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18 May 2016

Mark in the Park

Mark in the Park

Stefan Smart will be literally talking Jesus in three cities this summer as he dramatises the gospel of Mark for the public. Here he talks to Alexandra Davis about the journey he took to sharing Jesus through Mark in the Park.

What got you thinking about performing Mark in the park?

I've been a Christian for 32 years and when I was a very young Christian, in the first few weeks, I had the impression that God wanted me to be an evangelist of some kind. I really went for that in my first few years as a Christian, but after while getting involved in a job or for whatever reason, things petered out. And now, only 28 years later, I feel somehow that has been reignited!

I'm an English teacher and I constantly find myself reading out stories to children. I realised that I was really grabbing the kids' attention as I was reading the stories, and I wondered whether I could use this gift for God in some way? It occurred to me that actors in the past had learnt the whole of Mark's gospel and I thought maybe there was something in that. I can't say I had a direct sense that God was leading me in to anything, but there was a wondering.

So I started learning the gospel, initially just the first six chapters. I wondered if anyone would like to listen to them – I'm also a drama teacher so I started to act them out. I played them in a few places, a few churches in my local area and a youth camp, and I found there was a good reception. In particularly at the youth camp, there was a sublime moment where I felt so connected to God and connected to the people around me – it was a moment I will always treasure as people were really entering in to the story, really being part of it, even though they were just watching.

These successes convinced me that this could work but I had a real sense that I didn't want to do it in church any more, that I didn't really want to do it with Christians. These words are so precious, so powerful, so amazing, that I thought I'd love other people who don't really go to church to hear them as well. The idea came to me that I could do it in Speaker's Corner. Initially I thought it was such a stupid idea, that it probably wasn't from God and that it was just me so I put it to the back of my mind. But events unfolded that made me realise it was something I should do, not just put to the back of my mind.

Last November I went on a retreat and I was complaining to God about it, saying: "I don't know if this is you or me, I'm not sure I should do it. It might just be an ego trip, I don't even have a title. I really need a sign."

And as I was out walking I literally saw a sign that said 'park mark'! It was both the title that I needed and the confirmation to me that I should do it in Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park!

Since that time when I said I'd do it, it's been like a rollercoaster – people really want to get involved, which has been such an encouragement, and it feels like momentum has gathered, which confirms that I should be doing it. I'd honestly say that, going back to when I was a young Christian and thinking should be doing something evangelistic, that I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.

Why did you decide that Mark was the book you wanted to use?

It's the shortest!

Also, it's the most dramatic gospel, it's full of action – if you're going to do a drama and bring it alive, you need as much drama as possible. It's really quick too, it moves from one thing to another really freely, which I think adds to the impact. It's got so much depth to it as well, it's not just a story, so that when you start to think about it you realise that each line has so many levels and so much nuance.

What's your favourite bit?

Possibly the demoniac in chapter five – mostly because it's incredibly shocking! The temptation is to overact that bit, but actually I've found that it's best to really enjoy it.

My second favourite bit would be the crucifixion scene, again because it's so dramatic. It allows for a multiplicity of voices – there are so many characters in chapter 15 and what I love doing is all the difference voices and characters. There's so much wealth in that chapter.

So would you say it's a performance rather than just a recital?

It's absolutely a performance. It's basically word for word and everything is a performance. The main narrator is a character played as a cockney, man for all season, everyman – he's one of the disciples in a modern-day characterisation. Then there are the other characters – Jesus, the teachers of the law, people like Jairus, the women, the synagogue rulers. Everyone blends in but there's quite a lot of chopping and changing.

How can people get involved?

People can come, bring friends and family, bring a picnic, and dip in and out. The event in London starts at 12 noon and we will be going all the way through the gospel. I've split the gospel into five acts, each one being 15 to 25 minutes long and in between each act there'll be a break of 15 minutes. So people can stay just to see one bit or stay for the whole afternoon and enjoy the day.

I have friends who are coming with me in case there are people there who are non-churchgoers in case they have questions and want to talk because the acts. For me it's really encouraging knowing that there will be other churchgoers there who know what I'm talking about, but also there will be lots of other people there. So if anyone wants to come along and answer questions that would be great!

What is your hope for this project?

It will be difficult to measure a response and although I'm offering people the chance to comment as it happens, I'm never really going to know what the response is.

But my hope is that the words themselves which are incredibly powerful will be really memorable and hit home to people's heart. I hope that there will be a word, or a moment, or an image which will be memorable and will stay with them and that I hope will be God's work in them. I don't know what the impact will be long-term or short-term, but I'm hoping God will use it. 

UPDATE: three very loud cheers!

We caught up with Stefan after his first performance in Hyde Park. He said:

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tough work at times (what with a couple of hecklers and the distractions of others speaking nearby in the second act) but I really enjoyed the experience on the whole. I loved engaging with the crowd as individuals, involving them as characters in the story and hopefully affecting them on a deeper than purely rational level. It's difficult to say what impact I had - that's God's part, I suppose. 

"God did subsequently give me this picture of ripples having been started by the performance, which have their own gentle but indestructible momentum, and I take that to suggest that He was working - and will continue to work - imperceptibly in people's hearts, even if no one seemed to come to Christ there and then." 

A supporter, Amy Wilcox, who was able to watch some of the performance said:

"I was fortunate enough to be able to see a bit of Stef's performance in Hyde Park and, to be frank, struggle to find the words to say how impressed I was or how powerful I found it, listening and watching the gospel presented like that.

"He was absolutely FANTASTIC, dramatising so many episodes: the calling of the disciples for one, at which point he actually went up and greeted individual onlookers, shaking hands and high-fiving etc; the healing of the paralysed man who was lowered through the roof, in the course of which miracle he used these two boxes for the house top (these same boxes became mountains and other things at other times); the healing of the demon possessed man who was all wild out in the region of the Gerasenes at which point Stef rolled in a puddle miming breaking bonds which was tremendously powerful. 

"It is, without doubt, a tremendous work that Stef is doing very well."

You can still catch Stefan performing the gospel of Mark on 16 July on College Green, Bristol, and 13 August at Minster Pool and Walk, Lichfield.