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Magic Time! The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: A Conversation With the Director and Writer of Arcturus Theater Company’s ‘The Point’ Ross Heath and Marilyn Ansevin Austin

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I’ve made a point to see as many productions in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as I can. Some have thrilled me; some have not. For me theatergoing is like a gambling addiction. I always go expecting to hit the jackpot. But realistically I know the odds are I won’t always.

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One play in particular,  Arcturus Theater Company’s The Point, occasioned a review that I hoped was constructive—because I recognized  rich content in the play’s backstory—but that also expressed my disappointment—because I thought the construction of the play needed work.

As chance would have it, I ran into Ross Heath, director of The Point and artistic director of Arcturus, while we were both waiting to see Spooky Action’s  Can’t Complain. Ross struck up a cordial conversation and before long it became so fascinating we agreed we wanted to have it in a public forum and invite the playwight, Marilyn Ansevin Austin, to join us.

So here goes!

John Stoltenberg.

John Stoltenberg.

John: There’s a key plot point in The Point concerning Fran’s good friend Jerry, who once was a priest but is no longer because years ago Fran’s now-grown daughter Julie accused “that groping old pedophile” of molesting her. In a sharp-edged confrontation between Jerry and Julie, Jerry defends himself, claiming that what she felt was inappropriate was innocent and misconstrued.

As I wrote in my review, “I was uncertain whether the playwright intended for us to believe Julie or Jerry (I myself was persuaded by Julie), but I definitely got a compelling picture of just how askew Fran’s judgment had become: She had never mentioned to Julie that she was friends with Jerry, and Julie arrives to find her molester in her mother’s embrace.”

Well, as I learned from Ross, the playwright intended that Jerry was in fact innocent and that Julie had falsely accused him! I was astonished to hear this. As I told Ross, the scene as written and played weighed heavily in favor of Julie’s credibility. Her testimony just really rang true. Moreover the fact that Jerry was defrocked was a huge cloud over his credibility, because I know well—as an appalled observer of the clergy abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church—that that church hierarchy has a despicable pattern of not removing from the priesthood even men against whom there is a mountain of graphic and irrefutable evidence. The notion that  a man would be removed from the clergy (or that he would voluntarily resign) merely on the basis of her hearsay is to me so farfetched as to be inconceivable.

Ross Heath.

Ross Heath.

Ross: When directing a scene that may be interpreted one way or another, depending on the point of view of the audience, one considers the value of leaving in the ambiguity or emphasizing some aspects of the performances to guide the audience toward the point of view you would like them to take. In The Point, about a woman experiencing dementia, I needed to consult the playwright to find out for sure if the priest was innocent or not. The playwright and I, as the director, made deliberate choices to guide the audience toward the viewpoint that Jerry was innocent, without being so blunt as to spell it all out. We did this by making some minor alterations to Jerry’s dialog, and to have Kim Curtis, the actor playing the role, speak with confident conviction about his innocence. It seemed to me an artful decision to keep the ambiguity because, in the end, the character’s innocence or lack of innocence is not particularly relevant to the main story line, which is that Jerry is a kind giver, a priest through and through… and because of some circumstance, he is denied to continue on as a priest, but with Fran he can continue to be a helper of human souls. The ambiguity also functions as device to keep the audience guessing about what had really happened. Several audience members have told me that they were gripped by the storyline; some even said they wanted to see the story continue because they were so interested in seeing what happened with the characters. It is fascinating to me that you had interpreted the story in a logical way, but different from our intent.

Arcturus does not shy away from ambiguity, using it as a way to keep the audience engaged. When we presented Samuel Beckett’s radio play, Embers, on the radio rather than as a stage play with a live actor (as we had done in early 2013), we introduced a layer of ambiguity for the listener to interpret whether some of the voices heard were voiced by physically present people, or in the protagonist’s mind.  I believe Beckett created Embers as a radio play to keep that ambiguity.

Margeaux Martine and Kim Curtis. Photo by Jeff Maione.

Margeaux Martine and Kim Curtis in ‘The Point.’ Photo by Jeff Maione.

Last November, we presented John Cage’s Theatre Piece, which was several disparate performances presented across several parts of a library meeting room. It was up to the audience to create their own stories given the clues we presented.

John: Your point about artful ambiguity is really interesting to me. I’m familiar with ambiguous endings, of course, but the ambiguity surrounding the character of Jerry in The Point—whether the sexual-molestation accusations against him by Fran’s daughter Julie were fabricated or founded in fact—seems to me to be of a different dramaturgical order because it’s situated in the middle, not the end. You said, “the character’s innocence or lack of innocence is not particularly relevant to the main story line,” and I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why I have a different point of view.

Let’s say, as the playwright intended, Julie made the molestation up. I would want to know how that affected the relationship between Julie and her mother. Was Fran aware of the charges before she started to lose her memory but has now forgotten about them? Is that why Julie learns only upon arriving that her mother is now very close to the man Julie believes molested her? And what happened between Julie and her mother at the time of the alleged molestation, what was her mother’s reaction? Did her mother, a very busy doctor, not support Julie through that distress whatever its factual basis? And so on.

On the other hand let’s say, as I interpreted (not having seen adjustments that you may have made in the performances after press night), that Julie was telling the truth about what Jerry did to her. That too would impact the mother-daughter relationship profoundly. Does Julie arrive feeling already betrayed by her mother for not believing her, even before she finds out her mother is close friends with Jerry? And so on.

I would have been extremely interested to see the ripple effects of the accusation, whether true or false, play out, because I think they would have to.

It intrigues me that audiences who see The Point would experience the ambiguity you speak of and come to different interpretations or conclusions about Jerry’s culpability or innocence. But in this day and age (as the old adage goes), I don’t think it’s possible to have a charge of sexual molestation by a priest sit in the middle of a play without having its relevance to the whole story  be wondered about. Maybe decades ago, before the extent of clergy sex abuse came to light, that plot point in the The Point would not have prompted  any curiosity among informed theatergoers about its relevance to the rest of the play. Dramaturgically, it could have stayed in a he-said/she-said bubble. But I don’t think that can work on stage anymore, because those times of ignorance about clergy sexual abuse (or intentional obliviousness to it) are gone.

Ross: We could continue an extensive discussion about this, but for brevity’s sake there is a point in Act I where Fran asks Jerry why he is not a priest anymore. Jerry says, “Well, I guess …. I decided I’d rather make up my own mind about things and not have to believe whatever someone in Rome told me I had to believe…..Make my OWN decisions about what was right- Not just go along with the pack……….I just couldn’t agree…….And it all seemed so pointless…….saying Mass every day and with nobody paying attention – or even coming to confession…….It just seemed like what I was doing wasn’t making any difference to anybody – just no point………….but that was a long time ago.”

I stand by the way Arcturus tried to convey the notion of Jerry’s innocence, and have enjoyed our conversation and hearing your ideas on the subject.

Marilyn Ansevin Austin.

Marilyn Ansevin Austin.

Marilyn: This play, The Point, in my mind is actually more about Jerry’s having a “reason” for his life—after his path to the Priesthood fell away. Yes, Fran develops dementia, but also becomes mentally ill because of the trauma of accidentally killing her dear friend.

The issue of whether or not there has been sex abuse is alright to leave ambiguous. However, it was included because of my own abiding belief in the injustice of what I called “witch hunts.” There is no question that there has been sexual abuse by clergy people as well as by neighbors, relatives, and even close family members. However, this (what I have called hysteria) for a while seemed to dominate our population, with many claims of past sex abuse, which was encouraged by the popular press, and even by some therapists and counselors who have told people: If you even think you might have been abused, then you were. There has been much research about “false memory,” and that hysteria has resulted in many untrue allegations which have ruined innocent lives. If you ever want to hear of a situation which I know of and which occurred in our general area, and which resulted in an innocent young man having to serve one year in prison because of the hysteria, I shall be glad to fill you in—another time.

But back to The Point: Julie was a teenager during that especially intense time, when some “suggestible” people believed that they had been sexually abused, and she had accused Jerry of abuse. Jerry, as a caring person, could see the desolate lives that some of his parishioners—especially children—had, and he made a conscious effort to give love and attention, including hugging, to these people. He has previously begun to feel unhappy with the strictness and rigidity of the Church, so when  the accusations started, he made the decision to leave the Priesthood.  He then was faced with finding a meaning for his life—which he then found in taking care of his old friend, Fran.

There you have my “back story.” Questions and comments are very welcome.

John: Thanks to you both, Ross and Marilyn! I too have enjoyed this chance to talk out thoughts provoked by The Point. And this lively exchange has persuaded me that if there can be talkbacks with audiences after performances, there can be talkbacks with writers after reviews!

Anyone whose interest in The Point was piqued by this exchange should hurry. The last performances are Thursday and Saturday!

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The Point plays its final performances this Thursday, October 8th and Saturday October 10, 2015, at Arcturus Theater Company performing at Capital Hill Presbyterian Church – 201 4th Street SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased online.

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One Response to Magic Time! The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: A Conversation With the Director and Writer of Arcturus Theater Company’s ‘The Point’ Ross Heath and Marilyn Ansevin Austin

  1. Nancy huse October 7, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    I read the play before production, and believed that having Jerry as a possible pedophile made acceptance of his good intentions toward Fran very difficult to achieve. This would be an example of viewers’ beliefs and concerns rendering the creative work mute. I didn’t see the performance, to my regret. I applaud Ross Heath for his skilfull engagement of Stoltenberg just as I applaud the latter for continuing the discussion online. While I do understand the playwright’s concern about false memory syndrome, I think the spectre of widespread abuse by priests and cover-up by bishops is one of the most compelling narratives of our time. We live in that reality and the fear that it will never become part island past.