Acting out Acts

Theater Simplistic sets, sound doctrine, and a common vision allow three actors to effectively portray the history of the early church | Angela Lu

Acting out Acts

From left: Vinicius Machado, Bryce Lenon, and J.D. Jackson in a scene from Acts the 3-Man Show
Photo courtesy of Acts the 3-Man Show

LOS ANGELES—Imaginary waves toss three men from one side of the church stage to the other. The audience in the pews hear the wind blowing and water crashing as the men—depicting the Apostle Paul; Julius, his prison guard; and the captain of the ship—grip the wall, yelling and praying they’ll make it to Rome in one piece.

In Acts the 3-Man Show, actors Bryce Lenon, J.D. Jackson, and Vinicius Machado play every major character in the book of Acts, switching from apostle to narrator to Jewish leader by throwing on a vest or picking up a sword. Condensing the 28 chapters of Acts plus Peter and Paul’s martyrdom in Rome into a two-hour performance that captures the heart of the biblical narrative was no easy feat for Lenon, who is also the play’s writer, director, and co-producer. Besides writing an accurate script, Lenon had to find Christian performers who shared his vision, create a mobile show that can be performed on any church stage, and make the show financially feasible.

Lenon first came up with the play’s idea 14 years ago while listening to a sermon by Scottish pastor Sinclair Ferguson, who now fills the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C. In the sermon Ferguson described the despair and confusion the disciples felt watching the Jewish leaders stone bold young Stephen, a deacon in the early church. But unknown to them, one of Stephen’s murderers would become the greatest missionary on earth.

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Lenon remembers getting chills picturing Saul standing over Stephen’s beaten and bruised body. He decided then that the story had to be made into a film or a play: “There’s so much drama in the Bible … it actually defies why they haven’t been done before, and we thought we really need to make this come alive.”

For the next decade, Acts took a backseat as Lenon worked in film, in the theater, and on television shows, including Cold Case, 24, and Lie to Me. In 2008, he started tiring of the Hollywood roles available to Christians and how much of the secular work forced him to compromise his values. He also observed how Christian producers often tried to pull off big productions they didn’t have the money or training to carry out. He then decided to move forward with an Acts production that would feature sound doctrine and artistic integrity.

Lenon began to pore over different Bible translations, deciding to rely mainly on the New King James Version for its Shakespearean quality. To make sure his script was accurate, Lenon scoured Bible commentaries, researched the lives of Nero and Herod, and prayed over what he wrote. Still he realized he had to take some creative license with scenes and lines that aren’t in the Bible. “I’m not a pastor,” Lenon said. “I’m not preaching on these verses. I’m dramatizing them.”

He recruited classical composer Gustav Hoyer to join the project as a co-producer and composer of the play’s score. Hoyer wrote an original musical score that sets scenes with instruments like the wailing Armenian duduk flute.

The music ties the scenes together, which span time and location as the Apostle Paul travels on his missionary journeys. For the final (extra-biblical) scenes when Peter and Paul face their deaths in Rome, Hoyer composed and recorded the choir piece “Miserere,” which is Psalm 51 sung in Latin. Hoyer said that by having the song in Latin, the piece represents the Roman Empire’s eventual acceptance of Christianity as its official religion. As Paul is beheaded, the lights dim and bells peal, which Hoyer said represents the beginning of the church age.

Once Lenon and Hoyer completed the script and score, they had to find two more trained actors who were also strong believers. The demanding show required experienced professionals: The three actors are onstage for the entire two hours, meaning they have no time to rest or look over lines between scenes. Through connections in the Hollywood Christian community, Lenon found actor Vinicius Machado to play the roles of Nero, Stephen, and Mark, and J.D. Jackson to play Peter, Julius, and Barnabas. Lenon took on the roles of Paul, Caiaphas, and Herod.

In 2011, they performed their first show at a church in Glendale, Calif., where Lenon’s pastor, John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in nearby Sun Valley, watched a dress rehearsal and asked them to perform at Grace Community’s Shepherds’ Conference in 2012. Since then, Lenon and crew have taken Acts on the road to churches as far away as Michigan, Alabama, and Texas.

While typical theaters have a standard level of lighting and sound equipment to work with, most churches do not. Plus, the available stages vary in size.

That’s why Lenon designed the play to require a minimal set-up and scene setting, using projected images to display a map and the year, and a simple chair as a throne. Audience members fill in the rest with their imaginations. “If the artists are strong enough,” Lenon said, “people will get drawn in.”

One scene shows the human side of Paul as he argues with Barnabas about letting Mark join them on a second missionary journey after he had deserted them earlier. Paul accuses Barnabas of allegiance to his nephew while Barnabas accuses Paul of preaching forgiveness but not demonstrating it. The tension is heavy as voices rise and the two part ways.

“They were flesh and blood,” Hoyer said of the apostles. “They lived a life as utterly real as anything we experience, in every sense, and they did some of the most audacious things humanly imaginable.”

The troupe plans to continue traveling this year to churches in states such as Alabama, Louisiana, and California (visit the production’s website for a list of upcoming shows). With Machado currently working on a project in Brazil, actor Reggie Austen is filling in, with the two men alternating performances in upcoming shows.

At the end of the day, Lenon and Hoyer want to do more than just create a moving performance.

“I want to make sure when [the audience is] done with this they go, ‘I want to go read Acts,’ because the conviction will come there,” Hoyer said. “Our play, if done correctly, will promote an emotional response, but we can’t promote a convicting response. Only the Word can.”

Watch a trailer of Acts the 3-Man Show:

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