Tonight is opening night of the Sunset Playhouse’s production of “A Christmas Story.” Fr. Chuck Hanel, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish, Hubertus, plans to get to the Elm Grove theater two hours early and sit in the audience.
“I kind of, in a sense, pray to older directors that have died that have been a real significant influence on my life…. I just talk to them and remember their advice as directors,” Fr. Hanel said.
This has been Fr. Hanel’s opening night ritual for 40 years as an actor — something he calls his “avocation.”
Fr. Hanel will play Ralph, the narrator, in the play about a young boy’s Christmas. He said it’s been one of his most difficult roles. “He’s talking almost constantly during the play,” Fr. Hanel said.
“In all my 40 years, I don’t think I’ve had more lines in a play than I do with this one.” Picking Fr. Hanel to be Ralph was easy for director Bryce Lord.
“It was very clear early on that he had a very natural presence and a way of talking to people … the character of the adult Ralph literally talks directly to the audience for a good two hours straight,” Lord said. “He kind of nailed it.”
Lord said he was looking for a man of a certain age and a personality to whom the audience could relate.
“When an actor has to spend that much time in sort of a direct relationship with an audience, it has to be somebody that they like, that they want to spend time with,” Lord said. “He is definitely one of those people. He has an energy and a liveliness about him that just makes you smile.”
Michael Duncan, former artistic director for the Sunset Playhouse, has worked with Fr. Hanel several times. He said the priest is a pleasure to work with and funny on stage.
“He had excellent wit and was very good in comedies,” Duncan said. “He just knew his comedic timing was excellent.”
Fr. Hanel said he was bitten by the acting bug when he was in a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” while a student at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary High School.
“From that day on, it’s been a love that, for the most part, I’ve kept up with since then,” Fr. Hanel said. “As a kid it was a real wonderful way to express myself.”
The priest described himself as a shy child but said acting freed him from his social fears.
“On stage you can take on this other character with a whole different life and personality and you can express yourself in the disguises, if you will, of this character,” he said. “As I get older it becomes more and more apparent to me that doing shows is really a form of play for me, literally.”
As a priest, Fr. Hanel said his acting skills come in handy.
If you go:
Sunset Playhouse Community Theater, 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove, will present, “A Christmas Story,” Nov. 29 through Dec. 23. Tickets are available by calling (262) 782-4430 or online: www.sunsetplayhouse.com
“The priest who is presiding at the Mass, he’s acting in the best sense of the word. It’s not phony … a priest at Mass is portraying himself in one sense, (and) he’s portraying Christ,” Fr. Hanel said. “The same things that make for a good actor make for a good priest.”
Duncan said he remembers a time in the late 1990s when Fr. Hanel presided over a memorial service the Sunset Playhouse was holding for a director who died. At that service they had a small conversation that stays with Duncan today.
“He said, ‘You and I are a lot alike,’” Duncan said. “He said, ‘I’m the pastor of my sheep’; I think he was referring to his parishes … and he said, ‘You’re the pastor here.’ And he was referring to that community of people that for years and years grew up with the Sunset.”
To help younger priests, Fr. Hanel said he would like to see seminarians get into acting and theater.
“I would suggest that anyone who feels a calling to the priesthood kind of see how they would do in something like a play,” Fr. Hanel said.
Fr. Hanel estimated he’s done about 50 plays. While he doesn’t announce his performances at Mass or place information about them in the parish bulletin, he talks to parishioners who are curious about whatever production in which he is appearing.
For the most part, he said, parishioners haven’t had any problems with his choice of productions. He said the only times people were surprised is when he, while in character, used profanity or gave a woman a kiss.
“That’s part of the fun of acting,” he said. “You’re playing a role; it’s not who you are.”
Fr. Hanel said it’s good for him, and the church, to have this interest.
“It brings life to my priesthood,” he said. “It’s ironic; it gives me more energy and happiness as a priest to have this other thing and without it, I don’t know if I would be able to survive.”