In 1979, local actor and playwright Ian Mairs attended a production of the play Godspell staged by A Company of Players, a now-defunct professional theatre group. Mairs was a high school student at the time, and grew up regularly attending church.

“It was performed inside the sanctuary,” Mairs remembers of the downtown Methodist church venue. “You walked in and there was a bunch of construction scaffolding up around the pulpit and a rock band trio in the back.”

Godspell is a musical by Stephen Schwartz and a book by John-Michael Tebelak. Based for the most part on the Gospel of Matthew, it opened off-Broadway in 1971, bringing to life the parables of Jesus with a modern twist on traditional hymns.

“The prologue began,” Mairs says of his first time seeing the play. “A group of actors in goofy getups climbed up on the scaffolding and started singing about all these different approaches to spirituality. Hippie actors singing rock music in the sanctuary of one of the oldest churches in Jacksonville? Huh? I kept waiting for the police to come and raid the place.”

Mairs says that Godspell gave him a contemporary way to look at religion — it was, after all, the late 1970s in the Bible Belt — as well as a renewed love for theater. 

So it only made sense that when presented with the opportunity to direct a play for Apex Theatre Studio’s Boot Camp, a 10-day intensive for advanced level performers between 16 and 21, Mairs chose Godspell. 

Not once, but twice. This is the second year in a row that Apex Theatre Studio stages the vibrant production with themes of friendship, forgiveness, loyalty, and perseverance.

Proceeds from the Friday, July 24 and Saturday, July 25 performances benefit Church Without Walls, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida that reaches across social boundaries to create community, connection and meaning. 

And while the play is about religion, is raising funds for a religious organization, and will even be performed in a church, Mairs says it’s accessible to everyone.

“We know that this play has reached millions of people through songs like ‘Day by Day,’” he explains. “It has a wide appeal. It’s very memorable music. A lot of people who don’t consider themselves religious will still enjoy the play. I consider myself spiritual. Not religious, I’ve backed away from that.”

A longtime Jacksonville resident (he moved here when he was a child in 1970), Mairs is well-known as the producer of Swamp Radio, a variety show presenting all things Northeast Florida.

He’s also a graduate of Florida State University (with a BFA in theatre) and Ohio University (with an MFA in theatre). And as a playwright professor for institutions like the University of North Florida and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Mairs himself has written 15 plays, including She’s a Big Girl Now and Our David.

“Our city’s getting so big, where we have different levels of young artists while a lot of the programs are geared toward beginners,” the director says of choosing the cast of 10 for the Godspell production. “This is a small group of triple threats that needed to be pushed. They needed real life experience.”

The talented group includes Chaz May, a University of Florida student who will be playing the role of Jesus, as well as students from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and Stanton College Preparatory School.

“The way we frame the play, it’s about a teacher-student relationship,” Mairs says of Godspell’s synopsis. “A teacher in an inner city parochial school is met with a group of rowdy kids and he has to convert them. And when I say convert them, I mean to enlightenment in whatever that is.”

For Ian Mairs, a self-professed “spiritualist” who first saw this production when he was the same age as many cast members, it’s proved to be a rigorous yet rewarding experience.

“There are actual relationships that are taking place on stage rather than the parables that are happening,” he says. “Like the journey that a young person goes through to spirituality, enlightenment and seeing the world in a new way.”