By Katrina Schell, Performing Arts Division Head
In November and December of 2018, many LCA students and faculty watched in confusion as four actors took the stage for four chapels. The short plays they performed were unexpected, virtually unexplained, and quite an adventure for the audience. An article was published in December of last year explaining the occasion and purpose of the chapel plays; however, there was no in-depth look at each episode in terms of character development and overall meaning. After our long Christmas break, which I am sure everyone spent contemplating the existential meaning of each chapel play, we are finally going to venture into the world of the Chapel plays.
In the first moments, we meet Jules, a 15-ish girl in school who receives an unwelcome gift. Much like an English teacher, she reads deeply into the meaning of the gift, finding it to be intended as an insult. Since she is a loveable overthinker, she freaks out to her best friend, Jerry. He is a 15-ish boy who takes a more comical approach to life. Since he does not see gifts as having underhanded meanings, he can laugh at the situation and Jules. Enter Vivian, the 15ish girl who brings an easygoing manner to the friendship. Both Jerry and Vivian attempt to calm Jules down, although she is unreceptive. The ending sparks a three episode long quest to find the mystery gift giver, a.k.a. Secret Santa.
Since the first episode was meant to be an introduction to the story, it does not completely tackle the issue of the nature of gifts. However, the audience does meet the characters, and Jules’ reaction to the gift sets up a long anticipated reveal. The takeaway from the first episode is the character set up, along with a small commentary on our perspective on bad gifts. If we perceive a gift as ugly or thoughtless, was that the giver’s intention? That question will be answered in the final episode.
Scene opens up on Jules, Jerry, and Vivian examining a whiteboard full of suspects. They run through a few, citing Morgan’s “degradation” of Jules on the cross country team, Daniel’s obvious, head-over-heels love for Jules, Angela’s opportunity, and Vivian’s sister Helen’s gift giving attitude. Each time, Jules is able to spin a casual remark into an honor-threatening insult. Enter the lovable, clueless goofball that is Mr. Jameson. It would be impossible to capture the essence of his character into words, but I am sure he is not a new character for the LCA audience. Mr. Jameson brings in another plot complication, a gift for Jerry. Again, the gift is from a mystery giver, but Jerry seems to have a different perspective on its purpose. To end the scene, Jules begins an investigation to find out who gave Jerry his gift, The Idiot.
The new perspective on gifts is the main takeaway from episode two. Jerry seems to think his gift did not mean anything, or maybe it was a kind gesture; this opinion is startlingly different from Jules’ reaction. Of course, she tries to force him in the direction of self-consciousness, and eventually he wants to find out the gift giver. But did he have a point in the beginning? What do gifts mean? Are they meant to have little messages embedded in them, or do they not particularly mean anything? Who is the mystery gift giver? All these questions were passed off to episode three.
This episode saw the expansion of Mr. Jameson’s character from a confused teacher into a self-conscious adult just trying to understand the next generation. Just like Jules and Jerry, Mr. Jameson has also received a gift in the form of a “Kool Dawg” t-shirt and sunglasses. Although he tries to put a positive spin on the gift, it is soon revealed that Jerry gave the gift as an attempt to make fun of Mr. Jameson. Mr. Jameson is finally able to realize how confused he is about teenagers, and the kids and him strike up a bargain in which they will help him understand their perspective if he helps find the Secret Santa.
From this episode, we can learn from Jerry and Mr. Jameson not only the comical discord between adults and teenagers, but also the impact that gifts can have. No matter how you spin a gift, sometimes they were just meant as an insult. However, Mr. Jameson is still able to put a positive light on it when nobody else could manage it. He took a step back and saw the good embedded in a terrible t-shirt.
The final episode. Finally, Vivian is receiving a gift. Three gifts, in fact. Before she could enjoy those, however, Jules barges in, demanding to know why Vivian’s sister knew about the hot pink sweatbands. The audience quickly realizes that the hideous gift Jules has been hating for the past three episodes was truly an innocent gesture from a kind hearted middle schooler. As Jules calms down, Vivian opens her present, revealing a book that Jules gave. The circumstances surrounding this gift reveal that Jules also gave Jerry his present, which leads to Vivian’s long overdue outburst about how her friends are excessively obtuse and frustrating. Responding to the shouting, Mr. Jameson brings in Helen, the “culprit” of the sweatband crime. Helen is forced to apologize for being kind to her role model, Jerry ends up with a detention, and Jules ends up smacked in the face with cosmic justice. In Vivian’s second gift, we find that Jerry is not as senseless as the audience forethought, giving Vivian the perfect gift to write her cough *chapel* cough plays. The series ends with a lighthearted selfie on Vivian’s third gift, a selfie stick.
Apologies to the poor playwright that was stuck tying up every loose end from the previous three episodes, but the series did end with quite a positive message. For the fourth episode, our main character was confronted with her own assumptions, realizing that not everyone in the school was out to get her, and not every gift had an evil purpose. Rather, some gifts are innocently given from admirers to role models, and some gifts are given to make your friends smile. The audience can also learn that even when you make a mistake or cause trouble, good friends are always there to help you reason through your madness.
The theme for this year’s chapel is, “when God gives a gift, He wraps it in a person.” Each gift that was given in the plays had a unique purpose, and they were all viewed in different lights. Jules’ gift was a kind gesture that was seen as a snide comment; Jerry’s gift was meant to be rude but he did not think much of it; Mr. Jameson’s gift was also rude, but he put a nice spin on it; and Vivian’s gifts were all given out of friendship, but the book was seen as dumb, the journal was the greatest gift in the world, and the selfie stick remains unknown. All of these purposes and views can be applied to the people surrounding us.
Maybe there is a person who is trying to be kind that you see in a poor light. Maybe you see someone as perfect, when in reality, they are not the best friend for you. And perhaps you are lucky enough to have a beautiful soul as your friend, and you know they are always looking out for you. Either way, the people around you, the LCA community, is the hand you have been given. How will you react to it? Will you be self critical like Jules, or will you be appreciative like Vivian? And finally, think to yourself, what kind of gift are you to the people around you?
Speaking as a playwright, no matter the meaning that each audience member arrives at for themselves, the intended takeaway is completely ambiguous. The hardest lesson a playwright learns is that they have no authority beyond the words they put on the page. Although it is frustrating to sit in silence while others have strange and alien complex thoughts, it is every audience member’s explicit right to do so. The chapel plays were not meant to have a specific meaning. They were not intended to criticize any particular person or subject, they were simply meant to be a thought provoking experience.
In the end, life is all about the experience. What correct meaning can be brought out of life? What correct meaning can be brought out of the lives of others? I can guarantee that a year from now, most people will forget the names of these characters, and chapel plays will be a distant memory. But for now, live in the moment of chaotic confusion. Form your own opinion about what the plays were, and allow yourself to disagree with others. Simply put, it is not about the meaning. It is about exploring a story with uncertainty, enjoying the experience, and being drawn closer together as a community with that shared experience. And is that not what life is all about?