Interview with Stefan Smart

I AM MARK for CMAX.TV

Stefan Smart in I AM MARK

Stefan Smart is a retired British drama and English teacher. He took up acting again recently, and started a theater company called Behold! His one-man show, I AM MARK is a retelling of the entire Gospel of Mark from the Bible. With minimal props and gentle music, Smart brings his considerable talent to this oral history. Scholars now think that Mark’s Gospel was meant to be performed by one person, and was taken across the Roman world to encourage the new Christian communities. Smart would like to do the same thing, and has performed I AM MARK in churches, schools, and theaters across the U.K. He can also be seen on CMAX.TV. Smart brings the thrilling twists and turns, conflicts, and miracles in Mark to life in a way that will stay with you, and allow you to introduce friends and neighbors to Jesus.  

Hello Stefan, and thank you for allowing Eight Hobbits to interview you. I just finished watching the show, and I want to tell you how profoundly moving it was on many levels.

Do you plan to continue performing it? Yes indeed. I think it has a lot of life in it still. For me there is no end to the number of times this story can be performed. It has so much resonance and power. I’d like to think I can continue to perform it for several years into the future. Certainly, next year as things begin to open up again, I’d be very happy to perform it wherever I can. As I wrote to someone else recently, that might be in the open air or on the street corner, or it might even be in palaces or parliaments; it matters not who sees it and where. The point is that everyone, or as many people as possible get to hear this incredible story and experience Jesus through these words.

How was it working with CMAX.TV to produce this show? I’ve really enjoyed working with the guys (big shout out to Deacon Darrell Wentworth, Ashley Zahorian, David Mims, Bob Adams, and Jean Egolf). It’s been quite a learning process for me, having never worked this closely with a TV company before. But from the very start they have been tremendously supportive and encouraging. I don’t know if you were aware, but the original idea was for CMAX.TV to film a live performance in Virginia Beach before an audience of 700 people. Unfortunately, Covid got in the way and we weren’t able to do that. But full marks to CMAX.TV because they persisted with the project anyway! And I’m ever so glad that they did!

What is your favorite moment to perform in I AM MARK? So many! I think one of my favourites is the story of the demoniac called ‘Legion’ in chapter 5. There is something about the pure ferocity, yet vulnerable humanity of that particular individual that grabs my attention every time. And the way that contrasts with Jesus’s calm authority gives me the chills! I often sense a similar reaction in the audience: terror at his appearance and behaviour, mixed with compassion at his awful plight, followed by genuine awe as Jesus frees him and heals him in the most dramatic way possible.

Was it hard to nail down all of the voices that you do? I particularly laughed at the Pharisees’ high-pitched, nasally voices. And when you take a moment to pause before performing as Jesus, it gave me chills every time, with his calm voice. In both of these I owe a big debt of gratitude to my director, Lisa Gilmour. It was she who suggested that I should voice these characters in this way, and link this with various mannerisms and postures. It wasn’t necessarily hard to do the voices once I got the idea from Lisa. I’m glad these particular voices stood out for you, as I especially enjoyed working with the Pharisees and Jesus! The Pharisees were partly based on a university lecturer I used to know, who had a slightly nasally voice but was a lot less mean! As for the portrayal of Jesus, I was aiming at one thing throughout: a sense of unconditional love directed towards whoever he was talking to, even if they happened to be his sworn enemies and eventual murderers.

Which one-man show was your favorite, prior to starting this project? My favourite one- man show, and a major inspiration for I AM MARK, is Alec McCowen’s version of St. Mark from the King James Bible, which he took to the West End and Broadway in the 1970s. My personal acting hero is an old professor of mine, James Clarkson who specialized in one-man shows and most recently portrayed the poet John Donne in an enigmatic and scintillating role.

Do you think more good one-man shows will be written? I hope so! The ones I’ve seen and performed in convey the vulnerability and complexity of being a human being better than any other medium I know.

Who is your favorite actor or actress, and what did they perform? One of my favourites is undoubtedly Bruce Marciano who performed the role of Jesus in the film version of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s such a warm and humane presentation. No one really knows what Jesus was like, of course, but Bruce’s performance is the most engaging and charismatic I’ve seen. It’s no surprise that the film has been widely applauded.

There are many Americans like me who follow the British Royal Family and are Anglophiles. Our condolences on the death of Prince Philip; he seemed a really decent family man. Have you heard from any of the royal family? Would you like to perform for them? Thank you for your good wishes re: Prince Philip. I think you’re right and he’s going to be much missed. I once invited the Queen to one of my first performances in the famous Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London. It happened to be her birthday on that day, so I guess she was busy and wasn’t able to attend! No, I’ve never heard from any of the royal family although I’d like to. I would certainly be happy to perform for them!

I had the privilege to attend a semester of university in Canberra, Australia. Have you ever been to the Land of Oz, and where would you like to perform? No, I’ve never been to Australia but some of my relatives live there, so a visit one day is not out of the question. I’m honestly not sure where in Australia I want to perform, as I don’t know the country well. But if anyone could suggest somewhere appropriate I’d be glad to follow them up on that!

What was it like being at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? It was amazing and hair-raising at the same time! I’ve been on two occasions. The first time I was on the ‘fringe of the Fringe’ so to speak, with three evenings in a venue on the outskirts of the city. That first year, I was simply dipping my toe into the water to see what the Festival was like. It is the most frenetic and exciting place to be. Scary as well, because you aren’t really sure how popular your show is going to be. The atmosphere is electric. Walking down Edinburgh Royal Mile jostling with the other performers and the tourists is quite an experience, I can tell you! The second year I was there, I performed in a venue called the Scottish Storytelling Centre, right on the Royal Mile in the center of the city. Again, it was unclear how popular the show was going to be, but I was absolutely staggered when after the third performance it became clear that it was going to be a sell-out tour. Nothing could contain my excitement when I discovered how many people actually wanted to see the show!

Who chose the background music for your CMAX.TV performance? It was understated, but beautiful. Michael Williams composed and performed specially for this piece.

What struck me the most is that as one long performance, the Gospel of Mark is story after story of the miracles of Jesus. Relentless, amazing miracles. Have you had many questions in the Q&As after your performance about the miracles? As in, did they really happen? What comes to mind is the reaction of one thirteen year old who saw one of the school performances. Without intending to disparage the events on stage, she described Jesus’s miracles as something He had done by ‘magic.’ I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that idea but it was clear she had never heard of anything like this happening before. It didn’t necessarily indicate that she felt they hadn’t happened – simply that she was at a loss to put the miracles into words that she would understand. This impressed on me how few schoolchildren are aware of the stories of Jesus, and re-ignited my passion to pass them on to others. Meanwhile, I agree that the story of Mark is about one miracle after another and it can be quite relentless. But what is interesting to me — and this comes out often in the Q&A that follows the show — is the fact that these miracles are often very symbolic. For instance, there are several occasions in which Jesus heals people and raises them to their feet. The language used in the Greek is the same as the language used to describe the resurrection, and accessorily, our new life in Christ.

What is your hope for the future of I AM MARK now that it can be seen on TV via the Internet? Obviously, I hope that as many people as possible get to see the show, but in particular, that believers get to introduce their friends to it. The original vision of doing the film was to enable Christians of all denominations to invite their friends and neighbors to experience the story of Jesus for themselves, ‘first hand’ as it were. The aim is not to preach but simply to allow a great conversation to develop, and for the Holy Spirit himself to work in people’s lives to touch them and engage them in a unique and personal way. I also hope that the film version of I AM MARK will enable the show to be more widely known and result in further live performances, because, for all the film’s qualities, there’s nothing like interacting with people face-to-face in terms of the emotional impact and the power of the presentation.

Lastly, how is your new project, St. John in Exile coming along? I’m still at the learning lines stage. It’s coming along very slowly, if I’m honest, because there seems to be so much to do regarding I AM MARK at the moment. But when I have some free time, I’m definitely going to devote much more of it to rehearsing for St. John in Exile. It’s a great play, and one that would certainly represent a step up in terms of the challenges of performance. The fact that it is not pure scripture makes it of a different order than I AM MARK, but that’s not to say it’s not powerful. As a story of Jesus‘s life and the impact it had on one man, I have rarely seen anything quite so moving and entertaining.

Thank you so much, Stefan! God bless you and all of your marvelous work.

For more information, visit www.cmax.tv/partner/i-am-mark.  

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