By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 18, 2004
It was July 1968 and actor Tom Key recalls driving cross-country in a pickup truck and standing at sunset on an Oregon beach by a glowing bonfire where he had a vision of Christ. Suddenly all his Scripture study and vacation Bible school made sense as he realized that the crucifixion and resurrection aren’t kick-off events for the Southern Baptist Convention but the light of redemption.
“They were shifting points, when what’s wrong with us was being made into something right. And this person, who looks to me as though he could very well have been around when the universe began, is still alive and has just shown up to meet me on the beach in Oregon,” Key recalls of the life-shaping event in the play “Leap” at the Alliance Theatre.
The play wrestles with the leap each individual must take when it comes to questions of faith. I had “just crossed the line of being certifiably deranged,” the then 18-year-old had thought, “but I know this is real.”
Key, who later converted to Catholicism, and other actors were given the daunting task to write how faith works in their lives for the production, which opened March 10 and is running until Easter Sunday, April 11. He took his own leap in completing the toughest writing assignment he’s ever had.
“The theme of it was ‘this much I know is true’ and it’s been very challenging to write and very frightening to perform. But it is enormously exciting that it actually connects with the audience and that is very, very rewarding to me . . . It’s amazing the difference in saying to the audience ‘listen to this principle or doctrine which I’m going to convince you is true’ rather than just saying ‘once upon a time this happened to me,’” said Key.
At least having the other actors hear it first made it like “jumping from a tower instead of a B-52 350 feet in the air.”
Representing the spectrum of belief in God from the cynical and atheistic to the devout, the thought-provoking piece was conceived and directed by Alliance artistic director Susan Booth. “Leap” is zany and reverent, like an interfaith religious service gone haywire, incorporating liturgical elements common to many religions such as collective prayer and the reading of sacred text. It incorporates rites, ritual and creed, Gospel music, mime and audience interviews, drawing upon various faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, as well as ancient Chinese religions, Daoism and atheism. It also has “God moments” and scenes, such as the singing of “Faces of God” with a litany of names for God, and the “collective prayer, version 5.0.”
In the “Water Song” singer and co-writer Adam McKnight sings, “Tell me why I feel this longing, what were we supposed to be? Since my life will soon be over will I be able to see?”
Actor Bill Nigut talks about his role in his synagogue’s chevra kadisha, or sacred burial society, and his new tattoo on his arm of the Japanese kanji character for “to awaken.”
“I’m 56 years old and I wanted to have a constant reminder that I must live my life mindfully every day,” he says in the play. “That’s the lesson I take from every (burial ceremony) I am blessed to be a part of.”
Death was one of many religious themes explored during monthly brainstorming, therapy-like discussions for the play going as far back as October 2002. During those sessions actors shared insights, experiences, beliefs, reasons for faith and its relation to organized religion. They explored many of the world’s varied traditions of the world, hearing from a variety of speakers including Protestant ministers, one of whom had a mid-life calling, and an imam of one of Atlanta’s largest mosques. Literary director Megan Monaghan said that they found common themes of belief in an afterlife or lack thereof, a power to turn to in times of trouble and a commitment to peace.
Actress Rosemary Newcott, the Alliance artistic director of theater for youth, came away with a sense, more than anything, of the connection through common values of love of God and neighbor of people of faith. One memorable talk for her and Key, both parishioners at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, was when a serene Muslim woman spoke on the burial custom of shrouding to prepare the body to return to the earth. After she spoke the group joined hands and she led a prayer.
“It was one of those moments I’d call holy because there was such solidarity among us all even though we came from different religious backgrounds,” Key said.
From such conversations Atlanta playwright Jim Grimsley wrote the script. Key calls the play like a collage of subjects related to faith.
“It’s an exploration of the phenomena of faith. It’s not the dramatization of a particular faith. It tells many stories instead of one.”
To guide the audience on this journey of faith exploration, Newcott and Carol Mitchell-leon read a parable about space exploration from oversized storybooks. One of the traveling women, filled with questions about her faith, searches the whole universe for answers about life and hopes to find God. But her ship shuts down from an overload of knowledge. Her daughter, certain of God, then takes flight in her spaceship looking for her mother but never finds her, as they travel on different wavelengths. To Newcott the scene simply says that “you can make a choice going to the hard places where you’re not sure what exists and probing or make a decision ‘I take everything on faith’ and not go to those places.”
In her monologue Newcott honors her mother, to whom she was very close as she was also her spiritual guide who helped her make that leap of trusting in God. As her own mother approached death, Newcott recalls how she helped her believe in the promise of eternal life and of their family’s reunification in heaven.
“Her sense was not to mourn over the body because for her what translated to me is ‘I’m not there anymore. I’m in a better place.’ If you can think about it as being a preparation, not something else, then there can be in the sadness some sense of joy even though you don’t understand what’s coming next. That’s where you leap. My mother was instrumental in preparing me for that moment, helping me make that leap,” said Newcott. “When you deal with loss that’s when faith kicks in. I can’t conceive of not seeing her again and all my loved ones who have moved on. I don’t know how this will manifest itself . . . She’s very present to me. I’m really happy to do this. I feel I can share something of her.”
She tells how her mother never let her believe in the “manufactured” tradition of Santa Claus.
“Faith is not something you can prove. You get this feeling, ‘Oh God, what is this? Is this true?’ That is really when you have to make that leap. When you come back after doubts you’re even stronger. It’s almost like a deliberate acceptance of it rather than a blind acceptance,” she continued. “You can’t be a thinking person and not have doubts.”
The actress noted that faith is a very individual experience, even for those of the same religion.
“I’m hoping people will be able to come and see the show and at times say, ‘I feel that way’ or ‘I never thought of that perspective, that somebody would think differently than I do about faith.’ I’m hoping it will generate thoughtfulness,” she said. “I know everybody does not have a faith. You’re sort of hoping people will maybe consider that a possibility. It’s been a solace for me to be strong in faith.”
For the collective prayer scene, addressed to the “Deity and/or Supremely Enhanced Being,” she and the others have office tools in hand—a cell phone, PalmPilot, mini recorder, Blackberry and pager.
“We think of ourselves as so advanced because of technology. Is there not a way we can reach God through it because it is so powerful?” Newcott said of the scene’s text message.
Monaghan commented on how some funny moments reflect how the light doesn’t always glow from religious folks’ hallows.
In organized religion and in life, “we’re human beings and we fall short, but we get up and keep trying,” she said. She noted the important role of doubt in the script as “to have a play (on faith) without exploring doubt would mean we didn’t fully explore our subject.”
Monaghan especially likes the final scene, which “honors the tenets of so many different faiths at the same time” and feels it is like an invitation to participate in the actors’ discussion as they sit quietly and discuss faith and God. The literary director loves how the play provides a forum to discuss faith outside of normal settings like religious or family gatherings.
“To have a public forum for questions of faith to be mused on and talked about in a way that’s not adversarial but respectful and open to discussion is very satisfying,” she said. “By opening to discussion and exploring rigorously the question of what is individual faith, it really strengthened and enhanced my individual faith. It’s not therapy. It’s not spiritual direction. It’s an artistic experience that did for me what I also hope it will do for audiences.”
As Key and other actors played reporter and interviewed people randomly before the show, including those seeing another play on the main stage, the profundity and thoughtfulness of all the answers they received struck him.
“We hear so little about it in the media that you’d think it was not that important an issue, but doing these interviews was so illuminating,” he said. “Every single person we spoke to had profound things to say about faith.”
In his monologue Key also addresses sad things that have happened in his life, as “now I realize (faith) is having someone to go through it with who endows it with meaning.”
For him, taking a leap of faith means continuing that conversation he had on the beach in Oregon every day.
“It’s continuing to believe that conversation I started on the beach in Oregon is still the most important conversation, that it’s the most important relationship; he’s the most important reality.”
For tickets or information call (404) 733-5000 or visit www.alliancetheatre.org.