Three trees walk in to Wokingham’s Market Place. No, it’s not the start of a Christmas cracker joke, but a cracker of an idea for Good Friday.
Local theatre company Stage-Fright – supported by local churches – will be presenting The Three Trees, a brand-new play which will debut in the open-air at noon this Good Friday. And given that two years ago they performed in a deluge of rain, it’s safe to say the lunchtime play will go ahead whatever the weather.
Although Stage-Fright has devised the play, organisers are quick to praise the way in which Wokingham people have been part of it.
“The theme of wood came from a local artist, it wasn’t our idea,” says Michael Johnson, artistic director of Stage-Fright.
The Wokingham-based theatre company has been organising the town’s Good Friday play for four years now and has always been attempting to involve the wider community.
“Last year’s theme was water, an idea that started as a joke because the previous year it rained torrentially during the performance. But we liked it!” Michael adds.
The community focus behind the play is also brought to the fore with its participants: a local artist has designed the backgrounds that will be used, three local primary schools and two teenage drama groups will be performing and joining in with them will be an over 50s group.
“We’re trying to involve as many people as we possibly can,” says Michael.
And the good citizenship doesn’t stop there. The businesses around Market Place have been incredibly supportive too.
“Last year on the day, the businesses were extremely helpful to us,” Michael explains. “And Costa Coffee turned up with free muffins for the audience.”
The plays, which act as a way of explaining what Easter is all about, have been designed to be accessible to everyone.
“We’re pointing towards the final days, the trial and death of Jesus – that’s the purpose of it,” says Michael. “But we make it a public event for everyone, not just a religious event for churchgoers.
This fits in with Stage-Fright’s mandate of encouraging a free, open and creative exploration of religious faith. It does this in a variety of ways, but principally it aims to provide a supportive environment so that its members can discover, use and develop their theatrical skills and talents while having fun in the process.
“It’s not so much about putting on plays to engage with the audience – we’re engaging with the participants first. The audience is the second part of the process,” Michael explains.
This year’s Good Friday play is based around an old folk story about three trees, and Michael intends that each of the three stories will be told in different ways.
Each of the trees hope to become something important – one ends up as the manger in Bethlehem, another as a fishing boat and the third ultimately becomes the wood used for the Cross.
“We’ll link it back to thinking about creation and growth and how a master craftsman brought things into being, and how that is connected with a carpenter who takes wood and shapes it into something that’s beautiful,” Michael adds.
The play has been funded by churches from across Wokingham and also by Faith in the Community, a local charity. Being held in the Market Place, where Jesus himself might have been found, the story will be accessible to all.
Although Michael has always had a passion for theatre and is currently studying for an MA at Central School of Speech and Drama, it surprises many people that he is also a priest.
“I came to Wokingham in 2005 as a priest at All Saints Church, but I was released in 2010 so I could concentrate on Stage-Fright,” he says.
“The Bishop of Reading released me so I could develop this work and I have the full backing of the Church of England to do this.”
Michael is passionate about finding ways in which the Church can reach out to everyone, not just preaching to the converted.
“My goal is to try and reach those who might not come into church so that they can think about faith and explore faith through a creative activity that some will find more engaging,” he says.
“It was part of my brief when I came to Wokingham.”
And that hasn’t changed. Stage-Fright has expanded considerably since its 2007 formation and the group now leads four after-school drama clubs, two teenage groups that meet in different churches, plus occasional projects for different groups of local people.Add on to that extra rehearsals and some exciting plans for new interns from September, it seems that there’s not going to be a final curtain call for the arts group just yet.
“We’re developing a theatre school,” Michael says. “We’ll run training days and encourage people from across the area to come along and explore the interface between arts and faith, particularly theatre.”
That certainly deserves a standing ovation.
To find out more, log on to www.stage-fright.org.uk.
The Good Friday performance will start at noon and is completely free to watch. Just turn up in Market Place, Wokingham.