Taylor University’s socially-distanced production of ‘Godspell’ highlights unity among ordinary people living in a community torn by uncertainty.
Taylor’s portrayal of ‘Godspell’ brilliantly connects the three-day period between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday to culturally appropriate topics, like the Black Lives Matter Movement, climate change, the presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Godspell is a modern take on the ministry and death of Jesus Christ,” Technical Director Connor Raegan said. “In the musical, Jesus calls his disciples and ministers to them with parables and musical numbers. The play ends with Jesus’s crucifixion, and a scene where his followers ‘go forth and make disciples.’ Familiar stories for a Christian community like Taylor, they are presented inside a strikingly contemporary paradigm.”
Through this modern take, the cast was able to interact with the audience by playing games like Taboo and Charades, and even casting an audience member as Lazarus. In fact, the cast broke the fourth wall by asking questions of audience members throughout the entire show, which naturally kept the audience well-engaged.
In order to perform ‘Godspell’ in the middle of a pandemic, however, Taylor had to abide by several social distancing rules.
Andrew Baker, who portrayed Jesus, attested to ‘Godspell’s relevance to the pandemic.
“Everything that is true about the world is true in the world of the play,” Baker said. “We are all masked, there’s a bottle of hand sanitizer on the set. The cacophony of voices and opinions is present both in our set and in the opening of the play. We have to deal with these things honestly in order to truthfully portray real people coming to the feet of Jesus.”
For the audience, the playbill was digital to minimize hand-to-hand contact, every audience member had their temperature taken before they were able to be seated and pre-screening questions were asked regarding the health of all who attended.
Social distancing guidelines were also incorporated into the production itself, as the entire cast wore masks throughout their performance. In addition, as the cast acted out the communion scene approaching Judas’s betrayal, they sanitized their hands before and after they took their individually wrapped communion packets. His kiss of death was substituted for an elbow bump.
“The biggest change for Godspell is the outdoor setting,” Raegan said. “That has forced us to consider factors like daylight and bad weather that we wouldn’t normally worry about when producing a play indoors.”
The outdoor setting made for a great variety of props, all of which were lining the stage. The scaffolding and the dumpster, along with the garage door that the cast used to carry Jesus away after his death, added extra dimensions to the staging that would have been lost indoors.
The crucifixion scene starkly stood apart from the rest of the show as, up until that moment, the production was comedic, joyful and full of dance and song. The transition into the crucifixion was seamless, which points to the versatility of both the cast and crew. The reverent and respectful act of the entire cast carrying Jesus off stage was a beautiful representation of unity.
The choreography throughout the production was succinct and demonstrated just how very well-rehearsed was the cast. Due to the cast having to wear face masks, their expressions could not simply be told through their faces, but the choreography and the cast’s innate ability to act with their eyes and bodies, made the masks irrelevant to the performance quality of the production.
‘Godspell’ was also heightened by the live music that accompanied each song, exemplifying an array of gospel music, ballads, pop, jazz, etc. Therefore, the cast was given a unique opportunity to showcase their voices through different genres, and they all sang beautifully.
The wardrobe was the way in which these different characters were distinguishable to the audience, without announcing their names or backgrounds. The characters’ wardrobes spoke to what made them their own individuals, which made it all the more impactful when they united together after the crucifixion.
‘Godspell’ is both a heartbreaking, yet heartwarming tale that emphasizes the relationships that stem from unity in Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, Taylor University shares such a store with grace.
“We put the community that we find in our fidelity to the gospel above those things that would fracture and divide us,” Manning said. “And that’s what ‘Godspell’ is about.”