A Conversation with Christa Scott-Reed
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Shadowlands tells the touching story of the relationship between C. S. Lewis and Helen Joy Davidman. The Fellowship of Performing Arts is producing the first New York revival of this acclaimed play, which began performances at the Acorn Theater on October 17. We spoke with Christa Scott-Reed, who is making her directorial debut, about what makes the play relevant to modern audiences, and about the relationship between faith and the arts.
Margarita Javier: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Christa Scott-Reed: I’m originally from the Pacific Northwest, from a little town called Wenatchee, Washington. It’s actually surprisingly home to a few theater artists in New York. It’s interesting because for a small town kind of in the middle of nowhere, they have a surprising love for theater. And I think it’s because it’s not geographically close to any other cities, so they sort of had to create their own cultural life.
MJ: So there’s a lot of theater there?
CSR: Yes! I mean, it’s all community theater; it’s not professional. But there’s a real love of it. For an agricultural town and one that’s relatively conservative, it’s remarkable how much they really value theater. I grew up just being immersed in it from a young age. And occasionally we’d get to go over to Seattle—and Dan Sullivan was running Seattle Rep at the time—and saw stuff there, and so that’s where I began. I went to undergrad at Whitman College in Washington, went to grad school at the Denver Center, and then found my way here.
MJ: Did you start as a performer?
CSR: I was always a performer until this particular job.
MJ: This is your first time directing?
CSR: This is my first time directing, yes.
MJ: How did that come about?
CSR: As a performer, I worked for Fellowship of the Performing Arts starting in 2013 on their production of The Great Divorce. And it started as a developmental production Off-Broadway, then we did a two-year national tour, and then we brought it back again to Off-Broadway. So it was a long stretch with them. And while I was working with them on Great Divorce, they started using me because, in my off-time as a performer, I also teach and coach other actors, so they started bringing me in, kind of as an artistic consultant, to maybe work with other actors in other productions, to direct readings, to help cast readings, to give artistic input in certain ways. And they started using me more and more for that. They sort of made it official when they realized that one thing they lacked in the company was a literary manager. And since I had been doing a lot with them in various ways, they said, “How about stepping in for this literary manager job?” I said, “I’m still a performer!” They said, “We get that; let’s call it a part time gig.” And in that role as literary manager, I directed a staged reading of Shadowlands for over a hundred donors and everybody seemed happy with that. Things started rolling and, because they had seen me handle the stage reading and because they had seen me in the room with actors, a couple of which are in the cast now, they said, “Ok you know what? We feel like we trust you. Let’s just have you do it. You’ve been a professional actor for over 20 years—you’ve been in the room. We think you can handle this.”
MJ: Are you taking from directors you’ve worked with?
CSR: Absolutely. In fact, the other day my assistant director was noticing how I was doing my notes in the script a certain way, and he said, “Who’d you get that from?” And I said, “Rob Ruggiero” [laughs]. So, absolutely. And in fact, I’ve reached out in this process to several good friends of mine who I respect hugely as directors, and asked for their advice, their wisdom. They’ve put in good words for me. I’ve not been shy to try to humbly learn from those who know better than I do.
MJ: Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first New York City revival of Shadowlands.
CSR: It is.
MJ: So it’s a big undertaking as the first project to be directing, right?
CSR: It is. When you’re going to direct something for the first time, why not pick a show that’s set in the 1950s England, with 12 cast members, two of which are children, and 35 scene changes—why not? I mean, it’s an easy one. An easy one [laughs].
MJ: What can you tell us about the show itself, Shadowlands?
CSR: It’s a beautiful show. A lot of people know it because it was not only from Broadway and the West End, but because it was made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. People know it from that. They go “Oh right, Shadowlands!” But it’s time for it to come back to remind themselves of it. It’s a beautiful story. It’s known as a little bit of a three-hanky piece, but it’s not just that. Working on it, I’m reminded of how moving and how thought provoking it is. Those are all clichéd words, but really true in this case. And it’s also really nice -I was telling somebody else- it’s really nice to have a show that is a love story, but a love story between people who aren’t 22, who aren’t passionately falling for each other in that first-time way. There’s room for those stories, and those stories are being done, but I like the fact that these are mature people who have lived their lives, who have pain and suffering under their belts, who have past marriages and children and all those kinds of things. Telling that story as a love story is, I think, refreshing, especially for a theater audience who’s not largely 22 year olds. I know I’m not! And then you add to it the layers of what it has to say about the meaning of suffering: Why does God allow suffering in the world? What do we give up in order to gain something? When we gain so much joy and love, what do we give up in the form of pain and suffering? How does that test our faith, our doubt? All universal subjects that really resonate. Even though C. S. Lewis was, I think, a renowned Christian, there are things that resonate for anyone regardless of faith background. It’s about human experience.
MJ: And because this is based on a true story, has there been a process of doing research into the lives of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman? What has that been like?
CSR: Absolutely. And in fact, as somebody who probably in another life would have preferred to be a librarian—and I don’t joke when I say that—I love research. I took my dramaturgical element burden a little bit too far and spent months reading every biography I could get my hands on, and I ended up compiling it into this hefty stack of research about the characters, background about Oxford, everything I could get my hands on. And I presented it to the cast. I said, “There won’t be a test on this, but use this as a resource.” And I remember Danny, who plays C. S. Lewis, said, “Well, I do have a friend in England who had studied with or knew C. S. Lewis, and I was going to contact him. I don’t know that I need to now!” [laughs]. So I went a little crazy. It was also important for me to tell them that this isn’t a documentary. Danny doesn’t look like C. S. Lewis. These are different people—this is a play, it’s not reality. Of course it’s inspired by true events, and we want to maintain a sense of strong connection to those ideas. He may not look exactly like Lewis, but he is Lewis for this story. What are his needs, his wants, his loves?
MJ: Why do you think this play is relevant to today’s audiences, specifically in New York? What do you think it’s telling us?
CSR: Touching on what I said before, honestly, look at what happened recently in Las Vegas. One of the first things the character of Lewis does as he walks out onstage is to hold up a newspaper and say, “This tragedy.” In this case, it was the Gillingham bus disaster in the 1950s. He says, “This just happened. How can God allow this to happen? What is the meaning of this kind of suffering?” Obviously, that’s true of any period in time, but I think this is something we’re struggling with constantly. How do we deal with pain? What is the purpose of it? I think it’s true no matter what decade you’re in. It’s always going to be relevant.
MJ: And you mentioned this is being produced by the Fellowship of Performing Arts, a not-for-profit company that is interested in delivering theater that has a Christian worldview. So first of all, how did you first become involved with them?
CSR: I auditioned like anybody else through their casting director for The Great Divorce. One thing I particularly respect about FPA is they have this mission to deliver theater from a Christian worldview that will engage a diverse audience, so they want to present a piece of art that is executed to its highest level possible. To that end, they want the best artists. They did not ask me when I auditioned what my faith background was or what my beliefs were. I’ve been at talkbacks with the artistic directors, and members of the audience ask, “Well, who in the cast, or designers, or crew—who is Christian?” And he just says, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them.” And I really appreciate that. What they require from an artist who works with them is somebody who is willing to do the best job they can, to make the best piece of art that they can, that speaks to that mission. But we have artists of all faith backgrounds or no faith backgrounds. Because so often—and I’m just speaking for myself now—when you hear the term “Christian theater”—and I happen to be a Christian—but even I wince a little bit. You think this is going to be some kind of eye rolling niche theater that’s just … ugh. And that’s really not their purpose. They really want to do a piece of art that’s intellectually challenging, emotionally engaging, something that audience members can come to and, regardless of faith background, be interested or fascinated by, come out of the theater laughing, thinking. They have managed to do that. When we did The Great Divorce, friends of mine came to see it when we were on tour in D.C.—and these are people who firmly have their own faith tradition which is not Christian, and they will never be interested in being Christian, nor should they—but they signed up for the newsletter because they loved the play so much. They all happen to be psychologists and they were all so engaged in the ideas. That’s the kind of thing that they’re interested in. Yes, of course FPA wants to provide theater for practicing Christians who are looking for art that speaks to them, that’s not speaking beneath them, but actually meets them at an intellectual level that’s satisfying. But at the same time, we want to bring other people in. The ideas of C. S. Lewis are interesting to people of all different types and sorts.
MJ: Going by what you said, I think we can agree that Christianity as a religion has been hijacked by the political right, definitely in this country, but also other parts of the world. Because of that, there tends to be a negative association with that religion for people of more liberal political leanings, especially in the theater world. What would you say to that end in terms of what this theater company is trying to achieve?
CSR: Certainly in our audience, there are conservative people, there are progressive people, there are people who span all parts of the political spectrum, as well as all parts of the faith spectrum. But I think we deliver stories that speak authentically to the human experience and that expand our imaginations rather than limit them. And I think a lot of progressives—and I count myself as progressive—get upset with a too-conservatively imagined Christianity; there’s this idea of limiting thought, of limiting experience of putting up barriers and saying, “This is acceptable and this is not.” And I don’t think that artists are in the business of doing that.
MJ: Right, and C. S. Lewis was a perfect example of that: he was very much an intellectual proponent of Christianity.
CSR: I know that for Max, our artistic director, his real desire is to do work that is intellectually respected. I think we can get people’s attention that way. You can walk in and be like “Let’s see what these Christians have for us” and then walk out going “That blew my mind a little bit.” We get a lot of reviews like that. Over the course of the last few years, a lot of the reviewers will start by saying, “I expected to be preached at. And that’s not what I got. I started thinking new thoughts.” We’re not in the business of alienating people; we’re not in the business of telling people what to think. We’re in the business of showing a piece of art that hopefully speaks to your body, soul, and mind.
MJ: When you talk about a “Christian worldview,” what is that? What is a Christian worldview?
CSR: Well, certainly, it would be one that speaks to the values and the ideas behind a Christ centered life. So it would be love, compassion, what they talk about in Shadowlands. The whole concept of the title of Shadowlands is a Platonic idea—that the world we live in now is really just a shadow of the life to come, that true reality is something that lives beyond. It’s not special just to Christianity, but it’s certainly something that is an important part of Christianity: that there is another world, there is something supernatural that is beyond that. All of our shows have an element of the supernatural for that reason: that there’s something beyond, there’s something more. If we can find how we can best live in the present and be in the best relationship with other people and with God, that’s all part of becoming more real for the realness to come.
MJ: I’m fascinated by Joy Davidman.
CSR: I know, right? What an amazing character.
MJ: And we don’t know as much about her as we do about C. S. Lewis, so I was hoping you can talk about her, in terms of the play.
CSR: Yes, it’s interesting when you asked, “How does this play speak to New Yorkers?” because she’s perfect. She is such a New Yorker: from the Bronx, born into a Jewish but non-religious family, an incredible intellectual. She was absolutely C. S. Lewis’ intellectual equal. She was a genius, off the charts.
MJ: That’s what drew him to her initially, her intellect.
CSR: Oh absolutely, yeah. And she started as a passionate communist and a writer, and then discovered that communism as it was being practiced was just not for her, so she eventually moved away from that. She was always searching for something. At one point she was interested in Dianetics, before it became Scientology, but she eventually came to Christianity herself and, as a result of that, started writing to C. S. Lewis and him to her. As you said, then it was meeting of the minds—this purely intellectual relationship started via letter writing for a couple of years and then once they finally met, everything blew up from there.
MJ: What can you tell us about the cast?
CSR: Our cast is great. Daniel Gerroll plays C. S. Lewis. He’s a wonderful British and American actor that people will know from years of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, films, and television. Robin Abramson plays Joy, and she’s a revelation. I’m really excited about showing Robin to New York audiences because she has been sort of the young leading lady of Pittsburgh, which is where she’s from. She only recently moved to New York, this is her New York stage debut. This feels like the way Joy kind of bursts into C. S. Lewis’ life, and, in a way, I feel like Robin is bursting into New York, and I can’t wait for people to see her. It’s just a wonderful group of actors. John C. Vennema, whom audiences have seen in a million wonderful things in New York, is exceptional and hilarious as C. S. Lewis’ brother Warnie. There are excellent actors across the board in this play.
MJ: Being a performer yourself, how does that inform your job as a director?
CSR: My assistant director, whom I had never worked with before, has worked with lots of directors but never with one who was also an actor, so he keeps saying, “It’s so interesting the things that you focus on that other directors don’t.” Whether it’s concern about how certain actors should carry certain things, or how difficult it will be for an actor to wear a costume, or how the dialogue is going—just little actor-centric things. He says most directors don’t think of that stuff. I think my strength going into the production was knowing how to communicate with actors, not only from teaching and coaching, but also just being in productions and having that relationship. The thing that I’ve had to learn on the job is staging in a way I never had before: blocking, seeing the entire arc of a show in a new way. I was always focused on my part as an actor. So it’s been a learn-on-the-job situation, but it’s been very satisfying.
MJ: Who would you say are your biggest influences both as a performer and as a director?
CSR: Where to begin? I will have to say Dan Sullivan’s productions on Seattle Rep stage. His productions are what made me love theater. There are so many beautiful directors working today. I saw a production recently that blew me away, Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Signature, directed by Lila Neugebauer. It’s a modern retelling of the medieval Everyman story, and it had this heightened, almost theological, philosophical thing, and it was not coming from a Christian worldview, but it spoke at those levels and it was so deeply affecting. Shadowlands is a little bit of a departure for FPA in the sense that it’s so traditional. They have tended to do very artistically “out there” stuff, whether it’s The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce. The show they have right now, Martin Luther on Trial, which is touring, tells the story of Martin Luther in the afterlife; he’s on trial and the devil is the prosecuting attorney. St. Peter is the judge and the witnesses are everyone from Hitler to Freud to Pope Francis to Martin Luther King Jr. They tend to do these highly theatrical pieces, so in a way, Shadowlands is a bit more of a traditional affair for them. But it still has magic in it.
MJ: What do you feel is the relationship between faith and the arts, specifically theater?
CSR: It seems like such a natural connection. If you go back in history, theater first evolved from religious expression: the mask works of the Greeks, to the Medieval Churches, the Passion plays. How do you express magic? How do you express the unexpressed? Through art, right? And how does one even begin to articulate what is faith or what is ultimate joy as experienced through faith? Why do they sing in musicals? Because they have no other way of expressing emotions. I think at some point, you have to leave standard expressions and enter into an artistic realm. Even Christ spoke in stories, in parable. A lot of times, it’s difficult when we get too strict in our definitions of biblical text, because we as a society don’t have an understanding of how people thousands of years ago wrote and expressed themselves much more metaphorically. So it seems like the arts are a natural extension of that.
MJ: Moving forward, do you want to direct again?
CSR: I’m certainly open to it. It’s been a really fun, mind-blowing, and mind-expanding experience. I’ve learned so much more about theater. I thought I kinda knew it; I was like: “I got this! I know all about it!” And then you go into this meeting where they’re discussing set construction, and where and how it gets constructed, and they talk about the electrics, and the light rigging, and I realized I didn’t even begin to know. The amount of marketing material, the thousands of daily e-mails tweaking every little thing. I didn’t realize that when you pull open that wonderful Wizard of Oz curtain, behind there, it’s a mile long. I don’t want to sound too ignorant; I obviously had an idea, but there was more that I had no idea about. So it’s exciting. I’ve just seen behind the curtain. I want to get better at it. I want to learn even more. Let your readers know, though, I am not giving up acting. It is my passion. Please cast me! [laughs]
MJ: Is there a play that you would love to direct?
CSR: The minute I learned that I was directing this, I was like: “So that my mind doesn’t completely liquefy from being too overwhelmed, I’m just going to focus on this play and think about nothing but this play”. So obviously it hasn’t occurred to me. Other than the fact that as a literary manager I have other scripts for FPA that we’re talking about developing and—no pressure on FPA—but certainly every now and then it occurs to me about whether I’d like to try to convince them to let me do this again.
MJ: What about performing wise? Is there any role you’ve always wanted to play and haven’t yet?
CSR: It’s interesting how I’ve had to shift those over the course of my life. There would be parts that now I realize “I’ve aged right out of that one, haven’t I?” I did so much classical theater when I was a younger woman, and then I had children and that necessitated staying in New York, so I just started working with more new plays. So now that I’ve skipped forward into a different age range, when can I go back to playing all those classical roles that were always out of my reach? But still please cast me in modern plays and in film and TV [laughs].
MJ: Why should people come see this show and what do you hope people will get out of it?
CSR: I’ll say the obvious: it’s really good. It’s a really good play. Our sound designer, John Gromada, a wonderful Tony-nominated sound designer, said, “This is a really good play!” It sneaks up on you. You go in and think: I’m going to hear some smart ideas from the mouth of C. S. Lewis that you would expect to hear. And then all of a sudden, you’re crying and you’re not exactly sure why. It just sinks into your bones. There’s something about this play that is deeply affecting in a mature way. Not that you can’t be 22 and see this and enjoy it, but this is a play for someone like me, someone who’s had some life experience and who’s had to ask those tough life questions, deal with pain and loss and love and joy. I was just reading this amazing article about the midlife crisis for women—a subject that’s not much dealt with—and how suddenly there’s this perfect life storm of all these different life things bouncing up against each other. Coming to see a piece of art like this—where someone like me is sorting through those ideas too, but in a way that’s a thousand times more articulate than I could ever be—emotionally organizes those thoughts in a way that makes me go: “Yes. This is actually how prayer works in a way that’s not derivative or simple minded. That is really how we can think of suffering and love in a way that has real genuine, mature thought, but still grabs me by the gut at the same time.” We go see smart plays, witty plays, and we go see emotionally powerful plays that are messy. But to see those worlds meet? I think it’s rarer than we realize.
Broadway: The Pitman Painters. National Tour: C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Off-Broadway: Church and State (New World Stages); The Great Divorce (world premiere, Fellowship for Performing Arts); The Talls (world premiere, Second Stage); The Freedom of the City (Irish Repertory Theatre); Celebration and The Room, The Bald Soprano and the Lesson, 10×20, 10×25 (Atlantic Theatre Company); Beasley’s Christmas Party, Pullman Car Hiawatha, Museum (Keen Company); Deathbed (world premiere, McGinn-Cazale Theatre); Marion Bridge (Urban Stages); The Voysey Inheritance (Mint Theater Company). Film & Television: 30 Rock, The Impossibilities, Eden, Gossip Girl, 666 Park Avenue, Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, Love Life, New Amsterdam, As the World Turns. Regional Theater: Mark St. Germain’s Relativity at TheatreWorks (with Richard Dreyfuss); On Golden Pond (with Keir Dullea, Bucks County Playhouse); Argonautika, Honour (with Kathleen Chalfant, Berkeley Repertory Theatre); Restoration Comedy, The Food Chain (The Old Globe); The Little Dog Laughed (Intiman Theatre); As You Like It, Crimes of the Heart, the world premiere of Charles L. Mee’s Limonade Tous les Jours (Actors Theatre of Louisville). Other Regional: Papermill Playhouse, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Pioneer Theatre, Barrington Stage, Syracuse Stage, Denver Center Theatre Company, Cleveland Playhouse, Olney Theatre Center, and many more.