Kent Bernhardt: God bless us every one
All of the love I have in my heart for good live theater can be traced to one date: December 24, 1975.
It was on that night I fell in love with the stage.
Sure, I’d been in numerous productions during my early childhood. In the second grade, I borrowed a pair of my grandmother’s old glasses to play a grandpa who sang “Hush Little Baby” to a toy doll. They had so little confidence in my vocal abilities, they just had me lip synch it to a record.
In the fourth grade in a play about Johnny Appleseed, I desperately wanted to be cast as one of the boys who pointed toy rifles in the air and yelled “Bang, Bang, Bang!” Instead, I was relegated to a chorus that continually sang the phrase “Oh Johnny....Oh Johnny...how you can love.”
I couldn’t have cared less about Johnny Appleseed’s love life. I wanted to shoot something. My protests about being miscast fell on deaf ears.
But in the fall of 1975, I was handpicked by the pastor of my church to play Ebeneezer Scrooge in a modest, low budget production of Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”
It was an ambitious part; Scrooge is in virtually every scene and does most of the talking, so I was both honored, challenged, and to be honest, a bit frightened.
We would have as much lighting, makeup, and costuming as our meager means would permit. And it would be performed in front of the full congregation on Christmas Eve.
I’m not sure why we chose to perform that particular play as a church play on Christmas Eve; the baby Jesus doesn’t even make a cameo appearance. But no matter, I was going to be a star.
The cast was set, including my older brother who was to be Jacob Marley. Marley, as you recall, was Scrooge’s former partner now living in the spirit world wearing the chains he forged in life.
One word of advice: If you ever happen to direct a church play, don’t put brothers on stage together. They spend most of their time either arguing or completely unable to take each other seriously. The sight of my brother rattling his chains broke me up during each rehearsal, and also during the performance as I recall.
The pastor, as the Ghost of Christmas present, announced just before opening that he was far too busy to memorize his lines, so he was just going to “wing it.” I can tell you from my years of theatrical experience that you never want to work in live theater with an actor who’s just “winging it.”
He would not only change his lines at each rehearsal, but he managed to also give his character a completely new personality with each new paragraph. Dickens had to be spinning in his grave.
He also delivered each line with a glazed stare that seemed to say “I have no idea where this is going, so just fasten your seat belt, pal.”
Suddenly, the magic moment was upon us. The sanctuary was filled to the brim. As I sat in my makeup chair having my hair “grayed” by filling every inch of my scalp with Johnson’s Baby Powder – which, by the way, created my own personal snow storm every time I moved my head – I reviewed my lines, confident in my thespian abilities.
The curtain rose, the lights came up, and there was no looking back.
Surprisingly, the rough edges became smooth. The theatrical waters of uncertainty were calmed. We became united in the purpose of bringing the story to life.
Even the pastor’s “winged” lines seemed to reflect what Dickens meant to say. We were on a roll.
As church plays tend to go, the night was a rousing success. Sure, there were occasional dropped lines and props that failed to function as designed. But we were all robustly complimented on our abilities and performances, and vowed to make this a yearly event.
It was never performed again.
But I learned something about live theater that night. In our attempt to recreate a classic piece of literature, our little troupe became somewhat of a family. I’ve noticed that same feeling of family throughout numerous productions I’ve been associated with since.
Theater bonds you in a way. You depend on each other, feed each other, and help each other be the best you can be. And when all goes well, you share together the joy of accomplishment.
Not a bad Christmas message after all, I’d say.
Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.