The theater company I work with, “Friends of the Groom” does workshops all over the world on how to use drama in church. We teach a number of simple techniques that non-theater people can use to bring Scripture alive in worship settings.
The technique which is most popular, is a practice used in medieval liturgical dramas in France called, “Tableaux Vivants,” living pictures. It’s basically a human slide show, where people freeze into poses which make up an illustration of a story being told. (Tom Long, director of FOG, first learned this technique from Michael E. Moynahan.)
Here’s how we teach it
Use a Bible story with some visual drama to it; miracle stories from the gospels are perfect. Divide that story into five to seven sections, and imagine a picture which would most clearly illustrate each section. Then, using at least seven people, a director arranges actors into frozen positions to bring the illustrations to life in pleasing stage pictures which actors will hold long enough for the audience to enjoy them. Once all the pictures are figured out, actors memorize each position, and rehearse the series enough times to reproduce the pictures reliably, quickly, and silently.
The congregation will hear each Scripture section read while their eyes are closed, and when they open their eyes, there will be a stage picture of frozen actors! Here’s how we prepare the congregation:
The reader or narrator says something like, “Today’s Scripture reading will be illustrated with a series of tableaux, or frozen scenes, and we’d like to ask for your help in this way; When you hear this tone, (Ding a triangle,) please close your eyes as part of the story is read. When you hear it again (ding again), please open your eyes to view the illustration. When you hear the tone a third time (ding again), please close your eyes again as more of the story is read, and we’ll continue in this way through the whole story. To begin, please close your eyes….” (Ding the triangle and read the first Scripture portion….)
The narrator should wait at least 10 seconds before sounding the triangle to end a picture, so the congregation has time to take in the whole scene, and actors should wait a second or two after the tone to move, since it takes people that long to close their eyes, and the effect is spoiled if they see you start to move. Needless to say, while the congregation’s eyes are closed, actors are scrambling to get into place for the next tableau.
Here is what we teach actors to prepare for tableaux
- Hold a good freeze – Practice freezing with not even the eyes moving, except to blink, of course. Fix the eyes on some object to keep them from moving. It is much more interesting to freeze in a suggestion of movement, such as mid-walk, or two inches from a handshake, than to be in a passive pose. Facial expressions should be very pronounced for this technique. They are needed to convey what’s going on.
- Make contact with other people. A stage picture is much more interesting when people are making contact than when they are isolated; actors can be whispering, consoling, laughing with arms around each other
- Use different levels. People can use chairs, blocks, ladders, and stairs to vary their positions, so the stage picture is more interesting. Make sure everyone can be seen by putting the higher people towards the back of the stage.
- Pay attention to point of focus. The director should make sure actors are looking at what is most important in a picture. Sometimes all will be looking at the same thing, such as during the moment in which Jesus is healing someone.
It takes about an hour to put together a presentation with five to seven tableaux, after the passage has been divided, pictures conceived and staging planned. This is actually not very much rehearsal for a piece of drama which takes several minutes. Done well, tableaux make a wonderful impact. You can actually hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the congregation.
Colleen Scheid is a member of “Friends of the Groom” theater company, and a freelance writer of drama, articles and fiction. The photo is of Tom Long, Founder of Friends of the Groom with the people of St. Paul’s UCC in Freeburg, Illinois presenting a scene in a tableaux.