Kevin J. Wetmore: Since last we spoke, you have been ordained as a priest. You have said you did so because you were asked by veterans? How has it been being a priest (instead of a Jesuit brother) and has it affected your theatre work at all?
Rick Curry, SJ: It’s very interesting. When you’re a brother, at least when I was a brother, you had to forge your own pulpit and the theatre was an amazing pulpit. You have an extraordinary sense of audience, performance, script. When you have a playwright, a performer, an audience, a script—you have theatre. As a brother, I had to do that for myself and the theatre was my ministry.
It’s amazing, when you’re a priest, you have all that already: you have a built-in audience, script, and performance. I found it particularly gratifying. I became a priest because I was asked by veterans to do so. I could talk with them and listen to them, but couldn’t give the sacraments. So I became a priest to serve the vets. I walk in with a collar and one arm and the wounded warriors feel that I’ve been there, I know how it feels. I don’t, but it helps them relate to me and the Roman collar offers some consolation to some.
The arm has been a great gift. They think, “He has been able to do something with his life,” So it gives them hope. What I wasn’t ready for, and is still difficult, is hearing confession. I’m startled by the honesty and pain of people confessing their sins. I tell them most of what they are feeling is not sin but stress, and if they think of it as sin, they will be back next month confessing the same things. They need to change their outlook. But I feel blessed to work with them.
KJW: To what extent does Catholicism influence your theatre?
RC: Well, Catholics like stuff. We are an incarnational church. We believe the Father sent His Son into our lives and He showed us how to live, how to be. And Jesus understood theatre. The Sermon on the Mount (and what is a mount but a kind of amphitheatre?) shows Jesus as a theatre person. As do the parables and His sermons. He told stories. He performed. What He did is a reflection of what we do. Catholics love ritual, we love story. We love enacting and performing. This has informed me and my work one hundred percent.
I think often artists think their art is in their head when it’s really in their fingers and in their hearts and we have to articulate experience through our bodies. The disabled are told their bodies are inadequate and not whole, and that’s just a lie, but it informs how they see themselves. But we can only praise the Creator with the face He gave us. We worship Him in the bodies He gave us. And society can make that hard. So if you’re disabled or a minority (being black or Hispanic in a white society, gay in a straight society, things like that) all these things breed self contempt and what the Catholic imagination does is say that attitude is wrong and we should go back to Him as we came from Him.
KJW: You’ve said, “Once you empower a disabled person artistically, you have empowered a disabled person.” In your eyes, how is theatre empowering?
RC: I think you are empowered when people listen to your story. What theatre does is give you a larger audience. When you’re onstage, the audience empowers you and that is a very rare thing in this world: that people allow you to speak and that they listen to you. As you know, the greatest actors are all great listeners and great acting is great listening. You listen and then you are able to react. And theatre gives you an audience. So what theatre gives you is an opportunity. I think the best example I can think of is a female soldier who did a great, very powerful monologue with the Wounded Warriors. She came home from Afghanistan in a wheelchair. And when she came off stage, she said, “That’s the first time I ever told my story and people shut up.” I think that says it all. She could tell her story without being interrupted or questioned. She talked and the audience listened. Theatre presents sacredness, like in Church. You have a dialogue.
But it’s also dialectic. We know, don’t we, that when actors perform, something magical is happening. Vets go on stage disabled and come off flying because they have been vindicated and acknowledged and validated, and I think that’s huge. That’s empowering.
KJW: Thirty-three years ago, did you envision the NTWH growing into what it is now, with campuses in NYC and Maine, a branch in Washington D.C., and over 15,000 alumni?
RC: Not really, no. I mean, its God’s work, it’s not mine, so I simply go where the work takes me. I think most surprising was the work in Washington. The Wounded Warrior Project came to me. I did not seek them out. They sought me out. I never in a million years would have thought to do anything like this. These telephone calls came from family members, saying things like, “My brother just came back from Iraq. He’s lost an arm. Can you help him?” And also things changed because with the NTWH we focused only on the physically disabled, not the developmentally disabled. But the majority of vets from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and we’re also working with them. By teaching these vets dramatic monologue, it opens them up. They tell their story, and we say, that’s what happened, but that is journalism; that is a story. We teach them to think about what happens in drama. It forces them to put names on what they are feeling. It enables them to talk about their feelings, and how they feel about what they went through. Then people can work with them on PTSD.
As a theatre person, I never thought I’d be working with the military. It’s funny. At six, because of my arm, I was told I could not be a solider. I could not be a priest. I could not be a doctor. Well, I have a doctorate, I’m a priest and I’m working with the military. I think that’s proof that it’s not smart to circumscribe God.
KJW: Who is the audience and how have they received these pieces?
RC: That’s interesting question. The answer is everyone. We’re in D.C., so a lot of times the actual audience is students: students at Georgetown, at other colleges and schools in Washington. But I suppose the intended audience is the general public. The audiences tend to be young. When the Wounded Warriors perform, the families come, from great distances I might add. Anytime the families see them doing something positive, they want to support them.
What’s really striking me is that question is a question I haven’t actually thought about in twenty years. For the first ten years (at NTWH) I thought about it all the time, as people have been put off by the disabled and you need to be aware of that attitude in order to counter it. But then I stopped thinking about it as I focused on empowering the performers. But you hit upon something striking. With the Wounded Warriors, initially they all want to tell their stories. And I tell them, it’s not journalism. You lost arm, or a leg, buddy. And I don’t mean to sound callous, but that story is already known. I tell them, “What do you want the audience to take away?” Do they want the audience to feel pity? Do they want the audience exhilarated? Do they want the audience joyful? I tell them, think about what you want the audience to walk away thinking and feeling. When they go away and think about that they come back with great monologues.
There’s a great example of this. A soldier was walking around with a sign on his chest, “Free hugs.” He walked up and down Walter Reed offering free hugs and he’d hug everybody—all these hugs for other soldiers—a big, gregarious black guy who had already had a dozen surgeries on his arm. His wife had written this sign on his chest I asked him to go think about why he did this. He came back and his dramatic monologue told a much bigger story. His wife wrote the sign for free hugs and he realized that he asked her to do this because he needed to get out of his hospital room. He saw his marriage deteriorating because of everything he had been through and so he was reaching out. That’s good theatre.
KJW: I want to switch gears a little, since you do so much more than theatre. You are also a published author of cookbooks: The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking and the Secrets of Jesuit Soupmaking. How did those come about? What is the link between theatre and Jesuit cooking? And what is your favorite soup?
RC: Hmm…I like the mushroom soup recipes. And I like tomato soup. It’s interesting, when I did the bread book nobody knew I was doing it and so I had to look for things to include. Then, when I did the soup book, everyone knew I was doing it and I had nine tomato soup recipes, for example. So I had to pick and choose, which was not easy because when you cut out a recipe, you cut out a story.
The books were a natural outgrowth of the work at NTWH. The disabled, like all of us, need product at the end of the day—they need to have done something, made something. People circumscribe their lives to be so limited, and we wanted to not limit the disabled. Because I was trained as a baker as a Jesuit novice, I would bake bread as a gift for our benefactors. Fortunately, the number of benefactors grew, but that meant I had to bake a lot more bread. Some of the folks volunteered to help me and that expanded. At the workshop, our actors can’t be waiters. You know, all actors in New York are also waiters, but many of our actors couldn’t do that.
I thought, if I can teach them a craft, baking, then they can support themselves and have a skill on the resume that would get them work while they were working as actors. They would have something at the end of the day they could call their own. I believe in that so much I’m now raising money to open a bakery in D.C. for the Wounded Warriors.
That’s incarnational. So we’re now working on a book about desserts. We are a resurrected people. We share in Christ’s resurrection. We have to just stop and celebrate something, and so part of that is about deserts. It is about eating, sharing and being incarnate in the body.
KJW: I was about to ask, jokingly, if we will ever see a Secret of Jesuit Dessertmaking.
RC: It’s no joke. That is what I am working on right now. Baking celebratory foods to share and celebrate each other and God.
KJW: So it always returns to that original vision of empowering others for the greater glory of God. The NTWH has been around for 33 years. What developments would you like to see it, and you, go through in the next 33 years?
RC: (laughs) I’m not joking when I say this: I want to see it financially solvent. In this world it is a fact that you can’t do anything without money. You simply can’t. Like other institutions, the ones I work for all need money and what they do is not always valued to the point of being supported the way they should be. You have to work very, very hard to let people know art is a birthright and that the artistic life is something to be valued.
We can talk about prayer, we can talk about Jesuit spirituality, we can talk about Ignatius, we can talk about human spirituality, we can talk about all these things until we are blue in the face, but if we do not look at the arts, at how the arts embody and exult the human spirit and realize that the arts are the most ecumenical of the manifestations of the human spirit, we are failing at one of the most important things.
Yet, in our society, those who are in the arts are always second. We know this. You know this. We know this from anyone who has had to look for money to support the arts in a competitive environment. You’re at a university. There is more money for basketball than there is for theatre. You should have support. You should have what you need to make art. But the powers that be do not value art as they should. I don’t know if I’m going to change that mentality, but I try to make people understand. With the disabled, you need a guide dog, you need a wheel chair and people get that. But you also need your spirit lifted. You need to make art. You need to tell your story. You need to create. I’m militant about this.
KJW: You are not alone, either in your belief or in your frustration.
RC: I’m not alone in this, but I do have a bit of a bully pulpit. I can speak out on this, and I do. Not just for me. I want to see an endowed theatre at your school. I want you to have an endowed budget that allows you to do what you need to do. You should know exactly what you can do and not be subject to whether or not others will give it to you. You should have all this stuff that the basketball team already has. That is part of my job: to speak from the bully pulpit on the necessity of the arts for human spirituality.
KJW: What’s the best thing about being a Jesuit?
RC: Other Jesuits. I can’t do this alone.
KJW: What’s the best thing about being Father Rick Curry?
RC: (long pause) I think I’m blessed with hope.
KJW: Thank you so much.
RC: Thank you. God bless.