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Jean Donovan to get new life in drama: actress takes stage to recreate 'moments' in holy women's lives.

At 5 she was staging shows in her back yard, entertaining schoolmates in the basement and performing pantomimes at parties for her parents' friends. Her singer father, Richard Wagner, gutted a television set so she could use it as a puppet theater.

At 15 she made a retreat that inspired her to think seriously about her Christian faith and set her on the path of her own faith journey. The route, she later discovered, was one that would combine ministry and theater.

Now 32, actress Lisa Wagner has brought Dorothy Day to life before nearly 200 audiences. She has carted her six bags of props across America, hauled her gear from Nova Scotia to Vancouver during a two-month, 18-stop Canadian run and presented Dorothy Day to audiences in Holland, Germany, England, Scotland and Italy.

In the Assisi church where St. Francis was baptized. Wagner played to a full house of Pax Christi members last May. Many of them had traveled from Asia, Africa and the Middle East for the group's 50th anniversary and warmly received the American peacemaker-activist.

For Wagner, acting is like praying. "I always feel that my performance is a prayer. When we pray we're stretching beyond our physical space, our physical reality," she said. "We're reaching out to connect with others. I try to be present to an audience and to open my heart to the people."

In "Haunted by God," Wagner's one-woman show about Day, which she cowrote with Paul Amandes and Bob McClory, Wagner types, sings, shouts, cooks, begs and prays. Near the end of the play, Day says: "Love is the measure by which we are judged. We can't love God unless we love one another."

It is not Wagner's aim to deliver a message from Day to her audience. Rather she wants viewers "to respond wholly and completely to a particular moment of Dorothy's life as if Dorothy was living that moment for the first time."

"For me it's most essential to make the connection with the audience, not to perform or try to better last night's show," she said. "My ministry involves my commitment to the people seeing the show at that moment. Theater helps me understand how precious a moment is; it is the only time I'll be sharing that moment with that person."

Wagner also likes to raise awareness with her dramas. She is now rehearsing "Points of Arrival," about the life and death of Jean Donovan, the Catholic laywoman raped and murdered with three American nuns in El Salvador in 1980.

Wagner chose Donovan, a Catholic lay missionary of the Cleveland diocese, rather than one of the three nuns who died with her because Donovan died at 28. Wagner was 27 when she began her research on Donovan and was living at St. Catherine's Catholic Worker hospitality house in Chicago, where NCR interviewed her by phone.

"We have many residents with AIDS. Death is ever-present here," said Wagner, who was inspired by the similarities between her own surroundings and what Donovan encountered in El Salvador.

In her efforts to create "Points of Arrival," she traveled to El Salvador in 1993 to meet with people who had worked with Donovan.

In Cleveland she interviewed 11 persons who had known the slain women. Donovan's brother., Michael, and her parents, Ray and Pat Donavan, in Florida provided more stories. She even flew to Cork to meet Fr. Michael Crowley, the former Irish missionary to Latin America. He was Donovan's mentor when she studied in Cork in the early 1970s.

"Points of Arrival" opens in March in Chicago before going on tour. In the meantime, Wagner, a Lutheran who typically plays before a Catholic audience. is working with her Still Point Theater Collective, a ministry of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church in Chicago. The church has been her fiscal agent, moral support and rehearsal space.

Another mainstay in her life has been Call to Action. Wagner moved from her home in the Kansas City area to Chicago to work three years with CTA's drama-education division. Wagner and another actress conduct drama workshops with adults with developmental disabilities in Chicago. Last year they were thrilled when one of their groups got to perform in a mainstream theater festival in Chicago.

The disabled, the poor, the homeless people with AIDS have all helped Wagner "grow as an artist and a human being," she said. Having performed in shelters as well as sanctuaries, she now thinks she would benefit from studying liturgy. Likewise she thinks the clergy would profit from taking a drama course.

"Priests and ministers face a tremendous challenge" each week, if not each day, she said, when they try do to good liturgy. "Drama helps you lose your inhibitions, trust yourself and live in the moment."

Which is where Lisa Wagner want her ministry to be.
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Title Annotation:Ministries; Lisa Wagner portrays Dorothy Day and, Jean Donovan
Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 19, 1996
Words:802
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