Entertainment » Theatre

’Corpus Christi’ Comes Home, Six Years Later

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Wednesday Aug 22, 2012

Six years ago actor James Brandon auditioned for a role in a play scheduled for an 8-performance run in a Los Angeles church. Six years later, he is still playing Joshua, the Jesus figure in Terrence McNally's gay re-telling of the New Testament "Corpus Christi" that has toured the world and returns to LA this weekend.

"Corpus Christi" has long been a lightning rod of controversy. When McNally's play opened in New York City in 1998, it was subjected to boycotts, protests and bomb threats. Subsequent productions in other cities brought similar responses. In 2006, a small LA company - 108 Productions - decided to produce the play in a church for a week-long run. That led to an extended run in a LA theater, a national tour and appearances at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2007) and the the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival (2008). The company celebrated the play's 10th year anniversary with a run at New York's Rattlestick Theatre.

For Brandon and members of the company, the journey has been life-changing, which he discusses in the following interview. The tour has also become the basis of a new documentary film, "Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption," that Brandon co-directed with the production's director Nic Arnzen. The film will also be seen this weekend. (For more details, see below.)

EDGE spoke with Brandon about the play, his journey with it, the documentary and the "I AM LOVE" campaign that he helped create.

The journey

EDGE: You say that your journey started with six years ago with a production of the play that ran eight performances. How did you get to here?

James Brandon: Through our audiences. And lots and lots of work. We started with an intentional 8-performance run at a small North Hollywood church (which was part of the site-specific creativity of the piece by our director who was a member, not because any of the cast were church members). From there we were asked to bring it to a local LA theatre for an extended run. After that run we thought it would be fun to consider taking this show to the Edinburgh Festival the following year. But we had to raise money to do that; thus was birthed the idea of the touring experience we continue to do.

We began touring throughout California, at first doing initial outreach ourselves through friends we knew, but soon that tour took our lives over in a way as everywhere we went, there was someone in the audience that wanted us to bring it to their church, community or theatre. Although we’ve taken little breaks here and there to work on the film or further develop the project/tour, we’ve consistently performed the show every year for the past six years for various fundraising reasons: to go to the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival when we were invited; to return to NYC for the 10th Anniversary revival of the show; to go to Acapulco for the MCC International Conference; and now to tour our new documentary feature alongside the play to "less tolerant cities" in the nation.

The cast has been paid minimally throughout the journey, nine times out of ten volunteering their time and talent along the way simply because they (we) all believe so strongly in the message the play teaches: inclusive love for all people at their chosen table of faith. We never thought it would become what it has become and I suppose therein lies the magic of theatre-making at its most pure form- when you believe in something, that belief carries you beyond your wildest dreams. And this certainly has for all of us.

The ’Judas’ connection

EDGE: What did you think of the play when you first read it?

James Brandon: I didn’t get it when I first read the play. I liked it, but I didn’t quite get it. In fact it felt more religious to me than anything, and brought up a lot of Catholic issues I had stored away from years past. But I just thought it would be an easy, fun, and short ride with some friends to play with.

And I also felt I likely wasn’t going to invite anyone I knew to see this play I was doing in a tiny little church. That said, I took it as seriously as I would any other project and worked hard on research, character (I think I purposefully forgot all I learned about Jesus growing up in Catholic school and found myself having to do a ton of research on His life) and reaching for the integrity of the play in each moment Terrence had perhaps intended.

I also grew to realize in that early process of character work there was something far greater that existed between the lines and the beautifully written words than I could have ever imagined.

EDGE: Why did you take part in the play in the first place?

James Brandon: Our director Nic Arnzen asked me to come in to read for the role of Judas. Initially, I ignored the request. I was at a point in my life where I decided what I was working on was no longer inspiring to me- as an actor my life felt stifled creatively, spiritually, mentally- I was stuck.

So literally the day I let go of both my agent and manager, whose office also happened to be 10 minutes away, I went to this church to pick up the script. I laughed at the idea of doing it, but something certainly drew me to go pick it up. I didn’t read it right away because I just thought it would be a waste of time anyway. Then I received an email from an astrologer friend, the subject line read "Judas."

That was it. I was taken aback because I’ve never really thought much about Judas before then and now suddenly it was brought into my life by two "separate" sources. (It was during the time the Gospel of Judas was discovered). At any rate, I took it as a sign to at least read the script and go in. If nothing else it would be fun to see some old friends again. Funny thing, I read the role of Judas and immediately Nic (our director) told me to go out and read for Joshua (Jesus). I never thought of myself in that role but, as an actor, it sounded really exciting to me. He called me that night and told me he wanted me to play the role, and because he was a friend and I thought it would be 3 months of my life, I thought it would be a fun experience to at least get me through that time of transition.

The controversy

EDGE: Are you surprised by the vehement reaction the play has received over the years?

James Brandon: When I first picked up the script, I hadn’t heard of ’Corpus Christi’ before or anything at all related to it. Which I honestly think is a good thing for me, because I went into it with such wide eyes and openness, really only looking at the message of what we thought Terrence McNally created, rather than anything else surrounding it. I did research on character, but no research on the background of the play. It really wasn’t until after that initial run did I learn more about the ’controversy’ that surrounds it and the intense reaction Terrence and the original cast/crew faced in its 1998 Premiere.

Even then I knew about the controversy but it never pierced our show- not once.

Perhaps that is exactly why it hasn’t. There isn’t a single person working on the show now that sees anything controversial about it at all. And it’s the collective energy of all of us together embracing the message to ’love one another,’ especially in spite of our differences, that carries this show forward. I suppose we certainly recognize now the idea of a ’gay Jesus’ sparks some intense reaction within some, but my wish is that someone who is so against the idea of it, would just come see it for themselves before making judgment.

It is so far beyond being a ’gay Jesus play’ and is the most divine theatrical experience I’ve ever had the privilege to be part of. It has actually brought me back to church, which is something I would tell the haters and naysayers all over. Yes my heart is still quite surprised at the reaction it still receives- my head watches the news and pays attention to politics of the day to understand of course this would still be vehemently reacted to. But my heart wishes all those against it would first see the play or film they are calling ’blasphemous’ so an intelligent and informed dialogue could take place. And my heart wishes those against us (and the play and film) would look beyond the surface and more deeply into the message of what Jesus stood for- love for all. that’s all He was about, that’s all We are about.

Challenging art

EDGE: How do you handle the emotions the play continues to raise?

James Brandon: Through love. We’ve received countless emails, calls and threats along the six-year journey of this play and now film. Every time I ask why they’ve decided to allow a piece of art to threaten their sense of connection to ’their God.’ (There’s a lot of ownership issues happening in these emails.)

Art is meant to challenge, it’s meant to expand consciousness, and make you question indeed, but if it threatens your very faith or core belief, that has nothing to do with us or the play, it has to do with something within the Self.

We do not judge those that condemn us, that is not our job. We can accept they will not understand or agree with what we stand for, what we know this play and film is ultimately about, but we will not accept intolerance, judgment or inferiority because of their self-projected insecurity, fear or homophobia.

In fact I’ve just recently sorted through another 10,000+ emails sent to our email condemning our production and the release of our film and I reminded them that their original intention in writing us to stop is actually empowering us to move forward. It is up to us to change the story. It is up to us to turn hate into love, turn fear into joy, turn intolerance into celebration. The more they write, the more we feel a deeper sense of purpose and self-love for who we are and what we are doing.

EDGE: Why did you and your director Nic Arnzen decide to do the film?

James Brandon: We picked up a camera early on, almost right away, just for fun. To document the journey for ourselves because even then we recognized something greater was happening here. We couldn’t name it, but we knew for whatever reason it was important to capture it. We were witnessing within ourselves a deep change- every cast member has a different story to tell, what brought them to the play, why they continue doing the play after six years and what the play has ultimately taught or healed within them.

Those stories then, in turn, resonated out into each audience we would encounter around the world, and we started learning how this play has helped heal many deep wounds within the community- people that have been ostracized from their faith and society. The combination of the two led us to create a film where we explore the societal issues within a piece of art (marriage equality, the HIV plague, separation of church/state, gun control, and more) through the voice of a ’controversial’ play (written in 1998 mind you- way before most of these topics were even mainstream) that has actually helped heal a community once lost, and has the potential (we hope anyway) to put human faces to the political and cultural inequalities we face today.

And we also felt it equally important to allow the voices of those against us a piece in the story, even when it took everything in our power to not yell back ’you’re a fucking idiot’ during their interviews. There, I said it.

The documentary

EDGE: What is going on with the film - will it be released?

James Brandon: We have just finished the final edit of the piece after two years of editing. We’ve had some incredible friends step up along every moment of this journey to help shape the film to where it currently exists- including extraordinarily talented volunteers (who usually get paid loads of money for their area of expertise) who have helped edit the piece, audio mix the piece (from a major motion picture studio), color the piece (also from a major studio) and everything in between, simply because they believe in what this film is all about.

In fact I was in our final audio mixing session a few days ago, watching the film with our mixer and just sitting back in awe and pure gratitude for where this journey has taken me. All that said, there is no official release date set, but we now are putting it out to some interested distributors, networks and producers as we develop a ’Sneak Preview Tour’ we are calling the "I AM Love Campaign" to at least start getting the message out there during this important time in history.

EDGE: Have you gotten to know Terrence McNally?

James Brandon: I have indeed and that’s one of those amazing gifts this experience has given me. He first learned of our play after one of our original weekend of performances and wrote a letter to our director expressing his gratitude. He ’kept an eye on us,’ he has since told me, as he followed our travels and journey with it. When we went to Dublin, his partner Tom Kirdahy surprised us with a visit to watch the show. We first met Tom in a puddle of tears backstage following that performance and we’ve become great friends since. He told Terrence about this experience, which in turn ignited our 2-week return to NYC in 2008 (celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary), and that’s where we officially met.

Since then he’s not only become a friend, he is a source of inspiration to me. Terrence is a visionary and more often than not, visionaries are feared and looked down upon because of their revolutionary concepts that are meant to expand the mind and expand consciousness. Getting to know Terrence I have seen what it means to be a visionary in this world and it has inspired me to push myself to be greater, more truthful and to embrace challenges from a perspective of raising deep awareness within.

The I AM LOVE Campaign

EDGE: What is the I AM Love campaign?

James Brandon: The I AM Love Campaign is a movement our company established to help ignite a deeper dialogue on religious bullying and homophobia by teaching self-empowerment through artistic endeavors and educational outreach. Our six year global journey with this show has taught us not only a deep sense of pain that still exists within the LGBT community and our allies, but also a deep sense of empowerment that comes from first loving the self. We realized through this experience that we cannot make the lasting change we seek in our culture by fighting against those that oppose us- rather we must first face the emotions those against us bring up within us, in order to more fully love ourselves.

And in turn, that self love can help us love others. ’Love your greatest enemy’ is an inspired line that could mean those foes surrounding you, or it could mean the ego you fight within you. Both are important to face from a place of love and that is what we have not only learned from touring this play and creating this film, but also one we hope resonates through the Campaign’s mission and future journey that lies ahead.

EDGE: Have you felt threatened ever over the past six years?

James Brandon: A few times I have personally been threatened. Yes, but I choose to give my energy over instead to my family in this show who love and protect me, as well as the global audience of friends I can now call family because of this show. Love is impenetrable. Period.

EDGE: What is next on your journey?

James Brandon: We launched our Sneak Preview tour in San Francisco in April to enormous success, and continue that tour in LA this weekend. From there we have plans to go to cities in Iowa and Illinois in September, Florida in October, and we hope to reach at least one more region before the end of Fall (and especially before the important election ahead).

From there we’d like to continue a tour of the film, alongside performances of the play, to cities across the nation and around the world in the coming year ahead. We’d, of course, love for someone to come on board to fund this tour and help make it happen with us, but in the meantime we will continue as we have for the past six years working hard, believing in the message, and knowing that alone will carry us onwards, providing everything we desire.

A Celebration Return to the City of Angels! with a screening of "Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption" on Friday, August 24, 2012 at 8pm, and the stage production of "Corpus Christi" on Saturday, August 25, 2012 at 8pm. At the Metropolitan Community Church/Los Angeles,
4607 Prospect Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the website for the film.

Watch this video about "Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption":

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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