Played with Passion Living Last Suppers bring Easter message to life

Simon Peter

PHOTO COURTESY OF CINDY SCHULTZ/TIMES UNION • • • Simon Peter, played by Rich Shellenback (center), and others portraying Jesus and the rest of the disciples prepare to re-enact the Last Supper at Shenendehowa UMC in Clifton Park, N.Y.

In 2007, Tim Saporito attended a “living Last Supper” at his church, First United Methodist in Irwin, Pa. The dramatic and musical portrayal of Jesus’ final Passover meal recreated the scene as Leonardo da Vinci interpreted it in his 1494 painting.

“I was dazzled,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.’”

The next year, the church member who played Bartholomew fell ill.

“I work construction, and my hair had grown long and I had a beard, so I thought, ‘Maybe I should do this,’” Mr. Saporito said. Checking da Vinci’s painting, he discovered that he was a dead ringer for Bartholomew. So he joined the cast, used his iPod to memorize lines, and was hooked.

This Maundy Thursday, Mr. Saporito portrays Bartholomew for the fifth time. And the next day, as he has for the past five years, he’ll head to the barber and get a crew cut.

Moving moments

For many United Methodist churches, the living Last Supper has become a treasured tradition on the Holy Week calendar. For those who act in the presentation, like Mr. Saporito, it’s a meaningful spiritual and personal ritual.

Typically, the programs open with a tableau, “freezing” the cast members posed at a long table, to resemble the da Vinci painting. The disciples deliver a series of brief monologues, interspersed with hymns. At many churches, the program concludes with Holy Communion. Because Jesus announced “One of you will betray me” at the Last Supper, betrayal and forgiveness are central themes of the play.

“Each disciple questions himself: ‘Is it I?’” said Bruce Wiancko, who plays Philip at First UMC Irwin.

Many United Methodist churches repeat the living Last Supper year after year, often with the same cast members. Some churches have taken the show “on the road” to retirement homes, prisons and other churches.

“It’s a powerful witness,” said John Hall, who directs the living Last Supper at St. Luke’s UMC in Hickory, N.C., now in its 30th year.

Methodist origins

Andrew Grace

PHOTO BY MARK McCOY • • • Dave Sawyer (center) portrays the disciple Andrew in a production of Ernest Emurian’s living Last Supper at Grace United Methodist Church in Merritt Island, Fla.

There are at least two versions of the living Last Supper, and both have United Methodist origins.

The earlier of the two, The Living Dramatization of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, by the late Rev. Ernest K. Emurian, debuted at Elm Street United Methodist Church in Portsmouth, Va., on Palm Sunday in 1954. Virginia Lee Dodge is historian of Cherrydale United Methodist in Arlington, Va., where Emurian served as pastor for 19 years until his retirement in 1981. She notes that Emurian, a well-known hymnologist, would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year.

“He liked to say that he was as old as the ‘Old Rugged Cross,’ because he was born the same year the hymn was written,” she said.

While at Cherrydale, Emurian led numerous performances of the living Last Supper: at the church, at Lake Junaluska and at national United Methodist Men conferences in Chicago and, in 1969, at Purdue University. The play never failed to move audiences, and quickly became “one of the most popular and widely-used Lenten plays” according to a history of Cherrydale.

“It just really takes your breath away,” Ms. Dodge said.

The copyrights for all of Emurian’s published works have since expired, and the Emurian family has opted not to pursue copyright privileges. Copies of Emurian’s script circulated from church to church, first in mimeograph form, then photocopies, and now via online PDFs.

After the Purdue performance, some attendees recreated the program at their home churches—and at least two of those continue to this day.

Since its first performance in 1970 drew nearly 1,000 people, West Des Moines United Methodist in Iowa has presented the living Last Supper multiple times every year—404 performances in total. Bill Brantley, a church member who saw the 1969 performance at Purdue, directed the program until a few years ago. The ministry has become such a central part of church life that, when the building was remodeled about 15 years ago, a stained glass window was added, picturing the Last Supper along with the words, “Church of the Last Supper.”

Another man in the audience at Purdue, Cy Harader, started a living Last Supper at Simpson United Methodist in Fort Wayne, Ind. Today, the Last Supper Drama Group of Fort Wayne, Ind., is no longer under Simpson’s umbrella, but still performs every year at United Methodist churches in the area, as well as prisons, retirement homes and community theatres.

“If God’s hand hadn’t been in this, there’s no way it would last as long as it did,” said director Rick Ensley, a member of nearby Good Shepherd UMC. The group is almost booked for 2013, and will start taking 2014 bookings soon.

Mr. Hall estimates that St. Luke’s cast has performed the living Last Supper almost 100 times before at least 15,000 people. But until last week, no one at St. Luke’s had any idea who had written the script they’ve used all these years. When contacted by the Reporter, Mr. Hall checked the Fort Wayne group’s online copy of Emurian’s script, and found it virtually identical to the one they’ve used for three decades. Mystery solved.

Newer version

Last Supper

PHOTO BY PENNY BRANT • • • Actors perform Ruth Elaine Schram’s version of The Living Last Supper at First United Methodist Church in Irwin, Pa., in 2011.

First UMC in Irwin performs another version, The Living Last Supper: A Dramatic Musical Experience (Lorenze Publishing, 2007) by composer Ruth Elaine Schram. She was inspired to create the play while attending Christ Church UMC in Birmingham, Ala.

The church’s minister of music decided to stage a living Last Supper, and had a script consisting of disciples’ monologues—she’s not sure who the author was. He asked Ms. Schram if she had any songs that would fit, but she decided to “start from scratch” and researched the lives of the disciples. The result was her own version, which features hymns she composed.

That version is still selling thousands of copies every year, five years after publication.

“Usually sales drop off quickly after the year a book is published,” Ms. Schram said. “That is really unusual to have those substantial sales, year after year. It does seem to have staying power.”

Ms. Schram notes that she tailored her version so that small or medium churches, with few people and limited resources, could produce it. Churches may use a CD as accompaniment, or add live accompaniment with a piano, a few other instruments or a small orchestra. In every case, she made certain the accompaniment wouldn’t overwhelm a small choir.

Ms. Schram says she prays for every church that she knows is producing the show.

“I still get chills when I hear that people are doing this,” she said.

Dianne Runser, director of music ministries at First UMC Irwin, says the annual production of Ms. Schram’s version brings in big crowds—about 300 at each of two performances—including many who aren’t part of the church. About 200 attend the church’s two worship services on a typical Sunday.

In 2009, the priest from the Catholic church next door attended and pronounced the program “biblically sound.”

“When we got the blessing from the Catholic church, we decided we must be doing good,” Ms. Runser joked.

Ms. Runser is particularly proud of the set, painted by a church member who is a theater arts professor at a nearby university. She combed vintage shops and flea markets to find the goblets, candlesticks and other props to match those in da Vinci’s painting, which shows the Last Supper as it might have looked in 15th-century Italy.

“It’s not biblical,” Ms. Runser said, “but neither is da Vinci’s painting.

Male camaraderie

While churches produce the living Last Supper to convey an important message of faith, many participants discover a side benefit: camaraderie among cast members from a range of ages and backgrounds.

St. Luke’s cast ranges in ages from 23 to 84, and includes several businessmen, a county government official, a school administrator and a recent college graduate who’s looking for work.

In the Fort Wayne group, several of the cast members are second and third generation participants, including Mr. Ensley’s son, Ryan, 14, who plays Jesus. To make a living, Mr. Ensley drives a concrete truck; other cast members include carpenters, warehouse workers and a civil engineer.

Mr. Ensley sees a common thread connecting cast members to the 12 men who followed Jesus 2,000 years ago.

“Jesus called all these guys—a fisherman, a tax collector, a zealot,” he said. “That’s what we do, too. We get all these average guys together.”

One of the longtime cast members at First UMC Irwin is Carl Stewart. He’s not a church member, but as co-owner of Romano’s, the pizza shop next door, he knows a lot of folks in the church. When he heard about the living Last Supper, he wanted to get involved.

“I’ve always wanted to play Andrew,” said Mr. Stewart, a Catholic, who says he admires the disciple’s “excitement for bringing people to Jesus.” This year marks his sixth year in the role.

“When the music starts, we become the disciples,” Mr. Stewart said. “It’s a deep, heart-felt feeling.”

While the program is serious, cast members get to each other and rehearsals often involve a bit of good-natured ribbing. At any church, the man who plays Judas can expect to get grief. In the case of Fort Wayne’s Judas, a used car salesman named Ernie Crowder, he plays right along.

“Most of these guys buy their cars from me,” Mr. Crowder ad-libbed during a sound check before a show. “That’s how much they trust me.”

Mr. Hall says that, because his church is located in “basketball country” and because performances tend to coincide with March Madness, it’s not unusual to see the disciples backstage, dressed in biblical costume and toting smartphones, listening to the latest game.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t take it seriously,” he said, “but this is a great fellowship opportunity.

A long tradition ends

Grace United Methodist in Merritt Island, Fla., began presenting Emurian’s living Last Supper in 1996, and repeated the program every year until 2012. The church is located near the Kennedy Space Center, and lost about a fourth of its cast and production team to layoffs and retirements, so the show won’t go on this year.

But church member Dave McCoy, who directed the program for many years, says the living Last Supper became a key ministry to the church as well as the wider community.

Mr. McCoy says that, after one performance at a retirement home, a cast member reported hearing an elderly woman’s reaction: “The Lord hasn’t been with me for many years, but today, he’s back.”

“A lot of times, we don’t know how we affect people, but that was kind of telling,” Mr. McCoy said. “If she was the only one we reached, then it was worth doing.”

Mr. McCoy still maintains a website with copies of the script and production tips for the program. At least a dozen churches have contacted him over the years for help. A plaque in the church honors cast members for each year, including four who participated all 16 years.

Mr. Hall remembers a time his group performed at a maximum security prison unit in Taylorsville, N.C., before 200 inmates, many of whom would remain in prison for the rest of their lives. After the presentation, the inmates shared how the program, and especially its message of Christ’s forgiveness, spoke to them.

And that, Mr. Hall says, is what keeps living Last Suppers going, year after year: The presentation brings to life a story that never gets old.

“If we think about Christ’s death and resurrection, we realize that it pays for all of our sins,” Mr. Hall said. “We all betray Christ, and that gift is truly for all of us.”

 

Mary Jacobs, mjacobs@umr.org

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