Starting yesterday at the cavernous St. Ann’s Warehouse, New York City is getting its first chance to experience “Hell House”, an interactive spectacle that is fast becoming a Halloween tradition in churches across America.
Nearly all productions of “Hell House” are based on a single script sold by Pastor Keenan Roberts, co-founder of The New Destiny Christian Center in Colorado. “Hell House” visitors are escorted through a series of graphic scenes which illustrate the agonizing results of such sinful behavior as gay marriage, abortion, and dancing at raves.
The intent, according to Pastor Keenan’s website, is “to shake your city with the most in-your-face, high-flyin', no denyin', death-defyin', Satan-be-cryin', keep-ya-from-fryin', theatrical stylin', no holds barred, cutting-edge evangelism tool of the new millennium!”
Pastor Keenan has sold thousands of “Hell House” how-to kits to church groups around the world. According to the Washington Post, “the kit includes the script and advice on music, costumes and props -- including how to select the best cut of meat to depict an aborted fetus -- and tips for dealing with skeptical journalists.”
Although Pastor Keenan recently sold the film rights to “Hell House”, a 2001 documentary was the first to expose a wider audience to the show. In 2004, a Los Angeles production of "Hell House" enlisted Andy Richter (as Jesus) and Bill Maher (as Satan) to lampoon Pastor Keenan’s script.
The theater company staging New York’s Hell House, Les Freres Corbusier, has won awards for their whimsically smart romps through Ibsen (using real robots) and Scientology (using real children).
We recently sat down with Aaron Lemon-Strauss, the Executive Director of Les Freres Corbusier to discuss how their production will differ from the L.A. production, the involvement of Pastor Keenan Roberts and other topics including salvation, irony and bringing Iowa to Brooklyn. That interview is after the jump...
Gothamist: How did you obtain the “Hell House” kit from Pastor Keenan?
Lemon-Strauss: We called him up and ordered it. He knows we’re doing it and he’s coming to see the final dress rehearsal and the first performance. He feels that the message is so strong that if the show’s done sincerely that the message will win out.
He saw the L.A. production, and they had told them they were Evangelicals, which they’re not. So when he went [to L.A.] and saw it he felt deceived. In some sense he’s sort of giving secular arts practitioners a chance at redemption, to see if we can actually treat this material seriously and with reverence.
Gothamist: How much does he charge for the kit?
Lemon-Strauss: The kit is 300 dollars. And then you can buy add-ons to the kit. There are 10-15 scenes which you can buy and they range from 30-50 bucks a piece. We bought “The Gay Wedding” scene as an add-on. There’s also an alternate abortion scene where you meet the fetus that was aborted as if it had grown up and lived a full life. It’s a little too long for what we’re doing.
Gothamist: Has Pastor Keenan given you any noteworthy feedback since you began the rehearsal process?
Lemon-Strauss: The most interesting thing he said to me - which I think is the reason why we’re doing this - was, “I understand you’re doing this for different reasons than I would do this, but I want you to know that if you do it sincerely a lot of people are going to see it and are going to want to re-commit their lives to Jesus.”
And he’s a smart, rational, intelligent person. But it is beyond my ability to comprehend how the depiction of an abortion - and the condemnation of that act by the Bible - would be enough to bring someone to believe in an omnipotent higher power.
And yet he’s not just talking out of nowhere; his empirical experience is that it does lead people to Jesus. And that disconnect between my perception and experience and his perception and experience – the experience of two otherwise similar people, I mean we’re both Americans, we both go about our daily lives in probably very similar ways – that difference is fascinating to me. I think it’s the real reason we’re doing the show.
You can come and you can laugh at what you view to be the absurdity that an abortion would lead you to Jesus but you should also realize that it does lead a lot of people to Jesus. And it leads intelligent, rational, normal people to Jesus. Not, you know, weirdoes. And that’s incredible to me and it’s beyond my ability to believe - from my own experience.
Gothamist: Is every line of dialogue in your production from the Pastor Keenan script?
Lemon-Strauss: The only difference in what we’re doing is that we’re taking out some of the things that were intended as jokes because we’re worried that the audience is going to think that we added the jokes.
There’s also a scene provided by the church where secular humanists are sitting around that we’ve made more “New York”. If you’re doing a Hell House in Tulsa, you’re encouraged by Pastor Keenan to make it local. We’ve sent Pastor Keenan the script for that scene and he’s approved it.
[In this scene, which we saw in rehearsal, a trio of secular hipsters loaf in a coffee shop.
Secular Hipster A: “Did you see this week’s Onion? Jesus comes back - to see the new Harry Potter movie!”
Secular Hipster B: “I’m going to blog about it!”]
Gothamist: Some productions of “Hell House” re-enact a school shooting scene in a manner directly relating to Columbine. Is that in your production?
Lemon-Strauss: The school shooting scene is definitely Columbine-esque. In the stage directions that come from the church, he is supposed to wear a black trench coat, from which he pulls out a rifle, and he’s supposed to wear a heavy-metal rock band T-shirt.
Our host through this whole evening is a demon tour guide who interacts with the characters in each scene. So in the school shooting scene, Jeremy [the boy with the gun] is saying, “I can’t take it anymore!” and the demon tour guide eggs him on, saying something like, “Well, remember how you were reading Harry Potter and that led you to love Satan? End it all Jeremy, these people are worthless.”
Gothamist: I read somewhere that the scene has Jeremy asking a student if she believes in God and when she says yes he shoots her.
Lemon-Strauss: That’s not in the script we have. It’s possible that someone did a “Hell House” not using the official “Hell House” script.
Gothamist: Are you or anyone else involved in the production religious, Christian or Evangelical?
Lemon-Strauss: There are about 100 people involved. I haven’t polled people but there are certainly religious people. No one is Evangelical Christian, but there are certainly Christians, Muslims and Jews. We’re definitely not mocking anyone so no person of faith needs to feel like they can’t participate in the project.
Gothamist: What was the casting process like?
Lemon-Strauss: It went fine but there were definitely people who heard about the project and thought we were on one side of the fence we’re trying to straddle. Some people wrote us to say we’re horrible for condemning gay people to hell and we also got responses from people saying we’re horrible for mocking people of faith. The truth is we’re doing neither of those things. We’re not condemning anyone. We’re doing this piece of popular theatre that does condemn but it’s not necessarily our viewpoint. And of course we’re not mocking anyone. We’re just trying to be objective chroniclers of a sociological artifact.
Our goal is to bring into communication two groups that so rarely communicate: people of faith and people who don’t believe in a higher being. Those two groups so rarely communicate directly and are so suspicious of each other that this seems like a rare chance to bring them together.
You know, you could either fly 6,000 New Yorkers into Iowa to meet 6,000 Iowans or you could bring Iowa to Brooklyn. So this is a chance for coast dwellers to get a sense of how Evangelicals represent themselves… and draw their own conclusions from it.
Gothamist: And after walking through various rooms of evangelical Hell, audience members will emerge into what is being described as a “celebratory hoedown”. What can they expect to find there?
Lemon-Strauss: The last 45 minutes have been very intense so this is a chance for people to decompress, talk amongst themselves and with staff members and ask questions about the performance. It’s going to be like a Youth Group Meeting. So there’s going to be rock bands, punch, powdered donuts, and friendly greeter types.
Gothamist: It seems from what I saw in rehearsal that for an audience member in New York - who in all likelihood is progressive and gay friendly - the reaction to a lot of the production is going to be laughter - until they get to the end and God attempts to lead the audience in a group prayer committing their lives to Christ. I’m wondering how people are going to react to that.
Lemon-Strauss: I think we’re going to get a big range of reactions. I think we’ll get people who really get into the idea of it and I think we’ll get people who really reject it and refuse to take part. And I think that’s fine. We really don’t care what viewpoint people have coming in or leaving, only that they have a chance to experience a different community’s sense of right and wrong.
So if you come into this and you are rejecting everything it stands for and stand there with your arms crossed and don’t participate, that’s totally fine. If you come and want to really dive in or find it serious or somber, that’s also fine.
We’re talking about God and salvation; these are topics that people have a lot of different feelings toward. And of course they should all express their feelings and we don’t stand behind any one in particular. So people should react as they choose.
Gothamist: In Les Freres Corbusier’s mission statement, there’s mention of “reaching beyond the mere ironic deconstruction of a subject toward a more sophisticated form of positive analysis.” Can you expand on that as it relates to “Hell House”?
Lemon-Strauss: The work we do comes from a frustration with avant-guard experimental theater in New York City. Which ever since - ever since who knows when - but especially ever since the sort of BAM 80’s Next Wave-influenced takeover of experimental theater there’s a sense that experimental theater has to be alienating in order to be edgy.
Which leads people with the choice: Do you go to Broadway, and there you see a beautifully built apartment where two people fall in love, they lose, they gain love again, everyone cries, it’s very emotionally transcendent but no issues are really discussed, or do you go to a Richard Foreman show and you don’t understand what the fuck he’s talking about but it seems like maybe it’s edgy.
And so we were frustrated with that dichotomy. And I think there are many other companies that do work that’s very similar to ours that we like so I think other people are [frustrated] too. And so the goal of our work is to recognize that New York City audiences are not going to accept pure straightforward ‘being lectured at’ or emotional connections and academic connections that don’t have some sort of edge.
People want to see the wink, they want to see the nod; they want to be in on the joke. So what we’ve done with our show is ‘put the joke in the frame’, as we like to say. So we did a show called “A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant” and the idea of that show was that it was a Christmas pageant for L. Ron Hubbard instead of Jesus. And nowhere in the show is there anything saying Scientologists are bad, it’s the absurdity of the words that Scientologists have written themselves that condemns Scientology.
And so the same thing is at work in all our shows where the irony is in the frame of the piece. Someone was asking me the other day if [our] “Hell House” is ironic. And I think what I told them, which sort of seems like a gimmicky answer, is that it’s definitionally ironic because we’re not Christian Evangelicals and yet our show is expressing Christian Evangelical beliefs. That’s definitionally ironic.
But it’s not ironic in the sense that the methods used are contrary to the views expressed. The idea is that in the abortion scene we intend to send out the message that abortion is wrong. Now, do we personally believe that abortion is wrong or that it ought to be banned or that it sends you to hell? That’s a different question. In this room, we want the message to be that abortion sends you to hell. And once you walk out the door you can think to yourself that while they [the performers] might not have believed that, in the moment is a sincere expression of faith from the heartland.