Fr. J. Michael Sparough, SJ, has juggled, worked with a circus troupe, written musicals, directed traveling shows, and performed parish missions with his family, all to bring the Bible stories to life. Sparough sees himself as a “contemporary evangelist” whose storytelling skills help inspire.
“A fresh dramatization of a biblical story or parable can recast the familiar in fresh clothes and bring its truth alive,” Sparough says.
Sparough, who’s also a retreat director, founder of Charis Ministries, and author of several books, including What’s Your Decision?, recently answered some of our questions about his involvement in the dramatic arts.
Loyola Press: How did you get started doing liturgical/Gospel drama?
Fr. J. Michael Sparough:
My involvement with religious drama is a case of one thing leading to another. Two young Jesuits, Ken Feit and Nick Weber, inspired me with the image of the “fool” as an archetype for Christ. Ken traveled the world as an itinerant fool, doing mime, storytelling, juggling, and music. He introduced me to the power of symbol, and I began to understand the sacraments in a much more expansive way. He also taught me to juggle.
Nick Weber, SJ, ran the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus. I spent a summer working with his troupe doing presentations on the West Coast in what Nick called “pre-evangelization” drama. We showed up at schools, shopping malls, and art fairs, inviting people to take time to pause in the midst of their busy lives to wonder with the innocence of a child.
As I continued my studies in English and theatre back in the 1970s, the Broadway musical Godspell and the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar were very popular. They inspired me to write a sequel to Godspell with my friend, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ. Our musical, J.C. (And Other Resurrection Stories), began with the death of Jesus and moved through the Resurrection narratives. Jesus is seen as the “fool,” the one who refuses to conform to the ordinary expectations of “good religious folk” who want their god shrunk to fit into easily-defined categories.
The planning officer from the Episcopal diocese of Southern Ohio saw the show and invited me to stage scenes from it on Fountain Square, the civic plaza in Cincinnati. I gathered 100 performers for a spectacle on the square dramatizing scenes from the Gospel in the tradition of the medieval morality plays performed in the public plazas. The event was a huge success, and thus was born the Fountain Square Fools.
For the next 16 years, I served as artistic director for this “portable theatre” proclaiming Good News. We traveled across the U.S. and Canada and over to England and Ireland. We used drama, dance, mime, and music to bring the Gospels to life.
LP: How long have you been doing this form of drama?
The Fountain Square Fools were born May 5, 1975. I stayed with the company until 1990. After that, I came to the Bellarmine Retreat House where I continue dramatizing biblical stories, sometimes by myself or with guest artists such as Betsey Beckman
I started doing more parish missions. Soon, my brother Tom, who is a professional juggler and storyteller, started working with me regularly. A few years later, our sister Terri, who is a caring clown, started working with us. Then my sister Trish, who is a minister of care and a bereavement minister, joined us. More recently, my brother Steve, who works as a volunteer chaplain in prisons, joined us too. We call ourselves the Sparough Family Mission Team and offer a unique style of dramatic parish missions.
LP: What are your hopes for audiences experiencing your dramas and missions?
I see myself as a contemporary evangelist. My hope is that the stories I tell will help people open their hearts to the wonder of God’s love, to believe that forgiveness is possible, and that there is much more to life than what we experience through our senses. Many of us are so familiar with the stories of the Bible that we have a hard time hearing the message. A fresh dramatization of a biblical story or parable can recast the familiar in fresh clothes and bring its truth alive.