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The Genesis of a New Drama

by Jerome Weeks 22 Jan 2009 8:10 AM

KERA radio story: Online review here Expanded online story: The Dallas Theater Center has been rehearsing a new show. But the cast and crew have also been writing it at the same time. That’s only fitting because it’s a play about creativity — in this case, the creation of the world. [ambient rehearsal sounds, muttering, […]


  • KERA radio story:
  • Online review here
  • Expanded online story:

The Dallas Theater Center has been rehearsing a new show. But the cast and crew have also been writing it at the same time. That’s only fitting because it’s a play about creativity — in this case, the creation of the world.

[ambient rehearsal sounds, muttering, pages being turned]

Kevin Moriarty is doing what one usually doesn’t see artistic directors do — at least during rehearsal. He’s consulting a Bible.

MORIARTY: First person to find in the Bible where God says bring the sacrificial animals into the Ark wins a prize.”

It’s not just a Bible. On Moriarty’s table are the Jewish Study Bible, the King James, the Revised Standard Version and Everett Fox’s acclaimed translation of the five books of Moses.

In October, Moriarty started a workshop to adapt several medieval plays. The show had already been announced in the Theater Center’s season as In the Beginning. But there really was no script yet; hence, the workshop. it would be an ensemble-generated piece, working with Moriarty’s new, hand-picked company of actors.

But in reading the medieval mystery plays, the director, his actors and designers soon found the dramas weren’t compelling — not as compelling as the stories the plays originally drew from: the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark.

MORIARTY: “The first 10 chapters of Genesis are the primeval history. And they have a kind of mythic power in addressing the most fundamental questions of what it is to be human: the first murder, the creation of man and woman, the first act of redemption and kindness, the first mass genocide. They all occur in those first 10 books.”

So Moriarty and his company began to read different translations of Genesis. They discussed their own beliefs, their own lack of belief. And these contributions started to shape the script.

Christina Vela (right) is one of the nine actors.

VELA: “It was a very open, collaborative process. And you know, people disagreed. But that’s good, that’s good in a creative process.”

Workshopping a play like this — that is, improvising a script while you’re staging it — sounds unconventional or risky. But it’s relatively common with new plays. In fact, the Theater Center has a tradition of adapting literary works to the stage like this. Two examples: Founding director Paul Baker did it with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Former artistic director Adrian Hall did it with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

A drama about the Biblical creation of the world also may seem a box office risk. It could offend scriptural fundamentalists. And it may not interest all those people who figure they already know how Adam and Eve end up.

But it, too, may not be so chancey as it appears. There’s actually a big, potential audience in church organizations. They may not come to a lot of plays, but it’s a good bet many will probably see this one.

No, what’s truly unusual and risky about In the Beginning is what Moriarty and his company did next: They consulted 14 local religious ministers and scholars, including Rabbi Oren Hayon of Temple Emanu-el. They interviewed them and incorporated some of what they said directly into the script.

The risk? Imagine Macbeth with critics and historians onstage quibbling about the characters and the action. There have been centuries of stagings and adaptations of stories from the Bible. But how many try to parse the meaning of the Genealogies (all those “begats”)?

John Foster (left) is the pastor of the Shepherd of Life Lutheran Church.

FOSTER: “I’ve been a parish pastor for 25 years. I’ve never had anything come close to this experience before.”

Foster says he was skeptical at first. The Theater Center’s reaching out for input from people of faith might just be a piece of public relations goodwill and nothing more.

Then he heard his words coming out of an actor’s mouth. And other actors presenting counter arguments. Rabbi Hayon is even personified onstage. Foster was impressed by the inclusiveness, by the tolerance of different ideas and the search for common ground. At one point in the show, even audience members will be able to offer questions or responses.

FOSTER: [The Theater Center production is] “not after trying to solve what a lot of people disagree on. I think they’re just trying to lay it all out there.”

Still, this sounds like it could be an open-minded Bible class with songs and costumes. But Foster says that when you preach these stories, you theologize. You interpret. It’s an intellectual response.

It’s another thing, he says, to see Cain kill Abel in cold blood – while Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt,” plays in the background.

FOSTER: “You appreciate the power of the story far more than you would through the media of study or preaching. I’m seeing and thinking about these stories in a whole different way because it’s being lived out in front of me.”

The actors make you a witness to murder. The first murder.

CASH: “And you could have it all — my empire of dirt. I will let you down. I will make you hurt.”

Image of John Foster from his blog.

  • Judy Wang

    Wow! I am glad to hear about this type of play being produced because it is very rare to find quality productions based on a close reading of the Hebrew Bible for an Old Testament Story. The most interesting and powerful dramas are based on the Bible and yet we always find Hollywood productions to be watered down versions of what is actually in the Bible, even when they state they are about a particular story in the Bible. It is like the truth is too hard for us mortals to handle or at least we feel the need to embellish His story to make it more interesting or relevant. No one has discovered the truth that the story is interesting enough as it is stated in the Bible. No one makes quality productions based solely on the Bible, telling the whole story. So it will be interesting to see how much of the Bible’s words actually makes it into this production. The more of God’s actual words the better. It would be unprecedented.

  • Jennifer S.

    Kevin Moriarty is a true artistic leader in every sense of the word. His own thirst for community and discovery is palpable in his productions (I was in New England when he was there, and saw his other shows) and I am eager to see this one, and what he and his company bring to this discussion. How wonderful!

  • Jennifer A.

    I went to the preview of this last night — it was definitely something totally different than I had ever seen at a theater before. Thought-provoking and creative! The discussion was also great…I could tell that they could’ve gone on for much longer, since many in the audience were eager to have their points heard. I immediately thought that this would be a great thing fora bible study class to go to together, because it would just stimulate so many interesting discussions after.

  • Peppercorn

    My wife and I have tickets for Friday’s performance. We wait with baited breath for the experience.