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Getting to closing weekend for ALTARCATIONS

June 19, 2012

Travis Michael Holder as Bishop Michael

When I learned in early 2011 that my high school principal, a Catholic priest, had enjoyed a year-long sexual relationship with a female student in the mid 1960s, I yearned to write a play. Altarcations slowly began to take shape. Previous working titles included Sin, Worship and Our Father and each was composed of either two, three, four or five characters.

Last fall I entered the playwrights unit at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA and we read portions of it around a table. Suggestions. Questions. Changes.

Finally an entry in the Hollywood Fringe Festival this month.

We opened on June 8 after a very easy casting process, aided in part by my having seen Travis Michael Holder in The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder at Boston Court a couple of years ago and having mentioned the project to Maggie Grant of 3 Roses Players. She recommended Robert Keasler (Father Bart). Travis coincidentally was one of Drew Hellenthal’s (Tommy) teachers at NYFA (New York Film Academy) and Dylan Jones (Rachel) and her husband Jeff Gardner, who designed our sound, are friends. Composer Jen Schwartz is the daughter of KPCC’s Hettie Lynne Hurtes.

Robert Keasler as Father Bart

I guestimated production costs at $4,000, which would include our rental fee through Coeurage, which curates the show at Actors Circle Theatre in West Hollywood. I directed Coeurage’s No. Saints Lane in 2011.

A friend of Travis’ was on his way to New York for a few weeks and offered up his office space behind Hollywood’s iconic Crossroads of the World for our rehearsals. It saved us money and the actors avoided annoying drives to my house.

Through the nonprofit Pasadena Arts Council I raised about 90 percent of the goal. Its 501(c)(3) status allows all contributions to be tax deductible – I did not use Kickstarter, Indiegogo or any other online fundraising vehicle. I hope to raise the remaining $400 before we close on Sunday, June 24.

Those are the nuts and bolts. But no machine can run without adequate grease. Knees need cartilage. I was blessed with four actors who dove into what may have felt to them like a very shallow pool. Dylan and Robert both reported feeling very angry at the script (and me) because of what it triggered in their own lives. The first couple weeks of rehearsals felt more like readings – I think the actors had to search for and embrace these characters while keeping them distant from themselves. It’s an emotional piece that requires vulnerability that not all actors are willing (or able) to access or expose.

These four are.

Drew Hellenthal as Tommy

I decided to interview Joelle Casteix, the regional director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, outside the cathedral in downtown Los Angeles where she was holding a news conference in May. I separated the conversation into three segments and placed them throughout the show. Some have thought the videos could be replaced by program or lobby notes should we get a larger production. Perhaps, but I find them compelling in this very intimate space.

Joelle, an abuse victim herself, helped develop the characters, letting me know what rang true and what didn’t.

And suddenly I find myself staring at our closing weekend. I am not ready.

The cast already has whispered hopes that we move into another theater for a longer, fuller production. Don Shirley of LA STAGE Times wrote yesterday, ‎“Altarcations is the only piece I saw last week that clearly seems to merit further development at a more professional level than what the Fringe offers. It tackles the ongoing sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church more forthrightly than any other play I’ve seen.”

We’ve received other accolades, mostly anecdotal. Words like powerful, gripping, moving. One attendee wrote on Facebook, “Go! It will breathe life into your doubts, convictions and questions.”

One person anonymously slammed the show on our Fringe page: “The acting was ok. Some definitely better than others. No names will be named.”

Dylan Jones as Rachel

As I said, I am not ready for closing weekend. Six performances. Nine hours of actors on stage speaking about 13,000 words per show.

The writing process challenged my own religious experiences. “Born again” at 16, never said “shit” until I was 20 (literally, but soon made up for lost time), piano player in a Catholic church at 28, church hopper off and on, a reader of liturgy five years ago at a Presbyterian church… I cannot seem to embrace organized religion. I remain spiritual, yet distant from weekly gatherings and sermons, community or not. I am not a nonbeliever. I wonder what exactly I believe in.

Altarcations pushed me to explore my beliefs. Did I write the play as honestly as I had intended or did I cower behind childhood Lutheran guilt and fear? If we get another opportunity to explore this play, as Don Shirley suggests we should, perhaps I’ll figure out how far the writing went, how well the characters came to life, and whether the piece serves a greater good.

I know I believe in this.

-sj

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 19, 2012 8:50 am

    Beautifully written–the play and this post. Thank you for sharing your gift of words and wisdom, Steve.

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