09 August 2010

Interview with Anthony Lawton, Actor

This is the twentieth interview in the “Where are we now?” series. It has been cut slightly from the original. I have divided it into titled sections for easier reading. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Anthony Lawton
at DeSales University/the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
20 July 2010

Photos are by Mark Garvin and are taken from the photo gallery of Anthony’s website.
Please take some time to explore Tony’s website,

[available for your school or church group!]

AL: My mission I call the Mirror Theatre company, which is mostly just me; I articulate the mission statement as “Spiritual Theatre for a Secular Audience.” Chronologically, the shows that I have done under that mission statement have been: The Devil and Billy Markham by Shel Silverstein, then The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and Godric by Frederick Buechner. And then I did an autobiographical play this year called Heresy.

IA: So how do you do it? How did you make The Great Divorce into a one-man show?

AL: The Great Divorce is more successful than Screwtape as a one-guy show because in Great Divorce I just play all the characters. There’s about twelve characters, and every time there’s a switch, the audience is surprised. If they don’t know the novel very well, then it’s fun to hear a new voice coming out of the same guy, so there’s always variety. Whereas with Screwtape Letters, I had to come up with that dance convention, because I was sure the audience was going to get bored watching the same guy, the same character, talk for 90 minutes.

IA: So The Great Divorce, then, must be quite a virtuosic performance: you’re always changing personality—

AL: Yes, it’s one of those.

IA: —and you’re changing size and shape, and you’re changing spiritual direction. It must be exhausting.

AL: But not any more than Screwtape Letters. I love it. I do it a lot, because the show is very portable. It’s not like Screwtape Letters where I have a set: it’s just me. So a lot of churches and schools hire me to do it and I just show up and do it. It’s very painless for them.

IA: So it doesn’t have the media installations and other requirements that Screwtape has?

AL: Not at all. Nothing.

IA: Do you change costumes or props for each of the characters?

AL: Nope.

IA: You do it all, voice and face?

AL: Yup.


IA: So how did you get this idea to do the “spiritual theatre for a secular audience”? Did you see a particular need in society? Did you see that that was a gap? Did you have a local drive? Or that the world needs this?

AL: Well, when I was in college was when I sort of came upon my vocation to act professionally, and I was at a Catholic school, and I was a real die-hard Catholic, and right away I felt guilty, because that’s what we do, and I thought, this is a very selfish thing I’m doing. I really mostly do it because I like people to pay attention to me, to approve of my, to clap and laugh—if I’m being honest. So I thought, boy, there’s got to be a way that my audience can profit from this thing that I’m doing that gives me so much pleasure. So that was my first impetus, to think, well, how can I make this a charitable action? And I thought the best thing I could do would be to find a way to take the wisdom of the Gospel and give it a voice in theatre, which I think most plays don’t do and don’t try to do. And the ones that do try to do it are mostly bad. So, that was where the impetus came from. And I didn’t want to preach to the choir. I mean, I wind up doing a lot of my Christian stuff for Christian audiences, because that’s who comes, but I thought I would rather play to people who have closed the door on the subject of the eternal or the supernatural for years and years and years, and present the material to them in a way that will make it seem credible to them and make them want to open the door again. So that was my impulse.

IA: So you say you perform these in churches or other religious settings frequently, but do you think you have also reached that other goal as well? Have you performed them in places where you think the majority of the audience maybe, you know, are not church-attending or otherwise have closed that door, and then they heard it?

AL: Well, that’s the exciting thing about performing at the Fringe Festival, is that you’re guaranteed a secular audience. I’ve been very well received at the Fringe Festival, so that’s nice. And at Lantern, I know a big part of the audience that comes to Lantern, they hear about Great Divorce or Screwtape, and so a big churchy audience comes, but I know also that a lot of Lantern subscribers come, and just a lot of people who want to see a play come, who are not necessarily Christians. So are they seeing the play? Yeah, non-Christians are seeing the play, and former Christians are seeing the play. Am I converting anybody? No, I don’t think so. But I spoke to a woman at a church in New York who brought her unbelieving mother to see The Great Divorce, and she said she thought the play was an earth-breaker, because her mother loved it, and she thought it was the kind of play that an unbeliever could come and see and be softened up for further discussion.

IA: It gets the conversation started or adds some new material to the conversation.

AL: That was my hope.


IA: Now, as I said, I haven’t seen The Great Divorce, but I think in Screwtape, there were a couple of ways that you really provided very specific food for thought. One was that you had this huge screen, and that when Screwtape said these sort of memorable lines, these lines that just kind of—oh, you call them “ear-worms,” that’s what you call a tune you can never forget—but phrases that are like that. You pop these phrases up on the screen so then the audience is hearing it, but they’re also seeing these words in large print, like red on black print or something else. So perhaps some of those phrases would go away with somebody.

AL: Yes, one hopes. I mean, his [C. S. Lewis’s] insights were so deep and he was great at speaking to a skeptical audience. And his insights about psychology were so persuasive and unique. So I think a secular audience sort of can’t fail but see a lot of his wisdom.

IA: Right. And he’s so clear too; he made that goal early on in his writing life that he wasn’t going to try to sound too literary, wasn’t going to try to sound too formal: he was just going to be clear. And he also has great skill for similes, metaphors, analogies. He comes up with these great comparisons. Now, the other thing that I thought you made very very clear in that production was Screwtape’s specific goal, which highlights the difference between Heaven and Hell: the move towards love or co-operation on the one hand, and the move towards competitiveness, which is ultimately devouring of each other—

AL: —domination, yes.

IA: So I think you made that absolutely clear, so any thinking person would go away with that idea and be comparing domination versus service and co-operation.

AL: Yeah, it’s troubling, because so much of the mainstream paradigm in America today, that still pervades my life, is: “How much control can I get over everything?” And I think he illustrates very clearly that that’s a dead-end street.

IA: Yeah, and you did too. You illustrated that very clearly. Now, you mentioned that you put in the dances as, well, on the one hand, just not to be boring, so it’s not just a guy reading these letters all the time, but I thought that each dance was very specifically interpreting generally not the letter that had come before, but the letter to come after it: the dance was sort of foreshadowing the next step in the relationship of Screwtape and Wormwood, and then the way you did it also Screwtape and Toadpipe—

AL: —and the Patient.

IA: —yes, and the Patient, but then also the next step in the “message” that Screwtape is putting forward. So did you plot that out very carefully?

AL: As a rule, I thought of the dances as pertaining either to the piece as a whole or pertaining to the letter just before. If it blurred between one letter and another, I figured that was all good. I wasn’t trying to be real exact with it. What Lewis writes about very clearly in the introduction that was very helpful to me in creating the piece is that, you know, he talks about his conceit of Hell as being a bureaucracy, and in an evil bureaucracy, you have a lot of evil on the surface and a lot of what he called sort of the scalding lava of hatred underneath. The letters were mostly about control and thought and then the dances would give a chance to show the psychological cross-section or underbelly of the culture of Hell and all that scalding lava and keep the audience off-balance so that it wouldn’t get too much in their brain or too much in their gut: they would sort of have a pleasant, I hoped, palate-cleansing between each letter.

IA: It definitely did that, and it really brought out for me the narrative trajectory, the build-up of tension throughout the story too, which I guess is there in the letters, but you don’t feel it just sitting down in your living room reading the letters as much as you do with a visual like that. Did you get a chance to look at my, sort of, little review that I put on my blog?

AL: I did.

IA: I’m going to be writing a “real” review of it for the C. S. Lewis journal later. So you saw some of my response to it. All the acting brilliant, the directing was brilliant, but you saw my reaction to the dancing was like, whoa, this is too much! Am I the only one who has ever responded like that?

AL: Not at all, not at all.

IA: What have people said?

AL: This is our fourth mounting of it, and this year more than any other year, I saw a real strong response. We had people walk out this year, which I don’t think has ever been the case before. In fact, we had a youth group come, and really they should have been warned: we should have told them. But there were 28 of them, and they walked out en masse: their pastor got ’em up and got ’em out of there. So that was shocking. So, no, you’re not the only one who responded that way.

IA: What do you think of that? I mean, do you think it’s absurd that people are responding that way, or do you kind of say, “Well, that’s an affirmation that I’m really getting the message across that I want to; these people just can’t handle it.” Or what do you think? Do you think they’re just being fanatically conservative?

AL: On the one hand, I want to say that, yes. I want to say this is an excessive response. My job as an actor and as a director is to create as credible a representation of the reality in question as I can. So if I’m doing Macbeth, or if I’m doing Burn This or True West or some play where there’s real violence and wrath, I’m going to try to make that as palpable as I can. Well, here I’m being asked to create a representation of Hell. Hell is not nice. And it’s Lewis who brings up the question of sex, and in very concrete terms. He doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. He talks about sex in very disturbing ways in The Screwtape Letters.

[Note especially letters Nine, Eighteen, Twenty.]

So I thought my job was to create a representation of that in movement. In fairness, Lewis says that the devils are bored by sex, and I’m aware of that, but I can’t really create dance pieces about how the devils are bored by sex.

IA: Because they don’t have bodies, so, you know, they probably don’t dance.

AL: Right, right. So, on the one hand I want to say this is an overreaction, and this is a play. It’s a play about an ugly place, so you have to be prepared to see ugliness. But on the other hand, in fairness to people who took offense, I have to acknowledge the possibility that there’s something about their response that I don’t understand, that I should try to understand more about. There’s a lot of question in Christian theatre about, for example, whether one can use profanity on stage. You say, well, if I’m doing Macbeth, somebody gets murdered on stage: that’s much worse than using profanity. But the audience knows the difference between the two. If you do a murder on stage, everyone know that it’s an illusion. Whereas if you use a profane word, there’s no faking that; you have to say the word: it’s an actual action. I imagine that the controversy over some of the imagery in Screwtape this year was something similar to that. There’s a difference between a representation of people who have a broken idea of what sex is and something that crosses the line between representation and reality. I don’t think we crossed that line. But I can see how audiences, some audiences, would think that. You know, before we came over here, I watched a dance from Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly and Cid Charisse, from which I took some of the inspiration for some of those movies. That is such a squeaky-clean movie, but that dance is a really dirty dance, and I don’t image you would hear anyone complaining about it, because it takes place in the contest of a work that, as a whole, is squeaky-clean, but it’s got sort of real vivid sexual imagery and sexual psychology that is palpable. I thought of the work in this play being along those lines: that in itself, the imagery is shocking, but I wanted it to be shocking, because it was in service to the piece as a whole.

IA: Yes, it had to be. Can I share a couple of thoughts on that, too?

AL: Yeah, yeah.

IA: So, on the one hand, going with the shocking aspect of it, I mean, I suppose the danger is that you and Kim Carson really were really on stage doing these dances, and I suppose that her solo dance was probably the one that was the most disconcerting, either that or the S & M scene. So the problem could be that members of the audience are really struggling with whatever their response to that might be. Someone in the audience might really be tempted to be feeling lust at that moment.

AL: I see, I see.

IA: So that could be a stumbling block. I have rarely seen dances like that, live, and I wouldn’t choose to go to, you know, a club or someplace where something like that was happening. Just as an example. So that’s the problem. People are like, “I’m really sitting here in this audience, really watching these two people doing these dances, and maybe I’m sinning even just by exposing myself to it, whether I’m sinning by temptation and lust or not, and then secondly maybe I am actually struggling by my response to it.”

But on the other hand, because these scenes are happening in Hell, I think perhaps the real message of them was how dangerous these approaches to sexuality are. I thought that it was a fantastic warning against the absolutely detrimental affect of pornography, of dirty dancing, of S & M relationships, of voyeurism, [of objectification of women]—

AL: —of predatory attitudes about love. Of an inability to separate love from sex. Or a mistaking of sex for love. I didn’t want it to look like we were having fun.

IA: Right.

AL: I didn’t want it to look like it was a good idea.

IA: No.


AL: Because in theatre, I mean, there’s such a tradition in theatre—for example, did you see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?

IA: Yes.

AL: They had that long sequence of the courtesans dancing. If you go see Damn Yankees, if you go see—what’s the one the students just did here?

IA: Guys and Dolls?

AL: Guys and Dolls. There’s going to be dances there in which sexuality is a major component and if an audience member sort of can’t handle being in the vicinity of that, well, you know—

IA: Don’t go see it?

AL: Yeah. Another persuasive argument Lewis makes against profanity is that it is uncharitable towards certain people. You can’t, for example, if I am in the company of some people I don’t know very well and I tell a dirty joke: well, how do I know what the effect of that is going to be on some people? It my incite somebody towards doing something that ordinarily they wouldn’t do. So if I’m going to tell a dirty joke—or if Lewis is going to tell a dirty joke, he wants to be sure that the company that he’s witch can handle it. That’s the charitable thing to do. Screwtape talks about that. Screwtape says, “Don’t waste your time on profanity. I’ve spent a lot, wasted a lot of time in barrooms with people telling dirty jokes and nothing good”—by which he means nothing evil—“comes of it.” But then again, it depends on the recipient. And I have no way of knowing who’s in my audience and how they’re going to take it, but I think that my default is to err on the side of going too far, rather than on the side of not going far enough, just because the high-stakes choice in theatre is so often much better than the low-stakes choice.

IA: Artistically?

AL: Yeah.


IA: Now, that sparks a thought in me, something that you said way back in the beginning of this [interview]. You said that other directors, or writers, or companies that are trying to do some sort of spiritual theatre, they’re just doing it pretty badly. Why? What’s wrong?

AL: Well, a lot of them are not professionals. They haven’t been trained well or they haven’t had a lot of experience, so their acting is bad, or their writing is bad, or their direction is bad, or some combination of the three. A lot of them, I guess it depends what their audience is, but I think a lot of them do preach to the choir, so they’re going to create plays that have Christian (if you will) clichés built in that are not going to be persuasive to a secular audience. They’re going to hear formulas about Christian dogma or formulas or approaches to life that they’re going to dismiss immediately, that are not going to seem probable or credible to them. And it’s our job in theatre to create credible representations of life. I read a play once; I guess this was a play for kids, but I was looking for plays for kids. There are these kids in an orphanage, and they haven’t eaten in days because the orphanage was low on funds, and they were praying. And a kid came running in and said, “Hey, a bakery truck just got a flat tire out front, and they don’t want their bread to go bad, so they say we can have all their bread!” And the matron of the orphanage says, “Oh, God has answered our prayers!” And they went out and they ate the bread. I’m not sure prayer works in that way very often. That would not be the kind of play I’d want to put on even for kids. I don’t think it’s a faithful representation of reality.

IA: What does it say to the kid who never has the bakery truck break down. Does God not love him? Is God not answering his prayers?

AL: Exactly.


IA: Is anyone else doing something like what you’re doing? Do you see any positives?

AL: I’ve run across a couple; not in this area. There’s a guy in Georgia named Tom Key who is a good actor who does some C. S. Lewis stuff. There’s a guy in New York who’s doing a Screwtape Letters that’s actually derived from my adaptation. There’s another guy in the south who does a Gospel of John that I’ve seen a bit of online that’s very good. There’s probably a lot more than that. Those are the only ones I know of. I’m sure there’s more. There was a guy—I wish I knew his name—who did a Gospel of Mark in New York and it was a big hit. He did the whole thing. He just recited the Gospel of Mark and, being trained as he was, he made it very dramatic. That was supposed to be great.

IA: And how about on a larger scale? Are there theatre companies or establish playhouses that are doing something with a positive spiritual message? Not an in-your-face, not a cheesy—

AL: There’s one in San Diego called Lamb’s Players. They have a Christian mission; they’re supposed to be pretty good. In fact, they did a Till We Have Faces that I solicited them for a copy of, and they never got back to me. That would save me a lot of work if I could use their adaptation; then I wouldn’t have to use my own. But they’re the only company—oh, no; there’s one in Vancouver called Pacific that I have sent them a letter of introduction and they invited me to send some scripts, so that’s nice.

IA: So, what else is going on in theatre at large and why is this so small? How come we can just count half a dozen things that are—what’s the mainstream theatre doing?

AL: Boy, oh, boy. That’s a really good question. I was doing a word puzzle the other day, and there was a quotation from Stella Adler of the Group Theatre. The quotation was something to the effect of: “The theatre was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.” And I think that the assumption, or the paradigm, of secular creators of theatre is that religion is a fiction and if you really want to tell the truth about life, you have to create a representation of life in which religion is only represented as a delusion or not represented at all. That’s if you want to make a really truthful piece of theatre. and there’s another assumption. If you’re not so interested in telling the truth about life, then at least you want to give the audience pleasure: you want to show them a good time. Well, you’re not going to give them pleasure by showing them anything that smacks of religion. The assumption is that it’s going to come across like a sermon. And I’ve been accused of that. Some have compared my work to sermons. So I think those are the two pitfalls that mainstream theatre are trying to avoid: that religion is either no fun, or it’s not a truthful way of looking at life. That’s my theory. I don’t know if that’s correct or not.

IA: That’s pretty discouraging. But I think you’re going about the right way to correct that.

AL: I hope so.

IA: If only more people would jump on board and do more of the kind of things you’re doing.

AL: I hope so. That would be nice. There’s also the fact that a lot of Christian theatre—I read an article about this in American Theatre: for every successful Christian theatre company, there are a lot that try to get together, and the members don’t see eye to eye. For example, in this debate about whether you can use profanity in a Christian play. That will break a Christian theatre company up.

IA: Yup.

AL: And other similar debates. “Well, let’s make Biblical stories.” “No, we don’t want to do Biblical stories. Let’s do modern stories.” “No, no, we have to do…” They argue.

IA: Well, look at how many new denominations there are every day. We can’t even stay in our churches together, never mind our theatre groups.


1. Here are some clips from Tony's production of The Great Divorce.
2. I would appreciate it if you would read my review/response to Tony’s production of The Screwtape Letters.
3. The Lantern Theatre Company is hosting a two-week event entitled “Between Heaven and Hell: The Anthony Lawton Festival,” December 3 - 19, 2010. Put it on your calendar!

1. How far is too far in the theatrical presentation of sin, when the motive is the righteous exposure of sin for what it is?
2. Have you seen any theatre productions recently in which a strong, positive spiritual message prevailed? If so, was the play riddled with Christian cliches, or was it fresh and original?
3. Christian drama companies tend to use an artificial, over-the-top, cheesy acting style: talking in sappy fake British accents, using large and stilted gestures, intoning their speeches in sentimental voices. Why do you think Christian theatre tends to be of a poorer quality, technically speaking, than secular theatre?
4. Do you agree that mainstream theatre tends to present religion as a fiction, a kill-joy, or not at all?

1 comment:

Tammy said...

Excellent interview. Lots of food for thought, even as it applies to the other arts.