I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it. I circle around
God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Book of Hours” Translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
In 1997, Freshman Charlie Pepiton stole a book of poetry from a girl he was dating. And in a sweetly serendipitous way, he fell in love.
It wasn’t long before he began to own more than just the physical copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Book of Hours.” This early-20th-century poet’s work is an honest spiritual struggle written down. His experience of wrestling with his inherited beliefs and striving to claim a spirituality of his own resonated deeply with Pepiton. Eventually, his connection to this collection of poetry would inspire the final show in a series of faith-centered productions by the Gonzaga Theater department in 2015.
“It’s very Gonzaga,” Ostersmith says. “It’s like one long prayer.”
The progression from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices” to “The Book of Hours” wasn’t necessarily planned. It happened naturally, says Suzanne Ostersmith, director and choreographer of the first two pieces, and Charlie Pepiton, director of the last show in the series. While each production stands on its own as a piece that explores contemporary spirituality, as a series they symbolize the diverse ways to explore this universal wrestling of the human heart with the Divine.
War + Peace
What are prayers but well-worn stories that reach out and up for help and healing?
While “Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices” is a collection of anecdotes representing women in the Bible, these are not the familiar tales heard in Sunday school. The play’s opening story is poignantly violent — a woman is sexually abused and killed, then cut into 12 pieces; these are sent to the 12 tribes of Israel, an action which commences war.
With great intention, the authors of “Weaving” — Ostersmith and Linda Schearing, professor of religious studies — have inverted this moment, portraying it as the genesis of healing instead of the cause of violence. A beautifully crafted medallion is broken into 12 pieces, then is made whole again as each woman, from Job’s wife to the bleeding woman in the Gospels, offers up her story.
“It’s all about rebuilding and healing,” says Ostersmith.
Janine Warrington (’17), who was cast as Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s older sister, says the stories in “Weaving” are universal. “As I have studied and embodied the person of Miriam, I have found that she and I are, in very many ways, the same. I’d say that she and I are pretty good friends now, and she continues to teach me so much about myself.”
This self-actualization and spiritual exploration continues for the cast of “The Book of Hours.” Pepiton hopes students will use Rilke’s writing on his sacred struggle as a springboard for their own creative expression in the production. “This is not just a translation of Rilke,” he says. “This is the students’ story about how they discover what they believe.”
To foster that, Theater Department Chaplain, Father George Morris, S.J., practices his ministry of presence with cast members during rehearsal and makes himself available for conversations outside the theater, too. Students not only journal for their own edification about how the show is challenging or changing, but to weave their own journey into the production itself.
“There is a great big ‘something’ out there that is far too big to be captured by just any means of human communication. It makes sense that we would turn to poetry, song, dance and any variety of other art forms in an attempt to portray the mysterious experience of faith,” says Warrington.
Pepiton had no idea that taking a collection of poems from the woman who is now his wife would introduce him to an authentic, contemporary spirituality. Perhaps this series of spiritually provacative theater pieces will be for today’s students what that stolen copy of “The Book of Hours”
was for Pepiton: a way of getting to know that ‘great big something’ for oneself.
Ostersmith and Pepiton have shown during this season that theater at Gonzaga is a space where challenge and creativity are embraced. Both are excited to be able to stretch their theatrical range with wider arms when the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center opens in 2018. While Magnuson Theatre is perfect for intimate pieces like “The Book of Hours,” large-scale productions, such as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” will thrive in
the bigger space. The new performing arts center also will deliver the department a bit of elbow room for scheduling student-directed pieces, events, dance concerts and regular-season shows.
Directing Without Directing
For “The Book of Hours,” director Charlie Pepiton is letting go of the reins. Opting for a devised approach, Pepiton is taking a risk that empowers students.
By encouraging cast members to select the poems they want to work with, compose complementary pieces for the script, and be involved with set and costume design, he has given them the freedom to focus on discovery.
“There is no hierarchy as with traditional theater where you learn your lines and learn the blocking and let someone else address the other details. It prepares students to be much more entrepreneurial about their craft, not just taking orders,” he says.
The department is doing more of this cross training and risk taking with its shows. “We’re actively teaching students to take a risk, do something you really care about, to have your hands in all pockets of theater,” Pepiton adds.
Another approach to “The Book of Hours” is its performance in-the-round, with audience members seated in an intimate circle around the actors. Ostersmith describes it as a welcoming gesture — “come and see” — for the audience to join the spiritual pilgrimage the cast has traveled for almost a year.
This immersive art experience may leave everyone — cast and audience — with more questions than answers about faith. And that’s part of the journey.