Actors in “The Sound of Music” perform in London (CNS photo/Tristram Kenton).

Facing the looming weight of an academic year filled with consequential deadlines and the imminent submission of my tenure file, in August I did what any anxious scholar in my position would do: I auditioned for a play.

It wasn’t just any play. It was, as far as I was concerned, the greatest play of all: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. I was cast in the role of Sister Margaretta, the cheerful and forgiving Mistress of the Postulants at Nonnberg Abbey, and—improbably—as the understudy for the iconic lead. Even more improbably, the directors soon decided that the performance schedule called for an official alternate in the principal role. Somehow, I became Fraulein Maria.

So began my initiation into the elaborate underworld of Atlanta Catholic community theater and the three most surreal months of my life. The production was at my Jesuit parish, and I assumed that the phrase “theater ministry” was code for “we are all trying our best.” I anticipated a ragtag array of amateur talent from the pews, a leisurely rehearsal schedule, and a production value worthy of the venue, which was a middle-school gym. Each of these assumptions turned out to be incorrect. By day, I was a dutiful member of the theology faculty at my university. Four nights a week and on weekends, I was a rebel-hearted Austrian postulant sizing up curtains for play clothes and dancing the Ländler with a widower naval captain. My daughters were cast in the children’s ensemble, which the directors invented to include the excess of Marta von Trapp–aged girls who tried out. Most nights, rehearsals were a family affair. It was not long before this ostensible ministry production of The Sound of Music took over our lives.

The point is to do your part earnestly and without shame, even when you know your best isn’t very good yet.

Having never acted in so much as a high-school musical, every rehearsal felt like a revelation. (The closest I’d come to the stage was successfully persuading the skeptical members of my eleventh-grade European History project group to perform a revue of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs whose lyrics I had rewritten to explain various features of the Roman Empire. “Don’t Cry for Me, Julius Caesar”? Lin-Manuel Miranda could never.) The thrilling thing about theater, I soon learned, is that rehearsing is mostly making mistakes in front of other people yet continuing to live. Acting is like being a human rough draft. This is, to put it mildly, the type of situation that I tend to avoid at all costs. Author Anne Lamott famously extolls the virtues of the “shitty first draft.” I have never mastered the art. Thoughts remain locked up like recluses in the attic of my mind until they are ready to enter the world clothed in just the right words. Mistakes are a thing to be worked out in private, where nobody can see them, not even me. To be clear, this is a burdensome way of being and I do not recommend it. But salutary or not, it is how I have spent nearly four decades moving through the world. On stage, I learned, obsessing over your imperfections is a waste of everybody’s time. The point is to do your part earnestly and without shame, even when you know your best isn’t very good yet. It’s the only way that everyone can grow.

Memorizing my lines became a spiritual practice. The attentiveness and repetition brought order to my scattered, anxious mind. There were other little disciplines, too. I’d always felt awkward in my body, always not quite right. Somehow, the practice of being on stage settled me into my skin. Eye contact was another lifelong struggle. My gaze has always wanted to wander just to the right, or just below or above, as if looking another person in the pupils for more than a couple of seconds would risk setting off some kind of cosmic chain reaction or open an irreversible portal to my innermost soul. As it happens, Maria spends about a third of the play gazing tenderly into people’s eyes, usually while singing to them about the love life of a lonely goatherd, or her wicked childhood and miserable youth, or the merits of waiting a couple more years before dating the local Nazi telegram boy. Every time we rehearsed the song “Something Good”—the culmination of melodic eye contact in the musical, in which Maria and the Captain admit their love for one another—another withered leaf fell off the nervous autumn tree in my chest, and something small and green sprouted in its place. By the time we reached opening night, I felt, for the first time, at home in my body.

I can’t recall at what point I realized that I loved this, and I loved it more than anything I had ever done in my life. I felt like I had stumbled headlong into that pseudepigraphal Pedro Arrupe prayer about falling in love and finding God: the play seized my imagination, it got me out of bed in the morning, it determined what I did with my evenings and weekends, it amazed me with joy and gratitude. I fell in love, most of all, with my fellow parishioner-actors. We spanned eight decades and a vast range of life situations, but the play made us part of the same story. In my work, I think a lot about how religious ritual fosters community. Part of it, I’ve determined, is that ritual gives people a script for being together meaningfully. It gives us the lines to say and the notes to sing. It gives us our blocking—where to go and what to do with our bodies once we’re there. And when we do it enough times, we find that we’ve become, somehow, the thing we’ve rehearsed. We perform ourselves into the story we’re telling. For those concerned with religious belief, the word “performance” is often used to connote insincerity, as though the thing being done is just for show. But that’s not quite right. A performance can heal and unite and transform. Maybe that’s what makes it a ministry.

Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents

Susan Bigelow Reynolds is assistant professor of Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. 

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