At Salt Lake Valley church, the play's message is the thing
Murray • You could call 10-year-old Victor Hollenbach a veteran actor.
After all, he's been in eight plays, four of them at Calvary Chapel Salt Lake, a nondenominational Christian church sitting gracefully and unobtrusively in a Murray industrial complex near Interstate 15.
This time around, the versatile boy is playing a hunchback, a dwarf and a prince. But he still needs stage direction.
"A little more emotion," director Annie Fields calls out to him at one point in the action that required a tad more, well, drama. "Say it like you've just been punched in the gut."
Fields sits on the front row of the gray-carpeted sanctuary, with the stage in front of her and a giant wooden cross off to her left. The platform, typically used for the worship band during services, has been transformed into a woodland with narrow painted trees awash in fluttering leaves and little creatures.
The 23-member cast ranging in age from 5 to 32 is rehearsing its upcoming play, "Once Upon a Forest," an evening of whimsical Christian fairy tales.
It is a play within a play, featuring six short pieces, Fields says. The woodland imps of Fiddlehead Forest are putting on a play for their family and friends under the leadership of "Trinity Fiametta," described as a "fairy godmother character who represents the Holy Spirit."
Each piece has a strong Christian message some light and fun, others more direct.
The young actors like Victor assume multiple roles.
In the final scene, about a king and his son, some don green felt huntsman hats (think Robin Hood), some wear cross-bearing sheaths, while the youngest scatter across the stage in brown floppy animal ears.
"Keep those hoods down," Fields warns a foursome playing criminals, dressed in gold-hooded capes, as they run offstage. "When they stick up, you look like the Ku Klux Klan."
But Fields is always amiable, never irritated even when she has to explain the word "whimsical" to one of the main actors for the second time.
These are kids and volunteers, and their subject ultimately is one Christians believe is the greatest story ever told: Jesus' sacrifice for humanity.
A faithful stage • A longtime theater buff, Fields dreamed of becoming the first Christian mime.
So she moved to the Beehive State in 1978 to learn from master teacher Gregg Goldston, an expert in classical and modern mime. She earned a theater degree from the University of Utah and later a master's at California State University, Fullerton.
From around 2002 to 2008, Fields went to work for Hale Centre Theatre, doing everything from teaching classes to stage managing, set painting and coaching actors. She also ran a summer youth program. She also taught theater classes at the U. and then at Salt Lake Community College.
But she yearned to combine that training and experience with somewhat-loftier goals to upgrade Christian theater.
In 2009, Fields launched Parable Productions to produce more full-length works at Calvary, where she also is a co-director of children's ministry.
Since then, Fields has written and directed about three plays a year, drawing on actors across the religious spectrum Lutherans, evangelicals, Mormons, Catholics, even atheists to produce works that offer upbeat, spiritual messages without heavy-handed preaching.
"We do plays in a church," Field says. "We do not do church plays."
That approach resonates with young people at Calvary and all around.
"We do it because it's fun," says Sarah Roberts, 15. "It's better than drugs and gangs, and it makes me feel closer to God."
Oh, yeah, she recalls with a laugh, "we even did a play about drugs."
Sara Eatough, a Hillcrest High student, loves the combination of faith and theater.
"It helps me feel close to my Savior," Sara says. "I can now imagine what it would be like to see him crucified."
Adds 14-year-old Kiara Henry: "I know he would be there for me."
Playing Jesus • In this play's final scene, Mike Melendez plays the Christ.
While the narrator-turned-singer belts out, "I Hear His Voice," a white-robed Melendez and the rest of the cast wordlessly act out scenes from the New Testament.
Jesus heals a lame woman, gives sight to a blind man, teaches a group of children while others pass fishes and bread from baskets. Finally, he is dragged off to the cross. Imaginary nails are driven into his palms, until he goes limp. Young actors carry his lifeless body offstage "This is our second Jesus we've buried," Fields says. "In our last play, 'Godspell,' the kids had to carry him all the way up the aisle" but he quickly re-emerges.
"Act more surprised," Fields calls to them. "This is new. He said he was going to come back but you didn't believe it. You didn't expect to see him again."
The cast joins hands and circles Jesus, dancing with joy.
After performances, the actors often go out of the sanctuary into the church's lobby and talk to audience members about the show. Sometimes, they say, people are weeping.
For Melendez, these are emotion-packed scenes.
"Playing Jesus gives me a new perspective than just listening to sermons or reading about him," the actor says. "When I'm backstage I want to bust out and cry, knowing what he did for me."
But the plays, he says, are more subtle than pushy.
"We're taking it to God," Melendez says. "But we are not shoving Christ down anyone's throat."
Even atheists, he says, enjoy the shows.
Fairy tales at the Calvary Chapel
What • "Once Upon a Forest," an evening of whimsical Christian fairy tales
When • 7 p.m. from April 19-22, 26-29
Where • Calvary Chapel Salt Lake, 460 W. Century Drive (4350 South), Murray
Cost • $5; children under 8 are free