April 8, 2020

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Author's foray into biblical theatre a treat

Will an actor performing as Jesus Christ gradually become more forgiving, generous and, yes, more Christ-like? Maybe so, according to Canadian author and poet Richard Kelly Kemick.

Kemick — whose debut poetry collection Caribou Run as well as stories in magazines, journals and anthologies have won awards — recently spent his entire summer playing Herod in the annual Canadian Badlands Passion Play set in the arid countryside near Drumheller, Alta. His experiences with this annual spectacle’s cast and crew and his personal reflections are contained in his new memoir, I Am Herod.

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Kemick starts his book by noting that he is at a turning point in his personal life. His teaching job isn’t satisfying, and he bickers with his partner, Litia.

He later reveals that he is prone to depression and attempted suicide as a teen. He was taken out of the running for the 2017 Journey Prize because the Writers’ Trust, the prize’s organizing body, had concerns about similarities between Kemick’s story and one by author Amy Hempel.

Like many of his fellow actors, it becomes clear that Kemick has his own demons to slay. He also makes it clear that he’s an agnostic — he’s not drawn to becoming part of the Passion Play because of his religious convictions, a main motivation for most of the other actors. His Catholic school education, however, has given him some knowledge of the Bible, so he’s able to easily understand the play’s themes. Kemick views his decision to take a role as being primarily a means for him to become embedded within the cast in order to write an account of his experience.

"‘I’m only doing this to write about it,’ I said yesterday when Litia and I went to my parents’ house for dinner.

"‘Just don’t come back born-again,’ my mother replied, and I started to laugh until I realized no one else was."

At first, Kemick is tempted to mock those who bring an eager naiveté to their biblical roles. However, as he slowly gets to know the people, most of whom are volunteers, he discovers that each one has his own reason for putting up with the demanding physical conditions of the play.

The actors must endure weeks of camping out in tents, living away from family and friends and eating in crowded conditions.

While he had hoped to be given the role of Pontius Pilate, the director tells him that he must be Herod Antipas (hence the book’s title). Kemick takes the assignment seriously, reading up on Herod. When he dons Herod’s tunic and robes, he surprises even himself by transforming into a demanding ruler who belittles his servants and Jesus by mocking them and taking liberties, such as patting Jesus on the head.

"Within the course of the day, I go from the man who gives Temple Guard Captain my last bagel just so he likes me to jabbing Arphaxad in the sternum with my golden sceptre to force him to walk three paces behind me as I ascend the backstage stairs."

He describes the scope of the Badlands Passion Play, which carries a budget of close to $1 million and includes around 100 actors as well as live animals. The play is performed in an amphitheatre that seats 2,500 and draws more than 15,000 people per season. Kemick is struck by the immensity of the whole spectacle.

The organization behind the Badlands play went into the red after a faltering previous year in which the script was deemed to be flawed. The executive director has spent lavishly on new props and is still paying out salaries to hire actors for the main roles. He keeps the truth about the production’s budget a secret, hoping that a well-attended season will turn things around. This do-or-die atmosphere results in some uneasiness amongst the cast members as they speculate about the possible future demise of the Passion Play.

Kemick’s ability to convey his own experiences and evolving personal view of the Passion Play and his fellow actors gives I Am Herod some comic moments, and makes it an enjoyable read.

Andrea Geary is a reporter with Canstar Community News.

Andrea Geary

Andrea Geary
Community journalist — The Headliner

Andrea Geary is the community journalist for The Headliner. Email her at andrea.geary@canstarnews.com Call her at 204-697-7124

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