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A dramatist with a flair for religious art takes to podcasting

FATHER MATTHEW POWELL

Photo Courtesy of Father Matthew Powell

John Burger - published on 04/13/21

Dominican Fr. Matthew Powell's WordPlay debuts with works by Twain and Balzac.

Mark Twain is universally known for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But you might not know that he also translated — from the original manuscripts — the diaries of Adam and Eve.

Okay, so he didn’t, really. But what if the first man and first woman had kept diaries? Wouldn’t that be interesting.

If it took the great American humorist to come up with such a comic twist on the Creation story, it has fallen to a Dominican priest with a lifelong career in theater to “translate” it for the digital age. Fr. Matthew Powell, professor emeritus of drama at Providence College in Rhode Island, has produced and directed a 24-minute-long podcast of The Diaries of Adam and Eve.

It’s just one of several productions to premiere on Fr. Powell’s new podcast, WordPlay: Theater for the Ear and the Imagination. He is hoping to have a new production every few months. 

“I define it as drama that reflects the spiritual nature of the human person,” Fr. Powell said in an interview. 

Also on the podcast currently is Fr. Powell’s adaptation of a short story by Honoré de Balzac, “The Atheist’s Mass,” and of a poem by Stephen Dunn, “At the Smithville Methodist Church,” in which an irreligious father sends his child to an arts and crafts program at a local church.

All are available on Transistor FM and Apple podcasts

Fr. Powell has engaged actors who are alumni of Providence College Theater and records the plays in a professional recording studio in Providence. The project came about in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which put a halt to his stage productions for now. A fan of radio drama, he discussed with younger friars in his Dominican community his idea of producing plays for Catholic radio. They offered their opinion that he’d be better off doing podcasts, which would not limit his productions to the geographic area of particular radio stations. Fr. Powell was unfamiliar with the new digital format, but quickly became intrigued. 

He also found that the podcasting world largely lacked religious dramas. 

“It’s almost exclusively supernatural, action figures, science fiction — the sort of things you would see in science fiction movies or comic book kinds of characters, you know, Spider Man and those sorts of things,” he said. “Nobody was doing regular drama, and nobody was doing anything religious. So I said ‘Well, there’s a spot out there.’ It is something I enjoy very much, and the actors do too. So we decided to give it a shot.”

As a member of the Order of Preachers, of course, he hopes the works will have some evangelistic effect — but without being preachy, didactic or hitting people over the head with doctrine. “I prefer a more subtle approach,” he said, adding that he expects his repertoire to include things that are specifically religious and Christian, as well as some that are not. 

As for upcoming productions, Fr. Powell is working on a series of monologues — two to three minutes each — by the various characters involved in the Passion of Christ: Mary, the Roman soldier who keeps Jesus under guard, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod, Pontius Pilate and his wife, and Barabbas. “In each of their monologues they talk about their encounter with Jesus,” he said. 

Then he’d like to dramatize a few folk tales, from Russian, Jewish and Italian traditions. 

“I’m always searching for scripts,” he said. “’The Atheist’s Mass’ was a short story. So I had to work to turn it into a play. A lot of the work is finding scripts and, rewriting them, and very often I finish them and say ‘Nah, this is no good; this isn’t going to work.’ My waste basket is filled with lots of scripts I rejected myself.”

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