He That Hath Ears to Hear

As a playwright, singer, and adman, Craig Wright has played to many audiences. As a divinity student, though, he'll soon perform the mother of all scripts, chapter and verse.

"People tell me, 'Oh, you write plays. And you're going to be a minister. You should write religious plays!'" Craig Wright lets a crooked smile crease his trim black beard. "I always say, Get behind me, Satan. I can't think of anything worse.

"For a play to be good, for art to be good, there can be no foreordained conclusions," the St. Paul playwright says over coffee at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. "The most awful thing has to be possible--you have to believe it could happen. With religious art, you're not worried. You know exactly what they're trying to tell you: You're screwing around and you'd better shape up." Again, the small smile. "I hate that." It's curious, then, that Wright has chosen to publicly perform a 2000-year-old story with a very familiar ending. Will it be as an artist or as a seminary student that he takes the stage at Patrick's Cabaret, a venue known for gay-friendly performance art, intending to recite--sans backdrop, lights, or crib notes--the Revised Standard Version of the Gospel of Mark? And why Mark, for that matter?

O come all ye faithful--and you atheists and agnostics, too: Playwright and pastor-to-be Craig Wright
Daniel Corrigan
O come all ye faithful--and you atheists and agnostics, too: Playwright and pastor-to-be Craig Wright

The quick answer? "It's short." Very true. After this writer blows the dust off her Bible, she finds that Mark spans 16 chapters--thin, compared with Matthew's daunting 29. A slightly more helpful, if less brief, explanation is that the gospels were an oral tradition before they were written down.

"The minute you start to memorize and say it," reveals Wright, with characteristic vim, "you realize that there are mnemonic patterns in it. Phrases are repeated. I do the 16 chapters in two sets of eight, and if you lay them beside each other, you notice the same plot development. It's very easy to remember. It's a live document, built to be spoken."

But we are still hedging here. Does Wright intend a cultural or a religious event? If the former, how? If the latter, why should most happy heathens care?

The wiry, mockingly self-described "small man" (to my eye, he's around five-foot-six) argues convincingly for each side. More than an answer, what comes clear is Wright's determination to keep a foot in both artistic and Christian realms, without compromising the integrity of either. This is a harder task than Christian pop musicians--merrily selling Jesus with sex muscle--would have it. Wright seems to lurch within a tangle of motives, confessing one moment to a writer's jealousy so deep he can't watch the Academy Awards, and admiring Mark's thick human compassion the next. It's not surprising to learn that he has paid his way through seminary partly by copywriting Joe Boxer ads: He's that sincere and that savvily manipulative.

Wright, age 33, was born in Puerto Rico and raised all over the East Coast and Midwest ("My father married six times," he says. "It kept us moving"). After college stints at St. John's and Moorhead State University, Wright landed at Minneapolis's Children's Theatre as an acting apprentice. There he met Peter Lawton, who in 1987 became his singing and songwriting partner in the emo-pop band the Tropicals. The acoustic duo, known for bright, sensual songs about bicycles, girls and--ahem--that "Drilling Thing," put out a record in 1996.

Meanwhile, the ambitious Wright had started penning plays: He has since won NEA and Jerome playwriting fellowships and seen his plays produced at regional theaters in Philadelphia, Hartford, Milwaukee, and New York, although not in the Twin Cities. Last fall Dramatic Publishing released Molly's Delicious, a frisky work about a naively heroic girl who expresses love outside what Wright calls the "awful binary knot" of nuclear-family marriage.

Given this colorful CV, why the seminary? "I decided to go three years ago," Wright explains patiently, "after I came back from doing a workshop of Molly's Delicious at Hartford Stage Company. When I go out to work on a play, I really get neurotic. I start to feel myself fraying. So I was feeling bad, and I just thought, 'This is driving me nuts, hanging all my self-identification on this concept of myself as a playwright. I need to do something else.' So I thought, 'What have I always wanted to do? Well, I'd like to go to seminary and study about God.'" The rapid flow of words dams up for a second, then hurries on. "My life would be a mess if I was always in the theater. I wouldn't give it up, but I can't do it every day."

Wright has so far bridged his chosen two worlds by leaning on the left leg for a time, then easing over to the right. The usual three years at United Theological Seminary, an ecumenical institution in New Brighton, will take four and a half because of secular projects (not to mention the work of marriage and child-rearing; Wright has a nine-year-old son). The Tropicals hope to release a CD this summer combining Dan Wilson-produced demos with live recordings. Molly's Delicious premiered last year at Philadelphia's Arden Theater, and a few months ago, he traveled to Illinois to see a small-town troupe perform the play. He is intermittently writing another drama about the impossibility of individual redemption--at least as Robin Williams usually embodies it on screen.

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