I'm writing from Malawi, Africa where I'm spending three weeks assisting my wife's annual visit (she's international programs director for Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance). Through the wonders of wi-fi, I'm here reading this conversation. Responding to Margaret Lukens' reference to what we developed at Family Camp and Pamela's concern that it takes an auteur, I offer this description of a process for converting a Bible story into an improvised, participatory theater event where reflection on what people have done takes scripture into body memory.
I'm in the process of developing this as a replicable method, so am glad to answer questions, clarify, or pursue this in whatever detail would be helpful to anyone (and doing so will help my work as well). My only caveat is that I'm slower, at the moment, at email due to to travel -
The method doesn't work well with every Bible story. It takes a narrative that's more than just a conversation because the improvising structure is based on finding and communicating physical cues (blocking and gesture) in the text. Stories that work very, very well, so examples to hold in mind as you read through this would include the Prodigal Son, Zacchaeus, Jesus healing the blind man in John's Gospel (pretty substantial and a little long, but reach in physical detail), Mary Magadalene at the Tomb (John) and the double resurrection appearance in the upper room (John again). I've discovered John's Gospel stories (unlike the discourses) are remarkably rich in physical description of action, as though the writer had a dramatist's imagination, but any Gospel or other story with physical gesture and conflict and resolution can work.
Here's the description of the method as I've practiced it and begun teaching it - - -
1. read the story over several times (stories with a small to medium sized cast of characters work best and stories with real conflict work best).
2. find ANY physical (posture, touch, movement) cues embedded in the story (e.g. 'Mary Magdalene turned...' or 'Jesus reached out to touch...,' or 'Jesus knelt down to write in the sand...') The physical cues are the essential framework for the improv. (this is a powerful means for the 'preacher-director' to make discoveries including questions of possibly different interpretations in the text - for example, in the appearance to Thomas, does Thomas take Jesus's invitation to place his hands in the nail holes and in the wound in his side? Does he begin to make that gesture and then fall at Jesus' feet? And does Jesus leave him there or raise him up. These can be director's decisions or the director can frame them and leave them to the improvising actors, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
3. where the text offers choices about how to enact (does Jesus appear to Thomas in his sight or behind his back other disciples see him and he has to turn?) make a choice for directing the improvising actors. For this passage in John, I think it's interested to have Thomas first SEE the wonder on the face of the other disciples and then turn to face Jesus. If I'm making a choice that's not determined by the text, I tell people that as we're making the improvisation.
4. study the lines characters speak. Will the words work paraphrased or are there specific words or lines people need to get quite accurately for the story/enactment to make sense? in the later case, plan either to give people an index card (only when they need the line) or feed it to them a phrase at a time and have them repeat it.
that's the planning stage as I do it.
5. In the moment, read or narrate the story and then recruit volunteers from the congregation or group, usually starting with the least challenging roles ('I need three disciples of Jesus who will represent all twelve for us,' or 'we'll need four people to be a crowd of townspeople'), then moving on to more individual and challenging roles ('We'll need a Zacchaeus), to the roles that people might be initially reluctant to volunteer for - 'we'll need someone to be Jesus.') I nearly always find it works to trust who volunteers. I also do gender-blind and age-blind casting. Having a girl or woman play Jesus would be the most obvious example. Sometimes it's revealing and in parables, it's possible to adapt the story to the actors, e.g. the parable of the prodigal daughter or the prodigal son and the dutiful big sister.
6. talk them through the scene using the preparation work you've done ahead. This is something like a rehearsal. It may feel a little stiff, but discovery begins to happen (you'll see and feel it). When you've gone through the story beginning to end as an enactment ask the actors (and then the group) what they felt or saw (not 'thought'). Then invite group and then actors to provide other directorial choices and say, 'shall we try it that way?' and we do it again, concluding with a second conversation about what they felt or saw. Nearly always the second enactment takes on an sincerity, intensity and economy that is full of grace and discovery.
My goal is to get the text embodied and envisioned rather than interpreted. It's more wild and alive that way and stays with people (learning continues past the liturgical or teaching event).
I'm glad to offer clarification or addition to any of this.
Having participated in this kind of thing on several occasions even as a child, I can relate that it is very powerful and transformative work. I mean that it's not just pedagogically useful for conveying the content of the stories, but that it changes you as a person to participate.
If this kind of thing interests you, check out Systemic Constellations, which is a therapy methodology that takes advantage of the mysterious dynamics of drama to affect positive psychological change. I attended one such therapy session back when I was seminary and it was a real eye-opener. Sometime I'll do a long post to tell the remarkable story of that day. Suffice it to say that is not just psycho-bable: drama resonates with something deep in the human condition.