Go Deeper

Everyman: Q&A with Artistic Director Justin Poole

Posted August 14th, 2009

Cross Cultural Theatre Initiative (CCTI) started in 2006. Their first production was a Russian arts festival in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where they staged Chekov one-acts and poetry performances in a coffeehouse setting, utilizing interactions between the audience and actors. At the 2009 Philly Fringe, CCTI will produce Everyman, a 15th century English morality play – in Old English, no less!

But fear not. Justin Poole, CCTI’s artistic director, promises an intriguing juxtaposition of this medieval work with modern influences and techniques he’s gathered from his extensive study of performance at home and abroad. In 2006, he received his master’s degree in theater from Villanova University outside of Philadelphia. He’s currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, where he researches multiculturalism and cross-cultural collaborations in Vienna, Austria, and more generally, Austrian performance.

What attracted you to Everyman? Why interpret a 500-year-old morality play for the Fringe?
At the Salzburg Festival in Austria, they do Everyman every year, and that piqued my interest. I was also teaching Everyman in a history theater class, and got really interested in the idea of what we could do with an Old English morality play. Looking at liturgical drama and the origins of theater, it used to be staged using the entire church area, and they’d enact the entire biblical story with the audience walking from space to space in the church.

I thought, let’s combine the idea of the audience following the actors through the historic church area with some of the research I’d been doing into contemporary dance theater and multimedia performance. It was a practical research project that turned out to be a very successful piece of art.

What are the modern elements you use in the play?
We use elements of the Theatre of Cruelty, and ideas from Brecht to contemporary dance performance.

The idea is that at the start Everyman meets death, and since we want audience along with Everyman we want them complicit in Everyman’s journey. As he goes through, he goes through penance and confession. He repents and finds his good deeds, and his good deeds are renewed. Good Deed is the only allegorical figure in the play who follows him to the grave.

It starts off with a dark scene in the sanctuary, the whole thing lit with flashlights and floodlights, with a very grungy feel to it. As the piece progresses, it becomes more and more ceremonious, leading to a participatory communion experience. The idea is to bring the audience on the journey with Everyman, to have them experience fear and ultimately hope and redemption along with Everyman.

After the jump: kung fu ninjas are Strength, and the reasons why a medieval morality play is so totally Fringe.

There are a lot of multimedia elements. One scene in particular has several side projections going on simultaneously with the dance, tribal drumbeats, a lot of paint and blood and things of that nature. But it becomes more and more ritualistic as it goes on and more hopeful. Overall it’s a very hopeful piece, but it’s generally creepy at the beginning.

How did you integrate pop culture into Everyman? What does it add to the show?
I think in reality the theater is kind of losing relevance, along with the established church. Our idea is to bring life into theater, make it more active, more engaging, more kinetic for a younger audience raised on TV and video games. This is a very kinetic piece; there’s a lot of movement that both actors and audience have to do. The visual imagery includes images from modern art, images from modern TV, images that automatically will conjure up popular ideas. For example, when the character of Strength comes out, several Kung Fu ninjas are projected in the background and onto the actors himself.

And we explore the idea of how we can connect the medieval and the Christian with the contemporary and the secular as well.

Are you religious yourself?
I think that the short answer, or maybe the long answer, is that a lot of people in the group come from Christian backgrounds. A lot of people graduated from Eastern University or Villanova University. These are affiliated with the historical Christian tradition. So we all have interests in issues of theology and art. We also have these funereal roots in Christian traditions. Not everyone in the group, but most of them maintain a sense of liberal Christian values.

We’re trying to make the theater relevant and ask the audience what elements of historical Christianity connect to their contemporary lives. The intent of CCTI is to explore different cultural perspectives and try to create tolerance for the different people involved.

It’s very apropos that we’re doing this piece at a Unitarian church after [premiering it] at a conservative evangelical church. You have this willingness to explore issues between God and humanity in both conservative evangelical culture and the postmodern religious culture, the Unitarians. Both are looking for how god and humanity interact, and at what we take from religion and how we make it relevant to our own lives.

I think this piece translates across cultures. Christian culture is very diverse, very multifaceted: Catholics, evangelicals, fundamentalists. It’s important for us as artists to examine what those perspectives are and how we use art to explore.

The Fringe isn’t necessarily thought of as a home for religious plays—but somehow it seems so totally right that a religious play would be presented at Fringe.
I’ve seen a lot of performance and art throughout Europe and the U.S., and a lot of Fringe work. This goes hand in hand with the idea of the death of the avant-garde—[theater scholar Richard] Schechner‘s notion that the avant-garde has died out. Artists have lost the ability to truly shock audiences anymore. After you see about five different productions with the same kind of intent to shock or awe it stops shocking and awing. To a certain extent, perhaps doing a play with religious content that doesn’t look to put down the religious content but seeks to explore it, perhaps that’s a new kind of avant-garde—well, I shouldn’t use that term so loosely—a new kind of Fringe art. It’s not to be expected. I think that reversal of expectations is very important to our production, and to the place of this production within the Philly Fringe.