Friday, February 12, 2010

Tony Gapastione: Living a Good Story

Today’s post is an interview with one of my favorite people. Tony Gapastione is Pastor of Young Adult Ministries at Peninsula Covenant Church in Redwood City, California. We worked together for eight years, producing “Sunday At 6” (now known simply as “Sunday Night”), an alternative worship gathering. I led the worship music and Tony often served as our host for the evening, walking us through the service, helping to sense where the Spirit was guiding us and leading in community building, prayer and response. He was heavily involved in worship planning and preaching as well, and also oversaw PCC’s internship program, the Summer Ministry Project, which brought college-aged students from all over the world to learn, serve and lead us.

I know Tony as a brother and friend, a pastor and ministry partner, and a husband to Wendy and father to Isella and Luisa. But he has another side that I want to explore today. Tony is an avid student of pop culture, its impact on faith and faith’s impact on it. He is an actor, model, writer and filmmaker… and a firm believer that we can and should impact our world through the arts. This will be the focus of our discussion today.

When were you first drawn to the arts? Tell us about some of your early experiences in acting.

The first role I remember playing was the Nutcracker in the fourth grade. My mom made my costume out of a bathrobe. I loved wielding the plastic sword to fight the Mouse King and take down his army of mice. I felt like gladiator. I also was approached in a local mall of all places to do some modeling. I thought it was a scam, but I actually got to travel with Seventeen Magazine for some fashion shows. Crazy scene. I was a mannequin robot in store windows, no joke. Perfecting the robot moves took me years.

I started following Christ toward the end of high school and things really changed for me behind the scenes as well as using performance to illustrate the gospel. It was awesome to see so many great conversations and opportunities with my fellow artists happening in the theatre.

Fast forward to college when I became a real stage rat. I took acting/directing classes, worked in the Box Office, and got to have real sword fighting training to play Prince Hall in Henry IV, Pt. 1 and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. I loved the stage stuff and Shakespeare made me, quite an average simpleton, feel not only British, but extremely cultured. I'm not a singer, so my roles were limited in a very musical-performance driven scene. And since the low/no pay and many weeknight rehearsals took a toll as I got older and had a family, I had to switch some gears. So now I love dabbling in film and any storytelling through the camera that I can. I love living in the Bay Area because I get an opportunity to do something almost monthly, and I'm really awakened to the beauty of creating stories and seeing the arts as the joy that feeds me and part of the mission that drives my life.

You began to follow Jesus as a 17-year-old high school student. What changed in the way you approached drama and the arts? How did you newfound zeal for Christ impact the roles you played and the entertainment you consumed?

At first the only change was that my conversations behind the stage and on sets were different. For instance, I started to lead the casts of my theatre productions in prayer before the curtain went up, I was inviting castmates to our church's events, and I even got to see people come to Christ over time! I had all this excitement for what I discovered was my mission field. And what a mission field it was! I love theatre people, we're crazy!

As for roles, I still would do anything and everything. In fact, I made some bad choices early on in which I realized I didn't quite know how to navigate through that part of my life well. I actually talked about it with my Christ-following friends and found that the lines were either blurry or very strict. I think I was asking the wrong questions. Was it OK that I took a role where I said "cuss words?" What would my church think if they came to see me in a the play and I played an "un-Christlike character?" Then it became very hard for me. I began to make choices based on what people thought, and for a few years just found myself playing it safe. My artistic expression was limited to doing sketches for worship services and youth groups, and there wasn't much creativity. This also affected my entertainment choices. At one point I remember being challenged with my R-rated movie watching. How could I as a Christian submit myself to that “garbage"? was the message I heard. So I drew the line. Pretty much nothing, not even “Schindler’s List.”

But God was evolving me, creating me and my theology of the arts as I was reading great stuff through magazines, books and blogs, and engaging in great discussions through seminary classes and with my friends who were feeling similar tensions. It was beautiful how God taught me to ask different questions about the art I created and consumed.

Now I ask, Am I telling a good story? Is what I am writing, acting, filming true to the human struggle, edifying others to grapple with truth and find redemption, even in and through darkness? Is the entertainment I am consuming honoring to God and who he created me to be? I want my entertainment choices to spur me on to connect with God, find Jesus, relate to others, and wrestle with the messy, painful world we live in… not hide it from me. I want my art to explore more of God's mystery and in my consumption of it keep no secrets--living in integrity. It's been a great journey and I'm still learning how our Creator God created me to worship him and to experience him through the arts.

Tell us about some of the most exciting things you've done in film, theatre, TV, print... Brag a little. Drop some names. How has God blessed you with cool opportunities?

I've had some fun moments sword fighting like I said, dancing in Pepsi commercials and Newsboys videos, hanging out with Cy Young Award winners but yikes… I've struggled with this. I've been starstruck one too many times. But God's taught me something. Even if I've been the face on an AT&T phone commercial, or sat next to well known A-list celebrities (and many B-list), I'm no more important than the pop star who has three people doing her hair, make-up, and holding her soda straw so she can drink. (That really happened on a set.) I just want to be faithful with who God's created me to be (and with what God's given me to do) and recognize who I am, as well as who the celebs are that I might work with.

I had to tell myself one time sitting next to this Oscar-nominated actress (for over eight hours while we shot a scene that only ended up being thirty seconds), that she needed Jesus just as much I did. Just because she graced tons of magazine covers and starred in bunches of movies, she didn't deserve worship and was loved no more by God than me. It leveled the playing ground. It actually gave me the confidence and freedom to talk to her about God, and she was very open to chat. It was amazing.

So I make it my goal to do a lot of praying while on set and humbly ask anyone: the person doing my make-up, the wardrobe, or even the director, if they need any prayer. It's been wild some of the things people request, from broken marriages to sideburns that will grow. I strive to pray that God moves mightily while I enjoy the arts he created me to perform.

And I've found a Proverb that really convicted me to share my experiences with caution. Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.” So most times I'm pretty low-profile with some of the things I get to do, even if I'm blogging or updating statuses on Facebook or Twitter. I want to be so careful and not take unhealthy, self-centered pride in anything I do, while at the same time enjoying God and the gifts he has given. I also want to honor those I come in contact with. I fear becoming like a Christian Tabloid. "So and So (insert celebrity name) spilled their God baggage and I got to share some scripture and pray with them." You know. I want to be careful.

OK, final question: What are your hopes and dreams of how God can use you in the arts from this point forward?

I really have huge hopes and dreams for more filmmaking. I pray, so much out of my desire for my creative hunger to be filled, that God would open up opportunities for me. I also dream of some TV roles. San Francisco has a couple shooting right now, and that would be awesome. We always have a few movies a year shooting here, too. I want to be a part of more projects where I get to act in film that I've also got to create/write/produce etc. I also get excited about working with young filmmakers, like those coming out of high school and college, who are the future of cinema. How cool to be directed by a teenager! I want to see more film work come from my church family and community as well as Hollywood studio projects. It's huge but I'm trying to wait on God.

Since I have young kids I don't have the time required for theatre anymore. There are too many rehearsals and weekend performances, so some of my dreams are 15 years off, but they're still dreams. (I love community theatre and want to see more of it, especially in my city).

My family is my first priority, so I surrender these dreams to God's timing, so with that living in L.A. on my radar, too, at some point in the future. Until then, I'll do what I can in our area. I have more dreams for conversations and prayer with everyone from my agents to fellow artists I meet on set, to those that I'm standing in line with for auditions. I want to see God use me and speak to me through this whole journey.

And really, I'm hoping I grow by finding God in the stories I'm performing and by the way his story wraps me in and tells my story. I heard this quote that we should let the Bible read and dissect us instead of us attempting to read and dissect it. I think film has the same potential, that's why I love being a part of it. It's sometimes more influential and more memorable than what we read or hear on a Sunday, so we need to be using it more and supporting it more in hopes for lives to be changed.

I’m grateful for Tony’s passion for God and for acting, and it’s exciting for me to see him living out his faith and his giftedness in this way.

Check out Tony’s website here, his acting blog here and his pastoral/ministry blog here.

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