Interpreting words is a task in itself, but what if you had to interpret God’s Word?
Hear about professional actor, award-winning filmmaker, and communication coach Jason Hildebrand’s experience developing three separate voices for characters from the parable of The Prodigal Son here on VOX Daily.
The Gospel According to Luke
In spring of 2009, I had the opportunity to see an interesting presentation at my church given by Toronto-based performer Jason Hildebrand, a dramatist and actor known for his focus on speaking the Word of God through theatre and cinema.
The Prodigal Son, a parable told by Jesus, which happens to be a beautiful story about love.
To read the version found in the Bible, go to Luke Chapter 15, verses 11 through 32. I have included a paraphrased version for us below in my own words that I hope you’ll find helpful. The Bible is a better source, but I’ll try 🙂
The Prodigal Son
The story begins with a father and his two sons. The eldest son, who is loyal and fastidious, works each day in his father’s fields and makes sure that the house is run properly. The younger son is less involved in the operations and feels compelled to leave his father’s home.
One day, the younger son asks his father if he would give him his inheritance early so that he could see the world and live what he considers to be the good life. The father, deeply saddened, divides his estate in two and gives his blessing to his younger son along with his inheritance.
The younger son takes all that he has and leaves the safety of his home, journeys to a foreign country, gets involved with the wrong crowd and eventually finds himself broke, friendless, in the midst of a famine, working for a living, and eating worse than the pigs he is employed to look after.
At this moment, the son comes to his senses and realizes that at home, his father’s servants are treated far better than how he is being treated. He decides that he must apologize to his father for sinning against him and against heaven, declaring himself unworthy to be his son and to plead that his father would have mercy on him and employ him as one of his servants. Even as a servant in his father’s home he would least have proper clothing, food, respect and a roof over his head.
The younger son sets off for home.
While he was away, his father kept watch and hope that his son would return.
One day the father sees his younger son in the distance, comes running to him with outstretched arms, and in tears of joy, embraces him with a kiss.
The father calls for the fatted calf to be slain and a feast prepared in celebration of his son’s return. No expense is spared. The father sees that his finest robe is fetched for the younger son and also provides a ring for his finger.
The older son, upon learning of his brother’s return and enraged his warm reception, speaks out in disgust and wonders how his father can welcome back such a person who has deserted his family, squandered his inheritance, and done nothing to deserve his father’s affections, unlike himself.
His father turns to him and says, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
* The last paragraph includes a quote taken from “The Message,” according to the Gospel of Luke 15:32.
Interview with Jason Hildebrand
Now that you know the story, or have had a chance to review, you’ll be fascinated to hear exactly how this parable was crafted into a three act play.
Last week I spoke with Jason Hildebrand and got to learn more about his creative process as well as how his interpretation of the parable came to be.
Jason was asked by a friend to develop a reflection for a denominational prayer retreat with his research based on the Rembrandt painting “The Prodigal Son,” and a book by Henri Nouwen entitled, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”
He didn’t realize at the time that it would turn into a play with three acts involving three separate characters performed on stage. He also hadn’t foreseen that he would tour throughout North America and the UK for almost nine years presenting the monologues!
The book didn’t break the story down into individual character roles as they are performed in the play. Jason spent time with the painting, praying through the heart of each character while researching the text. He brought what he had completed to the prayer retreat as requested.
The trailer embedded below is an evolution of what was presented at the prayer retreat:
Jason had never experienced the story of The Prodigal Son for himself and was interested in bringing the parable to live in both a stage version and also a cinematic short.
Hildebrand relates, “Good art comes at you in a different way than a sermon comes to you. When you are watching a play, you are not anticipating a sermon. The play speaks to you. The audience gets to live their lives through the character being portrayed. The audience is a character; the audience has an identity. The audience, although they themselves do not speak, engages with the performer in the dialog and has a part in influencing the performance.”
During the performance, Jason is listening to God to hear where he needs go as an actor to emotionally fulfill the needs of the audience.
I asked him what the response has been to his play following performances.
Jason shared, “Although people can be moved by a performance, that doesn’t mean that they will be moved to the point of conversion, however, lives has been radically transformed during performances of The Prodigal Trilogy. In order for that to happen, the Holy Spirit needs to move them. This can result in radical life-changing experiences, some people even meeting Father God for the first time when seeing the story unfold.”
That’s some powerful storytelling!
For an especially meaningful performance based upon scripture, the the actor, God, and the audience must be connected.
Jason likens this to a triangle.
He performs for the audience and keeps his heart open to what God wants him to communicate. God needs to be at the centre of the performance and triangle for the Holy Spirit to move and work its way into the hearts of the audience and the performer.
When I asked Jason about his interpretation and the voices he developed for his characters, I mentioned that it was obvious that an enormous amount of heart went into all three characters, the father in particular.
In the stage version (which I saw), the father has an accent, speaking with such authority, dignity, and breadth. The accent sounded Eastern European but I couldn’t place it. During our chat, I asked him about it and he related that the accent was indeed Eastern European. When he was in college he lived with an Eastern European family. On occasion, the mother would speak in Yiddish to her family, and it was in their home that he picked up the accent.
Why an Eastern European accent?
Jason finds that the Eastern European accent has a particularly appropriate weight and humour to it that was suited to a gentle soul such as the father.
Hildebrand confides, “The accent kind of came out of nowhere and I really like how it softens the father, making him more wise. I purposefully tried not to peg the accent to make it easier for a broader audience of people to relate to so I took elements of various Eastern European accents, a hybrid really, and saved this voice for the end. The audience is waiting and itching for someone different to come along and bring grounding to the play. The father, with his accent, had the greatest impact when heard last sharing his different filter of the world.”
I thought it was particularly fitting that he chose this particular accent because we live in such a multicultural country. Canada is made up of a mosaic of cultures. Hearing the Eastern European accent, at least for me, evokes a great deal of history, struggle, and faith.
When watching the trailer for his short film, Jason opted to speak without an accent as the father. He shared that the accent didn’t come across as well on camera to suspend the viewers’ unbelief as it does in person with an audience, which is understandable.
What does still come across is the strength and masculinity of the father.
The image of a strong father resonates like no other. It is this imagery that often strikes a chord with his audiences above all the other characters.
“We live in a society of the fatherless, single moms, feminized Christianity, only singing songs to Jesus, and forgetting that there is also Father God. I have seen a number of women have to take on traditional male roles within the home because the men in their lives have fallen from their responsibilities. The notion of Father and masculinity has been far from us in the past but is coming back.”
Jason portrays a strong notion of who Father God is and what makes Him different from other fathers who may have let their children down. He shows them that they can trust in a Father who loves them, who is waiting with his arms wide open to receive his children into his arms.
In addition to The Prodigal Trilogy, Jason also performs a monologue on the Life of David (with 20+ characters with different accents) and Herod the Great. The Prodigal Trilogy and many of his other works are available for purchase on his website.
For more information about Jason Hildebrand, or to get a copy of The Prodigal Trilogy, visit JasonHildebrand.com