Starving Artist Production’s “The Birth” straddles faith, art at Christmas

“It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want, but, whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence,” wrote author Frederick Buechner in “Message in the Stars.”  “That is the miracle we are really after.”

Characters in “The Birth” tell the story of Jesus Christ’s birth through a different set of eyes than what people may be used to seeing.

Buechner’s writing forms the foundation of “The Birth,” a unique retelling of the Christmas Story.  The performance is a compiled narrative that blends poignant song, expressive movement and powerful spoken word.  “The Birth” features scriptural readings and personal reflections from less obvious characters in the nativity story.

The spoken word portion of “The Birth” is highlighted by musicians who play originals and arrangements acoustically.  Musician Sarah DeShields, who joined the cast last year, wrote “Mary’s Song.”  “I thought about what Mary would have been going through,” said DeShields, who was pregnant with her own child at the time of the production.

“The Birth” is not an event-by-event account of the night Jesus Christ was born, but a window to the souls of real people who wrestled with the everyday struggle of life and belief.  Audience members see themselves through the eyes of the Innkeeper (who denied shelter to Mary and Joseph), the Wise Man (who lied to King Herod about the Christ child’s whereabouts) and the Shepherd (who experiences a spiritual epiphany).

“Buechner’s work does what religious literature should do,” said Nathan Rouse, the creator and director of “The Birth,” who also performs in the show.

Buechner is an American writer and theologian.  Though not raised in a specific faith tradition, he found Christianity in his 30s and surprised many by becoming a Presbyterian minister.  He has authored more than 30 books of varying genres and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

“I read the first person prose and heard monologues,” Rouse said of reading Buechner’s work in 2004.  Two years later, the first production of “The Birth” was staged under the auspices of Starving Artist Productions.  The company has produced “The Birth” seven years running, as well as non-religious themed plays, short films and web series.

More about Starving Artist Productions, including ongoing and upcoming projects can be found online at www.astarvingartistproduction.com.

“Everything I do is about strong theater and strong artistry,” said Rouse, who produced the premiere of “Don’t Cry for Me, Margaret Mitchell,” by two Charlotte playwrights earlier this year.  “I like to think I am a person of faith who produces quality art.”

For “The Birth,” the theater is arranged “blackbox style.”  The set is bare and features no backdrops or props.  There are no trees, mangers, costumes, animals or swaddled dolls.  The performers are the only visuals, emphasized by movement and dramatic lighting.

“The production style invites a reflective audience, including those who aren’t religious.”  Despite the subject matter and his personal beliefs, Rouse does not produce “The Birth” for an evangelical purpose.  “It’s important to be on neutral ground,” he added.

“There is nothing about this show that knocks you upside the head or is confrontational,” said actor James K. Flynn.  “You can see it year after year,” he added.  Indeed many do.

For the past several years, Charlotte residents have included seeing “The Birth” as part of their holiday tradition.  The show offers a 60-minute respite from the stress of Christmas busyness at a time when modern Christians may struggle to remember the true meaning of the season of Advent, the period of spiritual preparation for Christ’s coming.

The actors are no different.  Rodney Kennerly, who plays percussion in “The Birth,” found himself dreading the long hours of rehearsal at first.  “But I find that I don’t have to sit down and prepare for the show,” he said.  “It prepares me.”

“The Birth” runs Thursday through Sunday evenings, Dec. 13 through 23 at Duke Energy Theatre located in Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.  Performances are held at 7 p.m. each night and 8:30 p.m. on select evenings.  A cast talkback will follow the Opening Night performance.  Tickets are $16 per person ($30 on Celebration Night.)  For more information, visit www.thebirth.net.

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