On a rather toasty summer Saturday before the load-in begins for the premiere of Steve Julian‘s What Kind of God?, the refreshing cool air inside Elephant Stages’ Lillian Theatre beckons. Director Aaron Lyons crushes the butt of his unfinished cigarette on the “could fry an egg” sizzling sidewalk and ambles into the warehouse-like space to sit onstage between Julian and actor/producer Robert Keasler. The exposed brick walls behind the creative trio lend an artistic touch to what Julian and his team wish to also expose — the price of silence.
Altarcations at the Fringe Leads to God
Since 2010, art without barriers has been celebrated in the non-curated Hollywood Fringe Festival — where artists generally self-produce their staged work. Julian (an award-winning radio host of “Morning Edition” on NPR affiliate 89.3 KPCC and a frequent contributor to LA STAGE Times) took an entrepreneurial risk in 2012 when he helped raise $4,000 to produce his play, Altarcations.
Developed through Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA playwrights group, Altarcations was Julian’s first full-length play. “I’ve done a ton of one-acts through Drama West Productions, although I’ve written many other full-length plays that haven’t seen the light of day. That’s normal; part of the warm-up. Right?” A relaxed Julian chuckles to himself, almost all-knowing from his years of persistent writing.
Addressing the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, Altarcations ran for six sold-out performances. Only after it opened did Julian, who also directed the piece, see flaws in his work. Although he didn’t want to completely walk from it, Julian confesses, “I had to step away, emotionally — to cleanse myself after that run. There were things I was embarrassed by: some of the dialogue, some of the sets, the number of scenes.” But as time passed after its last performance, Julian felt the story fervently tug at his heart and soul.
Keasler, who portrayed Father Bart in the short run at the Fringe Festival and will reprise his role, remembers audience members were genuinely moved. Recalling his own response when he first read the script, “it terrified me in a way that made me pay attention,” he says.
A smile of appreciation radiates from Julian, who remarks, “I would see reactions, hear reactions during performances, so I knew people were connecting with the characters, with the story, with certain lines being said.”
Shortly thereafter, when the dust settled from the Fringe Festival, Keasler approached Julian about the possibility of a fully-realized production. “I really wanted to do it again. It resonated with me in a really personal way, on a number of levels.” Their conversation elicited ideas to strengthen the work along with an important self-realization for Julian.
“I went to EST and said, ‘Okay I want to look at this play again'” — but with a clear creative separation between director and writer. Julian says he knew, “I was not going to direct again. No way. No way. No way. I will never direct my own writing again. …At least this time.” The playwright emits a broad laugh that echoes in the theater. But while Julian won’t direct this time, he will don a second creative hat in the production — portraying Bishop Michael.
The clean-cut Keasler points out that the rewrite, which incorporates dark humor, “got deeper. The characters are richer and more nuanced.”
To which the tousled-haired Hollywood Fringe veteran Lyons responds, “It’s a challenging piece — a piece that requires dialogue. What Kind of God? scared me because of the conversations involved, the assumptions involved, the sheer scale of it.”
“Everyone knows these five people [in the play], whether they know it or not,” declares Keasler. “That’s the beauty and tragedy of this story. It is so human and all too common. These five characters represent tens of thousands who have not or cannot tell their stories.”
Stories of the faithful who have been silenced.
A reverse trajectory of connection over a span of nearly five decades inspired Julian to write his play.
On February 21, 2011, the New York Times published “Los Angeles Archdiocese to Dismiss Priest Over Admission of Molesting Girl,” by Jennifer Medina. While similar situations have been all too common, when Julian was made aware of Medina’s article, it had gut-wrenching significance for him. The dismissed Roman Catholic priest, Father Martin P. O’Loghlen, was his high school principal.
Julian harks back to his religious and educational upbringing when he was a self-described “born-again Christian.”
“I grew up in parochial school — K through 8 at two Lutheran schools and then an all-boys Catholic high school. My mom took me to church every single Sunday until I was old enough to drive. Among my ‘saved’ peers in high school, there were just a few of us who were non-Catholic. We would talk religion and Christianity and the ways of the world. It was a heady, tough time. A sorting out of feelings, trying to understand what was meant by what can be.”
In 1976 at Damien High in La Verne, Julian was the editor of his school’s paper, The Laconian. When an op-ed piece crossed Julian’s desk, he cleverly titled it “Mass-O-Chist” since it was a protest of all students having to attend mandatory weekly mass during school hours, regardless of one’s religious point of view. O’Loghlen wasn’t amused by what he described as the “blasphemous article and its title,” according to Julian.
The furious principal quickly removed Julian from the editor’s position, and his high school graduation was put in jeopardy. “He silenced me,” says the playwright, grimacing. “My integrity had been attacked.”
Medina’s investigative story revealed O’Loghlen had his own issues of integrity — 10 years before Julian’s near-expulsion. In the mid-1960s, while a principal at another school, O’Loghlen had “a long-term sexual relationship” with one of his students, a teenage girl.
The ongoing sexual relationship came to light in the mid-1990s when O’Loghlen tried to contact his former female student, who was then in her 40s. Wanting nothing to do with the priest, she filed a complaint with the church and later filed a lawsuit against the priest and his religious order. Although his duties were briefly restricted, O’Loghlen was not removed from the archdiocese. In fact, the priest later served on a sexual abuse advisory board.
Only after the Times article appeared in 2011 was the priest removed from his parish, then in San Dimas.
“That is what set my play into motion,” Julian says.
A Balancing Act with Consequences
As often happens with teenagers after high school graduation, Julian drifted away from the church. “I still consider myself spiritual. I am still religious. I would typically go [to church] based on who I was dating…or married to.”
Julian’s humorous timing triggers a hearty chortle from Lyons. With a grin like a Cheshire cat, the personable playwright continues. “Honestly I still feel this connection to God. I don’t disbelieve. How much, though, I do believe — I’m not sure.”
Yet the God of Julian’s youth still has an impassioned hold on him. “I think I’ve always been trying to figure out, to strike this balance between the childlike, almighty God who lives in the heavens where it’s purple and alabaster, with the fire-and-brimstone God I was taught as a child, with the God who let my wife die in 1992.”
The pain of remembrance with the balancing act of “what kind of God” is evident as it crosses Julian’s face. “It’s a daily struggle. I think about it. I’ve worked some of my own questions and doubts into the script.”
Director Lyons adds his own testimony. “Until I read [the play], I had forgotten about my interests in becoming a priest. The church had been a huge part of my life. Grade school through high school was the first time I felt I belonged somewhere, the first time I had structure, the first time I had a weekly family. I was an only child with a single, divorced mom who worked several jobs.”
“The first time I felt a sense of belonging and purpose was being an altar boy, which led to Eucharistic minister, to reader, to youth camp. In high school, though, I began to believe in theater more. I found a lot of my love of Mass was that theatricality and how much it meant to the people, but not how much it meant to me. I started to doubt the teachings of the church.”
Julian’s play deals with more than just doubts. He shares concern about the consequences of what happens when power and trust are in the hands of the wrong people. “We put people in power without a) understanding what they are capable of, or b) embracing what they are capable of.”
In relation to the sex abuse crisis? “Countless victims are manipulated, abused. They’re told it’s their problem, not the problem of their abusers. Those in power who do nothing are then silencing those who have been harmed.” The repercussions of this silence ripple, with a heavy price to be paid. What kind of God allows this to happen?
In a recent blog post “This Play Is Not Pretty,” Julian wrote, “What kind of God lets one person silence another? Physical harm aside, it is a heinous, endemic act. I believe the answer lies not in the God above, but in the godly assignation we give to certain pastors and teachers, coaches and scout leaders, and so many others who stand on pedestals.” Between belief and trust lies a deep chasm.
While delving into the consequences of victims being silenced, Julian’s play also explores teen sexual identity and sexual orientation. And forgiveness, Julian adds — “I was very curious about the levels at which people forgive, or don’t. How much do we permit before we become judgmental?”
“I think it’s natural for an audience to see things develop and unfold, and assume they know how guilty somebody is — whether it’s the priest, the bishop, the boy, the girl, the boy’s aunt.”
“There are so many turns in this play,” stresses Lyons. “I had this one color when reading the script and it slowly started to shift to gray. I was totally wrong, and I love when I’m wrong.”
Keasler adds, “The audience is going to make assumptions and judgments and find out they were completely wrong. If we’re doing our job, they’re going to be complicit. That will hopefully move the dialogue forward and spur people into action — outside the theater.”
The price of silence by those in power is the thread Julian plans to follow in his planned trilogy of plays, presented under the new social awareness campaign Silence No One. His second piece will focus on the cost of silencing sexual abuse against women and men in the US military.
Julian places meaningful outreach above personal rewards. He has decided to waive all royalties through 2014 for any theater company in the world that wishes to produce What Kind of God?.
“I don’t want this to be about the money,” he says. “The point is to drive social awareness.” And give voice to those who have been silenced.
What Kind of God?, Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood 90038. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through October 20. Tickets: $23; Thursday shows “tithe-what-you-can.” www.whatkindofgodtheplay.com. 323-960-7787.
**All What Kind of God? production photos by Ted Augustyn.