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The Gospel Spell of Godspell

With a new production of Godspell about to open in Ottawa just before Easter, Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi talks to artistic director Jonathan Harris about what makes a 48-year-old play about 2000 year old Scriptures such captivating theatre for today’s audiences.

7 minute read
Topics: Arts
The Gospel Spell of Godspell February 13, 2018  |  By Hannah Marazzi with Jonathan Harris
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Convivium: You are the artistic director of the production of Godspell which is being put on by the 9th Hour Theatre Company at Centrepointe Studio March 8-17 here in Ottawa. Tell us about the unique vision of the 9th Hour Theatre Company.

Jonathan Harris: 9th Hour Theatre Company was founded in 2009 to tell stories with themes of faith, spirituality, and to explore these stories with a posture of inquiry. We aim to explore the questions posed by our stories and explore their themes with nuance and complexity, trying to get to the heart of what is truly being said and shared.  

More than anything we're a theater company that presents stories. We engage theater to tell these stories, to restore faith, to ask questions centering on theology, spirituality, sociology, psychology, faith and those intersecting realms. It’s a wonderful space.

We often approach these questions from a non-religious perspective and when we get together, we rehearse in a non-religious environment. Most people involved don’t identify as being of any particular faith. Anyone from any denomination of faith is welcome to be a part of this project, given that they are comfortable with what we are trying to achieve. 9th Hour provides a space wherein people can dig into spirituality in accessible way that they might not get to of course in a lot of other environments. It’s a creative and community focused endeavour.

C: Set the stage for us. For those unfamiliar with the production, what is Godspell?

JH: Godspell is the story of Jesus. It is a story mostly about Jesus' followers or those who claim to follow Jesus. So, it's actually a story about community: the formation of community, the ins and outs of community, and the question of whether that community will carry out the life and teachings and parables of Jesus, after He is gone. The play starts and ends without Jesus. The script is quite literally Scripture.  

C: At its heart, Godspell is described as an enduring parable, using song, dance, and storytelling to convey the story of Jesus. Scenes that depict the Last Supper and Crucifixion are said to transfix viewers. What does Godspell teach us about the power of story in the life of faith?

JH: Godspell teaches us about the power of story. Theatre is like that too. Story moves and challenges people, it stirs imagination, and imagination is essential for change. Imagination is crucial to see things differently, to be different. Not imagination in wishing to be fake or make believe, but imagination as ability to dream of better things and the possibility for difference. The power of storytelling is important because it takes something seen as being rather academic or heady or even something perceived as being perhaps irrelevant and puts it into a narrative form that hopefully has an impact on people in a fresh way.

C: Godspell has been performed around the world for almost five decades. What is it about this tale that continues to resonate with audiences around the world?

JH: The story of Jesus has captured people, you know, forever all over the world on its own! And I think this version of the story in particular, with the freshness of energy and music is why Godspell is endearing. The means by which the story is told, is innovative and creative and fresh. This production is always done as an ensemble based production where every actor is core and key to telling the story.

Here at 9th Hour, we are employing almost every theater tool we can to tell the different parables and to link it together. I think that what gets people is the joy of witnessing an ensemble of people participate and tell these familiar stories in fresh, artistic ways.

C: You are the Producing Artistic Director on this production. With many credits including The Secret Garden, Narnia the musical, and The Creation of the World and Other Business by Arthur Miller, what drew you to this project?

JH: I'm passionate about stories that deal with faith and enforce that faith is spirituality. In the last few years, I've developed a bit of a style for myself as a director, in that I very much enjoy ensemble theatre. I'm passionate about the process of that experience and how together we impact the script. In ensemble theatre, it’s almost like everyone is equally important in telling the story and everyone is fully part of the cast to do so, cooperatively and collectively to tell that story.

What drew me to Godspell is that it naturally lends itself to ensemble theater. The music drew me to it as well. The purely Biblical, Scriptural basis of the show drew me in, because it's very unique in that manner. It’s pretty much scripture put to script.

Yet at the same time, Godspell has been widely enjoyed by secular and non secular audiences alike, even having a revival off Broadway a few years ago. So that draws me to it too, of course - that wider appeal that people have for it. Then finally, I think the community process of doing a show that's ensemble theatre, exploring faith with fantastic music, and a script that is very adaptable and making it our own is what brought me to this production.

C: This show has a lot of room for creative exploration. Is there a particular theme or idea that shapes the production?

JH: The word “Godspell” literally means good news story. And in a day and age where we are being bombarded with bad news consistently or are unsure about the quality of the news we are receiving, what could we consider as good news? Can the Gospel even be conceived as a good news story today, in our modern, educated, largely secular society?

There's a theme throughout the show of news, news stories and headlines and that sort of thing. We want to evoke a sense of bringing that ancient spiritual text to life, but, you know, presenting it in a contemporary 2018 Ottawa, Canada manner. What is the good news of this Godspell? Why is it considered good news? Is it good news for everyone?

C: Artistic directors are often the unsung keys to unlocking the imaginations of those in the audience. Countless hours are devoted to considering how to communicate a story in the most immersive, fresh, and encompassing way for viewers. What is your favourite part of your role?

JH: I got into theatre because I like people. I enjoy people. I'm curious about people. I like getting to know people. I like working with people. It's not always easy, there are challenges in that.

It's far easier to work alone and have a one-person show that you direct, produce, and star in yourself. But to me that's not satisfying. I like building community. I like imparting things to people and have them likewise impart things to me. You're always enriched by meeting someone different.

The second favorite part of my role is being able to choose the various stories that we tell. Getting to choose that story and shape how it's communicated is a pleasure. My entire understanding of the world, people, faith, spirituality, and theology has been shaped by being an artist, by telling these different stories and having all these various perspectives and complex ideas thrown into the mix.

C: How do you approach the challenge of equipping your audience with fresh eyes as they approach an enduring story of faith?

JH: I think because this story is just so familiar to a lot of people that might come and see it with a Christian background or current Christian belief, that I want to equip the audience by being as creative and innovative as possible. I want to cast such a big vision that even if they meet me halfway, they will have encountered something fresh. I want to infuse the show in a way to highlight themes that may never have come up in a particular Bible study or in Sunday school.

What would it look like for someone else to hear this story who's never heard anything before about it? I want them to experience it beautifully as well. Largely, I try to equip the audience by portraying beauty on stage. I believe faith is beautiful. I believe a lot of what faith has to offer is beauty for the soul and for the imagination. I want to equip the audience with an imagination to see the world as beautiful, to see people as beautiful. Stories are beautiful and theatre lends itself well to just creatively presenting a story in a way that engages both the mind and the soul.  

C: Godspell launches a few weeks before Easter. How can it help people of faith prepare themselves to mark the Easter celebration?

JH: I think that at this time of year, we are very focused on Jesus’ death and Resurrection in a theological and factual manner. In the absence of Jesus bodily among us, this story reminds us of a power of people carrying on the spirit of Jesus. And it reminds us that, although Jesus is not bodily among us, the Resurrection is still profoundly relevant and alive in us, in ourselves, in our community, in our art, in our beauty, and in our creativity.

Many Christians perhaps might come and see the show and expect it to be sort of the Passion of Christ story where there's a lot of emphasis on what Jesus goes through and the death and the resurrection. And while the story certainly addresses that, it is done in a very creative, non-naturalistic manner. Godspell is the story of the teachings of Jesus, the spirit of Jesus, and the community of Jesus, and the kingdom. What is the good news of the kingdom? Let’s talk about this kingdom. Where is it? Is it here already?

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Topics: Arts

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