Mennonite Church USA
The little churches that could stage Godspell
By Dan Shenk
Earlier this year two small churches in the U.S. and Canada separately staged the musical Godspell. The decisions to do so were unrelated. Superb Mennonite Church of Kerrobert, Sask., had three performances in February and March, and Faith Mennonite Church of Goshen, Ind., had two in early June.
The 1971 musical by writer John-Michael Tebelak and composer Stephen Schwartz (movie version in 1973) takes a communitarian, playful approach to the gospel story. A cast of 13—Jesus and his 12 disciples—acts out parables from the books of Matthew and Luke.
“The musical fit very well with who we are as a congregation,” said Kent Dutchersmith of Faith Mennonite, one of three directors and the creative impetus behind Faith’s decision to stage Godspell. “It’s cohesive, wacky and fun—and represents the ‘upside-downness’ of Jesus’ message.”
A church of around 100 people from diverse social and economic backgrounds, Faith was founded in 1990 to reach out to persons who had no church home, especially those on the margins of society.
Approximately 80 percent of the congregation got involved in the production, said Dutchersmith, who played John the Baptist and Judas in the musical. Faith folks of all ages served as actors and musicians, helped with set construction, props, lighting, childcare, meals and publicity, and prayed regularly for the endeavor. The congregation hired directors from outside the congregation, Phoebe Brubaker and Adrienne Nesbitt, as well as a few musicians.
“The experience became much more than just doing a musical,” Dutchersmith said. “For three months, Godspell was Spirit-led church: community meals, prayer, memorizing Scripture, singing, worshiping, playing, hoping, trusting God and each other, struggling, persevering, seeing new gifts in others, deepening relationships, deepening understanding of the parables … the list goes on.”
Roberta Klemmer, a cast member who had just started attending Faith, reflected recently on the spiritual side of the production.
“I’d never thought of Jesus as someone I could be friends with and joke around with,” she said, noting the bond formed among the cast. “We were all very emotional before and during the crucifixion scene. Godspell affected me deeply. I hadn’t expected that.”
Faith’s co-pastors, Kay Bontrager-Singer and Deron Brill Bergstresser, served as stage manager and Jesus, respectively. In an opening meditation prior to each rehearsal, Bontrager-Singer emphasized that Godspell is about “work, worship and play.”
Brill Bergstresser reflected that Godspell “helped all of us take a fresh look at Jesus and at the kind of human community he invites us to create. The musical presents Jesus as someone who loved people, yet challenged what they thought the Scriptures were telling them.”
Faith’s two performances of Godspell drew in about 825 people. Faith members heard many say later that they had come to support a small church’s effort, but left receiving an unexpectedly profound spiritual blessing.
Godspell was Faith’s second musical; the congregation performed Smoke on the Mountain in 2002. Both musicals served as fundraisers for a local farmers market program that makes produce available to people with lower incomes.
About 1,500 miles northwest, in western Saskatchewan, Superb Mennonite Church had staged Godspell twice in Rosetown and once in Kerrobert. The rural congregation, a church of about 30, is named after its former townsite.
Like Faith, Superb also had a driving force: Grant Martens. He felt that, with a little help from some friends, the congregation’s dramatic wing—“Simply Superb”—could pull off Godspell. “Grant can be very persuasive,” said Lois Siemens, pastor of the church, with a chuckle.
Simply Superb had done three musicals before (2000–06): The Wheatbelt Gospel, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and The Wheatbelt Parables (written and composed by Martens, Superb’s former pastor).
In Godspell, Martens played Jesus and also performed in the band, as did four other actors. The Rosetown Community Theatre, which Martens founded, assisted with the production. As with Faith, Vicki Dyck, the director, doesn’t attend Superb.
Martens said that producing Godspell gave him an opportunity to bring together the three theaters that have shaped his artistic career: Simply Superb, which he formed while pastoring at Superb; the Rosetown Community Theatre; and the Barn Playhouse (via Dyck, a fellow actor and former drama teacher of Martens).
Siemens said highlights of Godspell included “seeing a fun, teasing, laughing side of Jesus” and singing “Day by Day.” She said audiences were relatively small, but “they were moved, and some came three times to see us.”
Siemens noted that not everyone in the church sings, so some helped out with meals at rehearsals. “It was a bonding experience for the church members in particular,” she reflected.
Martens’ wife, Angela, and two daughters were also in the cast. “Having our whole family perform this musical with the Simply Superb group was meaningful in so many ways,” Angela Martens said, adding that a highlight for her was “witnessing the emotional connection and commitment of the cast members … to the story being told.”
Observed Siemens, “We complained about how much time and energy it took, but then when it was done, we all agreed it was worth the effort.”
Back in the U.S., Dutchersmith described the experience as “intense, wonderful, scary, Spirit-filled and Spirit-led.” “Would I do it again? Yes,” he said, and then added with a grin: “Next year? No!”
Dan Shenk of Goshen, Ind., operates an editing business called CopyProof. He is a member of Faith Mennonite Church and was part of the Godspell chorus.
(l. to r.) John the Baptist (Kent Dutchersmith) baptizes John Lichty in Faith Mennonite Church’s production of the musical Godspell while cast members Roberta Klemmer, Sadie Gustafson-Zook, Gwen Gustafson-Zook and Marilyn Torres wait their turn. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)
Cast members of Faith Mennonite Church’s production of the musical Godspell sing “God save the people.” (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)