what CPT workers do. This story needed to be told, and I wanted to convey my character, Maria Inez, in a way that would share its meaning with others."
Twenty-one students filled roles, seven of whom stepped into the shoes of fictional CPT workers. The cast and crew met with current and past CPT workers to hear their stories, see their pictures and receive insight into how to emulate real tension in the play. Sophomore Aaron Yost (Pinetop, Ariz.) played Bill, a CPT worker in his mid 60s who served in Hebron and Iraq. "It was less like playing a character in a play," says Yost of his performance. "It felt real to be Bill, especially after I met a CPT worker who had actually lived in Hebron and Iraq."
During rehearsals, cast members grappled with the realization of what CPT workers do in order to make small differences in large conflicts. They struggled with the lack of tangible results. "CPT workers don't always see a change or grand accomplishment," says Yost. "CPT's goal is to stand insolidarity with people. But that's hard when you want to see results." Bontrager agreed, adding that it was frustrating to take little steps in the right direction instead of monumental ones. "CPT's work isn't going to change an international law," she says. "But, it's changing hearts, one at a time. It's about relating to people and, through your presence, sharing your faith and struggles. It's more of a chain event."
As the students performed each night, there was evidence of reflection and reaction in the audience. Talk-back sessions following performances created a space for open dialogue with cast members, CPT workers and community members.
"You could tell people were really thinking about what they had just experienced," says senior Anna Yoder (Eureka, Ill.), who served as a dramaturge, or research assistant, for the production, along with Yost. "Their questions allowed us as a cast to see that we had shared the message of CPT, and that they were thinking about the call to peacemaking. Those were the glimpses of change that are important to us."
While the message may be difficult and outcomes hard to see, Christian Peacemaker Teams continues to work for change in a very uncertain world. Being part of Whatever Kindles gave Bluffton students the chance to support the organization's mission and be challenged to think about what it means to practice nonviolence on a daily basis.
"It's like the last line of the play says: 'Do whatever kindles love,'" says Yost. "Sometimes that means doing something that doesn't accomplish anything tangible. But, if it forms relationships and kindles love, than it's still doing something. If everyone had that mindset, we could create much-needed change."