Approaching St Patrick’s Day on 17 March, Clive Price tells the story of actor Roger Nelson, who’s created a unique solo play about the man who reached Ireland for Christ
IT WAS LIKE BEING IN A MOVIE. Roger Nelson had scooped a Central Park apartment and a life in theatre. With everything the archetypal New York actor could ever need, Roger had arrived.
“I was playing the role,” he recalled. “I had degrees in maths and computer science, five years in research, and it all drove me to theatre. I loved this business.”
That was all before he found faith. But since becoming a Christian, Roger has performed a play about Saint Patrick – a man who also enjoyed a comfortable life, but who gave it up for God. He shows how Patrick is not the fun figure of parties and parades, but a fiery evangelist of the ancient world.
Roger’s days used to be filled with a successful off-Broadway show, TV commercials and summer plays. Life revolved around theatre and pleasure. But something was missing.
He started attending a church on the east side of the city – and enjoyed it. He appreciated it even more following an accident in 1973. Late one night, Roger was cycling home from work when he was hit by a car. He was in hospital with a gashed head and broken leg.
“The associate minister became a good friend during my 11-day hospital stay,” he recalled. “The doctor said I’d have been a goner if the wound had been a fraction of an inch lower. Maybe God was trying to get my attention. If so, I didn’t notice.”
Shortly after being discharged, he met a young woman who became his regular companion for the next two years. While studying at an acting studio on 42nd Street, he also learned musical theatre with a well-known Broadway composer at the Lamb’s Club on 44th Street.
“The Lamb’s was the oldest theatrical club in New York,” he recalled with pride, “and I was a member.”
One day in 1974, however, the club closed. “Several weeks later, I decided to stop by and see what had happened to the place,” said Roger. “To my amazement, it had been taken over by a church calling itself The Lamb’s.
“The church was organising a theatre company, and invited me to attend the next workshop. I did so, and eventually became the company manager. But I was still playing the role.”
Roger started attending services, where he became aware of the need for what he called “total surrender” to God. “It’s one thing to believe in God – even the devils do – and another to place your complete trust in him,” is how Roger put it. Only by surrendering to God did he experience the peace he was after. “His life – real life – was the thing that was missing,” Roger recalled.
From that moment, Roger shifted from “centrestage” of his own existence. “The woman in my life and I eventually parted ways,” he said, “but God meant it for good. He took my career and turned it around.”
In 1977, the minister of the Lamb’s Church dreamed Roger had become John Wesley. He suggested Roger put together a one-man play. “John…who?” was Roger’s reaction at the time.
“I thought he played second base for the Mets,” he added. “I prayed about this, and the Lord answered with a playwright who wrote an outstanding script on the life of Wesley.”
Roger went on to give more than 1,400 performances of “The Man from Aldersgate” in 32 countries. The show goes on. Others have found peace with God after seeing Roger’s portrayal of the 18th-century evangelist.
“By surrendering to God, I experienced a turnaround in my career, which would’ve been otherwise impossible,” said Roger. “I never dreamed of performing at Carnegie Hall, the Shakespeare Centre at Stratford-Upon-Avon (England), and the Stratford Festival Theatre (Canada), but God opened many doors.”
Signs and wonders
After acting as Wesley for 11 years, Roger wanted to play another character. “A member of my church, Bob Kelly, suggested Saint Patrick,” he recalled. “He’d written a paper in college on him.”
Roger learned that although Patrick didn’t chase the snakes out of Ireland, the saint did practise the spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament.
“In particular, he was often given specific words of knowledge from the Lord,” said Roger, “the performing of ‘signs and wonders’, and a gift of evangelism.”
Patrick’s story presented an acting challenge. “He was much more of an extrovert than John Wesley,” said Roger, “and passionate. In addition to that, I was no longer working with a theatrical script but a 1,600 year-old document known as ‘The Confession of St Patrick’.”
So since its first performance in 1992, Roger has been doing a one-man play on Patrick in venues across the globe – from The Dream
Centre in Los Angeles to the Christian International School of Prague.
He tells the story of this Briton who was kidnapped by Irish raiders, then escaped, and yet returned to the place of his enslavement to share the Christian message with the Irish. Roger brings this fifth century figure to life for 21st century audiences.
Like Roger, Patrick had enjoyed the high life. For Patrick that meant the luxuries of Roman Britain. Yet he left there for the wild west of ancient Ireland, because his faith compelled him to go. And Roger is playing the role. “But this time I’ve got the right director,” he said.