I’m sitting in a small, high-ceilinged room. The walls are covered with portraits of stoic faces – the leaders of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. The oldest portrait belongs to John Priestly, and is inked onto something like newspaper. He wears a curly white wig and the expressionless gaze of most portraits drawn in 1796.
I feel something like time travel come over me. The old space reminds me of childhood field trips to history museums, when I would encounter ancient artifacts – a sarcophagus, or some Byzantine bowl – and would wonder what types of people were around when the artifacts weren’t so ancient, and what they thought of them.
I wonder the same thing about Everyman, a 16th century morality play known by almost any English major or theatre scholar. An avant-garde re-imagination of the play is being performed within the walls of First Unitarian in just a few days. The play follows the journey of Everyman, who is the personification of every human individual. At the beginning of the play, God sends Death to Everyman, and demands of him a reckoning of all he has done. Everyman begs Fellowship, Goods, and a handful of others to go with him. Alas, they all decline, except Good Deeds. Good Deeds advises him to confess and repent of his wrongdoing, and once he does, Everyman still dies, but in return enjoys eternal glory.
The play boils with strong Catholic themes, which is to be expected since it was written before the Protestant Reformation; yet, it begs the question: why is a medieval church artifact like Everyman being revisited in the middle of a liberal community of Unitarian believers?
I look to Justin Poole for the answer. Poole is the creator and director of the Cross-Cultural Theatre Initiative, the company responsible for this unlikely pairing. He is currently teaching classes at University of Maryland (UMD), where he is also working to complete a doctorate in theatre. We sit over coffee at the Gryphon Café in Wayne, PA to discuss his theatre company, his rendering of Everyman, and where he hopes to take his company in the future.
Elliott Simko: The Cross-Cultural Theatre Initiative, also known as the CCTI, is a theatre group that you have begun pulling together over the last three years. What is CCTI?
Justin Poole: CCTI is a cultural experiment. Our core creative team is a community of like-minded artists, but we intentionally engage with communities who do not share our opinions or backgrounds. The experiment is to see how artistically engaging with people who have vastly different backgrounds can transform us and them. You could say that CCTI is an attempt to breathe more cultural pluralism—I mean that in a positive way—into the American and Philadelphian theatre communities. This begins with broadening our own perspectives. It’s important to always have a target audience in mind wherever we go, and also to understand their needs, and where they need to be stretched.
ES: How exactly do you go about determining who they are and how to stretch them? Not surveys, I imagine.
JP: Well, it entirely depends on the location of the piece. For example, the first production I developed through CCTI was the Russian Arts Festival, which was a presentation of several Chekhov plays. We did the piece in the suburbs, in the King of Prussia area, a place well-known for strip malls. We wanted to bridge the gap between an immigrant population, located mostly in Philly, and the middle-class white suburbanite population who lived in the area. We formed a theatrical event that would create dialogue by exposing them to each other. We also used the piece as an opportunity to reach out overseas to Russia itself by giving proceeds to a Russian mission organization.
It’s important to note that Philadelphia’s Russian community has about 350,000 people and that most of them only have daily interactions with fellow Russian speakers. While we didn’t have the resources to perform the various Chekhov pieces in Russian, we found other ways to make the performances accessible to people with limited experience with the English language. For example, we emphasized physical gestures, focused on maintaining clear and crystal vocal technique, and investigated environmental staging techniques which would set a communal tone for our evening.
ES: What makes CCTI different from other theatre companies also seeking to cross cultural divides?
JP: We focus on key elements in our productions. The origin of a text, for example, is very important to us. In the case of an original piece, its construction is grounded in thorough research into a given culture and issues that its people confront. We also make sure that the program notes illuminate the most important aspects of the culture.
Another way that we differ from other groups is that we have a genuine desire to explore performance aesthetics from around the world. Rather than exploit them, we genuinely seek to understand their existence.
Lastly, and most importantly, we truly seek to form community between cultures that tend to be in conflict. Everyman is a good example. Through Everyman, secular audiences have made contact with an explicitly Christian play, and have encountered a more open and embracing side of Christianity than they are used to. At the same time, our production of Everyman has managed to tear down some of the fears that exist in Christian culture towards avant-garde art, fringe culture, and theatre in general.
ES: Your presentation of Everyman, which was performed in the Philly Fringe Live Arts Festival, is highly stylized, and notably different from typical productions of the show. Tell us about some of the unique choices you’ve made with this well-known show, and why you made them.
JP: The stylization comes from various sources. Most of it comes from the extensive research I’ve done on avant-garde performance. First off, I use elements of Theatre of Cruelty—a style of theatre that seeks to torment its audiences into catharsis. We begin the performance with a particularly harsh presentation of death where the audience is completely isolated from each other, and the actors are running across, over, and under audience members, shining light in their eyes, screaming into their ears, murmuring mystical chants, and blurting menacing texts at them. I think that it is very important to utilize this particular theatre style in order to emphasize Everyman’s fear.
Other cutting-edge aesthetics we use are projected images taken from television, film, and the Internet, which appear upon the actors as if they were canvases. The actors executed highly stylized movement, which were derived from various tribal themes. At the center of all avant-garde theatre is primitivitism, which can be found in modern church worship, if one examines it closely enough.
ES: The Fringe Festival is known for including shows which push the envelope on both creativity and taboos. How does Everyman measure up to the rest of the Fringe line-up? Does in fit into the fray, or does it stick out as something unexpected?
JP: I believe that introducing a theatre piece that seeks to explore one aspect of society which has been marginalized in some way—like various sub-cultures of Christianity—into something as secular as the Fringe is a terrific example of actually reversing expectations. People are not expecting an earnest meditation on Christian themes at the Fringe Festival.
It’s apropos that we did the piece in an Evangelical suburban church in January of this year, and then moved it to a Unitarian community, where they say that the pagan, the Jew, the Buddhist, and the liberal Christian can come and worship together. I think and hope that doing this production at a Unitarian church is going to raise questions among the Unitarian community, as well as within our community of artists. We’re not trying to create religious relativism in either of the groups; we’re trying to genuinely understand the subcultures, and whether community can exist between a liberal Christian community, conservative Christian community, and a nonreligious community. I believe that it can. Although I’m still not exactly sure what this community looks like, I have a much better idea now that I am producing this show.
ES: How do you see CCTI succeeding where other new theatre companies have failed?
JP: CCTI will succeed only as long as community can be generated that can rally behind each project. I think this theatre initiative’s success is contingent upon the constant willingness of people gathering around the greater good of creating social change. If we lose sight of that, become individualistic, or lose our passion, we’re dead in the water—I intentionally didn’t mention profit or monetary gain, because even if we don’t have money we’ll continue making good theatre. You might say we are a group of highly trained professional volunteers. The commitment to our community of artists right now is the most important thing, and we have been keeping it vital and vibrant by introducing new people to it, which is helping us become more diverse. I really hope the company grows in diversity as it progresses, and I see that on the horizon.