Years before he was known as Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla hoped to become an actor.
The late pontiff studied drama in his native Poland at Krakow's Jagiellonian University. Later, while preparing for the priesthood at a clandestine seminary, he also was a member of the underground Rhapsodic theater company.
"Artistic talent is a gift from God," John Paul once said. "And whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation: to know that he cannot waste his talent, but must develop it."
The Holy Wood Acting Studio in California is following the beloved pope's direction by helping aspiring actors develop both their artistic and spiritual gifts.
"Our mission is to turn out actors who will lead the way toward a moral center for the movie and television industry," the studio's website says. "All our courses emphasize personal and professional growth and development, not limiting such growth to acting potential, but also transforming the trainees into leaders in their families and community as well."
Founded by a family of devout Catholics, the studio in Culver City, Calif., convened its first classes last month -- a summer session for a dozen students -- and is set to begin its first yearlong session (for up to 50 students) in September.
"Acting is more than just a career -- it's a calling," co-founder Max Espinosa, the studio's director of operations, told the National Catholic Register recently. "Why? Because it affects people. Art has the power to change people's lives. Hollywood goes around the world and reaches the masses. It all starts with actors."
The studio's students are trained in the same Meisner acting technique taught at many secular acting studios. They also take courses in personal and spiritual development, nutrition and fitness.
"Hollywood is Hollywood. You can't reinvent it, but you can affect and transform it through your own actions," Joseph Griffin, a veteran actor and the father of 11 children who teaches a leadership course at the studio, told the National Catholic Register. "We can influence and
create a different narrative in Hollywood when we have these leaders. That's what's lacking."
Griffin and Espinosa came up with their idea for the Holy Wood studio after a mutual friend -- an Opus Dei priest -- introduced them. Most of the instructors at the studio are, like Griffin and Espinosa, practicing Catholics.
In the Catholic tradition, there is a long history of engagement with the arts. Actors even have their own patron saint -- Genesius, a third-century Roman actor who performed in a number of plays (at the behest of the emperor Diocletian) that mocked Christianity.
According to legend, Genesius had a conversion experience on stage while performing in a satirical play about baptism when he had a vision of angels holding a book where all of his sins were listed. As the story goes, Genesius asked to be baptized -- for real -- while still onstage,
enraging Diocletian who had the actor beheaded when he refused to renounce his newfound faith.
Genesius, considered a martyr for the faith, is also a patron saint of comedians, dancers, clowns, musicians, stenographers, epileptics and torture victims.
Catholics have been working in the entertainment industry for many years and more than a few have achieved great celebrity and acclaim, such as actors Martin Sheen, John Mahoney and Nicole Kidman, and directors Martin Scorsese, Joe Eszterhas and actor/director Mel Gibson.
Gibson's 2004 film, "The Passion of the Christ," the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time at more than $611 million worldwide, is widely considered to have been a Hollywood "game changer," opening the door in the industry for film and television projects that deal explicitly with issues of faith.
In his June 7 letter of recommendation for the Holy Wood Acting Studio, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez recalled Pope Benedict XVI's address to artists where he called them "heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity." Their pursuit of authentic beauty "unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond."
The acting studio held its first classes on June 13, the day after Pentecost Sunday, which recalls the event described in the New Testament when, after Jesus' resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended on his disciples -- "as a mighty, rushing wind" in "tongues of fire."
With that sacred wind propelling them, Holy Wood's aspiring actors hope to discover a new kind of success in Hollywood -- on a wing and a prayer.
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