The Process of Theatrical Creation: Deborah Dennison’s “God’s Fool” | - June 7, 2011

and Its Journey from New Mexico to New York and Edinburgh

Plays usually begin in a darkened room and come to life when the lights are turned up.  This movement from near complete darkness to the fullness of light mirrors the process of theatrical creation which begins with the germ of an idea and, if a number of improbable occurrences take place, moves from the page to the stage.  This is most frequently a long, arduous journey that involves vision, talented colleagues, perseverance, industry, and luck.  This is the story of one such play and its evolution, Deborah Dennison’s God’s Fool.

Deborah Dennison is a professional theater and film veteran and educator who has resided in Santa Fe for twenty-four years and is founder and artistic director of the local theater company. The Arden Players (TAP).  Deborah has impressive theatrical bloodlines.  Her mother was Carol Gould, a New York actress whose first-run Broadway roles included Johnny Belinda, The Heiress, and Winterset.  From the time she could understand language, Deborah was regaled by her mother with stories of such theatrical friends and colleagues as Katherine Cornell, Bea Straight, and Basil Rathbone and mesmerized by a record of John Barrymore reciting the soliloquies of Shakespeare.  When she was eight, Deborah saw a production at the Old Vic of Henry V  that starred a young, dashing Richard Burton in the title role, she was hooked on the theater for life.

A graduate of the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Deborah spent a decade in New York City with the Classic Stage Company and other companies as an actor, director, and theater designer.  She then turned her talents to film where she has produced award-winning films.  As Santa Fe approached the 400th anniversary of its founding, Deborah felt it was the appropriate time to launch this project on the life of her hometown patron saint which she had desired to write for years: Her work would peel back the traditional depiction of the simple mystic and reveal the “real” revolutionary life and spirit of Francis of Assisi.

After months of original research, often from primary sources, Deborah Dennison had re-created an accurate historical picture of the life and times of Francis from which she would begin to develop her play.

The medieval world of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Europe was built on the conflict of diametrically opposed forces:  Holy Roman Empire versus the Papacy, politics versus religion and human ambition versus faith.  It was the age of Crusades to the holy lands and the last gasp of feudalism prior to the growth of a middle class and a movement to more democratic social institutions.

Francis was born into this world in 1182 to a rich cloth merchant Pietro di Bernardone.  In 1202, civil war broke out among the nobles and the citizens and Francis spent a year in prison in Perugia after his capture at the Battle of Collestrada before being ransomed by his father.  Bedridden for a year, Francis still was infected with dreams of knighthood and chivalry and attempted to join the Fourth Crusade before returning abruptly to Assisi.  From late 1204 until early 1206, Francis underwent a period of reflection which culminated in a vision in which the crucifix in the Church of San Damiano “spoke” to him telling the young man to rebuild the Church.  After an ecclesiastical trial before Bishop Guido of Assisi in which his father sued for the recovery of monies his son had collected from selling some of the merchant’s cloth, Francis radically changed his life by embracing poverty and preaching.  After repairing San Damiano and other churches, Francis refurbished Santa Maria degli Angeli (Portiuncola) which was to become the starting point for the growth of his particular religious movement.

In 1208, Francis began to have followers and one year later received papal oral approval of an organization of lay friars.  In 1211, Francis welcomed the fateful escape of eighteen-year old Clare Favorini Scifi from her family and sent her to San Damiano where she founded the Order of Poor Ladies and lived a cloistered life until her death in 1253.

For approximately the next decade, Francis went on preaching tours of Southern Italy, Germany, England, and a final tour of Umbria and established ecclesiastical rules for his community.  In 1219, he traveled to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade to nurse the sick and wounded and spoke directly to the Saracens.  Inspired by their leader’s initiative, the Franciscans date their presence in the Holy Land to the thirteenth century.

In 1224, Francis began suffering the stigmata (five wounds that mirror those suffered by Christ on the Cross) and in 1226 returned to Assisi to die.  Francis died in Portiuncola on October 3, 1226, and was buried in Assisi on October 4 which became his official feast day in the Catholic Church.  He was canonized in 1228 and has been proclaimed Patron Saint of Italy (1939) and Patron of Ecology (1980).

In an interview with Deborah Dennison on May 20, 2011, she first related what she found attractive about the character of Francis of Assisi: “Here is a man who actually lived the teachings of Jesus as we know his life through the reports of the gospels… [Francis’s life] is a rebuttal to the stunning distortion of Christianity [in the teachings of the four gospels] by fundamentalists who focus, almost exclusively, on the Book of Revelations.”  Furthermore, Dennison found Francis “to be the first environmentalist and, not short of peculiar for a male in medieval Europe, a feminist who believed in the equality of the sexes….Also, [I found attractive] Francis’s philosophy of the natural world that has elements of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.  In fact, [Francis’s philosophy] is very like Lakota beliefs and prayers in which all creatures and the elements of the earth itself are our brothers.”  Finally, the dramatist found Francis had an “instinctive political sense” that enabled him to “stay clear from the crucible of church doctrine.”  Not an intellectual nor well-read nor interested in debating church law, Francis was only interested in how to live in the world.

In response to my inquiry about her biggest challenge in writing and producing God’s Fool, Deborah Dennison commented on the “conflict between the factual story of Francis and the elements of a well-constructed play…The main challenge is to create a moving, engaging play while taking people through the history.”  The playwright dealt with these conflicting demands by “creating historical and emotional links.  [You] give the audience hooks that are very technically set up.  It’s like weaving: You keep repeating the pattern, so the thread isn’t lost.  An example in the play is the notion of the Crusades.  The arc of Francis’s transformation from wanting to fight in the Crusades to finally going to Egypt to stop the pointless slaughter is embedded in the various characters and scenes in the play and is a device to reveal relationships, politics, and policy [among other social elements].

The growth and development of God’s Fool is now entering its third year.  In November of 2009 after months of intense research, Deborah Dennison presented a staged reading of five scenes from The Lion and the Lamb: The Revolutionary Spirit of Francis of Assisi (the original title of God’s Fool).  One of those scenes was the meeting between Francis and the Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt which was the first scene penned by Deborah Dennison who wished to address a simple question: “How does a passionate, unlettered Christian committed to a life of abject poverty and service to those in need have a conversation with a Muslim who is a brilliant scholar and a king in Islam?”   The writing process grew from that initial scene: “After I explored that [question], I imagined what the journey was to get Francis to Egypt at [that time and place]….[The writing process is like] building a house, block-by-block, until you have a completed structure.  Then, it takes on a character of its own and becomes its own entity.”

The first Santa Fe workshop of Dennison’s play was in October of 2010 at El Museo Cultural.  Then after a major rewrite and a dress rehearsal the following month at El Museo, the Francis play played at the South Broadway Cultural Center in December of 2010.  It was during that run that Deborah Dennison felt the play started to work: “Theaudience laughed at the funny bits bits.  I knew then that the energy of the play was working.”   Encouraged by the New Mexico response to her play, Dennison is taking the play to New York City and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival “to see if it could pass muster in a larger venue.”

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a former teaching colleague of Deborah Dennison who has witnessed the development of God’s Fool from its first days.  It has evolved into a moving and informative theatrical experience with an epic sweep that demythologizes the conventional (and simplistic) plaster saint assessment of Francis of Assisi and replaces it with a very human character that lives the message of the gospels.  It is more than an entertaining evening in the theater; it is an important commentary on the common grounds of Abrahamic beliefs.  Since the first workshop productions of her play, Dennison has discovered that a special ecumenical debate at a Rutgers University Symposium and a Franciscan ecumenical gathering at Assisi (both in 2011) have continued to investigate and comment on the Francis and al-Kamil meeting in twelfth century Egypt.)  
Deborah Dennison’s final words on God’s Fool had to do with her cast: “[I have a] fabulous cast of Broadway and London West End veterans and some exciting young talent….[It is an axiom of the theater] that without a brilliant cast, you can’t do a fine production.”  Further, Dennison praises her cast and staff for its devotion to the play: “The Santa Fe cast members have had to walk away from their jobs for a month which reveals their commitment to the production.”

When Deborah Dennison returns from Scotland in August, she will begin work on her latest Santa Fe project, the initial season of the Santa Fe Shakespeare Summer Festival.

Matthew McCollum (Francis)                                   Beth Kennedy Jones (Pica Bernadone)
Jonathan David Dixon (Angelo)                               Paul Walsky (Pietro Bernadone/al-Farsi)
Tad Jones (Bishop of Perugia/Sultan al-Kamil)       Henry Wright (Leo)
Paul Geoffrey (Thomas of Celano)                          Genia Michaela (Clare)
Mitchell Conway (John)                
Design Team
Natasha Ditizan (lighting design/stage manager)

Music for God’s Fool will come from the recorded repertory of New Mexico’s
Musica Antigua de Albuquerque with their kind permission

God’s Fool will have five New York City performances at 59E59 Theaters (July 27-31) and nine Edinburgh performances at The Space@NiddrySt (August 5-13).
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