Ambitious look at The Big Picture
Edmonton show explores the Bible

By Liz Nicholls,, February 14, 2012

EDMONTON - And on the eighth day ... God gave director’s notes. Then everyone did a run-through.

The show that alights at King’s University College Wednesday is an epic act of theatrical creation that redefines stage chutzpah for our time. Dennis Hassell’s The Big Picture tells the storyline of The Bible, Genesis through Revelation. In two hours. With five actors — make that four really really busy actors plus Jason Hildebrand, who plays God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New.

“The, uh, genesis of this project?” Tom Carson laughs. He’s the director who shepherded a 2000 incarnation of The Big Picture and now this much-applauded touring production by Toronto’s The Arts Engine, which arrives here from a run in Calgary. “Our impulse was to see the whole Bible in the context of a single narrative.... It’s informed our culture and literature in such a rich way. But we tend to think of it in little snippets, truisms taken out of context. We were exploring what the whole narrative arc of the Bible might be.”

In this, The Big Picture takes up a challenge akin to Peter Brook’s celebrated theatricalization of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabarata. “We’re exploring the narrative between the Judeo-Christian god and humanity,” says Carson. As world history continues to demonstrate, there’s a certain continuity challenge between the two Testaments. What Hassell’s play discovers is that “the main moments are all tied to God’s promise to humanity,” Carson argues. “That’s the ‘you aren’t lost forever; I will bring you back to me’ promise.... Every story ties onto that pretty neatly. Noah and the ark, and the rainbow. Abraham and Isaac. Joseph and his bros. Right back to Adam and Eve.”

When you’re doing the Bible in two hours, with five actors playing hundreds of characters, you can’t be dithering around with stage gak, set pieces, major costume changes. “We don’t build the ark onstage,” laughs Carson. “No ark, no camels. No bathrobes, no manger.” The Big Picture is strictly contemporary in its visual style and form. And that, along with a general lack of both awe and “traditional language,” puts some people off. In addition to ovations, “we do get walkouts,” says Carson. “One lady stomped out in Calgary saying ‘that’s not my Bible!’ We’ve had a lot comments on both sides.”

What Carson and his Arts Engine colleagues, Christians all, are after is the narrative. “Considering the impact the Bible has had on literature and culture, it’s striking how weak the work is that comes out of that,” he says. “As soon as you say you’re working with a bunch of Christians, (it conjures) such cheesy images, propaganda, no depth, bad art. As Christian artists we’re fighting that.”

The Arts Engine archive includes The KJV: The Bible Show, which links the 1611 King James Version to the period from which it dates, “the heyday of Shakespeare.” Two Thousand Candles is a Christmas show that wonders about the season as a cultural phenomenon: “why do we put a pine tree in the living room, anyhow?” The goal, says Caron, is that “the voice of the Christian community should speak with an intelligent, deep voice to the mainstream.” It’s not about converting people to Christianity; “if anything, it’s about converting Christians to art.”

Theatre is a natural for this, he thinks -- in its liveness, its “roots in worship.... Theatre has always been about incarnating spirits, or the forces of nature, etc., and making them visible for people.”

For more info contact Tom Carson at or 416-937-6102.