Prayer on Stage

On opening night I was as nervous as ever. But how would my nonreligious cast react if I suggested having prayer?

It all started when a high school teacher talked me into playing a nonspeaking part of a dead man in the play Our Town. From then on I was hooked on drama.

While attending Ricks College in Idaho, I acted in and directed both school and community plays. The only thing that kept the butterflies from taking over was prayer. Before every production, including dress rehearsals, we had a brief, comforting word of prayer.

My first teaching assignment was at a community college. I enjoyed it, but it was a marked contrast from the LDS environment I had been in at Ricks. I taught several subjects, but in my spare time I directed a couple of plays.

When the night of the first performance came, I found I was as nervous as ever and needed prayer. How would my cast feel about that? I went over notes with the cast before the first show and tried to summon up my courage to suggest having prayer to this nonreligious group.

Finally I said, “Ah … I don’t know how any of you feel about this, but … well … I feel we need to have a word of prayer before we start. If you don’t mind, I will offer it.”

In my prayer, I asked for all those miracles we usually ask for in preperformance prayers to make our show a success. I then took my place in a back corner of our makeshift theater, and the curtain went up on what turned out to be a very successful production.

The next day at school, no one said anything about the prayer—no complaints, no reinforcement.

That night before the second night of the play, I made my usual speech about what we needed to do to make the play work, but I couldn’t summon enough courage to suggest prayer again. I felt the cast was humoring me. I felt perhaps a private prayer away from the others would do.

After my little pep talk, I again took my place in my corner and waited for the lights to come up. I felt someone tug at my arm. It was the assistant director, one of my students.

“Mr. Eaton, we haven’t had our prayer yet,” he whispered.

I gulped hard and fought back tears as I went backstage and offered another request for the Lord to touch our spirits as we tried to entertain a community college audience.

That is not the end of the story.

The next year I had a cast of students who were by no means religious. We had our problems, and I had the feeling it might be inappropriate to ask that group of students to calm down enough for prayer. I never suggested prayer before their first opening night.

It was a terrible performance. I’m not blaming anyone. We just did a poor job.

I had the cast stay after for a line rehearsal, but it took me more than an hour to go over my notes and point out what needed to be corrected by the next night. There was no mistaking that I was upset.

As we were leaving the theater, a few of the cast members were walking to the parking lot with me. One of the least religious of the group said, “Last year I heard you had prayer before performances.”

I was stunned. “Yes,” I said, “we did.”

“How come we didn’t have it this year?”

“I didn’t think any of you would want to have prayer,” I answered.

“I would,” he said without hesitation.

“So would I,” another added.

The next night we had prayer and our performance went off without a flaw. I’m not saying prayer can overcome poor rehearsals, failure to learn lines, or lack of preparation. But it can focus what a cast has going for it. It can bring them together in a unity of purpose.

And certainly, it can comfort a nervous, tense director.

[photo] Photography by John Luke