Today’s cast notes are from Rex Daugherty who is making is Forum debut playing Saint Peter, among others.
There is only a week of shows left, tickets are selling fast but we added one more performance on Sunday, May 4 at 7:30 pm. Tonight many of us will be at the Helen Hayes Awards with fingers crossed for performers and company members nominated. Even though we are nearing the end of the run we are still getting responses from our cast. Emily Webbe is making her Forum debut playing many characters including Mary Magdalene.
Photo by Melissa Blackall
“Despair is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God and thereby acknowledge that He is above us and that we are not capable of fulfilling our destiny by ourselves.”
This is quoted from Thomas Merton in Guirgis’ Judas, in regards to Judas Iscariot’s ultimate succumbing to despair after having “betrayed” Jesus. And I open my contribution to the Judas blog with this statement because not only therein lies the crux of the play, but it also speaks to me on many different levels.
How dare someone say that despair, due to complete and overwhelming sadness, pain, loss, grief, oppression or violence (etc…) be reflective of one’s own pride? Should those who’ve been tortured in war-torn countries, those who’ve fled from their village to seek political asylum in another more peaceful country and who ultimately suffer from such acute post-traumatic stress that they dissociate from themselves and relive their horrors day in and day out only to develop psychosis resulting in constant nightmares and hallucinations, be labeled prideful? Honestly, this notion disgusts me. Like Freud says in the play, “any God who punishes the mentally ill is not worth worshipping.”
I almost succumbed to despair in the last four months and everyday I struggle and work terribly hard to maintain a sane and “happy” life. Back in December I was living in a ground-floor apartment in a beautiful, residential neighborhood in Alexandria, VA and while sleeping soundly in my bed, in my one-bedroom apartment, alone, I was attacked by an intruder who had slipped into my home while I let my dog out before we went to sleep that night and hid until I was in the most vulnerable states of being-asleep-or maybe he came in through the window I still don’t know, and the police seemingly had no interest in solving the details of this senseless and brutal attack. The man had a knife and attempted to rape me. But I fought him, I bit and I screamed and I got beaten up but I didn’t let him sexually assault or kill me. I fought tooth and nail to save my life. I was at war, in a battle to save my life. And I survived. If that’s not a reason to ultimately succumb to despair, I’m not sure what is.
I continued to work. I moved. And I looked forward to doing this play in the Spring. I’m not sure what was there that night. An angel? God? I’ve always been intensely spiritual, my beliefs incorporate some aspects of Christianity, Buddhism, Native American views of the Great Spirit and so on. The one thing I do know is that when I hike a mountain or watch a sunset I see God and I find refuge in this. I found refuge at 17 years old when I had to continuously hospitalize my father; I found refuge in my dogs throughout the years (which concequently means I’m TOTALLY NOT Catholic because I believe animals have souls and not only have God within them but represent God and unconditional love).
Now? I’m not sure where I find refuge anymore. It’s hard. I’m angry. I’m so incredibly angry. I understand Judas’ anger. I really do. I feel betrayed. Why did this happen to me? Why? What more do I have to endure in this life? I know people say this all the time, but it’s true, it does keep getting harder and harder.
Here I am, though. Here I am and here I’ll stay. Living. I don’t know how or why really sometimes, but I love life. I love it so much. I love laughter and love. Perhaps this is God. I don’t want to miss another sunset, I don’t want to abandon my dog. So here I stay. One step at a time.
Judas is about compassion. Judas is not about judgement or “good” or “bad”. Every time I watch the scene on stage with Judas and Jesus I hope that Judas will go with Jesus, that he will forgive himself and find the beauty in his life-in the meaning of his life. But, I sure do know how hard it is and I certainly don’t judge him for his “paralyzing, immobilizing, overwhelming sadness.”
One of the frequent topics of conversation that Michael Dove and I return to is how to develop theatre projects that are essential. We ponder, debate, and stew (probably more than is healthy) over how to create theatre that is not simply entertaining, or skillfully executed, or filled with marvelous theatricality, but vital to our modern perspectives, sensibilities, and needs. Why, you might wonder, is this such an interesting or worthy topic of conversation?
To determine what is “essential” in something as ephemeral and indefinable as “theatre” proves to be rather difficult given the enormous amount of variables that affect, shape, and dictate how a theatrical performance will run its course. But, without this determination “theatre” as it is will be relegated to a dying and irrelevant medium, easily over-shadowed by the far-reaching capabilities of film, the internet, and any number of mass media outlets. It is, forgive me, really the only question we as theatre artists should be asking, because without it we are squandering an enormous potential.
Admittedly I have had a relatively brief career in the professional theatre world, but still there have been projects that I have been enormously proud of (personally and altruistically), projects that I’d rather not think about, and few that I can honestly call “essential”. Essential theatre transcends the bounds of practical details and obligations, e.g. money, subscribers, season cohesion, boards, auditions, politics, jealous actors, jealous directors, competition, theatre groupies, awards, money, money, money. Essential theatre taps into what theatre can do that no other artistic medium can achieve, and does it in such a way that an audience can’t help but be moved, validated, challenged, and exhilarated.
What am I getting at?
Essential theatre is a confluence of all the right factors: an accomplished director with a specific vision, a pertinent and dynamic play, a collection of actors enthusiastic and willing enough to surrender to a challenge, a group of designers who can a honor a vision with their own brand of creativity, an audience prepared to accept a journey and share in a collective experience, and a theatre willing to take a few risks. There are examples of this confluence every year throughout DC and the larger theatre community, but it seems to be an increasingly rare event, one that ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ captures and one that as a proponent of this “essential” concept, I want to protect, promote, and learn from.
Perhaps in a later post I can discuss why I think essential theatre happens, as I think there are a variety of factors that contribute to the previously described confluence. For now I think it worthwhile to discuss what happens when we witness this essential theatre . . . essentially, everything else slips away. For a brief moment we are left with nothing but a collection of individuals expressing ideas free from ego, free from ulterior motives, free from expectation . . . it is theatre at its most pure: the humble exchange of perspective without judgment, an explosive reminder that this is creativity examined, presented, witnessed, and evaluated all under the auspices of human beings with fragile talents and magnificent flaws.
Theatre, at its best, is a humanizing artistic medium (with more potential to be so than any other, in my humble opinion), as it is not witnessed through lenses or screens, or an interpretation of an abstracted form (i.e. painting) but an immediate and direct interaction with human expression.
When a production taps into what keeps theatre fresh, alive, and yes, essential, it is necessary, for me at least, to hold on to what made it so, for fear that theatre is becoming increasingly the medium of the slighted, the lost child of the underlings of a commercial juggernaut, rather than the medium of the connected, vibrant, and joyful proponents of bettering humanity through art.
This is just my uninformed and useless opinion, go see the play, you might not agree.
When we were all first informed about the opportunity to share our thoughts on this journey, I was very eager to respond, yet I found myself extremely hesitant to do so because I couldn’t articulate my experience at all. Racing, rambling thoughts couldn’t be formulated. I make a valiant effort now.
My immediate family (maternal side) is very small. My sister and I grew up rather unconventionally. I can only recall the amount of times I’ve been to church on one hand. One hand only. I believe now (as I did then) that our church-going experieces were in some way or another attempts to conform to the world around us. They more or less failed. We were never pressured to go to church, or be baptized, or practice any form of religion, which I found at one time all the more baffling because my late great-grandmother was an ordained minister. An extraordinary woman she was. Seeing her name on mail and correspondence with the title “Reverend” always fascinated me. Since she was already physically disabled around the time of my birth, mobility for her was limited. She lived just outside of Northeast DC in a small Maryland town called Fairmount Heights, so she was never far. Her house was not very ornate with religious articles, but the ones that were around were strategically and sparsely placed. She very rarely quoted scripture. I learned Psalm 133 from her, and lived by that psalm as a teen in school. She always carried a small copy of the New Testament ( in either a green or orange cover ) in her purse, yet the whole concept of religion and the practicing of it was not stressed to us at all. What she did stress, however, was education ( she was a graduate of Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, she was also a children’s literaure author late in life, although never published), living well, and “doing right”, as she lovingly worded it.
My sister and I were raised with no harsh or strict rules–we were indirectly encouraged to be individualists. I wholeheartedly support anyone who pursues the practice of the religion of their choosing, but I strongly disagree with anyone who imposes it on others to the point of discomfort. “Do what you do” is a mantra of mine. When it came to the subject of religion, I found it to be something I had naturally avoided. I’ve always been languishing in this sort of atheist / agnostic limbo—“What do I believe? Who (or what) should I believe in?” If I’ve been asking these questions since my formative years, I will continue to ask them in my remaining ones. My personal experiences and challenges have shaped my mentality when it comes to religion, and the existence of a higher power. Trials I myself have faced have always caused me to question if a higher power does exist. But then, I would always look from the outside in and realize since I was never devout from the jump, then I would ask, “Why should I not deserve to endure this? Is this punishment for not believing?” I don’t ask as much as I used to. I think that comes with age.
This production and the privilege of working on it has made such a positive impact me that it goes beyond description. Pontius Pilate is someone whose life and history has been disputed for over two millennia, and I didn’t know what to draw on or believe. This depiction of him intrigued me from the first time I read the play independently over two and a half years ago. I never judged him. As an actor, I had to believe that he believed in what he what he said he was doing, which was simply his job.
In regards to my relationship with religion and a higher power: I can’t confirm or deny anything. I only exist. I exist with some shading of hope that there is a purpose for my existence. In having said that, I believe that there may be one.
Hannah at the JUDAS opening, surrounded by Coke products
Hannah’s notes from the Last Days of Judas Iscariot program:
Truly I tell you: one of you will betray me…The Son of Man is going the way appointed for him in the scriptures; but alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for that man if he had never been born.
The story of Judas takes up a very small part of the Gospels. Judas was an apostle. He was trusted, respected, and yet he turned on his leader. Thirty pieces of silver were placed in his hand and the course of history was changed. Jesus was kissed and arrested, tried, beaten, and put on the cross. Judas killed himself before he was able to see Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus was revered and Judas was cast as the lowest of villains.
The stories continue to be told of Judas in Hell. Judas has been reviled throughout history, along with the Jews, Caiaphas the Elder, and Pontius Pilate. Dante envisioned Judas in the lowest level of Hell, hanging out of Satan’s mouth. Only the recently unearthed Gospel of Judas shows Jesus and Judas working together. The apocryphal Gospel was admonished by early Church leaders and disappeared. God did not forgive Judas, and neither did man.
In Catholic school, Stephen Adly Guirgis was told the story of Judas. The nuns told him the story of God turning away from a man. The God that he had been told was forgiving did not forgive. This new view of a vengeful, unforgiving God made Guirgis doubt. That doubt stayed with him for years. In his introduction to the published edition of Judas, he writes,
From then on … I was in no hurry to seek out God. In fact, I had no sense of who or what God was. I did believe that “God” existed—I still do—but that was about it. And knowing or believing that God existed but avoiding him probably instilled in me a lot of shame and guilt. There’s nothing wrong with that. I wasn’t avoiding “God.” I was avoiding myself.
But Guirgis could not avoid exploring his spiritual connection for long. His doubts made him question God, and that questioning inspired his writing. In plays like Jesus Hopped the A Train and Our Lady of 121st Street, Guirgis fused his knowledge of the world surrounding him with his own spiritual quest. In The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, that quest became a trial.
Guirgis’ play questions faith and is at the same time an act of faith. The characters we see on stage come out of the Bible, but their voices come off the streets. The questions they ask are to both God and man: should Judas be forgiven? Should he have a reprieve from Hell? These are the questions asked in the courtroom. But Guirgis is implying something deeper. The arguments are not being made just for Judas. It is Guirgis on trial, it is all of us. In Guirgis’ courtroom, the audience is asked to see themselves. We are the jury, we are the judge, we are the defense, and we are the prosecution. We are Judas, stuck in self-doubt and despair, and we are Jesus, with the capability to bestow love and forgiveness. The questions we are left with are not about Judas and what has passed, but about our lives now. Can we forgive? And can we be forgiven?
My notes from the Last Days of Judas Iscariot program:
“Forum Theatre’s goal is to create an environment where ideas about our common experience can be expressed, discussed, and shared through the plays we produce. Over the years, we’ve covered the horrors of war, the corruption of government, the pernicious influence of the media, and loads else. You know that adage, “Don’t talk about religion or politics in public”? Well, we figured it was time to fully break that rule.
What we didn’t expect was the debate it started.
Forum has produced 11 shows in our four years in DC, and never has one generated so much discussion among the company. From the actors, to the designers, to the backstage personnel, this play has touched on something deep within all of us. No matter our background or belief, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot has already been a remarkable experience. From the back and forth e-mail discussions to the rehearsal break debates to the production meetings, the ideas of this play have had us talking nonstop about belief, faith, and forgiveness. Even the auditions were filled with personal stories and fascinating religious debates. Each and every one of us has brought a unique perspective to the play. The result is a deeply passionate work that we are eager to share with you.
Every winter, the company sits down to discuss possible scripts and ideas for the next season. We usually start with about 25 possibilities and slowly narrow down the field until we’ve agreed on three or four plays. We knew from day one that Judas had to be seen. The night I found it at a bookstore, took it home, and read it three times, I knew it was something special. John Vreeke and I had been looking at several projects over the years to collaborate on, so I passed it on to him the next day. It took him much the same way it took me, and we decided immediately that we wanted to do this show.
Finally, after nearly two years of planning, casting, and rehearsing, we have arrived at the most exciting moment: the time we share this show with you, our community. We are very eager to bring the discussion and experience to you. No matter where you come from or what you believe, we hope that the ideas raised in this play will stick with you and carry over to your post-show commute, your dinner tables, or your workplace break rooms.
Thank you for coming and being a part of this journey.
What a fantastic opening weekend for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot! Congratulations to the cast, crew and Forum team. Thank you to all who made it to our two previews and opening night show. Now everyone gets a well deserved break for a few days before the performance Thursday night (followed by an OpenForum post-show discussion). I’m so excited to keep coming back night after night to this show…