PLYMOUTH — Disgust and disdain drip from the voice of Fr. Joe Juknialis as he slowly, but emphatically cries, “I … hate … Christmas.”
Children cower beneath their mothers’ coats as he rails that celebrating the birth of Christ is a waste of their time and his money.
Well loved and respected as the pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Catholic Church, Eden, Fr. Juknialis hasn’t taken leave of his senses.
Dressed in a top hat, thick scarf and wool overcoat reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ time, Fr. Juknialis has joy in his eyes.
For the first time in more than a half century, since he landed a part in his Kewaskum High School’s production of “Billy Budd,” Fr. Juknialis, 69, is exploring the actor within as the lead of a cast of 30 local thespians in the Plymouth Arts Center, Youth Theater Company’s production of “Scrooge,” a musical adaptation of the Dickens’ novel “The Christmas Carol.”
‘New adventure’ for priest
Portraying the miserly old Scrooge is the latest in what has become a hallmark of Fr. Juknialis’ life – putting his life, at least temporarily, out of control, as he explores new adventures.
“Those kind of moments validate, for me, faith in the Resurrection,” said Fr. Juknialis, his hair uncommonly long after nearly four months without a haircut in preparation for his role as Scrooge. “If there is any moment you are totally out of control, it is your personal death. Throughout all of life, every time I’ve moved into a situation where I’m not in control, it has brought me to a fuller, richer life. If that has truly happened to me over 70 years, then why wouldn’t the last moment of loss of control, my death, also bring me new life?”
Fr. Juknialis’ venture into acting didn’t come naturally.
If you go:
“Scrooge,” a musical adaptation of the Dickens’ novel “The Christmas Carol” will be performed Nov. 30, Dec. 1, 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 2, 8 and 9 at 2 p.m. at the Plymouth Arts Center, 520 Mill St., Plymouth.
Musical director and choreographer, Patty Talen, a member of the Shepherd of the Hills, approached Fr. Juknialis in early summer.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you try out?’ I said ‘No.’ I didn’t want to do it with all the memorization and stuff. It’s a musical so it also required learning some musical pieces,” Fr. Juknialis said.
Turns part down
But Talen persisted in convincing Fr. Juknialis to attend tryouts in August.
“I thought I would try out for a small part. It would be entertaining, a diversion,” Fr. Juknialis said.
The tryouts left no doubt in the minds of Talen and her husband, Tim, the show’s producer.
“We wanted Fr. Joe to be Scrooge. He was great for the role and has done a great job,” Tim Talen said.
When Fr. Juknialis learned he was selected to portray Scrooge, he turned down the part.
But, determined to have Fr. Juknialis as Scrooge, Talen dropped a script, all 85 pages of it, at the church.
“I thought, ‘I’ll never memorize this.’ But then I thought if I could memorize one page a day I could get it done by the end of October. As for my singing experience, it was limited to singing during Mass like priests do,” Fr. Juknialis said.
Preaches love, portrays hate
So the priest/actor began two months of mixing preaching the Gospel and love of God from the pulpit with learning to portray in a convincing manner on stage the passionate, anti-social and uncaring Scrooge.
“Anyone who preaches has to have a bit of ham in him,” Fr. Juknialis said of his acting role.
Rehearsals are held four or five days a week for up to three hours at a time, putting pressure on the busy priest.
“There’s the regular work of a priest, like preparing the Sunday homily, most recently the Thanksgiving homily and this past Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King. Then you throw in a funeral or two. But it’s all part of parish ministry. You are always jumping from one thing to another. After a while you get used to switching quickly between things. So I adjusted to the situation,” he said.
Reaches out of comfort zone
“But you know, when I’ve been pushed into situations I’m not comfortable with I just thought, ‘I have to get out of the box and try something new. It’s always opened up all kinds of new doors for me.’”
“The times when I’ve been able to control my life situation have been the least satisfying,” Fr. Juknialis said, recalling one parish into which he “engineered” his way to serving.
“It was a fine experience, but my least satisfying. Other assignments as a priest I fought turned out to be great because they pushed me into areas I had never worked before,” he said. “As much as I didn’t want to get involved in this production, I got into it and it’s been fun.”
Little difference between actor, priest
There’s not much difference in being a theater actor and a church preacher, Fr. Juknialis said.
“Preaching, in my definition, is pointing to what God is doing today and what God did in the Scriptures. So if you are preaching, much of that is telling stories. I mean life stories. Things out of the news. Things of that sort. You’re interpreting those stories and being energized. It’s not a lecture. It’s not a monotone or something you read off of,” Fr. Juknialis said. “It’s the same thing with acting. It’s telling a story. You’re trying to create a mood, an image, an experience for the people who are sitting in the audience. It’s not that much different than preaching. You’re giving the audience a window into someone else’s life, similar to what happens in Mass.”
With opening night a day away, conveying the differing moods of Scrooge poses a challenge for Fr. Juknialis.
“The first dialogue is ‘I hate Christmas. I hate people, those Yuletide loving, second rate people. I hate them.’ The whole first act is about Scrooge’s negative relationship with people. But in the second act there is a transition in Scrooge to an attitude of fear when the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future appear. It’s easier for me to convey great anger than fear. Conveying fear has been a challenge I’ve not yet conquered,” Fr. Juknialis said.
‘Makes a great Scrooge’
Scrooge’s conversion from miser to a man of good will is handled masterfully by Fr. Juknialis, said Keith Abler of Plymouth, who portrays Christmas Present and has a lengthy dialogue with Scrooge’s character.
“Joe has a great memory and a lot of lines to memorize. He has a big responsibility. He makes a great Scrooge,” Abler said. “When he is the cynical miser, he looks and acts the part. But the big part of the Scrooge story is when Scrooge turns from a curmudgeon to an outgoing and giving person. Joe handles the transition really well.”
Abler said he doesn’t think of Fr. Juknialis as a priest, but as a fellow actor.
“Of course, I’m not going to swear in front of him,” Abler said.
Fr. Juknialis shies away from talking about the play and his role during Mass.
“Preaching is not about me,” Fr. Juknialis said. “Good preaching is trying to tell your (parishioner’s) story so that the ideal situation is you walk out of church and say ‘You know. That was about me. I felt he was trying to tell my story about my life.’ If I talk about my life, such as my role in the musical, then that is not your life. That’s my life,” Fr. Juknialis said.
Something fun about being crotchety
People ask Fr. Juknialis if the role of Scrooge appeals to him.
“People say, ‘You’re not a Scrooge-type of person,” Fr. Juknialis said. “What I’ve found, though, is in the beginning I like being that crotchety old guy. I wonder if it’s because, as a priest, you have to build bridges with people, you have to be pleasant, you gotta listen and sometimes siphon off other people’s anger. You can’t come back at people like Scrooge. So there is something fun about it. You can be crotchety, legitimately.”
This is Fr. Juknialis’ seventh year as pastor at Shepherd of the Hills.
“So there is a certain routine that has been established. For me, that is not healthy because you can get stuck in a rut. This plays has pulled me out of a routine and that’s always a good thing,” he said.
Fr. Juknialis plans to retire in June 2013, but whether acting remains a part of his routine in retirement is up in the air.
“What I would love to do is build my own house, but I’ve never done that type of thing before,” Fr. Juknialis said. “That’s another thing in my life that would be out of my control. How do you put up drywall? Maybe someone could tell me how to do it.”