Interview with Fr. James Martin, SJ

by Amber Jackson

J_Martin_BWFather James Martin is an ordained priest and member of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. He has authored many books including The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life(2010) and My Life with the Saints, which, in 2007, was named by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the “Best Books of the Year.” He is also an author and editor for America Magazine and will publish his next book on the topic of joy later this year.In 2004, Father Martin embarked on his first collaboration with LAByrinth Theatre Company as the theological advisor for Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2005 play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. In his book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions (2007), Father Martin offers insight into this collaboration with Guirgis, director Phillip Seymore Hoffman, and team of well-known actors including Sam Rockwell, Eric Bogosian, and Callie Thorne. As a theatre novice, Martin offers a fresh perspective on the nature of theatre and the many spiritual lessons it has to offer.

This insight continues in the following June 4, 2010 interview, where Father James Martin discusses his ideas about theatre and spirituality.

Amber JacksonI’m really interested in this idea of comparing theatre to the experience of church and of theatre being a spiritual experience. And it seems like from Jesuit Off-Broadway that you definitely experienced that with Judas [The Last Days of Judas Iscariot]. So, could you talk a little bit more about that?

Father James Martin: Well I hadn’t thought about it until I was in the dressing room during intermission in one of the performances, and Craig Grant—one of the actors who played Saint Peter—and I were talking. And I looked up on the television monitor and I said, because of the way it was framed, “Boy that looks just like a Mass. It looks like a church.” And he said, “Is that the first time you noticed that, Father Jim?” (Laughs.) There are so many parallels. From what I understand—and your audience would know this better than I do—Greek plays were originally quasi-liturgical and sort of religious rites and mystery rites. So maybe it’s not surprising that there’s that link. That’s the first thing.

The second is that the Mass itself is, you could say, a kind of performance. The Mass is, as one theologian said, a “re-presentation” of the Last Supper and of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So you’re sort of “presenting” that. And in a sense, the priest has a script, and he quotes from Jesus, and he does certain physical actions that express what Jesus did during the Last Supper. He also ascends into a pulpit and speaks to people. So there are lots of theatrical aspects of the Mass. As well, on stage there are a lot of spiritual aspects. You’re communicating—I think the playwright, the director, and the actors are—some sort of truth. You are helping people connect with something outside of themselves.

One of the things I talk about in the book [A Jesuit Off-Broadway] a lot is the spirituality of acting, wherein the actor places themselves in the persona of another character and so has to be compassionate towards the character, has to understand the character, and has to love the character in a sense. I remember Sam Rockwell said to me, “Well I can’t understand Judas as just a two-dimensional character because I won’t be able to play him. I really have to understand him.” And I thought, Well that’s very interesting. It’s a compassionate way of looking at all sides of the character.

Then just physically, the stage looks like the sanctuary in a church, the part around the altar. The church I celebrate Mass at has, you could say, a “proscenium.” It has a kind of “stage,” in a sense, which is the sanctuary. And we have our marks and places to stand. In fact the other day, one of my Jesuit priest friends made a Freudian slip and he said, “When I was preaching the other day the audience,” –and then he said, “oh I mean the congregation…” (Laughs.) Also, at the end of the Mass, people sometimes give you their “reviews.” They’ll tell you if they liked the homily, or if they didn’t. If it’s a very good homily, sometimes they’ll clap. So really there’s a lot of overlap.

And also—you can see I’m warming to the topic—the experience for the theatrical audience is of going into a place that’s dark, where you’re supposed to be quiet. It’s not like a ball game, if you think about it, which is an interesting comparison. The theatre’s supposed to be fun and enjoyable, but it’s not like a ball game where you scream out and eat and throw things. The theater is supposed to be very reverent. Especially in New York, if you make one peep people will “shush” you like they would in church. So there’s something in us that responds to this connection in the theatre to the transcendent, because you’re bringing people to a different reality that’s very old. People know naturally that that calls from them a sense of reverence, in a similar way that it does in church. Although in church it’s more explicit. People know that that is in fact why they’re coming, to connect with the transcendent.

AJ: It’s a form of communion.

JM: It is, exactly. Right. You’re communing with one another. In the audience you’re communing with the actors, you’re communing with the story. In the Catholic Church you’re not only part of a communion—a community—you’re communing with the priest, who’s celebrating, and then eventually you take the Body of Christ into you. So there’s that sort of communion. But yeah, I think you’re right.

AJ: A lot of different levels to it.

JM: Yeah, many levels and I’m sure there have been many books written about it.

AJ: One thing that was a stand out in the book, and something that it seemed like you were surprised about was the experience you had with the actors and director and with Stephen [Adly Guirgis] in the rehearsal space. And that form of community that you built there and the trust. I think in the book you mention how you saw the parallels between that and the church as the body and all the different parts working together—

JM: —Right and I was a real novice to the theatre. So I had no idea what went on. I didn’t know what a “table reading” was; I didn’t know what “off-book” meant. In fact at one point I said, “How many practices are you going to have?” And one of them said, “Well, we call them rehearsals.” (Laughs.) So that was all new. And I noticed that they all supported one another, so no matter what the role was or how many lines a person had, when that person was reading or performing everyone was focused on that person. So the actors supported one another. Then you had, obviously, the director and the creative team, as well as lighting and costumes. And I remember thinking that in their support for one another they modeled what the early Christians said. Saint Paul said that the body can’t do without any member. It would be as if the eye said to the hand, “What need do I have of a hand?” or if a hand said to the ear, “What need do I have of an ear?” And I thought that if there wasn’t a director or lighting person there wouldn’t be a play. If there wasn’t a particular actor in this role there wouldn’t be a play. So they understand it as a corporate body. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t have their differences, nor do they participate in an organization without differences. But I was actually very moved by that.

The other thing that moved me, if I can digress for a bit, was that they were very humble. I worked with some fairly well-known actors. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bogosian, Sam Rockwell, Callie Thorn, Yul Vazquez. A lot of people that were “names.” As well as people who are very influential in the New York theatre. But they never dropped names. They never talked about the name of the movie they would be in. At the time, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was finishing up Capote and said nothing. They would say, you know, “I have a shoot up in Toronto,” “I have to go to LA.” John Ortiz was the other one I should mention who does a lot of theatre; I turn on the TV and he’s always in some movie that I’m watching. And that was really amazing because I really thought that they would be dropping names and even naming the movies, but they would never do that. You know Phil would not say, “Oh you know I’m doing Capote,” and John wouldn’t say, “Well I’m about to do ‘Miami Vice.’” And I felt that was really interesting. I think that it’s a testimony to their own humility and to their own integration too, because they didn’t feel the need to do that. I also thought it was very respectful to the other actors who might not be in such big roles, or have film roles, it was very respectful to them, didn’t shut them out. So I was amazed and I thought the Jesuits could learn a lot from that.

AJ: That’s another thing I was going to ask you: What can the church learn from that experience?

JM: Oh a tremendous amount.

AJ: Because it seems like it’s the idea of community that the early Christians experienced in the book of Acts.

JM: It is. Now I want to say it’s not perfect.

AJ: Of course.

JM: After my book came out, one of the actors said, “Well, you know, Father Jim, they were usually on good behavior when you were around.” (Laughs.) But I think one thing that the church could also learn is the sense of spontaneity and fun and play, which is right in LAByrinth Theatre company. They are a very playful group of people. I went to a company meeting once where we were in a large room with a huge conference table, and anyone who was late was forced to jump up on the table and do a dance. And it was just funny because I came back to an America Magazine editorial board meeting, which is completely proper and quiet, and where we don’t jump up on the table and dance. And I thought, more’s the pity. It’s too bad that we don’t sometimes.
So the church could learn about spontaneity and play and in a sense, joy—I’m writing a book on joy actually—that is really present in the acting community, to a degree that I haven’t seen in any other community, and I’ve worked with all sorts of groups. And I suppose that you have to be spontaneous—you have to be fearless; and I think that leads to spontaneity. And the church is missing that, frankly. So that’s one thing. The second thing is, as you were saying, that idea of support and supporting one another. And the third thing is flexibility. Because you really have to be flexible to go from playing one role to another. I mean, look at Sam. Sam has played, Judas, he has a villain role in Iron Man 2, and now he’s playing a kind of goofy role on Broadway right now in A Behanding in Spokane. You have to be very flexible for that. And I think the church could use that flexibility, especially now.

AJ: We’ve talked about this a little, but where do you think the theatre holds the most value for its audience… in terms of catharsis, or the pedagogy?

JM: Big question. That’s a very good question. First of all, I am not a theatre scholar, but I think it’s in terms of allowing people insight into another person’s life or into the life of another group that they wouldn’t normally see, or that they wouldn’t normally encounter. I just saw Red on Broadway, the Alfred Molina show about Mark Rothko, and it was an entrée for me into the life of an artist and to the life of the visual arts that I wouldn’t have had. Plays that evoke pity and compassion are particularly important for me because I don’t think there’s enough of that in society. Any opportunity you have to understand a person, a character, a group of people, a situation, a country, orientation, race, or sex, better—helps to make you more compassionate. So I see it as a kind of invitation into a new experience that you would not normally have that should evoke compassion. The French have the expression, “To understand all is to forgive all.” You become much more compassionate that way. I much prefer movies that are like that as well. So anything that helps you to enter into another person’s life. And I felt that Judas did that because it helped you understand Judas, who is probably the most vilified person in history next to Hitler or Stalin. And anything that can help you understand that sort of difficult experience and the workings of grace I think is valuable.

AJ: And then that idea that as humans we all have that capacity to go down that dark road of despair—

JM: Right, or accept God’s forgiveness or not, or close ourselves off to it. I still think that’s just such a powerful scene. And I think one of the reasons that the play got such dramatically mixed reviews—really just from one end to the other— is that I think audiences are really put off by serious spirituality. There’s sort of superficial spirituality or somewhat shallow presentations of religious themes, or just agitprop for one way or another, either in defense of religion or sort of attack on religion, but this was really threatening to people. When you have someone saying to you, “You’re responsible for your own salvation.” Whew! And I think people had a hard time with that. You could feel the audience kind of pull back from that. It’s not what you hear every night in theatre. (Laughs)

AJ: No definitely not. Guirgis has guts.

JM: He’s amazing.

AJ: Do you think he’s opening the door for more people to address topics of spirituality in theatre?

JM: Absolutely. Yes. The Jesuits have an expression, which is, “You go in their door and come out your door,” which means you go in the door of humor, and sort of racy language, and crazy situations, and you lead them in, and then you go out “your door.” And his door is, in many of his plays, the door of spirituality, grace, forgiveness, love, God. And in that play he made it acceptable—because it’s sort of a hot play, very street-wise—for people to engage those questions. And he reached and audience that would not be reached through the pages of our Jesuit magazine, for example, or a Sunday homily because people wouldn’t be showing up.

AJ: Not only can works like this change how maybe other theatre artists may want to address these topics, but in terms of pop culture in general, how can it help? I found an article of yours from 2000 where you talked about anti-Catholic sentiments in America…has there been a change with that? Can plays and art like this help?

JM: Oh yeah. The reputation of the church since 2000 has only gotten worse since the sex abuse crisis in ’02 and now this year, and I think popular culture has a lot of influence in peoples’ minds. So I think for example Doubt, the play and the movie, not only brought it to the fore, but also made people question, “Gee how do we really know who’s guilty and who’s not guilty?” And play like Stephen’s can help people who are struggling with religious organizations but who need to engage spiritual topics. I have to say I’m waiting—sort of I’m dreading—the day when there’s a huge play or a movie about the sex abuse crisis. Because it’s coming, I know. Because what that does is drives it home in a way that a newspaper report simply doesn’t. Now, there’s already been stuff—you turn on the TV and there are portrayals of priest pedophiles and things like that—but I still think that there’s one that’s probably going to come down the pike. Unless it’s just so distasteful that people wouldn’t want to spend an hour and a half looking at a movie about that topic. So from a more depressing point of view, pop culture can really remind people of the church’s sins and failings and all that. From another point of view it can also help people understand the problems that are going on in the church and it also can point them in a sense beyond the church to deeper questions about grace, nature, love, forgiveness, which is what I think Stephen’s play does. Stephen’s play is very much not about the organized church. Although you have people like Mother Teresa who come in who are obviously religious figures.

AJ: In the book you talk about the long tradition of Jesuit interaction in theatre.

JM: Jesuit theatre I know, isn’t that interesting?—

AJ: —And then suddenly realized you were a part of that tradition.

JM: I know; it was late in the game. It was kind of shocking because I have a friend who has a PhD in theatre and runs a group called the National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped. His name is Rick Curry and he’s fairly well known in the theatre community. And I told him that I felt guilty that I was spending all this time with LAB, and he said, “Why would you feel guilty about that?” and I said, “Well, I should be doing my Jesuit work.” And he said to me, “I think Father needs to re-read his Jesuit history.” (Laughs.) And of course I knew it and had read about it, but it just didn’t click that that was part of what I was doing. Jesuits, as I say in the book, have been in theatre since the sixteenth century and invented the scrim and the trap door; and their productions in seventeenth century Europe were very well known. I talk in the book about how whole towns would be given over to a Jesuit performance. They essentially did them to help their students in their high schools and colleges; it was a sort of teaching device. And because there are Jesuits in so many fields, you had Jesuit artists doing the backdrops, you had Jesuit engineers doing trap doors and making clouds come and go and lightning. And so this great history of Jesuit theatre is something that I delighted in. I didn’t realize it until after I was writing the book. It would have helped me if I would have dived into it while I was doing the Judas play. But it made me feel like I was sort of continuing that legacy. And I felt really happy about that. And it’s just fascinating. I’m very proud of it as a Jesuit—when you think we invented the trap door for Pete’s sake! (Laughs.) I used to tell people that scene in The Wizard of Ozwhere the witch disappears—that wouldn’t have happened without the Jesuits. (Laughs.)

AJ: Beyond Father Curry, are there any other Jesuits that you know that are actively doing theatre?

JM: Yeah, Bill Cain is a Jesuit priest who just had a play called Equivocation at the City Center and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which was a huge hit. He also did a play called Stand-Up Tragedy from a few years ago, and he wrote the scripts for a TV show called Nothing Sacred. So he’s done lots of playwriting. As well, there’s a fellow in New York named George Drance, who runs a theatre company called Magis, who is also an actor and theater scholar. And I have a lot of Jesuit friends who teach theatre in high schools and in colleges. We have dozens of Jesuit high schools, all over the country and there are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities and they all have theatre departments, so that continues. So in my little way I was continuing that. The irony was that I knew nothing about theatre, really nothing, nothing, nothing.

AJ: Well you said you had been in Bye Bye Birdie? (Laughs)

JM: Of course, my star turn in Bye Bye Birdie, which was legendary. (Laughs) But really as a Jesuit with a vow of poverty, I don’t have enough money to go to the theatre, so I don’t see anything. My joke is that all I do is go see LAB productions. But they did a 24-hour 3-day reading of all Tennessee Williams plays…

AJ: Yeah, I heard about that.

JM: And I was in them. (Laughs)

AJ: Really?

JM: I was in Camino Real with Ellen Burstyn (Laughs.)—I had a small part—and I was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I played Reverend Tooker with Josh Hamilton as Brick and Leslie Bibb was Maggie. And I had a blast—it was a reading—I loved it, loved it. It was actually really interesting for me. One of the things I find really interesting about actors is their requirement that they be fearless—as I said—and unselfconscious. I find that fascinating. I think I know what a good actor would do, or how a good actor would portray a particular role, how they would emote, but can’t do that. I can’t because I’m embarrassed that I would look funny or look silly or look like I was trying to act, like “Who does he think he is?” But when I’m with these actors they’ve sort of broken through that wall. They don’t care, in a sense; they just throw themselves into it. So when I was reading, I mean, I was literally reading, and they were not. They were acting. They were really in the moment. And it was interesting…it’s just interesting for me.

You know, we had a book launch party for Jesuit Off-Broadway. And I had done this thing where I had come up with a “script” in a sense, and all the actors were going to read some quotes from the book. So I interviewed them and I invited all of them to this book launch, to which 15 or 20 of them came. It was very nice of them to come. It was very generous. So I thought, I could read from the book, but since I have the actors there, why not get them to read the content of their interviews, talking about the play, talking about their backgrounds, talking about acting? Well, I had forgotten that actors were not usually reading their own words. And some of them were very comfortable doing it. Some of them were very uncomfortable, which I found fascinating. Now for me, all I do is read my own stuff. I mean, I give homilies, I give talks, so it’s me talking as me in my own voice. And I didn’t know what was going on because I could feel this tension of “You want me to read this?” And I said, “Well yeah, you said it to me, why would you not want to read that?” And they said, “Well I don’t know, how I should read it, what is it for…” It was fascinating.

AJ: There wasn’t that separation there.

JM: Yeah, I think so. It was fascinating on so many levels. They weren’t used to reading their own stuff. Now they were very spontaneous and happy to talk about the experience off the cuff, but in a sense they were having to act like themselves, from a script, which was fascinating. So that taught me a little bit about what they’re used to, what they’re trained to do. But it’s that unselfconsciousness and fearlessness that I just find—it’s like a wall for me—I can’t do that. That’s why I’m not an actor…one of many reasons!

AJ: I think that there’s a lot to be learned just from your interaction with the company because too often we think—and forgive me for saying this—we think of a priest and we don’t think of someone who would come to the theatre and hang out with a bunch of crazy foul-mouthed actors, you know?

JM: Although Jesus hung out with crazy, foul-mouthed people.

AJ: Exactly. And that’s how it should be.

JM: Yeah, although I will say that many priests and men and women of religious orders actually, unbeknownst to a lot of people, really do hang out at places like homeless shelters, and hospitals, and high schools where there’s all sorts of stuff going on. So I think that the popular conception of the priest or the sister is of someone that’s stuck in their room praying and preparing a homily for Sunday, but in reality they’re mixing it up in real life. But this was actually quite unusual, this was odd.

AJ: Is that something you talk about? I mean, is this a way to reach out to the community?

JM: Yeah, the big question is how do you take the Word of God out to the people? Because Jesus, obviously, didn’t stay in his room all day, he went out. Now I think it’s about looking for opportunities to do that, looking for new media to do that: Internet, Blogs, all those kinds of things, also looking for other new ways. And this was one new way that when it came down the pike—I wasn’t thinking of it as such—I mean I didn’t plan any of this to happen, but once I was in it, it was fun. Part of it was selfish too: I was just having a good time! They’re fun people, they make me laugh. They’re very warm and affectionate and smart and inquisitive and interesting. So it was fun for me, it wasn’t like I had to force myself to do it, like I have to go do “ministry” now and I’ve got to go. I enjoyed it.

AJ: You were a part of creating something.

JM: Yeah, it was really exciting. Also, Stephen and I would have these conversations and then the next day he would show me something he had written, and a lot of it was based on our conversation. So I really did feel like I was participating, even in a small way, in this production. And I tell you, the times I would hear stuff we had talked about specifically, or quotes I had given him from Thomas Merton—that was amazing. To hear that. To see every night 250 people take that in and be totally threatened (laughs), I loved it. Make them squirm in their seats. It was great! I loved it. And the other thing is, I can’t write the way Stephen does, and I can’t write plays. I write books and memoirs and things like that. It’s just a different talent. So to be able to participate in it vicariously was wonderful, it was just a great experience. I still enjoy hanging out with the company…of which I’m now a member. (Laughs.)

AJ: So do you allow yourself to consider yourself an artist now?

JM: You know it’s funny… for the last few years I’ve considered myself a writer. I don’t consider myself an actor. (Laughs) So one thing that helps me feel comfortable in the company is that I am writing, that I am creating. And they know that. The fact that I am writing books helps me feel like I’m doing my part creatively. I think I would feel differently if I were working in a parish and had no other creative outlets. It’s funny, last summer I got cast in a reading—I think I played a drug addict with a foul mouth—it was so much fun. Those intensive workshops are just fascinating to me. Once again it’s a different world than the church is. It’s completely different. For one thing it’s very late night. It’s very cigarette-driven. It’s very spontaneous. It’s very sort of last minute, seat-of-the-pants…fascinating. Which the church simply is not, it just isn’t. It’s a different culture I should say.

AJ: Would you say that within the church that camps that youth would go to would be more comparable?

JM: Yeah, that’s a good point, that’s a very good point. Youth retreats and more charismatic kinds of things—but it’s not my world, not right now. I’m not working with kids; I’m not doing youth retreats.

But I should say even the leadership and administration of LAB was like that. The leadership of the church is not like that. It’s the definition of hierarchical and formal. You call people “Your Eminence” and “Your Grace” and “Your Lordship.” Not Phil. Or John. There is that sense that it’s more egalitarian; that anybody can be talented. I mean as you know, you can have some twenty-year-old kid who’s genius. Someone like Daniel Radcliffe, or the young woman in The Piano…Anna Paquin. Here are these people who are very young and very talented. They’re respected just as much as someone who’s 80 years old. Not in the church. If you’re a recently ordained priest you’re simply not going to be afforded the same respect that a Cardinal is. You just absolutely won’t be. You’re just not. Period. And that’s the hierarchy. So I think the church could learn a lot from that. Because the early church was more like the theatre—where everybody has their own gifts.

AJ: —Well, some theatres. (Laughs)

JM: Some theatres, that’s true. LAB—I know, people always tell me—is different. When I would talk to actors who I would meet afterwards and explain my experience or if they read my book, they would say, “Oh, that’s a very unusual experience.” And that’s why LAB is so valued by the company members: because it is like that and there isn’t a lot of putting on airs.

AJ: Well to wrap it up, what’s next for Father Jim? Do you have any other plans with LAB?

JM: Well as a member I go to the intensives every year. I try to support them as much as I can, and go to the new plays and events.
AJ: —And perform in them, apparently.

JM: And perform. And also, a surprising number of people have been in plays or movies with religious themes and they usually call on me. So Phil asked for some help doing Doubt. Yul Vazquez just played an Augustinian friar in a John Sayles movie that’s about to come out. Another fellow played a priest in a production in New Haven, and on and on. So it’s kind of funny. And then they will come to me sometimes for spiritual counseling just outside of LAB stuff. I love it. It’s become an important part of my life.

AJ: And you said that you’re working on a new book?

JM: Yeah, I have a new book that just came out called the The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. It’s Jesuit spirituality for everyone. I have a book on joy that I’m finishing up, joy in the spiritual life. And then I’m doing a book about Jesus, so I should probably call Stephen for some help. (Laughs.)

AJ: We’ll be looking forward to what comes next.

JM: Thank you, thanks.