Jon DeVries on Enacted Revelation Passages
Maybe you have been moved by the power of enacted scripture dramas at a Calvin Symposium on Worship. Now you can learn from Jon DeVries how to create them.
Jon DeVries is a 2017 Calvin College graduate who double majored in theater and business. He was involved in enacted scripture and theater throughout college. He also has experience in theater operations and church youth work. In this edited conversation, DeVries explains how you can do enacted scripture in your setting.
How did you come to create these enacted Revelation passages?
I served as the Calvin College chapel resident artist in charge of dramas for my last 18 months in college. Each semester, the chapel staff chose the texts, and I chose five to eight of them to enact. In fall 2016, Calvin Campus Ministries dove into the book of Revelation, and, as the chapel’s resident artist, I dove in too.
I randomly selected four Revelation texts, which turned out to follow an overarching line that moved from promise and hardship to the glory to come—much like Calvin’s mantra of creation, fall, and redemption. The result was four dramas that, like medieval cycle plays, may be performed separately but convey a deeper meaning when performed together. We performed the Revelation 7 enactment at the 2017 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
What did you focus on in each Revelation enactment?
Revelation 1 sets the scene of John the Apostle addressing the ancient churches with a message that extends beyond time and place to include all believers. In Revelation 7, John reveals a vision about a promised kingdom with no more tears. This exciting future reality is sharply juxtaposed by Revelation 13’s troubling kingdom of deception. However, Revelation 21-22 shows that God’s kingdom prevails over darkness. We’re all invited to take hold of the promised opportunity of eternity together glorifying God.
How do you create an enacted script?
I usually spend a week arranging a chosen passage into a script. I develop these dramas collaboratively with my peers, pinpointing key ideas and emotions in the text. We spend time studying the passage and exploring our own reactions to deepen our personal understanding, since finding an individual connection to the scriptural text is important when trying to recreate the experience for audiences.
Scripting these dramas carries the risk of falling into blasphemy. You must consider what can be shown, what must be spoken, what can be arranged, and what must occur as written. The finished script has to be true to the scripture. I send my scripts to chapel staff for the all-clear before handing it off to actors.
What was your role in finding actors, rehearsing, and directing?
I was the main speaker in each Revelation enactment, the first two onstage and the second two offstage. I made those casting decisions primarily so as to not overburden my volunteer actors. I find actors by leveraging my friendships and theater connections. I like to have a diverse representation of gender and ethnicity when possible, since those presenting the text should reflect God’s future kingdom. We rehearse twice, once to nail down blocking, and the second time to work the piece fully memorized. I direct all the pieces, even when I act in them, but I keep my directing style open and collaborative. Often the finished product is the result of a group effort that is beyond my individual vision.
In your experience, what can enacted scripture do in worship?
I began enacting scripture as a college freshman. In my junior year, I took a leadership role. I also acted in scripture dramas back at my home church, New Life Christian Reformed Church in New Lenox, Illinois. This experience has taught me why enacted scripture is so powerful. It takes the concept of “Word became flesh” quite literally by dramatically embodying verses straight from the biblical text.
The Scriptures were always meant to be read aloud and presented to a community. Enacting a text engages the actors and the audience receiving it. It’s communal at heart, employing a variety of art forms in a creative act reminiscent of the Creator. Like the oral tradition, this form insightfully presents God’s word to new and learned Christians and unbelievers. And it’s a form of personal and communal worship that fully incorporates body, mind, and spirit in admiring our Creator.
What’s your advice for worship directors who want to do enacted scripture but lack drama experience?
I have four suggestions:
- My many years of theatrical experience, churchgoing, and Christian education gave me a great foundational knowledge and network of relationships. So I advise leveraging the Christian and theater relationships you have.
- Work closely with the minister and anyone else planning the service to make sure you all know the sermon text’s key ideas. Make sure you’re all onboard with the text application. Basically, make sure the emphasis of your piece fits into the greater whole of the worship service.
- If you have no theatrical experience, find a Christian who knows how to write scripts, direct, design, and act. Trust me, they’re out there. You can find books on all these processes. But ultimately, learning what works or not comes down to practice. Go and see theater. You’ll quickly learn what reads well on stage, and your ideas for what can be possible will extend tenfold.
- Debra and Ron Rienstra’s book Worship Words is helpful in analyzing the importance of the words we choose when presenting God’s word to his people.
What’s your advice on physical props, lighting, sounds, music, audience participation, or other dramatic elements?
Hard and fast rule: if it’s not promoting and clarifying the main point of the scriptural text, don’t do it. Given time and money, you can do many cool things—but the moment enacted scripture becomes self-indulgent, it is no longer enacted scripture but merely a performance.
Start by making sure you have everything that is necessary, usually just actors and a stage. Then move on to thinking of ways to enhance the message. Incorporating lights, sound, props, and music makes worship multisensory, a worthy calling for worshiping a God who wants every part of us. But it can quickly detract from true worship as much as we hope it might add. It’s a fine line that you’ll still question even after years of experience.
Do you advise inviting the audience—that is, the listeners or worshipers—into the enactment?
Part of me honestly thinks that audience participation is cliché. But another part of me feels it’s profoundly important to invite the congregation into the story as active participants or active observers. I want them to experience the scripture, not just listen to it. Pulling them into the narrative empowers them to take charge of the words they themselves speak. It reminds everyone that we are all part of God’s big story.
How do you decide whether a given passage would work better as a straight reading, choral reading, enacted scripture, or another form?
I don’t make the decision of whether or not to do enacted scripture for a text, because, if I’m working on a text, it’s going to be an enacted piece. However, I would suggest that almost any scripture can be made into an enacted piece. Dynamic narrative pieces tend to be easier, but there’s also something challenging and beautiful about enacting something like a psalm.
Also, for frequently read passages so familiar that people are tempted to zone out, try enacting them. When done well, this unique form of presentation can capture a listener’s attention and shed new or renewed light on a text.