RIDGEFIELD – The wisdom of William Shakespeare just didn’t satisfy actors Leonardo and Patti Defilippis, who met in 1980 while playing supporting roles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Treading the boards in Ashland, Ore., is a great prize for serious thespians. But Leonardo said they both found themselves thinking, “There’s got to be something deeper than this.”
Deeper than the greatest English poetry ever written, did he say?
“Deeper in spiritual terms,” Leonardo said. “Why am I here? Who am I? In terms of what’s going on in the world today, what gives people hope and trust?”
Those searching questions led the couple to found St. Luke Productions, which brings religious dramas to audiences throughout the English-speaking world.
“We wanted something that resonated with our personal desire for truth and beauty,” Patti said. “The stories that are most compelling … are the stories of the saints.”
Putting saints onstage
The early 1980s was a good time to marry theater and religion thanks to a wave of prominent stars turning to great stories of faith, Leonardo said. Inspired by Sir Ian McKellen’s off-Broadway, dramatic reading of the Gospel of Mark, Leonardo developed a one-man stage play based on the Gospel of Luke called “The Gift of Peace.” With just a few props and costumes on a minimal set, Leonardo transformed himself into numerous characters in the story, including the Apostle Peter, Jesus Christ and even Mary.
How do actors stretch themselves to inhabit such sacred, supernatural figures? Leonardo said it’s the same as with any other acting role: You do all the reading and research you can, then you get out of your own way.
“What were they thinking about? What were they struggling with?” he said. “How did they walk, how did they talk?”
“The Gift of Peace” was the start of what became the couple’s calling. St. Luke Productions creates touring stage plays, as well as audio and video versions of performances – all based on the lives of saints and other themes central to Catholicism.
For example, St. Augustine’s first century “Confessions” is the first autobiography in history. In it, the saint describes his sinful youth, his remorse and his conversion to Christianity – ideal fodder for great theater, Leonardo said.
“It’s an incredible work,” he said, “as deep in thought and rich in language as Shakespeare.”
Faith and FedEx
Leonardo supplies the vision and research, he said, and does most of the traveling and acting at churches, colleges, community centers and other venues. The shows are mostly solo performances with minimal stage and costume needs, other than what St. Luke Productions ships from site to site by FedEx.
“It’s a very intimate experience,” said Leonardo, who usually has direct eye contact with his small, spellbound audiences. The busiest years in St. Luke’s history have seen multiple actors on tour simultaneously and as many as 200 performances, he said.
Patti has moved behind the scenes, writing, directing and managing the business. She also took the lead in raising the couple’s seven children. The family’s Beaverton, Ore., home was crowded and chaotic but loving, Leonardo said. He recalled how he used to rehearse his parts in a cramped laundry room and occasionally rent studio space.
After about 20 years, the family and growing business bought a home and built an adjoining studio on Northeast 50th Avenue between Ridgefield and Battle Ground. The studio building includes offices and a large “black box” with professional lights and special effects green screen for film projects.
A normal year might see three or four different productions jostling for rehearsal or film time in there, Leonardo said, but not the past year. Five different shows had been scheduled to hit the road but were all canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If there’s been any silver lining, it’s the down time needed to digitize and preserve tapes of many St. Luke performances, which have been sitting in boxes and cannisters for too long, Leonardo said.
“It’s amazing how God is showing us so many different ways to reach out to people,” Leonardo said. “There’s so much to be learned about new ways of communicating.”
When they launched St. Luke Productions, the couple was plenty inspired but knew little about business.
“We were actors with an idea and very caught up in the creativity, but you need a lot of infrastructure behind the scenes,” Patti said. “If I had time, I’d write a book about how to start a nonprofit, with everything I learned on the job. It’s been quite an adventure.”
“The arts don’t pay for themselves,” Leonardo added. “Ticket sales don’t pay the bills. It’s always subscribers and patrons.”
Those true believers became more crucial than ever as St. Luke Productions started stretching for expensive feature film projects that required elaborate sets and more people on the payroll – actors and extras, assistant directors, lighting and sound designers, costumers, composers.
“When we went into feature films, it almost put us under,” Patti said. “We learned about growing too fast and not having the funding you need.”
“Th’er`ese,” a lush period drama about St. Th’er`ese of Lisieux, France, was released in 2004 and spent 71 weeks in regional cinemas, Leonardo said, achieving his aim of reaching a modern, mainstream audience with a great Catholic tale. (Viewer opinions posted on sites like Internet Movie Database and Rotten Tomatoes suggest “Th’er`ese” still works best for devout believers.)
Leonardo recently posted an appeal on YouTube for financial support to complete “Heart of Mercy,” a feature film about St. Faustina Kowalska, which will rely heavily on that studio green screen for Polish scenery as well as Kowalska’s many mystic visions.
“We’re never going to lose the live theater aspect. We’re passionate about that,” Leonardo said, “but there’s a lot to be said for reaching bigger audiences through film and other technologies.”
Church and stage
St. Luke Productions’ plays are some churchgoers’ very first exposure to live theater, Patti said.
“Some people who go to church every week have never been to see a play,” she said. “We come to them, to the place where they’re comfortable, with something that has very high production values, very beautiful art.
“The church used to be such a patron of the arts, but now it seems like there’s a separation between religion and the arts. We want to bring them back together again,” she said.
Leonardo said he’s especially proud of St. Luke Productions’ most recent stage play, “Tolton: From Slave to Priest.” It’s the life story of a man born into slavery in Missouri in 1854 who faced racism and rejection as he pursued his devotion to Catholicism. Augustus Tolton eventually studied in Rome and returned to the United States as this country’s first Black Catholic priest.
“He’s one of the most important Black figures in the history of the United States, and he’s up for sainthood now,” Leonardo said.
Starring TV and film actor Jim R. Coleman (“My Brother and Me,” “The Walking Dead”) and supported by a rich gospel-inflected score, “Tolton” debuted in 2017 and has only become more relevant since then, Leonardo said. “It elevates a discussion we’re having right now.”