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Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

Rich Swingle acts out his ministry


After years of feeling called to ministry, Rich Swingle entered Massachusetts’ Gordon-Conwell Seminary, one of the country’s top five evangelical seminaries. He left after a year and began an itinerant ministry, which last year took him to 17 states and four countries. Like most preachers, his aim is to offer prayers and praise. Unlike most ministers, though, his pulpit comes complete with footlights and his preaching text has stage directions. Creating and performing one-man plays with religious themes, Mr. Swingle has carved out a ministry that allows him to combine his decades-long interest in acting and his love for God.

“I went to seminary knowing I had a calling to ministry, but I thought it would be as a pastor or a missionary,” he said while relaxing in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

But as he studied, his mind returned to the memory of two actors, Roger Nelson and Curt Cloninger, whom he had seen perform one-man, religiously based plays.

“I said to myself, ‘I can do that,’ ” he said. “Frankly, I never considered I could make a living at it.”

He went to seminary thinking that as a pastor he could perform occasionally. But acting was in his blood, dating back to the time he played Mr. Beaver in a fourth-grade production of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in Phoenix, Ore., a town of about 2,000 people 24 miles north of the California border. He began to understand he did not have to give up one love for the other.

“I knew God was calling me to minister through theater,” he said.

His repertoire now includes nearly a dozen plays, from “Big Fish Little Worm,” his first and most popular, which is a 20-minute work about Jonah he developed while in seminary and has since revised, to “The Revelation” and “The Acts.” He’ll perform his latest, “Beyond the Chariots,” at New York’s Theatre 315 from April 18 to 23. With this he combined another longtime passion, running, which he had been doing competitively since high school. “Beyond the Chariots” tells the story of what happened to Eric Liddell, the Christian runner portrayed in the 1981 Oscar-winning movie “Chariots of Fire,” after he won the 1924 Olympic gold medal and went to China as a missionary. Mr. Liddell died there in a concentration camp in 1945 of a massive brain tumor at the age of 43.

“My grandparents were missionaries in Kenya and I grew up hearing their stories. A lot drew me to that story,” Mr. Swingle said.

Before seeing “Chariots of Fire,” Mr. Swingle, 36, had never heard of Mr. Liddell but the movie became one of his favorites. While on a trip to Edinburgh in 2000 with his wife, Joyce, he began interviewing family members and others about Mr. Liddell, who had been born in China to Scottish-born missionaries and educated in England. Mr. Liddell lived in Scotland after graduating from college and before returning to China, which is why he is associated with Scotland and represented the country in the Olympics. One person who has been helpful in the development of the play is Mr. Liddell’s middle daughter, Heather Ingham, who was only 2 when her father died. She is planning her first visit to New York to see the play and will briefly address the audience on closing night.

“Everything I read and everyone I talked to talked about what a friendly fellow he was,” Mr. Swingle said. “He was good to everyone around him.”

This presented the dramatist with a challenge.

“Eric’s too good a guy to be dramatically interesting,” he said.

To get around this, Mr. Swingle gave Eric Liddell a relatively small role in the play and created a half dozen major characters who tell his story by relating their experiences with him. The main character is a student who hates Liddell for being a Christian and a Westerner and is the one who provides the dramatic tension as he tries to resist Liddell’s gentle persuasion. Mr. Swingle plays all the characters, slipping from one to another by altering his voice and accent.

While doing the show in Hong Kong in February, Mr. Swingle met Cheng Hon-Kwan, who was a student and admirer of Mr. Liddell. Mr. Swingle asked Mr. Cheng what he learned from Mr. Liddell.

“Without any hesitancy, he said, ‘Christianity,’ ” Mr. Swingle said.

When Mr. Swingle was asked this same question earlier in the interview, he did hesitate but only briefly.

“He encourages me to be disciplined and to make good choices to persevere,” Mr. Swingle said.

Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.

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Rich Swingle

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

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