By JOANNE FOX
A Hollywood actor used his talents as a classically-trained musician to present a high-energy and dramatic scriptural interpretation last month to Siouxlanders.
Frank Runyeon demonstrated his acting skills in “Salt and Light” for grades K-4 religious education students and the Sermon on the Mount for grades 5-9 and the general public on Feb. 22 at the Church of the Nativity, Sioux City.
Runyeon has won national acclaim for his work as a translator and enactor of biblical texts. Since the 1990s, he has performed for tens of thousands of people in the United States.
However, Runyeon is probably best-known for his roles on television. He starred for seven years as Steve Andropoulos on “As the World Turns” opposite Meg Ryan, then for four years as Father Michael Donnelly on “Santa Barbara.”
The Cleveland, Ohio, native also appeared for a season as Simon Romero on “General Hospital,” playing opposite Emma Samms. Runyeon has guest-starred in recurring roles on “L.A. Law,” “Another World,” and “Falcon Crest.”
The Princeton University graduate – with a degree in religion – studied acting in New York and Los Angeles for 15 years. He attended Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., in preparation for the writing and performance of “Afraid!” (the Gospel of Mark). He further refined the play in studies at Yale Divinity School and General Theological Seminary, from which he received his master’s degree. Runyeon is continuing his studies toward a doctorate in Biblical studies.
Runyeon began translating and adapting Biblical texts for one-man performances almost three decades ago.
“There are many things that combined (to make the performances happen),” the Los Angeles resident said. “We (my wife and I) had some twins that miscarried and one of my best friends jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
As Runyeon began to script his enactments, his pastor encouraged him to take some biblical texts and turn them into performance pieces for church.
“As a classically trained musician, I began to see how I could take the Scripture and approach it like a score that has a shape of its own,” he said. “I try and play it so other people can hear the melodies and music that’s in it that we too often miss if we read it on a page.”
Dressed in a white alb covered with a multi-colored vest, Runyeon began by processing down Nativity church’s aisle with as much excitement as the next contestant on “The Price is Right.”
“From Hollywood!” he proclaimed repeatedly to the youngsters, while rifting a fanfare on the piano keys. “It’s me!”
The young people – and a number of their parents and grandparents – enthusiastically responded, as Runyeon explained they would be part of his one-man show as his “coach.”
“You are going to help me interpret the Scripture, much like I need a coach in Hollywood to help me with my lines,” he said.
Runyeon continued, pointing to the Lectionary on the altar, “This is similar to the script an actor has.”
Pausing for effect, he said phonetically, “It is Script – chur.”
To illustrate the verse, “You are the salt of the earth,” Runyeon used student Aden Ruden as a prop, showing how one uses salt to change the taste of food by turning Aden upside down to shake out his seasoning.
“Putting salt on French fries makes it good,” he said, as Aden nodded. “So, if I take this message to the other small fries in the audience, you being salt brings out the good in others.”
Aden grinned ear-to-ear in sharing his experience with Runyeon.
“It felt good to be up there with him,” the 9-year-old said. “Even with getting turned upside down, I felt like we were having a good time.”
To exemplify “You are the light of the world,” student Aleia Fergen came up to the altar, as Runyeon helped her on to the piano bench to show off her “light.”
“You want people to see your light so they can see the way,” he explained; then added to audience, “You know we weren’t originally called Christians or Catholics. We were called People of the Way.”
Aleia expressed how impressed she was with Runyeon.
“I learned to walk God’s way from him,” she said. Then, the 8-year-old added, softly, “I’m used to being in front of others because we do concerts here at Nativity.”
Runyeon used the entire congregation in his portrayal of the beheading of John the Baptist with responses to the parts of the story.
“The king gave into pressure and John the Baptist died,” he said, then cautioned, “That’s what happens when we aren’t salt and light.”
But to paraphrase legendary radio host Paul Harvey, Runyeon pointed out, “That’s not the rest of the story.”
“When church is over, it’s not over. That’s when it starts,” he said. “That’s when we play our part – our part as salt and light.”
Runyeon channeled St. Matthew in his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, revisiting the salt and light message.
“It’s wonderful when it makes a big difference in somebody’s faith life that they hear something,” he said. “Every once in a while somebody will say, ‘I’ve been waiting 40 years to get what I just got,’ and that’s usually because they realize that God is actually present and talking to them.”
Runyeon shared the resonation he gets from illustrating Bible stories in this way.
“There’s always a great joy in just speaking Scripture and discovering all of the depth that is there,” he said. “There is always more to be discovered.”