Repetition and imagination. That’s how Ashley Strand says he was able to memorize the massive Biblical text for his two-hour, one-man performance of “King James Live.” Specifically, he’s referring to a technique for leveraging visual memory: “the memory palace.”
“What’s interesting is there’s feedback between rote techniques, like the memory palace, and deeper imagination work,” Strand explains. “So when I had to remember the  sins from Chapter 7 . . . my first question was, ‘Why those?’ It hardly seemed like an exhaustive list of sins, despite its length, and in fact, there seemed to be a good bit of repetition.”
Strand is reprising his role, so to speak, from 2018’s reading of The Gospel of Mark from King James Bible in “King James Live.” The show opens January 9 at Ronald Sachs Violins on Castle Street and is produced by Alchemical Theatre Company. Strand says the show avoids the trappings of the proscenium by playing it in the round.
encore spoke with the actor about his performance. Readers can find an extended interview below.
encore (e): What about last year’s reading is informing your performance now?
Ashley Strand (AS): Last year was about, “Can I make this engaging?” This year is about, “This is so engaging, can I do it justice?” The larger narrative structure is a perfect dramatic arc, and so a first-gloss presentation can be carried off by hitting the major plot points. This time around I’m teasing out finer details.
One of the questions that I walked away from last year’s reading with was, “what is the significance of all the repetition?” Why two miracles of the loaves? Which confrontation with the Pharisees am I on again? And the lazy answer usually involves impugning the skill of the author: it’s repetitive, rambling, etc …. but it’s not. Every word serves a purpose.
And it’s my job as an actor to uncover that purpose, or at least a purpose I can play, because if I don’t, then for the audience, much of the story plays as lists of miracles, and wanderings, and weird place names. So I’ve sorted out a lot of things like that.
The short answer: I will be delivering something much more specific, rich and alive than I did [in 2018].
e: Tell us more about those former “trappings” Alchemical is able to avoid with this version.
AS: Playing it in the round takes it out of the presentational and puts it into the interactive. I am not opposite the audience. I am not above them. I am among them, and we are part of the same story. Of course, the physicality I am allowed in the theatre gives me a much greater range of expressiveness, particularly, I hope, in the comic moments.
The challenge is to take all phrases that have become dry, rhetorical jingles in people’s minds and make a playable story out of them. Just rehearsing it in the round, I discover a lot of that. As soon as I sit down and become one of the synagogue members in Galilee, who is offended by Jesus, I get to look around, and see his sisters behind me, when I say, “Are not his sisters here with us?” and shoot ‘em a judgy look. Now, when Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin,” his sisters are established in the room, and you get to “witness” him getting heckled in the synagogue, and his own family doesn’t even back him up. Now “kin” has become something more than an archaic word sonorously intoned.
There’s a reason I call the show “King James Live”—doing it this way brings the text to life.
e: So this sounds like you’re able to build more character and presence around this performance—can you tell us more about this new character, so to speak?
AS: Well, there’s a lot of characters in the Gospel According to Mark, from Herod to Pilate, Blind Bartimaeus to the Syro-Phoenician Woman, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, John the Baptist, and the man possessed of the Legion, and not a one is bland. Many get only a few lines, if that, to portray. Bold choices are needed, and nothing helps a bold choice like physicality. When I was doing it as a reading, behind a podium, the physical palette was pretty limited. Also, there’s a lot of movement in the story, and having free range on a stage helps portray that.
One of the most fun things, though, about getting my head out of the book, is the ability to connect to the audience. There are even opportunities to “endow” the audience; that is, to put them in the role of people in the story, and speak to them as though they’re a part of the action. (Don’t worry, no one but me has to say anything!)
e: As the company clown how far of a stretch is this role, or can we expect chuckles in some form?
AS: Oh, man, that was one of my great fears/discoveries in this process! There are laughs in the Gospel According to Mark, big ones! When I first read it, I didn’t see them at all, but then I saw Alec McCowen’s reading of it, and he found some laughs. I realized I was allowed to have fun with the piece and started finding opportunities for fun all over the place. It is a profoundly human text, and though it paints its characters sparely, it paints them truthfully. With all the colors of the emotional rainbow, of course, humor is a big part of it.
I think it’s a part best suited to someone who can “people the stage,” which is something standup comics have to do as well. One of my favorite roles ever was “Adult Male” in “Spring Awakening.” I had to play all nine of the adult male characters. So in that sense, it’s in my wheelhouse.
In the larger sense, it’s the biggest stretch of my life. Like Shakespeare, what draws me to it is the puzzle one can never solve, only the biggest puzzle I’ve ever seen! I feel like an archaeologist uncovering a vast, lost city: I could dig for the rest of my life, and never stop making discoveries. I am equal parts excited and daunted: It is a great opportunity, and a tremendous responsibility.
e: Is this a trajectory you want to remain on as an actor? Do you prefer to find more serious roles versus comedic?
AS: I’ve played almost exclusively clowns and villains. These are essentially shallow characters, though of course, there are exceptions—anti-heroes like Salieri, etc. It’s nice to dig into something with more substance; though, of course, the more substance you bring to your clown, the more valuable and funnier he’ll be. I’d love to do more serious work, I’d love to do more comic work. Like most actors, I’d just love to do more work!
e: You told encore last year that you weren’t super familiar with the gospel of Mark before the reading—but are you a religious person? How does your own spiritual perspective influence this performance?
AS: To start at the end, my goal with this performance is theatrical, not evangelical, which would not be my place. I do intend to spread the evangel of great classic texts, and the need to cherish and keep alive our relationship with our cultural and linguistic treasures — of which the KJV is indisputably one — and that is my place.
I was raised, basically, as an atheist. Dad called himself an agnostic because technically, he said, he “couldn’t know,” but I knew what he really felt about religion. Mom was spiritual but had had a bad experience in the church. Still, never being afraid to go her own way, she kept her own sense of divinity in the world and her relationship to it, which she allowed to evolve as life revealed itself to her. When I was a boy, I wanted to be like Dad. Now I’m more like Mom. Funny thing is, by the end of his life, Dad was a little bit more like Mom, too.
I’m open: that’s my spiritual perspective.
As an actor, that’s also my duty to the text: to be open to what the text says to me, and to do my best to tell the story I think the text is trying to tell. And my duty to any story is to accept the given circumstances without question or comment, and to commit to them fully and without reservation. My spiritual perspective should have no bearing on that duty, nor does it.
The fact that I discovered the text without having had it parsed for me means that I came to it free of preconceptions, if a little short on context. I think the result is a fairly pure reflection of my encounter with the text. Any good text is a mirror of sorts, and each person who stands before it will reveal a different image in it. So I believe this will be a unique experience of Mark.
Now I will say this: because I was open to this text, I discovered that it is an extraordinary mirror. I was astounded by how relevant this text is not only to me, but to our times. So much is reflected. To see oneself captured in few short verse lines, recorded almost two millennia ago, is breath-taking. That is the experience I had when I read the Parable of the Sower. On the one hand it is tremendously humbling, but on the other, it gives you a profound sense of our shared humanity.
Now I won’t tell you which seed I was, but I will tell you I believe that if you open yourself to this text, it will move you. And as an actor, that’s what I hope to do.
e: Anything else you’d like to add about the show or other upcoming endeavors?
AS: There’s something for everyone in this show. If you love language, if you love theatre, if you love scripture, if you love a good story well told, you’ll love this show. And personally, it is the work of which I am most proud in my life.