What Role are You Currently Playing?
by Marvin Payne

I was visiting with some young actors a couple of weeks ago, and they asked me what role I was currently playing. I hesitated for a moment (“Shall I tell them about the sheriff I’m going to Idaho to play in a film? Shall I tell them about playing Josiah Lamborn again in the upcoming taping of “Hancock County”? Shall I tell them of the one-day gig in August as Sidney Rigdon?”). Then I thought, “Oh, what the heck” and answered them. “Since you asked, I’ve been playing, well, God.” They didn’t know quite what to think. In our broader society, on stage or off, “playing God” is generally frowned upon. Not PC (politically correct). Not TC (theologically correct). Not PB (personally becoming).

I’m suddenly reminded of when my thirty-something son, who is a seminary teacher, was three years old. One night after family prayer, he jumped up onto the couch, grabbed the sides of the enormous T-shirt of mine that served him as a nightgown, spread them out like seraphic wings and announced, “When I grow up, I’m gonna be God.” I wasn”t keeping a journal then, but that event at least made it into a song.

He was three. It’s okay for three-year-olds to be that reckless and presumptuous. I think a degree of accountability is prerequisite to hubris. But I’m three years old plus a half-century. Way accountable. Playing God.

A couple of times, just because I had it with me anyway, I’ve sat in the waiting area in the temple writing my thoughts. My journal was very much a part of my most recent temple experience. This is what I wrote.

30 June 2002 “We are in an extension of the Nauvoo Temple, my in-laws’ stake center in Orem. This is the concluding dedicatory session. The initial session commenced on the one hundred fifty-eighth anniversary of the very hour at which Joseph Smith was shot. This was Joseph’s temple. “I feel close to the brethren here today, close to Joseph, and close to the Lord. This is a huge event, commemorating huge events, and anticipating huge events. But I feel not so much awe as intimacy. “Elder Holland has spoken–he knows me. Elder Oaks has spoken–he knows me. The choir has sung–a lot of them know me. The Father and the Son are present, and They know me. Joseph is felt here. He didn’t know me, but he may have known John Brown and he certainly knew Josiah Lamborn.”” Being an actor has sometimes been a key for me, unlocking the kind of feelings I had that afternoon. I’ll explain.

On a couple of recent mornings I got up a lot earlier than usual and drove to Park City, the back way. Most of my travels are “the back way.” This time that “back way” took me up Provo Canyon, looking back on the east face of Timpanogos (most would say the “back” side), then avoiding even metropolitan Heber, taking the “back way” through indiscernible Charleston along the reeds that beard the far edge of Deer Creek Reservoir. Through Midway and then another “back way” on what they call the Old River Road, green hillside on the left and marshy pasture on the right. Up the new highway (probably, to some, more of a “front way”) overlooking the spreading blue surface of the Jordanelle, then into Park City on a road that’s, well, the back way.

Park City, for those who’ve never been, is a colony of Colorado (or Hollywood, sometimes–this is kind of mysterious) in the mountains of Utah. Around Independence Day each year, the rest of the state gets a little nervous, because the colonists might get ideas about seceding from the state, and we need Park City for the sales tax on all the popcorn sold during the Sundance Film Festival. That early in the morning, though, it’s a pretty quiet place, quite beautiful and sort of Utah-like. I’d been invited by the Egyptian Theatre to conduct an acting workshop for some high school kids there. These are the ones who asked me about my current role.

We mostly explored together the paradox we live in the theatre, where we trade in Truth (or else why bother?) while never leaving Make-believe. We are, in crude terms, at the same time True and False. We imagined together that good acting might arise from learning to act as close to who we really are as possible, and at the same time as far from who we really are as possible. That can get annoyingly technical, but for now let me just say that we did some crazy things that were designed to get us to be more honest about who we really are, which is hard, and then some even crazier things that were designed to get us experimenting with being very far from who we really are, which is pretty fun.

Part of my report to these young actors was that as long as I was sure about who I was, and brought something of that core self to the stage, it was a grand adventure to be the drunken and murderous Pap Finn in Big River, or the bent barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd. Or that fatal dreamer, the Phantom of the Opera. There was some surprise when I told them that the most liberating (and self-discovering) role I’d ever played was Boo Dog. These characters (and critters) are all, I think, kind of far from who I really am. (I admit I’ve never played a non-mammal. I have my limits.) But venturing into their dreams and sorrows, figuratively pressing onto my eyeballs the contact lenses that color and focus their peculiar vision of the world, I get a little stretched, feel a little larger, and wind up loving different kinds of people a little more easily, because I have been them.

Back to Nauvoo and the dedication. I think my feeling of closeness to the Prophet Joseph was kindled by all the feelings about him I lived through in the play Hancock County as Josiah Lamborn, the prosecutor of his murderers. They are feelings I might not have had as mere Marvin. For a hundred and fourteen evenings (so far) I was the pioneer captain, John Brown, my great-great-grandfather whose springboard for Adventures in the Kingdom was Nauvoo and the man whose vision built it.

As Brown, I had a lot of restoration feelings I surely wouldn’t have had as mere Marvin. I felt close to the Brethren who spoke at the dedication because those particular apostles have said and done things that encourage me, personally, to persevere as an artist–to go, somehow, beyond mere Marvin. (My closeness to the Tabernacle Choir is only because I go to church with some of them, and several others made their audition tapes in my little recording studio–and I’ve been in shows with some of them).

But the closeness that was both the most awesome and most intimate was the closeness I felt to my Father in Heaven. I suppose I shouldn’t need an acting experience to bring me close–I talk to Him several times a day. (And of course He’s talked to me more often than I have even discerned.) But for three weeks of recording that just ended, and several years of writing before that, I have been imagining what my Father in Heaven feels and thinks, and the words He might use to share those unspeakably precious things with us. I’ve been writing, with Steve Perry, “Family–A Joyful Proclamation!” And when it came down to casting it for the CD, Father of Light is the role that fell to me.

(We knew it was okay for Deity to sing in a choral work. Handel made it popular and acceptable, following the example of Bach, who had the advantage of actually being religious. What we didn’t know was if it’s okay for Deity to sing accompanied by a dobro and accordion. We were somewhat encouraged by Brigham Young’s statement that “There are no fiddlers in Hell.” We”ll let you decide if it worked.)

Perhaps the most useful effect of playing this role manifested itself a few nights ago when I saw my four-year-old and my one-and-a-half-year-old playing together gleefully and realized with a flash that what pleases Father most is merely to see His children loving each other. (Well, isn’t it?)

Families is where we learn to love. Better, probably, than in dramatic portrayals–unless we happen to see our family as a warm earthy gaggle of survivors and at the same time a sublime model of heavenly archetypes (there’s that word again!). In other words, family as sacred drama. Totally real (the “us as us” part), and at the same time totally make-believe (the”us as God” part). Sound paradoxical?

I reckon that few of us Latter-day Saints who have been taught the flame-white elements of the Proclamation since Primary realize how radical this document is. What it echoes for us about Heavenly Parents, what it clarifies again about why families even exist and what they are meant to become, is blazing revelation to the rest of the planet. This is news to them. I don’t think they are taught these things anywhere else. Not at Mother Urban’s (which is a bar in Park City), not at Notre Dame (which is a cathedral in Paris), not at the University of Nebraska (which is a University in Nebraska). Among the saints is the only place being a “child of God” really means “child of God.” Genetically.

(Do you remember I promised you, in the last column, that our musical potpourri was to have included a Muslim call to prayer? Well, that was before the guy who was going to perform it for us admitted that one of the basic tenets of Islam is that “God does not bear.” In other words, apparently it’s important in that theology to believe that God is not literally Our Father.

So we nixed it–sorry, it would have sounded cool.We stuck a bagpipe into that gap in the music instead. We nixed it mostly out of respect for Islamic belief, but also because we didn’t want to become the target of a fatal Fatwa).

But Asaph, a cymbal-playing Levite choir leader wrote down in his journal (published–Psalm 82) something the Lord had told him (primary reason for keeping a journal, you recall), which is, “Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.”

We explored paradoxes those early mornings in Park City. How about this one? Is playing the role of Heavenly Father possibly the most presumptuous, hubristic (I think I just coined that word, words being the only thing you can “coin” except coins), and spiritually dangerous thing any of us might do? Yes. Is playing the role of Heavenly Father probably the most humbling, refining, visionary (and even necessary) thing any of us might do? That too.

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“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)

 


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