Have you ever wondered why Jesus' disciple Peter was so obsessed with fish? Or marvelled at how Jesus could cure a madman without self-help books or a leather couch? Comedic performer and storyteller Stephen Hilaire has.
He presents Bible stories in a way you probably haven't heard before, with sound effects, dramatisation and lots of laughs.
It's a surprise to see a sacred book written thousands of years ago being portrayed in such a contemporary, almost radical, manner.
People today have a passion for cinema blockbusters with surround sound and special effects on the big screen. Consequently, we have come to expect an outstanding story to have an expensive, high-tech presentation, an A-grade cast and superior direction and production.
In contrast, it can be hard to sit down to a simple book and be engrossed in the context of the story.
Today's society is drifting away from Bible reading. While the Bible is still a bestseller, it is often placed on the shelf and left unexplored. Even many Christians do not read it regularly.
How can today's Christian storytellers excite a new interest in an old subject?
Enter Stephen Hilaire, wearing his trademark purple suit. Along with Glenn Coombs, Stephen is the creator of “Hilaireous Productions,” a company that offers comedic storytelling, creative performance workshops and puppetry performances. His biblical storytelling, aimed at teens and adults, recounts tales of the Old Testament greats—such as Gideon, Noah, Jonah and Joseph—with a new twist. The Gospels are also retold in a series of episodes, much of which have been recorded on a DVD entitled Jesus Christ and His Merry Men.
Now 28 years old, Stephen Hilaire has been committed to portraying a contemporary version of Christianity since he was a child. In Grade 6, an opportunity arose for his family to be involved in a Scripture Union Beach Mission puppetry team. He continued with this project each year, until he was the team leader at the end of his high school education. After earning a Creative Arts degree from the University of Wollongong in 2000, he teamed up with Glenn Coombs and they hit the road with their own puppet shows, starring a wolf named Hamish.
These shows subtly present Christian values such as love, mercy, forgiveness and family. With attention-grabbing plots, Stephen and Glenn try to counteract children's “been there—done that” attitude. They also cater for adults by inserting references in the scripts that adults will find amusing. As they perform at schools around New South Wales, Hilaireous Productions aims to demonstrate that discovering Jesus is not boring. Through humour and drama, Stephen wants to give people a taste of Jesus that will inspire them to know more about Him.
As a dramatic performer who needs to engage audiences, Stephen's work is cut out for him. Using the Bible for script material can be hard work. “The Bible is bare-boned, with not much detail. It is more like a history textbook, recording a series of facts,” he observes. He also recognises that the Bible is not a Western book—it is steeped in Jewish and Middle Eastern culture. When we read it, often a lot of the message is lost in our interpretation through Western eyes.
Stephen explains, “Take the story of the prodigal son, we read it and think, Oh, how sad—the son lost all his money and had to work in the pigpen. How yucky. But in Jewish tradition, to work with pigs—unclean animals—made a person spiritually defiled. And to work for a Gentile—a non-Jew—was a deep degradation for a Jewish person. With that sort of understanding of the story, we can now see more clearly in the parable the contrasts between being lost and rescued.”
While researching for a new act, Stephen seeks additional background information to give him a clearer understanding of the context of the Bible story. For performances, he examines at least four different modern translations or paraphrases of the Bible, such as the New International Version, Good News, the New Living Translation and The Message.
He immerses himself in the story, discovering nuances of the text, and seeking clues to build a story or char acter. The information Stephen gleans helps him flesh out a dramatisation and decide which angle to take.
Stephen often receives feedback from people saying they had never seen the Bible story from his perspective before. He also finds it ironic that aside from his humorous additions, the original Bible texts contain some quirky accounts that many Christians have overlooked.
He mentions a show he presented to a church group, involving a dramatisation of the Old Testament story of Gideon. Afterward, one audience member approached Stephen and commended him on his particular slant. He asked, “That bit about the man dreaming of a loaf of bread rolling down the hill—how did you think that up?”
Stephen responded, “That's a piece I didn't add; it was in the Bible account all along.”
The sceptical man went away to check his Bible and discovered it really was part of the scriptures.
Stephen admits that while he embellishes stories and creates his own version of biblical events, he is mindful to keep the heart of the story intact. He is aware of the accusation that he could be sacrilegious.
“While I don't mind chucking off at the disciples, I never make fun of Jesus. I really do like Jesus.”
Stephen hopes his representation of biblical characters as real people with real doubts and weaknesses will encourage us. He asserts that 12 disciples travelling around together for 18 months must have led to a range of personality conflicts. They were ordinary people, who were mostly ignorant and confused about Jesus' intentions and His teachings.
Despite being misguided and vacillating in their faith, they eventually became great teachers and leaders in the fledgling Christian church.
Stephen can relate to the apostle Peter, who was infamous among the 12 for being impetuous and making inappropriate comments. “But it was okay—Jesus still loved him,” Stephen marvels. After Jesus' death and resurrection, Peter's faith grew and he became one of the founders of the new Christian church. “There are many examples of God's grand plan working out for the best despite—or even because of— people's failings.”
One of Stephen's aims as a Christian performer is to have an impact—to “kick a dent in the world.” He believes Christianity must be dynamic and relevant to the wider world. While some Christians may feel comfortable with their perspective on life, the world is always changing. How Christians relate to others must also change. Stephen asserts, “We cannot afford to get slack; we can never say that we have done all we can. We need to keep abreast of what people read, what they listen to and change our methods to engage people.”
Stephen's biblical storytelling represents Jesus in a fresh way; he sees his work as a “cure for complacency.” He hopes even mature Christians will have their imagination stimulated, inspiring them to reanalyse their perspective.
He says it is possible for a Christian to become complacent about their faith and theology, something that should be confronted.
Stephen is not content to stagnate.
Being a third-generation Christian, he is quite familiar with the stories in the Bible but sees it as crucial to dig deeper each time he studies it, so he doesn't take the message for granted.
“The more you study the Bible the more complex it gets; you need to peel back the layers for deeper truths.” He spends time studying for himself and attends a men's Bible-study group.
Through Hilaireous Productions, Stephen seeks to challenge negative perceptions of Christianity. The Christian stereotypes in the media are unflattering in various ways. Stephen cites just one example: “Look at the two Christian characters in the TV show The Simpsons. Reverend Lovejoy doesn't believe what he preaches and Homer's neighbour, Ned Flanders, is weak, nerdy and submissive.” These media representations attest to the many people who have witnessed hypocrisy and had hurtful experiences through involvement with Christians.
Stephen believes Christians need to keep Jesus at the heart of all they do.
“Jesus is fantastic. If Christianity looks bad, it's not because the heart of it is wrong—it's what we've done with the way we represent Christ.”
Stephen's life is busy trying to represent Christ in a positive way. His business tours schools and churches, and he also performs regularly at Black Stump Christian festival (held near Wollongong, New South Wales) since 2001.
Stephen would like to see Hilaireous Productions expand to provide work opportunities for creative people in Christian multimedia. With his wife, Mandy, and young daughter, Isabelle, Stephen has great hopes for the future—and why not? His world centres on a “fantastic Jesus.”