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Family as Revelation; Theater as Prayer

Could a theatrical performance be a kind of prayer? At a pivotal moment in his life, Bill Cain sensed that it could: He went on to found the Boston Shakespeare Company and to become one of the more successful American playwrights of our day.In 2011, Cainwho is also a Jesuit priestbecame the first dramatist ever to win the American Theater Critics Association/Steinberg Award two years in a row: The judges honored 9 Circles, his play-of-ideas about an American soldier accused of war crimes, just a year after singling out Equivocation, his Stoppard-esque drama about Shakespeare, the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, and the writing of Macbeth. Cain has also racked up credits in television, serving as writer on the 1990s ABC series Nothing Sacred, among other accomplishments.This month, Cains play How to Write a New Book for the Bible is making its East Coast premiere at Round House Theatre, in Bethesda, Md. On the occasion of the productionwhich runs through May 5I spoke to Cain about the play, his career in theater, and how he negotiates the tension between his religious and artistic vocations.How did you get into theater? I grew up in New York City, so I saw a lot of theater when I was in high school. But it was just a hobby. When I was in college and in seminary, I did shows as a hobby. A friend of mine was working at a mental hospital, in an addiction ward. This was when addiction wards were still prisons. He challenged me: He said, Forget this nonsense that youre doing on the campus. Build a show and bring it to the addiction ward.So with a bunch of friends, we put together a really charming show, and we took it to Metropolitan State Hospital in Boston, which was terrifying. We were college kids; and it was a big prison. We had guitars, brass and all sorts of nonsense, and they let us behind these locked doors and said, Do your show. And nobody came. The cast said, What are we going to do? I said, Well do the show!So we did the show to an empty room, and, bit by bit, the room filled with people, patients, inmates, the guardswho were very frighteningand the doctors and nurses. And as the show went on it became gloriously inappropriate. People got up and said, I want to sing a song! Or, I have a story to tell! And as the show went on, I realized that, in this moment, there were no differences among any of us. Nobody was a guard; nobody was a patient; nobody was an inmate; nobody was a performer. We were one thing.I had been a Jesuit for five years, but I felt this was the first time Id ever prayed. I felt that if I could only be close to this experience, I wouldnt ask for anything else.So the playing out of the rest of my life has been a playing with that experience: a roomful of peopleor, when I work in television, a countrygoing through the same things together, and coming to a new understanding of who they are together. That to me feels to me very much like prayer.We took the same show to other places. We played a leukemia ward at a childrens hospital, and it was the same thing: We walked in, and there were these kids with no hairwe couldnt tell if they were boys or girls or how old they were. And there were these terrified parents, and doctors and nurses buzzing by. We did the same charming nonsensical show, and people transformed. There was this joy. I said, yeah: This is it! There is a way to reveal that we are one thing!Thats what I want shows to do: I want our surprising, common, glorious humanity to be revealed at every performance.How did you become a playwright?I was a theater director and a priest and was trying to put that together. I decided I didnt want to interpret other peoples images any more: I wanted to try to interpret images that were closer to our own experience than the images we receive. So we can become closer to who we are.

By we, do you mean modern people?Us: you, me, everybody. We inherit a lot of images that are not necessarily true or helpful.[For instance,] in 9 Circles, the kid is [initially] painted as the ultimate villain of a war. But that might not be true: We might want to look more carefully. By examining what seem to be unspeakable crimes, we might learn something about who we are. The various sections of 9 Circles allude to the concentric circles in Dantes Inferno. In each circle, the play reveals a different complexity to the central story.Yeah. And I think thats what writing should do. Was it difficult to pursue the playwriting, given your religious vocation? I was told for many years by my superiors that I wasnt allowed to do it. That was hard. They wanted me to be a French teacher. And Im terrible at French! So I would keep one job going, and I would do the theater stuff on the side. But the theater began to support itself. And Ive done a lot of television work [such as the 1990s ABC series Nothing Sacred]. I ran the Boston Shakespeare Company for years. By the time it got to Boston Shakespeare and Nothing Sacred, they [the superiors] sort of had to say, OK, this might be what he should be doing. It was hard for them to make that decision. But in the relatively recent past theyve been great. When I talked to you for a story on Equivocation you mentioned teaching school in the Bronx. Did you do that recently?Not recently. About 10 years of my life was spent teaching middle school, which I absolutely love. And if I were a good person, thats what I would be doing. I love teaching. I worked on the Lower East Side [of New York City], and thats where my first play came from: Stand-Up Tragedy. Then I helped found a school in the South Bronx that I worked at for a number of years. Tell me how you came to write How to Write a New Book for the Bible.The genesis of New Book for the Bible was dealing with my parents death and realizing that the entire revelation of God can be found in one family. All the Bible is, is the story of a family. And if you look clearly at your family story, the good and the bad, and sift it, you can find in it the infinite presence of God. .The same amount of space in the Bible is given to the creation of the universe and the burial of Sarah. The thing that I think is extraordinary in the Bible is that it is about individual people, with their quirks, containing the presence of God. And I think we gave that up. I think we made it canonical, and said The story is over, when in fact that story goes on.If there was revelation in the story of Abraham and Sarah of infinite importance, there is revelation in every family story that is of infinite value. Every 100 years, every family ought to write the history of their family; and if it cant be added to everyones Bible, it can at least be added to the family Bible..People dont come out of this [New Book for the Bible] saying its a good play or a bad play: They come out of it telling me about their parents. Its a ritual of discovery. We throw away a lot of our family stuff, and this says, it might be more important than that.New Book for the Bible is a family play. Its the exploration of my family. In my opinion, the family play as we have itand the marriage play as we have itdont do justice to our experience. It feels to me like were kind of stuck in the Greeks, where the more damage people can do to one another onstage, the truer we feel it is. So you get George and Martha [of Edward Albees Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?]. And I dont think that reflects our lives.The whole history of the Western tradition of drama and religion is: the sins of the parents as visited on the childrenas told by the children. And I dont think thats our experience. I think the Greeks needed that. I think we have a different problem than the Greeks do. I think our problem is how to become inclusive.I think theres drama not just in a husband and wife tearing at one another, but in the generosity of a husband and wife trying to make space for one anothernot devouring the other but swallowing the self to make space for the other. Theres tremendous drama in thatand we dont even go near it. We ignore this part of the drama of our lives: We assign it to comedy. We assign it to Ralph and Alice [of the classic TV show The Honeymooners].My parents were deeply loving people who fought, and my goal is to find both the religious experience and the drama in a family in which theres a great deal of love. Theres a really colorful story about the genesis of Equivocation, your play about the Gunpowder Plot and Shakespeares writing of Macbeth. Do you want to quickly retell it?Plays for me always come out of a really strong stab of feeling: The feeling is so intense that I cant move. And that feeling contains information. And then the rest of the writing process is unpacking the information from the feeling.With Equivocation, the feeling came when I was in London taking a vacation from the school in the Bronx. It was during the aftermath of 9/11. I spent a huge amount of time in performances [of Shakespeare] at the Globe, and was very moved by them. When I went into the Tower of London, I saw an official government sign over the rack [the instrument of torture], saying that no person had ever been tortured in the Tower because of religion. And that kind of outraged me because my brothers [Jesuits] had been.And then I went up into one of the cells. Prisoners of conscience from that time had engraved their last words on the walls. Henry Walpole, S.J.his final statement was, For the greater glory of God. I was in awe. I thought: Which would I rather have done in life? Written all of Shakespeares playsthe history plays, at leastin the service of a corrupt regime? Or be a prisoner of conscience, leaving one word on the wall of a prison cell? That was the genesis of Equivocation.When I saw Equivocation, it seemed to be about so muchabout how politicians use narratives, about how playwrights write and transform material, about humans relationship to the truth. Its also about whether or not one can justify writing as a moral activity. Have you resolved that issue for yourself?If I were a good person Id be teaching kids in the Bronx! Its not at all resolved. But I dont think things do need to be resolved. I think tension is the generating engine of creativity. Its hard to believe in your own experience, and a writer really has to believe in his own experience.The tension goes on. 

About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Celia, I enjoyed this interview very much. Bill Cain's generosity of spirit comes through loud and clear, even if he isn't teaching in the Bronx. I especially appreciated his remarks about his parents' marriage and the idea that love is not "picture perfect" except in its absolute commitment.

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