Interview with Stephen Shank

Stephen Shank speaks about his beginnings in theater as the child of Mennonite church workers in Belgium, and his return to Belgium for a 30-year career in the theater.

Stephen Shank’s Work in the Belgian Theater

By Ervin Beck

In the year 2011 Stephen Shank of Brussels produced two ambitious, high-profile dramatic performances in Belgium.

Stephen Shank

Stephen Shank

In July and August, Shank directed the first French adaptation for the stage of Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, in the ruins of the Abbey of Villers-la-ville, a Cistercian abbey in Belgium dating from 1146. The play used three different sites in the ruins, with the audience of 1000 being asked to move to different locations as the action progressed. The scene in the library was played in the novices’ ruined court; the scene that debated wealth and poverty was set in the friar choir where the monks sat historically in the Abbey Church. The production, which ran for six weeks, commemorated the 25th anniversary of Del Diffusion performances in the ruins, and opening night was attended by the Queen of Belgium.

Then in September he staged his own adaptation for the stage of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, directed by him for Del Diffusion, the largest private theater producer in French-speaking Belgium. The play was performed at the Butte du Lion de Waterloo (The Lion’s Mound) on the Battlefield of Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated in 1815. The play was performed in a 1500-seat amphitheater with a two-level stage, above which images were projected onto the hill. The production, which was given ten performances, commemorated the 150th anniversary of Victor Hugo’s signing of his masterpiece in 1861 at Waterloo.

These productions were the culmination of the nearly 30 years of Stephen’s work in the Belgian and French theaters. He does not call it a “career,” preferring to regard himself, like J.Alfred Prufrock, as “someone who helps move the scene along.” This modest assessment is belied by the Wikipedia bibliography of his work as actor and produceras well as by the record found on his personal blog (in French).

It all started, as Stephen recalls, when he was five years old and the son of missionaries David and Wilma Shank, Mennonites sent, following World War 2, to Belgiumwhere Stephen was born. He played the part of Zachariah in a Christmas program at their church, dressed in his father’s bathrobe. He entered the scene, speaking Luke 1:18: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

“I was five and I was an old man, and I knew the audience believed me to be an old man.” Upon exiting the stage, which was lit by a desk lamp tied to the low ceiling of the hall, he breathed, “Whew! The lights were hot!” To which his Sunday School teacher replied, “It wasn’t the lamps. You were afraid, and you experienced pleasure and satisfaction It will happen again.”

She was right. From childhood through adolescence he wrote plays, performed and directed them, even translating into French in 1966 Amahl and the Night Visitors and adapting it for a theater version. The next year he wrote his own play about the innkeeper, set in a 60’s bar to the rhythm of jazz music.

He attributes his wide-ranging, integrative interests as an adult to the kind of family in which he was raised. He was the “son of a theologian and anthropologist and pastor and of a mother who loved the arts and all things beautiful.” His parents read many books to their children and took them to concerts, the ballet, opera and theater. ”There was nothing in our family that didn’t tie in to something else. Zola was related to Richard Wright who was related to Leonardo who was linked to worms learning to follow a maze who were related to Dostoevsky who is related to Jeanette Winterson who was related to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Karel van Mander and a cappella singing or Mahalia Jackson.”

When he came to the U. S.in 1969 to enroll at Goshen College, he intended to study Biology and Pre-medicine but, after working under Prof. Roy Umble and playing Nickles in Archibald McLeish’s J.B., he soon switched to an interdisciplinary major, with an emphasis on theater. The liberal arts emphasis at the college fit him well, especially as modeled by faculty mentors such as Umble in speech and communication, Mary Oyer in art and music, John Oyer’s course Renaissance and Reformation and Mary Eleanor Bender’s course Literature and 20th Century Thought.

Following graduation in 1974 he taught for four years at Goshen College and directed plays, including remarkable productions of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and his own scripting of Beowulf for a staged ensemble performance. As a faculty recital, Stephen developed a monologue version of The Book of Revelation in 1979, which he also performed at The University of Waterloo. He created a new version in 1999 and performed it at Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg and on a tour that ended at the Edinburgh Festival, where it received favorable reviews.

Since he had been brought up in Belgium by his parents following the Anabaptist tradition, Stephen was not prepared for Mennonitism in the U.S. He learned it the hard way when he produced Miss Jairus by the Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, a favorite of both Stephen and Roy Umble. Although Ghelderode was a Catholic and based many of his plays on biblical texts, he can be perceived by some as sacreligious--as indeed the Goshen College public relations department did when it asked him to never direct such a play again.

From Goshen College Stephen went to Indiana University where he studied Art History in the Master’s program, writing a thesis on Mannerist Painting in 16th century Antwerp. The artists collaborated with the Chambers of Rhetoric, designing sets for their tableaux vivants and other performances. Prior to I.U., he had considered doing more work in theater in the U.S. and recalls being advised by Prof. J. Daniel Hess to move to Chicago and try to work with the Steppenwolf Company. To which Stephen replied, “I’ll go if Mennonites go with me.” He says, “They didn’t go. I didn’t go. In retrospect, I went wherever I went with the Mennonites, but they didn’t go with me.”

In 1980, after being asked to consider teaching and directing at Goshen College, Stephen decided to leave theater, and he and his wife Jean Gerber went to Brussels with the Mennonite Board of Missions in what they then regarded as “the call of the church.” They were to relate to the Mennonites there, “using their gifts.” Serving on the European steering committee of Church and Peace, Stephen began to do peace work with Quakers and other Belgians at a time when the placement of American missiles in Europe was a hotly debated issue.

Stephen soon found himself writing short dramatic sketches to further discussions of peace issues and also performing the monologues Jonah, The Prodigal Son, Carnival Day (Emmaüs) and others that he had been creating in Goshen and now converted to French. The words were the verbatim biblical texts. The contexts and the characters were transposed. The success of these performances led him to develop a monologue Guet-apens (Ambushed) on the shaping and making of words and their relationship to violence. He performed for many nonviolent groups, conscientious objectors, schools, catholic parishes, monasteries, liturgical conferences and in the cathedrals of Geneva and Hamburg, ending at the Basilica in Assisi in front of La Porciuncula, the small, humble chapel that Francis built with his brothers .

Ambushed is also the piece he performed as an audition for a theater in Brussels whose threshold he crossed as the result of happenstance, always curious. Unbeknownst to him, Monique Dorsel, the director, was sponsoring her yearly drama festival. She said, “You’re an actor.” He said. “How do you know?” She said, “Intuition. I’ve got a cancellation so one more slot Sunday night. Do you want it?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Stop and set lights Friday morning.” He went. He set the lights. He was the last performer late Sunday night and was awarded the festival prize.

The acceptance of his text, which he had created for institutional Christians, by a secular professional theater gave Stephen pause. “At that point, I thought, if what I’m doing works in church-oriented groups, and at the same time works in a cutting-edge theater, I must not be all wrong, and I probably should work again with what I know how to do: theater.”

The director of the theater immediately hired Stephen for a year to direct plays, including his version of Alice in Wonderland, which eventually was given at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in coordination with an exhibit of Lewis Carroll’s photographs. He also auditioned for Henri Ronse and was accepted by Le nouveau Théâtre de Belgique (The New Belgian Theater) where he played in a mythical performance of Une musique de cuivre aux fenêtres des incurables (Brass Music at the Windows of the Uncurable), based on Maeterlinck’s plays and his poetry collection Serres Chaudes (Hothouses) at the Lille Festival in France. “And so I met the Belgian stage, and the Belgian stage met me.”

When he was asked by Dutch director Cor Stedelinck to perform at the cathedral in Brussels, he couldn’t see himself working with the proposed production. The director dropped the project at the cathedral and Stephen was able to negotiate with him another project: an adaptation of Rainer Marie Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.It received a prize for best production of the year. For the same group, Stephen played a Dario Fo piece, a combination of The Birth of the Jongleur and The Passion, in which he played the Fool. He also produced Savonarola, a dramatic adaptation that he composed, drawing from the correspondence of Pope Alexander VI with the City of Florence and the sermons of Savonarola. Reviewers were unconditionally positive.

As Stephen’s work evolved in the arts, meanwhile Jean had developed a cutting-edge peace education library that branched out into the schools with a team, Storytelling and Educating for Peace. From Stephen’s perspective, he could perceive no difference between the work he had been doing at Goshen or for the mission and the work he was now doing on the professional, secular stage. He felt supported in his innovative work in drama by the requests that came for him to raise money for MBM in young urban American Mennonite settings and by a published comment made by Mennonite missiologist Wilbert Shenk as Stephen and Jean left for Belgium: “We believe change happens with nutty people on the edges doing nutty things.” For Stephen it did not “pan out like that. They ended their affiliation with me.”

The crisis apparently occurred with the performance of his original script, Ceci n’est vraiment pas un déjeuner sur l’herbe (This Is No Picnic in the Grass) inspired by Manet’s painting of 1863, “Le déjeuneur sur l’herbe,” which depicts a nude woman in the company of dressed men, enjoying a picnic on the grass. Stephen wrote the play under a pen name. The production was set in a generic place and used furniture that could be interpreted as an operating table, a dining table, or an altar. As he describes the scenario:

A body is laid out center, and a heap of cream puffs covers a dresser. The painting by Manet and Matisse’s Danse are on the walls, stage right and stage left. A woman in a wheelchair enters and rouses what is revealed to be her son. She announces that thirteen guests are expected for upscale family dining. Only four arrive, but they compete in seizing seats at the head of the table. They each reveal their identities and their histories, play games led by Gaby, a woman who had walked in through the walls, and force the son to join in. They decide to imitate the painting. Since no actress will play the nude woman; the son is goaded to do so, followed by Gaby, who joins him. He strips to The Doors song, “Come on, now touch me, Babe,” followed Gaby who undresses to Sinead O’Connor’s “You do something to me.” They briefly meet as in a garden before shame steps in, thereby realizing the archetypal Garden of Eden. Their games include a baring of feet with allusions to foot-washing as well as other unexpected actions, relationships and images, all linked to Christian archetypes.

“It worked!” says Stephen. The production received “wonderful reviews,” including by Johan Delporte, the 85-year old scriptwriter for The Smurfs, who said, “Do you realize this play is deeply liturgical? Who wrote it?” When Stephen answered, “I did!” Delporte instantly responded, “Where do you get your inspiration? I’m running out of stories.” Stephen answered, “In a very old book. You should read it.”

Some Mennonite colleagues in Belgium were shocked and reported their objections to the mission board, which, on the basis of this play, of Stephen’s involvement in professional theater and other issues, all unspoken at the time, ended their relationship with the Shanks in 1992. From Stephen’s perspective, the dismissal was abrupt, inadequately explained or discussed, and unjust. It left the Gerber-Shanks, who by this time had four children, as unemployed expatriates in a foreign country, with no consultation or alternative proposals from the mission board.

Stephen’s theater colleagues and his Belgian friends could not understand his dismissal, nor could Stephen adequately explain. To them, it seemed like the de-frocking of a priest. They assumed he had been “booted out” by a “sect.” “Something must be wrong!” they said.

Stephen has since earned a modest living by teaching, acting and directing under sporadic contracts with various public and private theaters, especially in Belgium but also occasionally in France and Switzerland. He also qualifies for social welfare as an unemployed artist.

In 1996, he once again directed Miss Jairus, this time at the Royal Parc Theater, in Brussels for the anniversary festivities commemorating Ghelderode’s death. Also in that same year, he directed Images of the Life of Francis, also by Ghelderode, its first production since its creation in 1927. Shank also directed La Balade du Grand Macabre, another Del Diffusion Ghelderode, in the ruins of Villers la Ville, at the Royal Gallery Theater and at the Spa Festival.

Every summer Del Diffusion sponsors productions in the ruins, and Stephen has collaborated with them for audiences of up to 30,000 people. At Villers, with Del Diffusion, he has acted as Horatio in Shakespere’s Hamlet and Pilate in Ghelderode’s Barabbas; directed Queen Margot by Alexander Dumas, about fate and choice at the 1572 Massacre of the Protestants in Paris; and played in Victor Hugo’s Angelo de Padua. He also directed Mrozek’s The Contract at the Public Theater and played in Hernai or LaNonna at The Royal Theater …

Most of his later productions have been in association with Theatre du Méridien, a small “but richly creative private theater” that has now been closed by the Ministry of Culture. Those productions included Ionesco’s Exit the King; Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for which he wrote a new French translation and adaptation; Flaubert’s The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier; and Hugo Claus’s The Temptation, for which Françoise Oriane won best actress award. In The Judgement by Barry Collins, which had been created by Peter O’Toole in London, Stephen played the role of Lieutenant Voukhov, who as the sole survivor narrates the story of seven Russian soldiers who offer up their lives one by one so the others, who resort to eating their flesh, may survive.

His professional acting experience has included, among many other roles, the Doctor in The King Is Dead, Pilate in Barabbas and The Cricket in Pinocchio. His original script for Voilà, a play about vulnerability and addictions, has played for the last eight years throughout France and since 2012 has been performed in prisons in both France and Belgium. Voilà has been published and Shank is currently working on other scripts and translations for publication.

“Theater is all about transposition, interchanging, reversing orders, placing elements in another key than the one that is expected, placing an element in a context other than the one it is planned for, shifting an order, adapting to constraints, intervening and disrupting. Script writing, directing, staging, lighting, designing or acting--are all part and parcel of transposing. Theater, like all creative expression, is all about transposition.”

“Theater is not an oral exercise,” Stephen asserts. “Rather, it is also oral.” His productions are praised by critics for their physicality, their powerful images, their movement forward and their use of music. According to one critic, “Stephen Shank has got us used to having persons falling to the ground.” The organization or disruption of physical space by the actor’s body is at the heart of Stephen’s stage work. “Asymmetry, diagonals. Who stands vertically and perpendicularly? A broken body calls for diagonals, and we are all broken.”

An effective production will capitalize on the “here and now” of performance. For Stephen, there are only two leading actors in any play, the players and the audience. The audience as well as the actors must approach each other with vulnerability and be ready for movement, surprise and change.

One of Stephen’s favorite productions was of his adaptation in 2007 of a novel, Le flamand aux longues oreilles (The Long-Eared Fleming), by David Sheinert, whose parents were deported to Auschwitz and never returned. The setting is World War II in Flanders. A young boy disrupts all patterns, his only aim being that all people love each other. The heartbeat of the play is the apparent foolishness of the simple mind who faces the horrors of war, violence, deceit and injustice. The play rides the waves of both comedy and tragedy. “It’s all about vulnerability. Vulnerability as the only saving grace. I found myself using Mennonite hymns and images in jarring transpositions in the midst of murder and injustice.” One rehearsal was visited by the Prince and Princess--now the new King and Queen of Belgium--who engaged Stephen in conversation about the play.

At the last dress rehearsal, his assistant, who happened to have Mennonite roots, observed: “There are moments in the play and how you directed them that only Mennonites would identify with.”

For his work in theater, Stephen takes as his inspiration the lines from W. B. Yeats’s poem, “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop”: “For Love has built his mansion / in the place of excrement.” This Christian humanist statement embraces The Incarnation as giving ultimate meaning to even the messiest of human experiences. Stephen Shank – as theologian, historian, artist, director, actor – has indeed “gone with the Mennonites” in his sometimes lonely theater work in Europe, even though they have little noticed, understood or supported his work.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck is Professor Emeritus of English at Goshen College, where he taught English, dramatic literature, postcolonial literature, folklore and Mennonite Literature, He was Fulbright professor of English and folklore at the University College of Belize and, following retirement, taught twice at LCC International University in Lithuania. He has published widely in his teaching fields, including articles on Mennonite and Amish folk arts and folklore, as in the books MennoFolk 1 and MennoFolk 2. He was an original co-editor of this online journal and a planner of the Mennonite/s Writing conferences at Goshen College in 1992 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.