Now playing an extended run at the Mercury Theater in Chicago: Screwtape, a dramatic adaption of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. In the title role: Max McLean, president of the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, which works to "produce theatre from a Christian worldview that is engaging to a diverse audience." FPA appears to have succeeded with Screwtape, since a Washington Post reviewer observed that "audience members interested in spiritual reflection will certainly find food for thought-and mortification-in this dramatization. But the fiendish reality the production conjures is colorful enough to appeal to theatergoers of any, or no, religious persuasion."
McLean, born in Panama City, Panama, came to America at the age of 4 and began learning English. He mastered it so thoroughly that his Bible recordings have been nominated for Best Inspirational Audio, and his presentations of Genesis, The Gospel According to Mark, and Screwtape have been lauded by secular publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. (The Chicago Sun-Times calls the Screwtape production currently playing a "smart, sizzlingly hellish entertainment"; The Chicago Tribune reviewer says, "The exuberant theatricality leaves you wiping your brow at the end.") McLean also narrates the Listener's Bible audio line, speaks on the daily radio program "Listen to the Bible," and is married, with two daughters. He's a member of New York's Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Q: How did you get into acting?
I didn't want to be an actor when I went to college at the University of Texas. I was planning on going to law school. In a constitutional history class the professor asked a question and pointed at me in the back. My heart was beating out of my chest: I turned red, I turned blue, I was just in misery. I went back and thought to myself, "What is this? Why did I react so involuntarily like that?" I thought I had to do something about it. So I decided to go to the weird part of campus, the drama department, and take an oral interpretation class, and at least see if I could work through this. I started living there, taking speech classes, taking improvisation classes, taking dance and movement classes, taking voice classes. I went from there and began auditioning, and eventually went to London and did a graduate degree there.
Q: Then you became a Christian.
Between drama school and graduate school I lived in West Germany and met my wife there. Over the course of about three or four months I went to church with her because I wanted to be with her on Sundays. A young man found out that I was a history major and said something like, "Jesus was a person in history just like Lincoln and just like George Washington." That was news to me because I thought Jesus was a fairy tale. I could not make the connection between a historical figure that I took very seriously like Lincoln or George Washington and Jesus. The Lord used that as a paradigm shift for how I would look at who Jesus is. Soon after that I began reading the New Testament and especially John's Gospel, and I thought Jesus was going to come right out of the page. All of the sudden he was living, breathing. When it came to the crucifixion I was in tears, and by the resurrection I had this extraordinary joy. I knew then that this was true, that this was it.
Q: But your faith and your calling came into conflict.
I came to New York in the late '70s: New York is where everyone in the world comes to make it. You have 500 people auditioning for a soap commercial. I said, "That's not why I became an actor." So I came to the conclusion as I was growing in my faith that the powers that be are the producers and directors; the actor is just a hired hand. He has to develop his skill sets at the service of somebody else's message. In my case I thought that was schizophrenic. That was like serving two masters and I didn't want to spend my life doing that. So I left the theater.
Q: How did you return to acting?
I got very involved in my local church and very close to my pastor. He realized that I was really into the Bible and trying to know more of Christ. He encouraged me to go to seminary and I went to Nyack. I didn't go very long: A little seminary goes a long way. But while I was there I met a professor who found out I had a theatrical background and he encouraged me to use that in ministry. But I wasn't too interested in that. I thought, well why not use the skills and techniques I learned in the theater and apply them to the Scriptures? It was like an event waiting to happen. For the next 15 years I was doing productions of the Bible: one-person shows of Mark's Gospel, Genesis, Acts, Philippians, and various things. I probably presented Scripture thousands of times to hundreds of thousands of people.
Q: So through going to church after having turned away from acting, you found new opportunities and openings.
Yes, but it wasn't something I was looking for. It was how everything worked. A Scripture that really sings to me is, "We were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us."
Q: In terms of your professional calling, you didn't find it?
No, it found me.
Q: Of all the dramatic readings you've done, which has had the most impact on you?
I've been very intensely influenced by playing Screwtape. I probably did not take the presence of the devil or personal demons very seriously before doing him. I think understanding what Screwtape was trying to do to his patient, meaning me, made me really look at major areas of my life.
Q: What's a day like when you're on stage?
You have to conserve so much energy. Screwtape is a very demanding role. It's vocally demanding, it's physically demanding. I find that I have to gear everything to those 90 minutes. I get to the theater about an hour and a half beforehand and do a significant warm-up. My hours are different. I normally go to sleep around 11:00 or 11:30 but when I'm on stage it's 1:30 or 2 o'clock. Everything revolves around those 90 minutes.
Q: How do people in the secular world respond to Screwtape?
The reviews have been heartening. Many times when Christians get involved in theater there's hiding who you are. You use words like, "looking for the good, the true, the beautiful," those kind of things you can say and not reveal who you are. We've decided in our case to reveal where we're coming from. We present from a Christian worldview with the intent to engage a diverse audience. What I really like is when the people who have reviewed us recognize we don't have a hidden agenda. Some have commented that we've "hit the bullseye," that this will appeal to discerning atheists as well as the wide swath of religious folks. So I think for us it's good for us to be open about who we are.
Q: Is it hard playing an evil character like Screwtape?
I really enjoy it; I love playing Screwtape. But one of the reasons is because I love the reverse truth that comes through-and that becomes more effective the more I enjoy it. In terms of my own inner life, it has really revealed some of my own struggles: my own pride, my own desire to put people down, to raise myself up, all of those issues that are warring in my being.
Q: What have you learned about pride from playing Screwtape?
In Screwtape's world, the humble person is the most dangerous. Screwtape tells Wormwood, "Your man has become humble, have you drawn his attention to the fact? Smuggle in some gratifying reflection, 'By Jove, I'm being humble,' and immediately pride in his own humility will come in. If he tries to smother this new pride, make him proud of the attempt." I think that's a part that has been working for me.
Q: You said you dropped out of acting for a time when you didn't want to audition for soap commercials. How do think about that now? Could a soap commercial help you develop your skill set?
Sure. I'm not as egotistical about it now. Culture making is about building relationships, it's about being Christ in the place where you're put. You can make culture, you can make an impact, in so many ways. I do think you have to be discerning about what you are supporting-but in every place there's a chance for us to be salt and light because there's a lot of people that can be engaged.
Q: What are the biggest hurdles that you've faced?
Pride. In my case, my talent was ahead of my spiritual development. That is a real danger particularly for somebody like me who has a big personality and has certain skills and talents that could be useful in ministry. When you put someone like me up there too soon it's not good. I've had to take steps back now and pull back from a lot more public speaking. I've made a lot of mistakes. I've been overly demanding and prideful, thinking that it's all about me. The worst temptation is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
Q: What do you like most about what you do?
In terms of Scripture presentation, I really like engaging the mind of Christ, the mind of God and interacting with it. In terms of other material I really enjoy engaging with people who engaged with God and came to whatever their conclusions were. I like that interaction of trying to interpret it and trying to make it alive.
Q: How have your family life and your calling intertwined?
Not as well as I would have liked them to, and not as well as if I could do it over again. I feel like in terms of culture making as a father, there's no greater cultural contribution that I could possibly make in the world than my children. I just wish I had thought about that a little earlier in my life, because I did a lot of traveling.
Q: How do you prevent Christian art from becoming saccharin and soaked in sentimentalism?
The reason there is that sort of saccharin aesthetic is because there's a kind of isolation. In New York that kind of saccharin art is challenged. But on the flip side, there's a message in theater today: "There is no God, get over it." The worldview in secular theater is pretty dark. We do need people to produce [good] plays, to put the money behind it, to write those plays, to direct those plays because that's when the culture making happens. I would like to see more people thinking about "How do I create culture?"
The Fellowship for the Performing Arts, based in New Jersey, has staged professional theatrical productions in New York City, Washington, Dallas, Houston, and Chicago, and at dozens of colleges and performing arts venues in the United States and Canada. The FPA's vision: "At the root of understanding Christianity is the admission that the world is not what it ought to be, and at the heart of being a Christian is the confession that, 'I am part of the problem.' Many of us are motivated to exert enormous energy to realize perceived ultimate values-usually some form of power, profit or pleasure-that override humility, virtue and sacrifice. The result is often conflict and disintegration." When we see characters on stage choosing wrongly, maybe we'll come to grips with disintegration in our own lives.