“The Story of My Life,” with Professor Emeritus George Scranton
Amanda: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert. And today we sat down with Dr. George Scranton. He taught theater at Seattle Pacific for more than four decades. Dr. Scranton has written or adapted a dozen plays, five of which received national awards. He enjoyed an academic and professional acting career and directed more than a hundred plays in both educational and professional venues. Yet, one of his most exciting achievements involves the hospitality he and his wife shared with both the SPU and the local theater community. George, thank you so much for joining us today.
George: Thank you for having me.
Amanda: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Why did you want to teach theater in the first place?
George: Probably the correct answer is I didn’t. No, the correct answer is I didn’t know that I wanted to teach theater. After graduating from a three-year Bible institute in Canada, I transferred to SPC and was told by the admissions person that I would be transferring in as a third quarter junior. And since I was in application as a missionary candidate to Japan at the time, I thought, “Oh, in a year and a quarter, I could be headed to the mission field.”
Yeah, well, I entered as a third-quarter freshman, not a third-quarter junior. And that fall I took one class from Jim Chapman called “Play Production,” and that was it. Jim became the second great mentor in my life for the next 39 years until he died in about 2004. That fall, I designed and ran the lights for our fall production of The Glass Menagerie. And we used to have a small lighting booth off right above the stage, and I would sit there alone running lights, and every night when Amanda and Tom had their big fight, I would sit there and bawl. I couldn’t get through it, and I was hooked by the power of that story and of theater to tell it. Five years later, while finishing my first master’s degree in biblical literature from SPC, Jim was friends with Vice President for Academic Affairs Bill Rurik. And Jim told Bill, “I’m going to the University of Oregon to work on my doctoral work and I’ll be gone for three years, and I want George to fill in for me.”
Amanda: Did he tell you before he told?
George: Not necessarily, no. But Bill gave me a part-time contract. That isn’t how they do it now. Never would’ve happened. And so I finished my MA and then the second year I was also part-time. The third year I was full-time. The fourth year Jim came back and I went to part-time and started a doctoral program at the University of Washington in theater history and criticism, which I did not complete. But I finished a second master’s degree in theater history and criticism there and then I stayed for the next 45 years. So I think my vocation, why I wanted to teach, found me. I didn’t find it. As Frederick Buechner said, this was the kind of work that A, that you need to do, and B, that the world needs to have done. It was the place I felt God calling me to, not the mission field in which I was terrible at foreign languages. But it was where my deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet.
Amanda: And it’s fascinating to me that you came to be mentored by Chaps, as so many of us called James Chapman. And then for decades, so many of us list both of you, and I include myself there —
George: Thank you, I love it.
Amanda: — as a mentor. And I recently was reunited with a number of alumni from theater my years, and here we are decades later and we still tell the Chap stories, the George stories, the stories of the things that we were told or situations we run into that changed our lives.
George: Thank you. Yeah. I’ve had three great mentors, primary mentors in my life. Jim was the second one. The first one was my pastor, whom I loved, and his wife. And without them I never would’ve even gone to Bible school. I would’ve been working at Fort Vancouver Plywood Mill until I was broken or 65. Mentors have saved my life.
Amanda: Well, the third name that usually falls into that category of George and Chaps is Don Yanik. And one of the things that he used to say is, “If you can’t hide it, feature it.”
Amanda: And that has been a life motto of mine. And he meant it in terms of design, but I have found it works. I don’t know that there is a subject in your life that, that is not a good way of looking at it. If there is something, if there’s an obstacle in the way, you can’t get rid of, it seems like it’s ruining everything. You have to turn around and say, how do I make that as if it was on purpose and the best part of what I was trying to accomplish? And I really do think about that every day.
George: If you screw up, feature it.
Amanda: Yeah, exactly. Even going into a job interview, the one thing in the list that you have no experience at, you need to be able to go in there and say, “But the reason you want me, because I’ve never done this before, let me tell you why. This is why I’m the best choice.” And it really works so much. We learned from really being a family, being a family in theater. And you’ve spent so much of your life at that intersection of faith, theology, theater. Can you talk about how those two are inextricably connected? And I realize we could do that with you for probably a week, but maybe the short version of how those concepts are so connected.
George: One word, story. I think that both theology and theater have, at their base and as the source of their power, that they’re both based in story. The Bible is not a theology textbook at heart. It is a storybook. Its stories tell us who we are and whose we are, and we derive the truth of ourselves, the truth of God, from those stories. I think those stories reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly of who we really are. And I think it’s the same with theater. Theater tells stories that shows us as we really are the good, the bad, and the ugly. And I go to Frederick Buechner again in his wonderful little book, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. And he suggests what I mean here. In his analysis, he references Shakespeare’s King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, along the way.
“I think that both theology and theater have, at their base and as the source of their power, that they’re both based in story. The Bible is not a theology textbook at heart. It is a storybook. Its stories tell us who we are and whose we are, and we derive the truth of ourselves, the truth of God, from those stories. I think those stories reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly of who we really are. And I think it’s the same with theater. Theater tells stories that shows us as we really are the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
And he says that we must first hear the gospel as tragedy before we can hear it as comedy. From biblical stories, we know that we’re all sinners. That’s the tragedy of being human. He says the gospel is bad news before it’s good news. “It is the news that [we are all] sinner[s], to use the old word, that [we are] evil in the imagination of [our] heart[s], that when [we look] in the mirror …, what [we see] is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it also says the news gives us the “news that [we are] loved anyway, cherished, forgiven …. And even if we cut ourselves while shaving, we are “bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy.”
“The news of the gospel is that extraordinary things happen to [us] just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen. Transformation is possible. “Lear goes berserk on the heath, but comes out of it for a few brief hours every inch a king.” The beast is transformed into royalty with a loving kiss of beauty. “St. Paul sets out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and comes back as a fool for Christ. … [With] God, all things are possible. That is the fairy tale. All together[, tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale,] they are the truth.” Both theology and theater tell us the truth about ourselves through tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale. They both knew it through story.
10:45Amanda: What I love so much about hearing you talk about these concepts is you could have stood up in front and lectured and taught your students these things and it would’ve affected us, some of us more than others because that’s how life works. But the reason that I think so many people call you mentor and not just professor, is how much you let us all into your life, not just your theology and your ideas, but into your life. When people are explaining about their college experience, the one story I lead with so they understand is that my husband and I had our wedding reception at your house.
George: How many years ago?
Amanda: 26. 26. Had to think about it for a second. 26 years ago we had our wedding reception at your house and along with other events too. It wasn’t just me. So many other couples had huge moments of their lives, bridal showers, baby showers, wedding receptions, in your beautiful home. When did you and your wife, Claire, begin opening your home to students and the community?
George: Perhaps surprisingly, very shortly after we bought our first house on Queen Anne two years after we got married. Growing up, my parents, who had nothing, had at various times a few relatives live with us for periods of time. So sharing our home with others who needed a place to live for some time was not completely foreign to me. I have mentioned Chet Simpson earlier, I think, but I also had lived with my former pastor’s family, Chet and Irma Simpson, who they were my earliest and most important mentors in my life. And for at least one summer at Idol Night Bible Camp, I lived with them and their families. I babysat their daughters. I was the horseman at the camp, took kids out on horses, and I had a special horse only I could ride. And so I knew that sharing space was an acceptable sort of thing.
But that at that first house on Queen Anne, we had an extra bedroom, pre-children. And a former chancel player needed a place to live after falling short of graduation by five credits in his psych major. He moved in, he lived with us for more than 18 months, and he was the first of about 40 or so people who have lived with us over the last 50 years. Some stayed only long enough to escape a difficult relationship. Some have lived with us for a summer, a school year, or for as long as two plus years at a time. One person has come home to live with us three or four times over the course of her life. That doesn’t count the numbers of people who have lived in our basement apartment over the 32 years we had the big house on Queen Anne. These were students, friends of students, friends of friends, church friends, and so forth.
We were never at a loss for people who needed very cheap housing and never had to advertise for that little apartment. I don’t know if I’ll mention it later, but I think of those 40 to 45, 50 people, I think we have entertained angels unaware many, many times. They may have needed us, but we also needed them. And during my 45 formal years, and the three years I flunked retirement, so 48 years, students have been willing to invite me into their lives. As an ordained minister, they have asked me to officiate at their weddings. They have asked me to make chocolate cheesecakes for their weddings. And so it’s their invitation for me into their lives, not just my invitation for them. We needed each other at various times.
“I think of those 40 to 45, 50 people, I think we have entertained angels unaware many, many times. They may have needed us, but we also needed them. And during my 45 formal years, and the three years I flunked retirement, so 48 years, students have been willing to invite me into their lives. As an ordained minister, they have asked me to officiate at their weddings. They have asked me to make chocolate cheesecakes for their weddings. And so it’s their invitation for me into their lives, not just my invitation for them. We needed each other at various times.”
Amanda: You served as a role model for so many of us, and only, this is not a brag in any way, it’s just I tell my story because I’m the one here. When our children were little, we had exchange students in our home, a total of something like 29, I think. Some a year, some a quarter, some a few weeks. And then because that was normal to us, so then some women coming out of a program called Team Challenge stayed with us for a while. And once that becomes the norm, it continues to be. And I have a feeling our children will live that lifestyle as well. Once it’s been modeled for you, I think you realize that you do get so much more back. It’s not easy.
George: Yeah, no, it’s not always easy.
Amanda: But you get so much back for the effort that you put out. Tell us about one of the most memorable events you’ve held in your house.
George: Unfortunately, several come to mind. We had a Chancel Player, University Player reunion dinner at our house. And I built a table that seated the more than 50 people who attended. The table took a 90 degree turn at one end and led into the entryway a little bit in order to accommodate everybody. We had players from the early ‘70s when I first started Players all the way to the more recent 2015 players represented at that table. It was a grand feast of memories of all those who came from across our and others’ years of directing those groups. We remembered our personal stories to each other as we had told our theater stories to our audiences over the past 40-plus years. That night, Chancel-University Players created a greater Players community that spanned more than 40 years and included spouses and some of their children.
Another such feast was one year for Easter, I built a cruciform table that accommodated 64 people. The crossing of the cross was in the dining room just before the table moved through the big double sliding doors into the living room. We had friends and friends of friends, some of whom we didn’t know, but they were invited by the friends, sit down to a Dinner of the Lamb. I think I roasted and or grilled four boned legs of lamb that year for that dinner. Years later, we would meet someone new that we didn’t think we had ever seen before, and they would say, “Oh, I was at your house for dinner one Easter. I remember that. It was a big table.”
Then there were all those years of having our annual chili-offs. The theater faculty, and sometimes others would prepare various chilies and would bring them over to our house on the given Sunday afternoon. Usually, we would wind up with 12 to 15 different varieties of chili, and we would usually have from 30 to 60 students show up to eat them. It was not a formal table situation. And then they would take home leftovers to their roommates. And then once we hosted a wedding, a woman was a student in my comedy class one quarter, and somehow she knew that I was ordained and she asked if I would do their wedding, and she said, “It’s going to be a small wedding.” And I said, “Well, you could use our house. Oh, really?” And so we set it up. In that wedding, we seated 105 people in our living room and connected dining room.
After a brief respite, after the ceremony, we changed the seating arrangement, setting up tables and we had a catered dinner for all the guests. I didn’t cook for that one. The groom was a member of the opera, so he and his friends would, at the table, he would say, “Okay, I want you to do this. I want you to do that.” They would stand one by one or two at a time and sing their special songs while accompanied by their pianist on our baby grand piano that we had moved into the entryway. I sat on the entryway bench silently, just crying, knowing that we were given that house with that space for just such occasions. It was magical.
Amanda: And the first time I ever laid eyes on my husband was because he gave my friend and I a ride To your chill-off. Yep, yep. Our plans changed at the last minute and we didn’t have a ride. And she said, “I know somebody with a car.” And she called him, and that’s the first time we ever met. So we see this hospitality and story working together to create community all throughout your life, your family’s time together. Is this something that was modeled for you or do you and Claire, did you set out to create something new?
George: We started by trying to make a family of the two of us and only later, a family with children. We started having people living with us by responding to a single student in need of a place for an unknown period. Then there was another and another and another and so forth. We were led, I suppose improvisationally, to respond to a given need to be able to say as we do in improv, “Yes, and,” to each situation that presented itself or themselves to us.
In the process, over the years, as I’ve mentioned, we have expanded our nuclear family of four, two adults and two children, who are now adults with families of their own. We have three grandsons by 40 or so added family members along the way, and that’s where I think we have entertained angels unawares. I also have a high theology of food in the table, and over the years I’ve grown in my belief that we are all formed around the table. I think that is true in our churches as we are formed around the Lord’s Table, or Eucharist, or Communion Table. We are formed in our churches by church potlucks.
We are also formed in our nuclear family units, around our family tables. But we are also formed into families or ensembles around our eating together whenever and however that happens in our lives, whether it was Saturday morning for rehearsals before officially rehearsal started. But Claire and I have been blessed with enough space and food and tables that we’ve been able to extend our nuclear family’s table to include many more members than we have naturally. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.
“We are also formed in our nuclear family units, around our family tables. But we are also formed into families or ensembles around our eating together whenever and however that happens in our lives, whether it was Saturday morning for rehearsals before officially rehearsal started. But Claire and I have been blessed with enough space and food and tables that we’ve been able to extend our nuclear family’s table to include many more members than we have naturally. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
Amanda: For those listening that are inspired by your story and your life, but have not had this modeled for them in any way, how would you suggest they begin to bring and build that community?
George: I suppose I would suggest again, Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life, if an opportunity suggests itself to you, however small, listen to the spirit’s nudging and say, “Yes, and.” Yes, and what do we do to feature that? Since you’ve screwed up my life now, I mean since you’ve entered my life, now, what do we do with that? It’s an improv class. Or in Scripture, you may find many more adventures if we follow down that road than we ever dreamed possible. Never had we dreamed that we would one, move into a house that we could accommodate another person. Growing up, I remember thinking very distinctly, “Oh, if only I could live in a house that costs more than $20,000.” The first house we bought was 22,000. It’s changed since then.
Amanda: And I should just let our listeners know that it didn’t feel right to me that we record this interview anywhere else. So here we sit in George and Claire’s living room in front of the fire as we talk about this lifestyle of hospitality. George, we love you so much, our whole community does, both of alumni and current SPU community. But I’m so interested to know what your answer will be to our famous last question. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
George: The thing that has held my life together is the phrase “Grace happens.” I know, I saw a car once, it had “Grace happens “on one side of the bumper sticker and “___ happens” on the other side of their bumper. And I thought, okay. Both are true.
Amanda: Comedy and tragedy.
George: But for me, grace happens. And in the last two years I have learned another daily thing that I say, “Every day is a gift.” And I have had so much grace in my life in so many ways that I couldn’t mention here. But that’s my life story. And I would ask you to be grace for someone else. In whatever ways you have been graced in your life, grace someone else with a similar grace. Is it a kind word, a kind action? Is it by a helping hand, a hand up or a handout, a listening ear, or a comforting touch? Just be grace to someone else.
Amanda: Love that so much. George, thank you for letting us into your home today and all the other times for the last 30 years, and I hope that many of our listeners will shoot us an email about ways that you have touched their lives as well.
George: I would love it.