“There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveler.”
There is no way I could have known how long and winding my journey would be in directing Bonhoeffer’s Cost. Truth be told, I had no idea I’d embark on this journey in the first place.
A play about a Lutheran hero like Dietrich Bonhoeffer isn’t likely to be on the short list of potential projects for an atheist director like myself, but it’s been on my mind since the summer of 2014.
June 2014 was a busy time for Agape Theatre, then Agape Actors Co-Op. I was busy directing Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks while planning the rest of our 2014 Season with the assistance of my former Co-Artistic Director, Olin Meadows. We knew we wanted to do a Christmas show, but we wanted to find one that hadn’t been overseen or overdone in the Austin area.
I recalled seeing a hilarious original comedy when I was living in Los Angeles. The play involved a community theatre producing their Christmas play while half of their cast and crew is out due to the flu. It was a side-splitting backstage comedy that showed the best and worst of Murphy’s Law, and I knew it would be a great choice for us.
That show was Suffer the Long Night. I did some digging and found that as Suffer the Long Night was unpublished, we’d need to contact the playwrights–Mary Ruth Clarke and Greg Gilenna–to get their permission to produce the play. I contacted them, and they immediately agreed.
And then came an unexpected follow-up e-mail form Mary Ruth. “I’ve written this other play, Bonhoeffer’s Cost, which I really think you should take a look at. You’ll find it’s very different from Suffer.”
Different was an understatement. While Suffer the Long Night was a bawdy ensemble slapstick comedy, Bonhoeffer’s Cost was an intimate, gripping biographical drama about a Lutheran pastor and theologian facing judgement for courageously opposing the Nazi regime.
I raced through the script over an hour and some change, It featured a sharp and smart script with a clever non-linear structure that kept me furiously flipping the pages to find out what happens next. It was an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, something biographical plays often strive for but seldom achieve. I knew immediately that I had to direct it. I wanted to tell this story about a real-life hero, and I knew the project would push me and challenge me in ways I hadn’t been challenged before.
My only concern: would our audience want to see a new, original play about a historical figure known to the Lutheran community but unknown in other circles? To find out the answer, I added the show to a season planning survey to be sent to Agape’s patrons. Our audience was given the play’s title and a one-sentence summary of the subject matter. Bonhoeffer’s Cost garnered more votes than any other show on the survey, including classic American dramas like The Glass Menagerie. It was clear that, despite being a new and unknown work, this show had an audience.
With that, my journey with Bonhoeffer’s Cost turned from “I want to direct this show” to “I will direct this show.” We added the play to our 2015 Season with plans to produce it in the fall.
Of course, one question immediately came to mind. Who did I know who could play Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer, especially as he’s portrayed in the play, is an everyman who shows tremendous courage and conviction, even when displaying those character traits will lead to his downfall. He’s a rebel, a force of nature, but still human. Still flawed. Who could I find to play this complicated character, and who could I find who wouldn’t be overly intimidated by a role that called for them to remain on stage for two hours?
Sometime in the spring of 2015, I visited Sam Bass Community Theatre to see Never the Sinner, another biographical drama, this one concerning the infamous murder case of Leopold and Loeb. The production starred a young man by the name of Cory Grabenstein as prosecuting attorney Robert E. Crowe. The intensity and nuance Cory brought to the role was palatable, so much so that half way though one of his scenes, my fiancée leaned over to me and whispered, “That’s your Bonhoeffer.”
He was right. This was a performer who I could tell enjoyed a challenge and had the talent to take on a hefty role. After the show, I made a point to introduce myself to Mr. Grabenstein. “Give me your e-mail,” I said. “I have a script you need to read.” Cory quickly signed on to the project, and after holding auditions for the remaining roles, we started rehearsals in June 2015.
And then our journey stalled. East View High School, which had been our home for the past year, informed us that due to the growth of several extracurricular programs, we would no longer have access to the East View High School Black Box Theatre. Our venue was gone.
I regretfully informed my cast that we would have to cancel the production. However, I assured them I would continue to look for a home for Bonhoeffer’s Cost and that if and when I found it, I would offer them their roles once more.
Six months later, I met a friend for lunch in Round Rock and noticed that the Round Rock Arts Office was half a block away. I walked in and asked if they could recommend a venue for an upcoming show. When I told them about the show in question, they suggested that I contact Palm Valley Lutheran Church.
I went home, got on Google, and did a little research on the church. The gorgeous 120 sanctuary seemed the perfect venue, so I contacted Palm Valley Lutheran Church and sent them the script.
And with that, the journey was no longer stalled. We had our venue, and it happened to be a thing of beauty with stained glass windows and a vaulted ceiling that added even further gravitas and character to our show.
I immediately contacted my cast, and half of them were able to return. Cory Grabenstein emphatically returned to the show, as did Rachel Bremer as his fiancée, Maria, and Agape alum Zach Bond as his brother, Klaus. Agape newcomers TJ Condit, Keoni Ramo, and Frank Benge would round out the cast as prison guard Klaus Klopstock, Bonhoeffer’s ally and brother-in-law Hans Dohnanyi, and the evil Judge Advocate Rott, respectively.
And now, nearly three years after I first read Bonhoeffer’s Cost, this crazy journey is almost complete; we start rehearsals tomorrow Monday, March 26th.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveler.” If there is meaning to be found in this journey, I’d wager it’s that we should always have faith. Whether we believe in God, in the universe, in destiny, or in ourselves, we need to have faith in something.
I’m grateful that the entire Agape Theatre family continued to have faith in this project, because what initially looked like an ending was, in reality, a new beginning. Losing our venue at East View High School lead us to one even more appropriate and appealing for this particular production, and the subject matter is far more resonant in the political climate of 2017 than it ever was in 2015. We need to be reminded today that one person can make a difference, and that our courage and conviction is valuable, even if we do not personally gain from our efforts.
As I may never again get the opportunity to direct a new American drama in a 120 year old venue, I want to cherish and record every moment left in this journey.
It is for that reason that this blog, “Notes from Cell 92” exists: to document and share our journey with this incredible project.
I hope you will come back every Sunday to read all about the Bonhoeffer’s Cost family and the process of taking this play from the page to the stage, and I hope you will join us at the journey’s end when Bonhoeffer’s Cost opens this May.
Director, Bonhoeffer’s Cost
BONHOEFFER’S COST plays The Sanctuary at Palm Valley Lutheran Church, located at 2500 East Palm Valley Blvd, Round Rock, TX. The play runs Thursday, May 11-Sunday, May 21, 2017. Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm with matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30pm. A free post-show reception will follow the opening night performance on Thursday, May 11th. A post-show discussion with the cast and creative team will follow the performance on Friday, May 12th and the evening performance on Saturday, May 20th.
Tickets are $12-20 with discounts available to Seniors, Students, Teachers/Educators and Current/Ex Military. To reserve tickets, please visit www.ticketor.com/agapetheatre or call us at 512-88-STAGE.
For more information, please visit http://www.agapetheatre.org/bonhoeffers-cost/ or call 512-88-STAGE.
BONHOEFFER’S COST is recommended for audience members age 13 and up.
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