By Kirk Petersen
Many churchgoers, if they are honest, will admit that their minds sometimes wander during the Scripture readings on Sunday morning. The typical Episcopal service includes four readings from the Bible, each about a dozen verses.
Sitting through the recitation of an entire Gospel might seem an even greater challenge. But if the Gospel is Mark and the gospeler is Tom Bair, it turns out to be an energizing and enlightening experience.
The text becomes more fascinating because Bair is not reading, but reciting from memory. He delivers a dramatic yet understated rendition of all 16 chapters of the King James Version — 15,919 words, as counted by software — in about an hour and 45 minutes, without intermission. The Gospel of Mark emerges as a work of literature, complete with parallel story lines, ironic contrast, and cryptic foreshadowing of the dramatic denouement.
He has staged his one-person show “a couple of dozen times,” he said, most recently on a November evening at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. The actor turned investment broker turned actor performed in business casual attire in front of the soaring altar, earning a standing ovation from the roughly 80 people in the pews.
Bair said it took about six months to memorize the entire Gospel, “working at it two to three hours, five to six days a week. There’s no way around it — memorizing a text like this is heavy lifting. However, there are techniques that you can use.”
He described the “technique of the loci,” a mnemonic aid used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. “You begin by hanging an arresting or sometimes even disturbing image in a particular place,” he said. It needs to be a familiar place, so that the location does not distract from the image. He chose the Church of the Transfiguration in New York, where he has worshiped for many years.
After hanging a series of images, “you simply walk around the familiar place looking at these images, and it prompts you for the next sequence of things.” Each image is associated with a section of the text. “It happens to be the way the brain works,” he said. “You don’t have to remember linearity, you can be prompted by the image itself.”
“Mark is most powerful when taken as a whole,” according to one of the slides Bair used in a seminar the morning after the performance. (He said he is perhaps prouder of the seminar and its materials than he is of the performance.) There are three boat scenes in Mark, each followed by miracles of healing, and of feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fish. Jesus scolds the disciples for not understanding the implications of the miracles. “Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember?”
“The text was very consciously constructed to emphasize the central ironic twist,” Bair said. “That is, the disciples were set up to get the inside track, and in the end, none of them got it. The people who were most desperate, who had nothing to lose, they got it,” and because of their faith they were healed.
Bair said his performance can be delivered as a clericus (clergy meeting), or as an education program, standalone theater piece, or fundraiser. “I’ve been doing it for about two years, around the country and in cathedral settings, at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, St. Philip’s in Atlanta, and Cathedral of the Incarnation on Long Island.”
He does secular acting as well, and has been a full-time actor since leaving Wall Street three years ago. “I’d done everything I wanted to do, and it was time to move on,” he said. He has appeared in a handful of movies, including Indignation (2017) and Local Color (1977, during his pre-financial acting career), and in a variety of off-Broadway and regional theater roles.
He appeared most recently as Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist in The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 account of the Pentagon Papers. “Actors go through an awful lot” of auditioning and rejection, Bair said, “but when you get a payoff like a day on-set with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg, that makes it worthwhile.”