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Some Thoughts on Incarnation (via The Battle of Franklin)

Right now I’m sitting in Jamison Theater in Franklin, Tennessee, watching one of the final rehearsals for The Battle of Franklin before it opens on Thursday night. I’ve had a lot of time in the last couple of weeks to reflect on the miracle of watching one’s work come to life. It’s weird. It’s satisfying. It’s scary.

In May of this year, Matt Logan, the artistic director at Studio Tenn, asked if I was interested in writing a new stageplay/musical based on the Civil War Battle of Franklin (which took place about a mile from where I’m sitting right now). Was I interested? Let’s see: cannons, muskets, cavalry charges, family tragedy, an epic battle for the soul of a nation—and some of it in song? Count me in, all in.

What I didn’t realize when I said yes, was that I’d need to have a story outline and rough draft ready in about 30 days. Gulp. But I dug into books and research and started writing. In the tale of the Carter House I found an intimate real-life angle on the battle, and it was one I was excited to write about.

Fast forward a few months, and a couple of dozen drafts and rewrites, and here I am sitting in front of a massive stage built specifically for this play. It’s set with lanterns and flags and 19th century chairs and tables (even a sword or two), and there are real live people marching across it in costume as they put flesh and blood on what was once just a few ragged words on my screen.

What’s a writer to make of this strange alchemy? It would take a whole book to pull together all my various feelings, and neither you nor I have time for that, so let me instead offer up a few thoughts:

As a writer, I do all I can to make my characters as visceral and real as possible. I’m primarily a novelist or prose writer, and in that medium the audience has only its imagination to inform the story, so I try to write in bold strokes, to define sharply, to paint as best I can the picture I want the reader to see.

But in the medium of stage writing, I’ve been surprised by how much sharper and bolder those lines become once they are enfleshed. Often what I think of as powerful on the page becomes almost unbearable once brought to life on the stage. There is a scene in Act 2 in which a slave character named Callie confronts her master and exposes to him the flaws of his way of thinking. I invested plenty of anger and emotion into the scene on the page and it’s always a moving scene for me to work on and think through. But when I see the scene drawn into the the real world with the passion of gifted actors in costume and in context, I’ve been amazed at how much more it all means, how much higher the stakes suddenly become, how powerfully I’m affected by what I’m seeing embodied before me. There was a moment during rehearsal when someone cried out, “Pete! What have you done to these poor people!” and I genuinely felt a pang of guilt for the plight of the characters I’d wrought, though I knew I was using their struggle to push them (and the audience) toward a greater revelation.

The unlooked for lesson is that words on a page are often one thing, but the word incarnate is another entirely—more present, more human, more complex, more inescapable, more shot through with the nuance and power and frailty of life as we know it.

That was a powerful thing to witness. There have been others.

It’s a very different thing to write a novel or short story than to write for the stage. This will be obvious to most people, but the particularities of the difference weren’t apparent to me until I’d done it. In a novel, I’m in control of the world and everything the reader knows about it, as well as the characters and all their thoughts and motivations, hopes and fears. But in writing for the stage, I find I’m more in the position of laying groundwork. I can provide stage direction (knowing it may be discarded), and I certainly provide all the dialogue—but once I hand the script off to the director, it’s out of my hands.

This tells me two things.

First, that I need to be careful with every word (shouldn’t we always?). If I want the audience to experience the story I intend, I need to make sure the story is fully contained within the words as they are spoken. I hope you see the important difference here. In a book, not everything I want to say is said in dialogue; I can take pages and pages, if need be, to address the what’s happening either internally within the characters or externally beyond the scene at hand. But on stage, the dialogue and action at hand (and the subtext) have to bear the full burden of the narrative. I don’t have the luxury of a page of explanation or internal dialogue. It’s all happening right there on the stage in real time, and therefore every word must be fully invested with the meaning and intention of the writer.

Secondly, It’s not my job to write actors into a box. Yes, I tell them what to say, but they also need leeway in how to say what I’ve given them, and from that leeway, whole worlds emerge. That which was flat (though imbued with all the dimension available to me as a writer) suddenly takes on depth, becomes whole, real, vital. So it’s my job then to construct a controlled narrative that conducts the characters and audience along a predetermined route, but is yet pregnant with the possibility of discovery and individual agency. It means that my own story is entirely capable of surprising me, not because it deviates from my intent, but because it fulfills it in ways I had not looked for. That’s an amazing thing. It’s as if a painter’s painting suddenly reached out and took the the brush from the artist’s hand and began to paint itself in greater detail than even the painter intended, though never once straying from the painters composition or design.

It makes you think doesn’t it? I know that’s what it does to me, and in case you missed it, there’s a lot of theological meat in there to chew on. Maybe that’s why I enjoy theater so much. There is, bound up in the process and execution, a fascinating Christology bubbling just beneath the surface. This is true of most any art form, of course, but in few others do we see so clearly a picture of Incarnation itself.

The Battle of Franklin has been an enormous challenge and delight to work on and it’s been an incredible lesson in the craft of writing. If you’re in Nashville during the next two weeks, I’d be honored if you made it out to see the show. And thank you so much to Studio Tenn and the incredible group of actors and musicians who have brought the story to life and to the entire production team who has put it all together so beautifully. I’m humbled to have been a part of such a magical thing.


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