Open Window Theatre brings the story of St. Nicholas to life

Jeremy Stanbary has a gift for bringing the saints to life. St. John Paul II, St. Maria Goretti and Blessed Pier Giorgio Frasatti have all been the subject of plays written by Stanbary and performed by Open Window Theatre.

St. Nicholas, played by Jeremy Stanbury, with other characters in his newest play on Bishop Nicholas of Myra, the real St. Nicholas. (photo by Kayla Ninnemann)

For the current season’s holiday production, Stanbary, the theater’s founder and artistic director, tells the story of Bishop Nicholas of Myra, the real St. Nicholas.

“I’m always thinking about the next saint drama that I can write,” he said.

It’s sometimes hard to find good Christmas content that fits with the redemptive mission of the theater, Stanbary said, and he had been thinking of writing about St. Nicholas for some time.

“A lot of what we know of St. Nicholas today is pretty far removed from the real life of the saint, so I thought it could be an interesting subject to delve into and something that would make a unique holiday play,” he said.

But writing the play, which opens Dec. 2, proved to be a challenging task because the saint’s real-life story and experiences are so far removed from modern-day conceptions of St. Nick and Santa Claus.

“The interesting thing is that we don’t actually know a whole lot about the real St. Nicholas,” Stanbary said. “The historical records on his life are very slim, and nothing survived from the time that he was alive. We don’t have any of his own writings, we don’t have any accounts of his life from the time that he lived. The first account of his life that we have comes several hundred years after his death.”

What we know of St. Nicholas comes from the traditions that have been passed down over the years, Stanbary said. So, he focused on one of the most well-known stories about him — one that historians generally agree is more fact than fiction: the story of the three dowries.

It’s about how St. Nicholas helps to save three young women, in the same family, from being sold into slavery because of a difficult financial situation in the family.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”14″]Nicholas’ and Open Window Theatre
Open Window Theatre was founded in 2011 with the mission of bringing multigenerational professional theater with a redemptive vision to Minnesota. Its focus is on telling relevant stories of faith, hope and reconciliation in an intimate and immersive environment. The black-box theatre is located at 5300 South Robert Trail in Inver Grove Heights. For more information or to purchase tickets for “Nicholas,” which runs from Dec. 2 to 29, visit www.openwindowtheatre.org
.[/perfectpullquote]

“And of course, St. Nicholas was known for his generosity,” Stanbary said. “And that has helped lead to the Santa Claus and St. Nicholas that we know today. So many Christmas traditions, so many things have been spun off of this story of the three dowries, so many little traditions people have around St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) and Christmas.”

St. Nicholas was made a bishop at a young age. Soon after, he landed in prison for several years, tortured for his faith. This part of his life isn’t included in the play, but it starts just after that, Stanbary said.

The play picks up shortly after he’s released from prison, and you find a joyful spirit in this man who is living through difficult, dark times,” he said. “And that is often a hallmark of the saints,  how they live out a spirit of joy in the midst of suffering.”

There can be joy in suffering that surpasses understanding, Stanbary said, and the saints exemplify that. He seeks this joy in his own life and said it’s why he’s fascinated with the saints.

“They were real human beings, and they lived difficult lives, and they suffered like we suffer,” he said. “It’s about how they persevered through the adversity that in many ways makes them a saint. So, I like the really human elements of the saints and drawing those out so we can relate to them and we can be inspired to say, ‘That’s something I’m capable of, too.’”

Because there is so much about St. Nicholas and his life that is unknown, there’s a lot of conjecture in the writing of the play, Stanbary said. Parts had to be created in the telling of the story because there just aren’t a lot of details from his life.

Jeremy Stanbary sits near a portrait of St. John Paul II in his office at Open Window Theatre in Inver Grove Heights. The saint has been one of his biggest influences, he said. (Dianne Towalski / The Central Minnesota Catholic)

“It’s been fun immersing myself in accounts of his life,” he said. “It’s been fun immersing myself in what historians and spiritual biographers have unpacked over the years and to try to really get into the heart and soul of what made him so remarkable, and share that with others.

“People will find in the St. Nicholas represented in this play a heroically generous individual who had joy in the midst of suffering, who was always trying to help others and put others first,” Stanbary said.

He portrays St. Nicholas in the play, but he didn’t plan it that way when he was writing it. Money is a little tight right now and not having to hire another actor helps.

“I think it was providential, though” he said. “I feel such a connection to his character. It’s going to be fun playing him.”

Stanbary is also looking forward to working with his oldest son, Augustine, 12,  who will portray the young Nicholas in the play. He has been in some of the theater’s youth productions, but this
is the first time he will have a role in one of the main stage professional shows, he said. Stanbary’s wife, Sarah, also is in the play.

As far as what saint will be featured next, Stanbary said he’s not sure. He only has one at a time in mind because the productions become all-consuming once he starts working on one. He said he doesn’t really have time to write plays, but he makes the time.

“I feel a calling to do it,” he said. “And the plays that I’ve written have had a remarkable impact on people. So, it’s something that I feel like I’m called to do.”

Author: Dianne Towalski

Dianne Towalski is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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