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In one-man 'Passion' play, actor plays roles of multiple witnesses to ministry of Christ

MILWAUKEE, WI (Catholic Herald) - Silence enveloped the audience at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, “Where was I when my God was nailed to a tree?” echoing through the darkness.

ALTER CHRISTUS - Jeremy Stanbary of Epiphany Productions in the Twin Cities portrayed Jesus in the “Scrutiny Passion” performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee on March 7. (Catholic Herald/Mike Rudzinski)

ALTER CHRISTUS - Jeremy Stanbary of Epiphany Productions in the Twin Cities portrayed Jesus in the “Scrutiny Passion” performed at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee on March 7. (Catholic Herald/Mike Rudzinski)


Stepping away from his dramatic mask, Jeremy Stanbary, with his booming, deep voice, addressed the crowd he had just transported to the streets of Jerusalem.

“I hope and pray we were able to give you something,” Stanbary said. “‘The Scrutiny Passion’ is a chance for me to really scrutinize my own life and my own relationship with Christ, to allow myself to enter more deeply into Lent.”

Greeted with applause, the actor, playwright, artist, founder and executive director of Epiphany Studio Productions left his mark in Milwaukee March 7 through his original production of “The Scrutiny Passion,” a look at the passion of Christ through the eyes of those in the scrutiny Gospels - the woman at the well, man born blind and Lazarus.

Stanbary moved from role to role throughout the cathedral with ease - adjusting the lights, playing the roles of a disciple and the blind man, greeting the audience, discussing errors from the night’s performance and striking the set.

While for some actors it is business, for Stanbary, it is his answer to God’s call.

“It’s my identity,” Stanbary said over fish and French fries after the Milwaukee performance of “The Scrutiny Passion.” “I struggle with my sins, faults and failures. My Catholic faith really informs everything that I do. I try to find my identity in Christ. Jesus Christ fully reveals humanity through himself. The closer I become to Christ, the more fully human I become.”

’Lost cause’ makes good

Today, God is at the center of his life, but for Stanbary, who grew up in Sioux Falls, S.D., it was not always the case. A self-described “lost cause” in his youth, Stanbary, 29, raised Catholic, found himself wrapped up in the lights of the entertainment world as a freshman at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, where he majored in theatre arts.

“I was living my life in a way that I thought would make me happy,” Stanbary said.

Faith took a backseat until he received the ultimate wake up call.

“I found out I was going to be a father,” Stanbary said. “It totally turned my life upside down. Thanks be to God, we chose life. I knew then that I had to make some changes and I knew I couldn’t make those changes on my own.”

Turning his life over to God, he returned to the sacraments and welcomed son, Aidan, now 10, into the world. Stanbary visits his son in Chicago often, reserving the entire month of August for father and son bonding time.

“He is definitely the instrument God used to bring me back to him and his mercy and his providence and his plan,” Stanbary said.

That plan would take him down several paths before he found his calling in Epiphany Studios. Completing his schoolwork, Stanbary graduated from college and did the unlikely thing - he entered St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, discerning his call to become a diocesan priest. The time spent in the seminary changed his life.

“It was the single most formative year of my life,” Stanbary said. “It gave me more foundation in the faith.”

Stepping up liturgical drama

After a year, his heart tugged him elsewhere. Returning to Lincoln he spent two years as the director of youth ministry at St. Peter Catholic Church, where he dabbled in Catholic theater. With the goal always to combine his two passions-church and theater, and form his own Catholic theater company, the leap of faith took place sooner than anticipated. Founding Epiphany Studio Productions in June 2003, he moved the non-profit to Minneapolis in the summer of 2004, breaking the cookie cutter standard of Catholic theater in the United States.

“God’s providence never ceases to surprise me,” Stanbary said. “We try to reach a wider audience with the Catholic message of beauty and truth. We really dive into the human experience and human person and the complexity of their relationship with Christ.”

“Here is a young man who is finding his niche as a dramatist and actor in evangelization,” said Michael Batcho, director of music at the cathedral, who invited Stanbary to perform “The Scrutiny Passion” in Milwaukee. “I not only want to support him in his ministry but it’s also a way of evangelization for us.”

Stanbary travels the country with “The Scrutiny Passion” and three other one-man dramas he wrote and performs, with a fourth two-person drama about abortion to debut. Since the company’s meager beginnings, Stanbary’s message has reached audiences around the world, including World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany in 2005. Stanbary will perform again this summer at WYD in Australia.

For Stanbary, he is paving the way for Catholic theater to take a more prominent place in the world.

“Liturgical drama is hard to find,” said Lynn Trapp, composer, conductor and organist of “The Scrutiny Passion,” and director of worship and music at St. Olaf Church in Minneapolis.

Epiphany Studios is trying to remedy that. In addition to performing, Stanbary is also reaching out to the youth, offering a 10-month drama program in Catholic theater to youth from third grade to senior year of high school.

“Catholic theater is just beginning,” Stanbary said. “There are so many hearts to be touched out there.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Herald (www.chnonline.org),official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis.

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