While The Gospel According to Matthew never seemed like a prime text to adapt to the stage, the continued success of Godspell and its musical parables proves otherwise. It's the perfect show for Greenwood's Taproot Theatre, which sets the show in a summery Seattle as the young cast members sing, play their own instruments, and dance along to musical theater staples like “Day by Day.” Directed by Taproot's associate artistic director Karen Lund, Godspell begins previews tonight before officially opening this Friday, July 10 and running through August 15.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Lund about the modern improvisation of Godspell, how risk taking promotes art, and the absurdity of Christian spaghetti.
What are you most looking forward to with regard to this production of Godspell?
I’m super excited about this young cast. They’re so multi-gifted. They get up there, they sing, they dance, they act, they play multiple instruments… they just have a lot of great ability. The way that Godspell is set up, the authors really ask you to improvise around the parable. And so each cast that works on it brings themselves to the show. And what I really love is that this is very up-to-date, of-the-moment, right now.
So how has the show been modernized?
Well, for example, [there’s this line], “There once was a judge.” When they originally did the show in the ‘70s, somebody did the old Laugh-In joke, “Here comes the judge! Here comes the judge!” and that’s very much of its time. If I would have done the show a few years back, maybe I would’ve done a reference like The People’s Court or something. But this group, what they know of as judging is reality TV shows. And so when you ask them about a judge, they’re thinking of American Idol. They’re thinking of The Voice or a cooking show.
Back in the day, when it was originally done, there was a lot of references to the Marx Brothers. Well for this group of kids, that’s not readily available to them in terms of memory. That’s not what they conjure up. A lot of what they conjure up is viral videos and things that have popped up all over the Internet.
What are the challenges of directing a show like this where to script’s form is very malleable?
One of the things you have to do is really just allow time for the improvisation to go where it wants to go. It’s taken a lot longer than normal to get to the show that we’re actually producing. And there are some parables that we’ve redone two, three, four times to make sure that the references are readily available to everyone, so people can enjoy the parable whether they know exactly what it’s coming from or not. I have to make sure that what we produce at the end of the day is enjoyable, and that’s just really long and drawn out in order to get all of our jokes in. The point isn’t our jokes. The point is the metaphors, and making sure that the parables are still understandable. And hopefully they’re more [understandable] because they’re in context to your everyday life.
What do you see as Taproot Theatre’s role in the Seattle theater and arts community? Where does it fit in the puzzle?
Taproot really considers itself a theater of hope. And if you get down to what kind of shows we’re trying to produce and what we’re doing, we’re always looking for plays that have hopeful themes. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re not challenging. We still want to challenge our audience, we still want to entertain our audience, all these things. But at the end of the day we’d love for our audience to be able to walk away saying, “You know, one person’s life does make a difference.” There’s hope.
We live in a very cynical age. And a lot of times you’ll go to a theater and you find that you’re coming away feeling like, there’s really not a whole lot I can do. I’m just one person. Who am I? If you tell stories of hope, and you can see how one person, in a small way or a large way, made a difference, that [can] inspire and encourage people. So that’s kind of who we are and what we’re trying to do.
And we do that with all types of shows: we do musicals, we do dramas, we do Shakespeare, we do comedy, we do romantic comedy. Those stories are all over; they’re all around us. And we’ve been around for 40 years, so I think it might be working.
Taproot has had strong Christian ties since its formation in 1976 and still upholds faith as one of its core values. Do you feel like you’ve maintained that religious tradition over the years or have things shifted somewhat?
Well, I wouldn’t say that we’ve changed. The reason the theater is called Taproot Theater is that our faith is our taproot. The taproot is the strongest root of the tree, and if you cut that root, the tree will die. And so, we’re all people of faith, we always have been, and that guides what we do. But I don’t think of theater as particularly something that can be made religious. I don’t think you can have “Christian theater” any more than you can have “Christian spaghetti.” I’m a Christian who makes spaghetti, but that doesn’t make it Christian spaghetti. [laughs] I’m a Christian and I make theater, but I’m also a woman. And I’m also a liberal. I also live in Seattle. I also am a mom, right? So is it “mother’s theater,” if I direct it? You know what I’m saying?
So [religion] is a part of me, and it’s a part of how I interpret the world. I don’t want to deny that or hide that in any way. But religion right now is such a divisive thing, especially in Seattle. If you tell someone you’re a Christian they immediately assume that you’re a certain type of Christian. Some people if they hear somebody’s a Muslim they think, “Oh, terrorist.” And it’s like, what?!? That has nothing to do with being a Muslim.
That’s why we try to be clearly inclusive. We really think of ourselves as completely open door. If you come to our shows, the people on our stages are of all different faiths and backgrounds and sexual preferences. But the people on our staff are all people with the same [Christian] background.
How has Seattle influenced your art?
I think people in Seattle are really interested in having a conversation. They’re really interested in talking and listening and growing. It’s one thing to be progressive, but I feel like in a lot of ways, we’re more than progressive. We actually lead the way. With the $15 an hour minimum wage, with legalizing marijuana… we’re a state and a city that’s not afraid to put muscle to what our mouth says. [Laughs] We will go out and we’ll actively work for change. That’s why there are so many great artists here, that’s why there’s so much great art and music, because the people are risk takers. But they’re also not above saying “That might have gone a little too far, let’s pull back a bit.” And that means they’re having a real conversation. They’re not just charging blindly forward, come hell or high water, they’re keeping their eyes wide open and moving forward, and if we need to make a detour we will. And I love that about Seattle. Through my time directing here, I’ve really felt like I’ve been in a conversation with our audience. And we’re learning things and talking about things together, through story. And they’re responding or not responding or challenging us or we’re challenging them, and it’s a real back-and-forth.
July 8–Aug 15, Taproot Theatre, $25–$40