Mark Drama reaches into new territories

‘Hammering home’ the power of the gospel

The first time Sam Mills acted in the Mark Drama – playing Jesus, as it happens – one of his fellow actors invited her whole soccer team and they came just because she was acting in it.

“So it’s such an easy invite, and yet people sit there and they have the whole of Mark’s Gospel played out. Our conviction is that the power is in God’s word, and what we’re doing is just presenting God’s word. They hear every event in Mark’s Gospel, the words of Jesus, and that’s why it’s so powerful,” says Mills, now chairman of the Mark Drama Steering Committee.

“And even for Christians, it’s so rare that we sit down and read the gospel from start to finish. We often have it in bitesize pieces and we don’t think about why Mark has chosen [to record] particular events and why this order, and even just how much of it takes place in the final couple of weeks in Jerusalem. I think the Mark Drama brings out the historicity of Mark’s Gospel and it helps you to understand better.”

“I think the Mark Drama brings out the historicity of Mark’s Gospel.” – Sam Mills, chairman of the Mark Drama Steering Committee

That initial production in Wollongong, NSW, was in 2015 – just a year after Andrew Page, a missionary in Austria who created the Mark Drama, came to Australia and trained the first group of directors, who went on to train others. There are now almost 50 Mark Drama directors working on productions across the country, mostly in NSW and Queensland but also in the ACT, Western Australia and Victoria.

‘Jesus’ performs a healing miracle during the Mark Drama, Christ Church Cathedral, Darwin

Directors also travel to the regions, and I recently enjoyed a performance at Christ Church Cathedral in Darwin, directed by Jeanette Chin, who was one of the original directors trained by Page. It was only the second time the Mark Drama has been produced in the NT capital and it involved two performances on consecutive nights.

As in all Mark Drama productions, there was a cast of 15 actors – eight men and seven women – drawn in this case from the Christian group at Charles Darwin University. Only Joe Parker as Jesus had set lines to learn – his script is taken directly from the gospel. The remainder – the disciples, Pharisees and people healed by Jesus – just learned the structure of Mark’s Gospel.

“The idea is when you get to the first rehearsal, which is just three days before the performance, they don’t know the Mark Drama, but they know the structure of Mark’s Gospel. And so as they’re learning, they can go, ‘Oh yeah, this scene comes before this one,’ so the directors go in for that intensive performance preparation. And it works well because our directors aren’t based everywhere in Australia. Still, they can travel often into these more regional productions and be there for a few days, direct it, teach it to them, have the performances and then go back home.”

“We encourage them to improvise to a certain extent, to have some fun with it – the disciples are often a bit of the comic relief.”

A 90-minute drama is staged in the round with no intermission. The production I saw was very energetic and vivacious, with Jesus’s merry band of disciples expressing joy and incredulity at his miracles. The actors playing the disciples got many laughs from the audience with their witty comments and high jinx, which occasionally strayed into pantomime, but there was gravity and solemnity when needed. The Garden of Gethsemane scene was startlingly heartrending, with Jesus breaking into brutal sobs at the prospect of what lay before him.

“We encourage them to improvise to a certain extent, to have some fun with it – the disciples are often a bit of the comic relief. Whereas Jesus doesn’t get to improvise. Jesus is very much word for word from Mark’s Gospel,” says Mills.

“It’s very powerful in the way it’s written because it kind of lulls the audience with this humour and they get comfortable and open to it, and then suddenly, there’s these scenes which are very poignant and heartfelt. The humour gets the audience onside. And then to have these things that hammer home the reality of what Jesus was going through and the reality of the gospel is such an emotional journey.”

Joe Parkin as Jesus in the Mark Drama

One of this year’s ten productions was the first one in Mandarin – something that has been in the pipeline for years.

“Mandarin is the most spoken language in Australia after English. We have found that Mark Drama has been very helpful with international students even just performing in English because with the literacy gap when they can see it acted out, they understand. The drama gets through in a way that sometimes just sitting down and reading [the Bible] doesn’t,” says Mills

Mandarin-speaker Lucy Cheng directed that production on September 16 with Campus Bible Study at New College on the University of NSW campus. She was thrilled that 160 people came, including lots of non-Christian international students.

Churches and Christian groups are encouraged to follow up with people who come to the performances, which often leads them to come back to church or read Mark’s Gospel with a friend.

“We’ve had groups hold a Christianity Explored course afterwards and people came to that. The most popular time we have for Mark Drama is Easter, so people often come back to Easter services or often the uni groups will get people to sign up to read Mark’s Gospel with someone.

“AFES [the Australian Fellowship of Evangelic Students] have this Uncover Mark campaign where they’re encouraging people to read Mark’s Gospel with a friend, so it fits well with that.”

“It’s very exciting to see how seeing Mark Drama acted out helped her commit to follow Christ.”

One of the most dramatic testimonies Mills knows of was a woman called Alexandria who came to a Mark Drama in Townsville that Mills directed with a friend in 2016.

“Two years after that, someone told me, ‘Oh, there was a girl at that production who was invited by a friend and Mark Drama was really important to her coming to faith.’ We had another Mark Drama a couple of years afterwards, and she was the event manager for that production. She’s now in training as a Mark Drama director and has started directing Mark Dramas, so it’s very exciting to see how seeing Mark Drama acted out helped her commit to follow Christ.”

The first production of Mark Drama in Mandarin happened on September 16.

As for himself, Mills finds having learned Jesus’ lines very useful in his work as a teacher at Thomas Hassall Anglican School in western Sydney.

“From acting in the Mark Drama, I know Mark’s Gospel so much better now. I’ve acted in community theatre before and at the end of a production you think, ‘What do I do with all these random lines that don’t mean anything?’ But playing Jesus, I’m like, ‘Now I know this speech that Jesus made.’

“I’m teaching Mark’s Gospel to students as part of Christian Studies at my school. So I’m able to say, ‘This is what Jesus says,’ and just know it so well. I think it’s such a good opportunity for Christians who are in the audience and for Christians who act as well.

“Then, of course, for non-Christians, the power is in God’s word. We’re just presenting it. We’re not changing it. We’re trying to stay faithful to it. But actually, this is the power of this narrative that Mark has written.”

If anyone is interested in putting on a Mark Drama production, click here.