What in God’s Name…? The Thin Place

Andrew Russell

Andrew Russell

A blog conversation between Robert V. Taylor and Andrew Russell about the world premiere of a play in which Robert is one of the characters.

Andrew Russell is the Conceiver/Director of The Thin Place and Associate Director of the Intiman Theater.   He has worked with Tony Kushner.  Andrew’s credits include directing for Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Public Theater and the Sundance Theater Laboratory. He was assistant director to Kate Whoriskey for the premiere of Ruined and The Miracle Worker on Broadway.   

RVT: The Thin Place is an intriguing title for the play you have conceived!  In Celtic and other traditions the thin places are those borderlands where human life, the Holy and creation meet.  They are openings into new insight.  How does The Thin Place offer such an opening?

AR: We’ve interviewed over a dozen individuals of varying faiths who have encountered their own deeply personal Thin Place. What’s interesting is that the borderlands where human life and the holy meet, as you put it, aren’t always places of grace or bliss. As you’ll see in the play, encountering your version of the divine can be rough, complicated, frustrating and difficult to endure — but often it’s because of this complex journey that one is able to arrive and embrace one’s own Thin Place. We’ve also expanded on the traditional definition of this term. In our play the term can also mean the specific moment when someone’s belief enters a very thin and fragile state, or the moment someone reaches awe-inspiring bliss within their mind. Our hope is that by sharing all of these real stories in one play, we will create an actual Thin Place in the theatre where audience members will be able to step outside their comfort zone, consider things slightly differently, and potentially rethink their opinion of themselves and others. It’s funny that you refer to this idea as that of an “opening” because in one of the final lines of the play the central character references this idea — and talks about how all of these perspectives and voices he’s encountered from Seattle’s community create a new opening for him, a dawning awareness.  

Robert V. Taylor

Robert V. Taylor

RVT: What sparked something in you to conceive of this play?

AR: I’ve always had a complex, and often frustrating, relationship with the idea of faith and religion and was fascinated with Seattle’s rumored pride in being “Godless” or “one of the least churched cities in the country.” Kate Whoriskey (the new Artistic Director at Intiman) and I listened to Dan Savage’s podcast on This American Life about his fraught relationship with the Catholic Church after his mother died, and became curious about exploring the depth of faith in Seattle. I worked briefly on a film called Questioning Faith with director Macky Alston and producer Leonard Cox many years ago and Macky’s quest to question God’s presence after losing a friend from AIDS stuck with me — and this also influenced our quest to explore the subject. We were also looking for a project that embraced Seattle and acknowledged something special about the city — its open- mindedness and unique spirituality. Personally I’ve been very moved and enlightened by this process, and consider my outlook on God and faith, and those who believe deeply in any form of dogma, to have matured. 

RVT: The ads for the play ask the provocative question, “What in God’s name is Seattle thinking?”  It’s been said that the Cathedral of the Pacific Northwest is the splendor of the environment.  Have you been struck by unique expressions of the spiritual quest in the Northwest?

AR: I grew up in the mid-west where church attendance is incredibly common. When one moves to a new city the first thing they’re often asked is “have you found a church” or “would you like to go to church with me?” When I first came to Seattle to start work on this project I began to ask people where they went to church, and the responses were more along the lines of “I don’t go to church,” “I’m spiritual,” or “we don’t really go to church much in Seattle.” But, I’ve also listened to many stories about the power of faith in this region. There’s this deep hunger for the truth, or a personal truth rather, in this area and it seems to result in a diverse and very authentic group of people. People seem less interested in conforming to something that exists and more interested in exploring, questing, and discovering a path of their own. This manifests itself on stage in The Thin Place, as all of our characters are on a religious and spiritual journey yes, but they are also simply searching to find their voice, their identity. 

RVT: The number of Americans describing themselves as spiritual rather than religious keeps increasing.  It’s around 25% of the population now.  Does The Thin Place offer a way for people anywhere to engage in conversations about the nexus of spirituality, meaning and purpose?

AR: We’ve had an outreach team that’s been visiting many different religious institutions over the past weeks and through this process we’ve realized how interested religious (and non-religious) communities are in the subject of our play. I should also say that we’ve got a website called TheThinPlace.com, which was constructed so that people can share their own stories of journeys to and from The Thin Place. Also, we will keep the bar open every night after the show’s opening performance for a post-play discussion and conversation.

The goal is that we continue the conversation that is already naturally percolating in this city onto the stage, and that the conversation continues after — even more intensified.  We feature personal stories from individuals from very different backgrounds — varying religions, ages, sexes, races, sexualities — and in the end our main character embraces these diverse stories as his new power, his opening, his own voice. There’s a lot that happens — and therefore a lot to discuss! 

RVT: The play weaves the stories of ordinary people talking about defining moments that have shaped their spiritual journey.  How did you think about whose stories to include, and why?

Sonya Schneider

Sonya Schneider

AR: We wanted to include as diverse a group as possible, and so we set out with simply that mission in mind. And, we wanted everyone to be from Seattle. Then we layered in the need to find individuals who have questioned, confronted or discovered their faith, and who have been through their own personal struggle. Through speaking with Board members, friends, churches and organizations the stories started to trickle in. Then Marcie Sillman of KUOW interviewed over 15 people and we handed those raw transcripts over to playwright Sonya Schneider who has sculpted them into the story that’s onstage now.  

RVT: The Thin Place invites people into the practice of telling the stories that have shaped and formed each of our lives.  It becomes an invitation to engage in story-telling and see the sacred in our own stories.  Will this be a shocking revelation to audiences? 

AR: Theatre, much like church, has the ability to remind people that their lives are sacred, that there is a deep meaning to their being on earth. A group of people in a dark room, listening to a story, becomes a very sacred and beautiful event. Theatre asks people to reexamine their version of normal, and asks them to look at their life (and the lives of others) through a different frame. Will this be shocking? I don’t know. But, I do hope it will act as a reminder that the depth and texture in our lives is incredible — sometimes we just have to look a little deeper and listen to ourselves. It has been very moving to hear the responses from the people we interviewed — they’ve all read the script — they have had reactions that might verge on shocked. They’ve commented on how well we’ve crafted their story, or how exciting we’ve made it, or how they cannot wait to see it on stage. This gives me goose-bumps because meanwhile I’m thinking “You can’t wait to see it on stage? I can’t wait to meet you. This is your story, this is your truth — that’s even more profound.” Theatre is as real as the people that make it.  

RVT: One of the characters in the play says that her religion was hijacked by terrorists.  I often hear similar comments from people who feel that institutional religion hijacks the essence of a spiritual message.  Is this something that the play sheds light on? 

AR: Well, yes, but it should be clear that the play is merely an examination of a lot of real personal stories, and we are only reflecting those stories back to an audience. So in that way yes, almost each of these stories touches on the idea that an institution can interrupt one’s personal quest. There is also a great deal of questioning authority, which is something I think is very interesting. Whether it is religion or any belief or organized life system, I think people should question authority and really examine what it is they’re told to believe. If something is that meaningful and filled with truth, shouldn’t it be able to withstand the scrutiny? 

RVT: What have been your greatest surprises in taking this play from conception to the stage?

Gbenga Akinnagbe

Gabenga Akinnagbe

AR: Working with Gbenga Akinnagbe has changed the evolution of the process in an exciting way. He’s an incredible actor and he brings an energy and charm to the stage that is essential in carrying a 90 minute show with one actor. Sonya has sculpted the show with him in mind, and we’ve weaved the stories around a protagonist (based on one of the real interviews, someone going through their own current Thin Place) who encounters all of the other people we interviewed. This evolution of plot and construct for the story was a big surprise and healthy shift. Also, we’ve been working with Donald Byrd as a choreography/movement consultant and that has made for all sorts of surprising and insightful moments in the play.

I’m also surprised, and moved, at how much the “real” people have embraced this story. I thought they might be shy or be skeptical but they’ve all come forward and participated in outreach, and some have agreed to have their photos in the program and most of them will be at opening night. 

RVT: How has The Thin Place shifted or affected how you think of the spiritual and everyday life?

Honestly, it has had a profound effect. I look at people on the street and think how each of us has a story that is deep and worth exploring on stage. Deeper than that, I’ve become less rigid in my fundamentalism as an atheist. I realize that fundamentalism of any belief system is dangerous and one must always take in and consider everything else being experienced in the world. I’ve also enjoyed researching the history of religion, and that’s put everything in a new context for me. Much of the debate about God and Faith and Religion (I use capital letters on all those because they become loaded words very quickly) is really a debate about definitions. We use different words and prayers to explain and explore the same things, and different stories to make similar points, but we embrace the notion that our worlds are so incredibly divergent. I challenge that they aren’t.

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