Friday, April 2, 2004

Play an act of devotion

Actors in Florence Passion play rehearse for 3 months

By Brenna R. Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

David Sandlin (center), a teacher at Walton-Verona High School, plays Jesus in This is My Son, The Florence Passion Play during the dress rehearsal Wednesday at the Florence Baptist Church.
Photos by JEFF SWINGER/The Cincinnati Enquirer
This year, the Passion play at Florence Baptist church is told through the eyes of a Roman soldier who doubts Jesus, then comes to believe.

FLORENCE - Jesus is a teacher at Walton-Verona High School. His disciple Simon is a banker. The Angel of the Lord flies a plane for Comair.

Along with Pilate, Roman soldiers and Pharisees, they sit in metal chairs in a cafeteria at Florence Baptist Churchfor a dress rehearsal.

"Get rid of earrings, necklaces, watches, all that stuff," says Philip Hearn, in last-minute instructions to the cast.

"The first song is the hook," he tells them. "You've got to hook your audience."

The more than 100 parishioners-turned-actors have been working for three months to prepare This is My Son, The Florence Passion Play. They have taken vacations from work, given up their weeknights, and will spend the next three nights playing out the life and death of Jesus Christ on stage.

"These are doctors, lawyers. ... These are not paid folks, they don't have to be here," said the Rev. Pete Coleman, who plays a royal official. "These are people who believe the commitment is worth telling the story."

What: This is My Son, The Florence Passion Play
Where: Florence Baptist Church, 283 Main St.
When: 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday
Cost: $5. Tickets available at or at the church.
The play, one of the largest and most elaborate passion plays in Northern Kentucky, is in its 13th year and usually draws about 1,500 people. It's so popular that the church sells tickets over the Internet.

"I just think it's a great way to reach people," said Hearn, the church's music minister. "It's very nonthreatening because people will come into a church to see a play before they would if it's a sermon or a preacher. It's a great first touch."

And this year, with Mel Gibson's movie version of the passion story breaking box-office records, the church hopes more people will want to learn about Jesus' life. But they also worry people may skip the play in favor of the movie.

"The Passion told what, and the Passion play tells why," Coleman said. "You need the rest of the story."

Florence's play covers all of Jesus' life, not just the last 12 hours. The story is told through a series of Bible vignettes.

Each year, church members Nancy Collins and Claudia Frazier try to find a new way to tell one of the world's oldest stories.

"We really start thinking about it from the time it's over," said Collins, who along with Frazier, writes the play from the scriptures and other passion plays.

This year, the events leading to Jesus' death are told through the eyes of an Roman soldier who doubts Jesus, then comes to believe.

"It's a pretty neat story," said Carol Rawlings, a business manager who plays the soldier. "I wasn't going to be in it this year, but then they revived my character."

The actors, most of whom are in the church's choir, get their parts in January then start meeting in small groups, then larger groups until they are all practicing together.

They practice once a week, for three hours a night in the weeks leading up to the performances.

David Sandlin also practices several hours a week at home. Sandlin, 35, plays Jesus and has the most lines and the most solos.

He got the part three years ago because "I was 33 and I could grow a beard," said the high school business teacher.

He can also sing, pointed out Collins.

Like most of the other actors, Sandlin has no formal acting training.

"We just want to get the message out of the story of the life of Jesus," he said.

Working behind the scenes are many of the church's other 2,000 members. One built the set, another built the large fake rocks, others run the lights, make the costumes, and serve as makeup artists.

"I think what's amazing about the production is it's 100 percent these people," Coleman said. "It's just people getting together and doing it."


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