Baha'i News -- Unifying religion on stage

Unifying religion on stage

By Jeanné McCartin,

Tomorrow night, Marty and Wendy Quinn will launch the community's first annual Sacred Theater Festival. The event will showcase faith-based theater.

"It's theater that's looking at spiritual transformation or the relationship with God, or an event investigating traditions," explains Marty Quinn.

Starting a routine that would continue throughout the interview, Wendy picks up his thought.

"The why is easy. Especially after 9-11," she says. "Though we were thinking about it before, it gave us the impetus. We've had a great response from the community. . Maybe after 9-11 people see the need for this kind of dialogue and connections."

"Which," interjects Marty, "fits in with our belief: the underlying unity of all religions. It's the essential Bahá'í belief, the oneness of all religions."

A week before the festival's opening the Quinns were already talking in terms of growing the weekend-long event into a longer format in coming years. It's a testament to their own interest in the genre as well as their personal involvement in creating and presenting art married to spiritual development.

Inspired by an important principle of the Bahá'í belief system, which the two practice, the festival is meant to demonstrate the purpose of religion as an uniting factor rather than a divisive one. They see the event as a bridge to bring people together, to foster a spirit of unity within the community. The three-day inaugural festival consists of five plays, which demonstrate the spiritual and or introspective approaches of diverse cultures.

The festival opens Friday evening with the Quinns' own production, "The Seven Valleys."

On Saturday, three plays will be presented: "Elephants and the Seven Sacred Directions," with Maya Apfelbaum and Paul Sedgwick; "Mr. Raisin Head," with Erika Batdorf; and "Walden" with Bill George.

On Sunday, the final day, the festival will present Pontine Movement Theatre's "Journey to Heaven: The Shaker Way," with Greg Gathers and Marguerite Matthews.

"These (plays) are not about faith, they're artistic renderings," Wendy says.

"We're hoping (the audience) comes away with a greater insight to other's traditions and their own. These themes of spiritual transformation do not reside in one faith alone. They span all religions," Marty says.

To create an even greater sense of diversity and inclusiveness, a representative of a different religion will introduce each play.

"A Buddhist introduces our show. A Bahá'í will introduce the matinee. A Unitarian minister will introduce 'Walden,' and a Jewish Rabbi will introduce 'The Shaker Way,'" says Marty.

The story behind the stories

As to how each production came to be included in the festival, well, each has its own story. The Quinns first met Bill George, the author of "Walden," a few years back when he came to the community to perform another of his productions.

"He was a very impressive performer, and we loved him," says Wendy.

"We didn't even know him yet," says Marty.

A fellow Bahá'í, he and the Quinns eventually formed a relationship. When the couple had the idea for the festival, they knew George was a natural. George originally wrote "Walden," which he describes as post-modern constructionist, as a vehicle to get certain ideas across to a Western audience, he says. Since then, he's staged the work on a limited basis throughout the United States.

"Thoreau was perfect," George says. "Thoreau, to me, is a holy figure, a beautiful example of East and West married in the quintessential American innocent. It is that sensibility, the united aesthetic intelligence of the sacred and the scientific that we as humans are striving for. Spirituality without cant and dogma, vigorous intelligent investigation without materialism."

He was drawn to the Thoreau's work for its spiritual element. From that vantage point, he tells the story of a young man's struggle to "get to the meaning of life, as a kind of vision quest."

Thoreau's symbols, such as the pond of consciousness and the elusive loon of meaning, all take on deeper psychological resonance and lead us not simply out into the woods, but into the heart and mind of young Henry David, he adds.

"I've seen an excerpt of it," explains Marty. "You feel like you're with Thoreau. And it's fantastic to be that close."

'Mr. Raisin Head'

The Quinns came across Erika Batdorf in Montreal. They caught a performance of her "Mr. Raisin Head," a piece Batdorf had written herself, and were impressed.

Another Bahá'í, Batdorf also drew off her religious belief to create the piece, says the Quinns.

"It's inspired by that but it's very generic," says Wendy.

"Very universal. Also very high-quality work," adds Marty.

The pair further describes the piece as compelling, humorous and brilliantly performed. In "Raisin Head," the attributes of God, trustworthiness and truthfulness, are characters. They pay no mind to Mr. Head, whose response is to struggle to get their attention. His metaphysical musings to the audience and his self-reproach to himself in a mirror are used to show the character's discovery of a personal philosophy as well as a new way of looking at the world.

"It's about transformation," Wendy says.

'Elephants and the Seven Sacred Directions'

It was by chance the pair came across "Elephants and the Seven Sacred Directions," the play written by Maya Apfelbaum and performed by the playwright and Paul Sedgwick.

Marty shared with his friend Rob Harvie at Equinox World Music their idea for a Sacred Theater Festival. Harvie recommended they look at a film of a play he had, which he thought might be a possible candidate for presentation. They liked what they saw.

It's an unusual piece, says author Apfelbaum. It combines environmental consciousness and actual environmental issues with dance, creative movement and a narrative.

"The piece is specifically about elephants, but it's really about how we as humans can draw inspiration from other life forms."

Apfelbaum's interest in elephants started in her childhood, when for a time she lived in India. There, she was exposed to the creatures, both domesticated and wild.

"I was so awed by them, and I felt empathy with what seemed to be real anger, fear and fury when they were rounded up in the wild and broken in. I was also amazed at how gentle and beautiful they could be."

Later still, she went on to study art for social change, receiving a master's in the combined field. She also spent six years working in zoos.

All these experiences come to bear in "Elephants." Using Indian and African dance, and "an inner creative instinct," she creates elephant movement with a human body.

"'Elephants' is a good fit for the Sacred Theater Festival," says Marty Quinn. "It touches another realm of spirit."

The author agrees.

"The dance is a synthesis of creating something personal, beautiful and universal . the need to be more in harmony with the rest of the world," she says. "I know the arts in most cultures are part of religious beliefs, the essence of life, an artist's way of expressing reverence for life, and sharing that in community. It inherently makes sense for me."

'Journey to Heaven'

As for the addition of "Journey to Heaven: The Shaker Way," a piece created locally by Pontine, "that one really kind of fell in to our lap," says Marty. "When we went to Greg (Gathers) and Marguerite (Matthews) to rent the theater, they wanted to know if they could be in the festival. They invited us to come and see their piece . which is wonderful and elegantly structured."

"Journey to Heaven" is perfect for this vehicle, says Matthews.

"It explores one of the great American spiritual traditions. It's in the voice of the people that followed and practiced this religion."

The work includes excerpts from the sect's Sacred Text written by its founder Mother Anne, who, Matthews explains, "was believed to be an embodiment of the Christ principle in the same way as Budda, or the historical Jesus or Bahá'u'lláh."

'The Seven Valleys'

The Quinns' work is "The Seven Valleys." They began work on the piece four years ago as an entire family, including their daughter Caitlyn, now 15.

The piece is based on the Bahá'í writings by founder Bahá'u'lláh's adaptation of letters. He wrote to a Sufi in answer to questions he had about the mystical nature of the spiritual path to knowing God. (Sufi is a mystical branch of Islam.)

"We love the text. It's one of the most beautiful, exalted languages, rich in metaphor and imagery," says Wendy.

"Bahá'u'lláh uses the imagery of nature to explain the experiences of someone on the spiritual path, and what (they'll) experience upon that path," adds Marty.

The piece is co-produced by the couple. Bill George directed the piece and collaborated on the drama and acting elements. Marty Quinn, a member of the defunct band Do'a currently creating sonification (music) of scientific data, created its original score.

"I feel the music, beside the text, forms the structural underpinning of the piece," says Wendy. "It's almost like the music allows us to find our creative direction in each valley."

Wendy was involved in the development of the set, making seven 8-foot high silk screens to appear as Persian doors. She also, along with Ben Hatcher, created the choreography. Both daughter and mother dance in the piece, Marty Quinn plays tablas and drums, and the entire family acts and sings in it.

In addition to the work done on the project at home in Lee, the family traveled to Pennsylvania four times, for a total of eight weeks, to work with George.

"These experiences were incredibly enriching, difficult emotionally, technically, artistically," says Wendy.

"We really challenged ourselves to grow and develop," follows Marty. "It's been a wonderful process, an incredible experience as a family. It was a journey in and of itself, and continues to be."

For their own piece, and all those in the festival, the hope is "the end results is a wonderful and enriching experience for the audience," says Marty.

Following the final event on Sunday, the audience will be invited to join in with a number of performers for a potluck dinner and informal discussion.

Matthews says when the Quinns first told her about their idea for the festival, she and her partner immediately recognized it was an idea whose time had come.

"It's a wonderful idea," she says. "And we feel it will outgrow the size of our theater in short order.

©Copyright 2002, Portmouth Herald

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