Working with a cast of 40 community actors, Geelong’s acclaimed Back to Back Theatre recreates the sin-themed scare tactics of Bible Belt theatre as a cultural artefact, catalysing a series of public discussions about issues important to us all. Back to Back Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin spoke with Urszula Dawkins about
Hell House – Provocation, Belief and Morality.
While the history of American ‘Hell House’ theatre probably goes back to the 1970s, it was in the mid-1990s that this cultural phenomenon began to take hold in the hands of Assemblies of God Pastor Keenan Roberts, now Senior Pastor at Colorado’s New Destiny Christian Centre. Roberts created a walk-through chamber of moral horrors – graphically staged scenes of drinking, drug-taking, abortion, homosexuality, pre-marital sex and suicide – leading audiences to a Judgement Day appointment with Satan to scare the pants off remorseless felon and teenage partygoer alike. His play is now regularly produced by Christian organisations across the USA, thanks to The Hell House Outreach Kit – which includes script, detailed production manual, videos and a special effects CD. Back to Back’s Bruce Gladwin decided to produce the work after seeing a production in the USA in 2006.
“We negotiated the rights of the script with the author, Pastor Roberts,” says Gladwin. “The script comes with detailed directions on how to mount the work. We followed the directions as closely as possible.”
But as a non-religious company, Back to Back’s purpose in staging Hell House is not to evangelise.
“Our idea is to present the work as dictated by the author, as a kind of museum piece, as a religious relic, and to use that as an opportunity for a public discussion. Our intention is not to parody [the play], but to present it as it is, then have a conversation.”
Although online videos of Roberts’s play are harrowing – rife with temptation, menace and screaming, weeping sinners – Gladwin says that the Back to Back version will inevitably be “painted with a softer brush”.
“For Pastor Roberts, belief is the critical element of the production,” Gladwin says. “We are a non-belief-based organisation. For a non-believing audience this may make the performance slightly more palatable, knowing the actors are not really congregational members. For a believing audience, [there is] the risk of belittling their belief. It is a fine line to walk. I like to think we may be able to give some form to ‘belief’ by rendering its absence.”
Instead of asking audiences to commit their lives to Jesus at the end of each performance, as in the original play, Back to Back’s three performances will each be followed by a Q&A-style forum: one on Belief, one on Morality and one on Provocation. The three topics have been chosen, says Gladwin, to be as broad as possible, “so that the discussion can go in multiple directions without us having any specific agenda”.
The Hell House forums will include a range of viewpoints and expertise in areas including ethics, sociology, theology, history, communication and intercultural studies. The ABC’s The Spirit of Things presenter Rachael Kohn, Religion and Ethics Editor Scott Stephens, and former presenter Peter Mares will each facilitate a forum; their panellists will include musician Clare Bowditch, broadcaster Waleed Aly, parish priest Father John Depuche and a range of scholars, promising a wide-ranging and lively conversation.
Back to Back has never shied away from intense emotion or challenging subjects: works like Food Court, Ganesh vs the Third Reich, Small Metal Objects and Soft have all dealt with uncomfortable themes, turning the audience’s gaze squarely back on itself. As Gladwin says, “The fact that you’re sitting there is an action. In this drama that is unfolding, you are complicit”.
He describes Hell House as a kind of “outsider version” of the same process. “Even though in a way this [play] seems so foreign, there is a kind of similarity.”
Feelings of unease or complicity aren’t necessarily confined to the audience – Gladwin himself admits a sense of fear at seeing the original Hell House and imagining its effect; and in creating Back to Back’s version he’s faced the challenge, he says, of “trying to keep in perspective my own anxieties, prejudices, misconceptions, doubts and fears”. While he doesn’t speak for the cast, he says he expects most of the performers have at some point struggled with aspects of the content.
For both Pastor Roberts and Back to Back Theatre, psychological intensity and a degree of confrontation are a means to an end – in a sense, to a ‘higher purpose’. For the company, says Gladwin, “I like the idea of creating theatre work that challenges our own respectability, to fight against our [own perceived] need to preserve our integrity as a company. The act of creating a new work is first and foremost a transformative act for the company, the actors and myself.”
Back to Back’s work has been consistent in prompting transformative and unique experiences for audiences as well; Gladwin’s hope is to create theatre that challenges audiences’ perceptions or understanding of the world.
“Making theatre, you just have really high aims… You have an obligation to go for the jugular, to be bold and attempt to effect change. I think that’s a really great objective to have.”
Back to Back Theatre
PROVOCATION, BELIEF AND MORALITY
Arts House, Meat Market
Fri 3 – Sun 5 Aug 2012
Provocation, Fri 3 Aug
Scott Stephens (Facilitator); Clare Bowditch, Dr Benjamin Myers, Waleed Aly (Panellists)
Belief, Sat 4 Aug
Dr Rachael Kohn (Facilitator); Des Cahill, Danielle Kirby, Dr Andrew Singleton (Panellists)
Morality, Sun 5 Aug
Peter Mares (Facilitator); Lesley Cannold, Rev. John Depuche, Peter Sherlock (Panellists)
(03) 9322 3713