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November 23, 2015 | Volume 91 Number 2


photo: Frank Runyeon
Frank Runyeon

Actor Frank Runyeon Brings Scripture to Life in Performance at St. Anne’s in Bristol

Frank Runyeon, a well-known Hollywood actor, performs live, one-man productions that bring to life the stories of Scripture. St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Bristol hosted Runyeon for a three-day mission event in October. Runyeon performed at St. Anne’s back in 2012, so they were excited to have him back again. This time, “Acts of Mercy” was the mission he performed. The response from the audience was overwhelming.

“He is very talented, and he knows the scriptures quite well,” said Father Kevin Segerblom, pastor of St. Anne’s. “He is fluent in Greek, so he is able to translate directly from the texts.”

Runyeon wasn’t always a biblical storyteller. He spent years as a soap star in Hollywood (most notably as Steve Andropoulos, alongside Meg Ryan on “As the World Turns”) as well as on the big screen and on stage. After great success as an actor on the small screen, Runyeon decided it was time for a change of focus.

When he graduated from Princeton with a degree in Religion back in the 70s, Runyeon entertained thoughts of entering the priesthood, but he ultimately chose acting. Then, about 20 years ago, he returned to school, attending Fuller Seminary in order to prepare his first one-man play, “AFRAID!: The Gospel of Mark.” He continued his studies in Theology at Yale Divinity School and General Theological Seminary, where he received a Master’s degree (with honors) in 1994. After that, Runyeon got straight to work developing dramatic performances based on the Gospels, which he created from Scriptural translations in collaboration with the faculty of Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and at the University of Dayton.

Since then, Runyeon has toured all over the country, performing his plays and developing new productions. “He makes the gospel story come alive, and he tells us that we’re the ending of that story: It’s all playing out today,” said Sydney Farnum, St. Anne’s Director of Christian Formation and Youth Group Director.

St. Anne’s member Barbara Dittmar attended all three nights of the production. “He did a very good job of incorporating Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy into his performance, explaining, ‘What does mercy mean?’”

Runyeon’s “Acts of Mercy” production is performed on three consecutive nights for approximately 90 minutes each. On the first night, the subject is “John: Signs of Mercy,” which is “the story of what God has done in Jesus.” The Gospel of Luke is the focus of the second night; in “Stories of Mercy,” Runyeon’s performance emphasizes Jesus’ parables as he shares stories of his own faith. Finally, on the third night, the book of James is highlighted in “Works of Mercy.” Runyeon explains that “James calls the people in his church to ‘do the Work of God’ and know the joy of living in God’s love, as a People of Mercy.”

Parishioner Clint Smith assisted with the production setup and performance. “Runeyon acts it out as you might expect it to have happened,” he said, noting how attending the three-day mission performance “really enlivens the Gospels” and “enhances the Sunday experience.”

Father Kevin Segerblom echoes the sentiments of his parishioners, saying, “Runyeon presented a new way of hearing the Gospel. To hear and see it in a new light was very refreshing.”

In addition to the three-night “Acts of Mercy” mission, Runyeon also performed a play for St. Anne’s Catholic School students. “Salt and Light” is a lighthearted, fun production, but it still delivers a powerful message about how to live according to God’s Word.

“The Bible is a script and each of us is an actor,” Runyeon told the children. “We have a part no one else can play.” The children were captivated throughout the entire performance, which is no small feat when considering the students ranged in age from 5-13.

Runyeon described ways we can be salt: by bringing out the goodness in ourselves and others; and how we can be light: by showing others the right way to go. The actor also explained how this can be difficult at times. Occasionally, we lose our way.

“Sometimes we forget our lines,” Runyeon told his audience, “and we give in to the pressure of what happens ‘out there.’ God gives us the words.”

Runyeon concluded the play by reminding the children to take God’s Word and live it out in the world. “When you leave church, it’s not like when the TV show is over – it’s just the beginning.”

Linda Williams attended the evening performances and can attest that the adults were as enthralled with Runyeon as the children had been. “You could hear a pin drop,” she said. “There was not so much as a cough from the audience members.”

Williams had seen Runyeon’s 2012 performance at St. Anne’s and was even more impressed with the production this time. “What I admired most was that each performance was done differently. He brings fresh enthusiasm every time.”

The performances had a profound effect on many of the audience members. Parishioner Joyce Denton recounted how a member brought along some co-workers to see Runyeon’s performance. One of the co-workers started RCIA afterward. Another woman who was already in RCIA came the first night and returned the next evening with her husband and three children.

“I felt a more personal Christ,” said Denton, after attending the mission performances. “(Runyeon) explained how our sin is gut-wrenching to God. That was a powerful statement for me.”

St. Anne’s was able to cover the cost of Runyeon’s performance through donations from organizations within the church, as well as a grant from the diocese. Smaller parishes with more limited finances could perhaps pool their resources in order to host a performance.

“Before I went, I thought, ‘three nights? That’s a big time commitment,” said Barbara Dittmar. “Afterwards, I thought, ‘I could go for a fourth.’”

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