A New Play (in development) – Caught in the Pulpit

A New Play (in development) – Caught in the Pulpit June 4, 2015

Last Thursday afternoon in mid-town Manhattan was a very exciting day – for me, Dan Dennett and the assembled guests and actors.

Dan Dennett, Linda LaScola Art Siebens (husband) part of Kurt Volkan (publisher)
Dan Dennett, Linda LaScola
Art Siebens (husband), bearded man – Kurt Volkan (publisher), woman in blue – Beth Bernath, white haired man – Cliff Bernath

It was the first reading of a new play-in-development based on interviews from the study we conducted with non-believing clergy. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the working title, Caught in the Pulpit, which is the same as the book we wrote on the same subject.

Dan got the play idea back in 2009 then he was reading transcripts, thinking that the dialogue between me and the clergy would make great drama. It came to fruition when we found a writer, Marin Gazzaniga,

Marin Gazzaniga in foreground
Marin Gazzaniga in foreground

who has both theatre and TV experience.  We also found a funder.  The Richard Dawkins Foundation has generously provided a grant to develop the play. To gain access to the material, Marin went through the same Tufts University Institutional Review Board process that Dan and I did. Seventeen of the study participants gave her permission to read their transcripts. The only control over the project Dan and I have is regarding confidentiality issues. Marin is the playwright.  It is her play.

In addition to the excitement of seeing our research literally come to life, I’ve been learning a whole new vocabulary about a whole new field I knew nothing about. “In development” describes the initial stages, which the play is in now. We have a script, based on Marin’s extensive reading of the transcripts, which could change a lot before its finalized to the point it can be shown to potential producers. Last Thursday’s “first reading” was to a small invited group of about 35 friends and colleagues and was done by real actors. They were really good! One of them cried real tears and another was so much like the real clergy person that I felt like I had been transported back to the interviews. I was impressed with all the actors, who included Donnaldson Brown, Keith Nobbs, Welker White, John Ellison Conlee, Robert Stanton, Peggy J. Scott, Glenn Fitzgerald, Kevin Hogan, Zeljko Ivanek, Luzer Twersky and Austin Jones.

actors clapping 5
Some of the actors

Google and you will see what impressive credits they have.

[If you wonder why all the photos show people clapping, it’s because the reading has ended.  No photos are allowed during the reading.]

I was also impressed with the audience. It was in rapt attention. I spent more time checking out the audience than the actors. I already knew the script and wanted to gauge audience reaction.   There were quite a few laughs too. This surprised me, because the subject matter is not exactly humorous. There were at least two laughs per character (yes, I was counting) and in some cases many more.   I’m told laughter varies a lot depending on the actors and the audience. What plays in New York might not play so well in Peoria.

The next step is script revision. We figured it was too long, but the point of the first reading is to see what works and what doesn’t. We’re getting feedback from everyone who was there – the actors, theatre people, my market research colleagues, etc. – and it’s pretty clear that there are too many characters. Eleven. Some dialogue, scenes and  characters will have to go.   I’m glad I’m not making that decision because I love all of them. Also, I’m not qualified to decide something like that. First of all, I’m way too close to the material and secondly, I’m not a theatre professional. There are all kinds of elements to consider that I’m not aware of.

So people who have read the book or were in the study are probably wondering “Who is in the play right now?” and my frustrating answer is, “Sorry, I can’t say.” Anything can happen at this point. Some will go; others may be added. Not my decision. I will say that there is one character named “Linda” who I think is a keeper, but you never know.

One thing I do know for sure is that it has been an exciting and very weird process – the kind of thing you never expect to happen.  Now I’m eager to see what will happen next. I know there will be another reading. I don’t know when it will be, but I will definitely keep you posted.


>>>>>>>>>>>Photo Credits:  All photos by Judy Langer, New York, NY

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  • Drew Bekius

    Wow, this looks amazing! Would love to see this come show here in Chicago:)) Coming to a Steppenwolf stage near me, perhaps??

    But seriously, this really does look great. Looks like all the proper strides have been taken to secure both privacy and permission. And what better and more gripping emotional drama could you find than the stories of these women and men on the brink of losing everything they’ve held most dear. My eyes grow moist just thinking about it…

    Really, honestly, it’s hard to calm how excited I am about this project. I’m starting a line for the opening act right here…

    • Linda_LaScola

      That’s the spirit! Seriously — I appreciate the enthusiasm, Drew, and when/if the time comes, I will try to arrange a special deal for TCP members. In the meantime, you’re welcome to round up others and build excitement.

  • carolyntclark

    The stories from “Caught in the Pulpit” are a natural for the stage….all the drama of human emotions struggling in secrecy. Just think of the eye-opening effect it can have on the public…a peek into the lives of this unique group…..and maybe cause a few faith questions to be acknowledged in the minds of the audience.

    • Guthrum

      And how about the emotion of shame ? How about the emotions of congregations who have believed in this person, have developed a strong bond with their pastors, and who have supported the pastor in many ways , including financially ? How about them ? Will they find happiness in this play ?
      “But in all things approving ourselves as ministers of God” 2 Corinthians 6:4

      • Linda_LaScola

        Yep, Guthrum, the play addresses the issues you mention — as does the book. Maybe you should read it before you speculate any more about it.

      • mason

        Relax, vast numbers of the congregations don’t believe either. Do you need to obsessively parrot ancient texts?

        Those believers who see the play may experience a rational epiphany and see a window of opportunity to leave the superstition of theism, and discover a peace, wonder, and fulfilling happiness in a life they could have never before imagined. Instead of believing they need to be “born again” they might discover the joy of “growing up” and that that they are indeed not a sheep but a rational human being.

        Incredible claims require incredible evidence, and the theisms have none. Most of the clergy who realize religious theism is a scam do so through bible study, so keep up the study Gunthrum 🙂 There is hope for you yet while you live.

      • “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

  • mason

    It’s great you’re going through the process/development and having that unique experience few will ever have. How many acts & how long was the first reading. Good to hear it has laughs?

    • Linda_LaScola

      2 acts and over two hours – better too long than too short at this stage.

      Regarding the laughs — there were actually some laughs during the “real” interviews (I noted laughs and sighs and pauses and chances in tone in the transcripts) but it still surprised me to see people laughing – or having any reaction, really.

      • mason

        Wow, that’s a full sized play and with a cast of 11. Reaction is good 🙂 what it’s all about IMHO. Having gone through the process last November of rehearsals with the director & then the performances of my half hour one act comedy, I can relate to your watching the audience and the play; “I spent more time checking out the audience than the actors) it’s quite an experience. The photo of the actors with the script on the music stands brought rehearsal back memories.

        Where was the reading and is there any target date and location for opening night? It looks like you and Daniel will become immortalized in a play; how exciting is that! I hope it’s a smashing hit.

        Have you seen “The Book of Mormon?” That’s was a real theater mind expanding experience about the freedom and power of theater, and also a lovely harpoon of theism.

        • Linda_LaScola

          Wow — I can feel the optimism seeping through the internet! There is no “target date” set for anything. The only known next steps are a revised draft of the play and a second reading. If you had a director and performances, Mason, Bravo — you are way ahead of where we are right now — but we are certainly aiming for that.

          The reading was at a small studio on 8th avenue in mid-town. I could occasionally hear other (more violent!) plays being read in other studios.

          I did see the Book of Mormon — and the paid advertisement for Mormonism in the program.

          • mason

            Yeah, getting a rehearsal room booked at mutually agreeable time, noise from the other rehearsal rooms, “who took our music/script stands”, “she called and will be 15 minutes late, again”, etc etc. Welcome to theater.

            The “missionaries” were outside the theater with their book of Mormon. (I had some fun with them) When the missionaries come around our neighborhood I just tell them we’re atheists and now follow the book of Arnold.

            One script thought: from my experience in the TCP world I think the most gut wrenching scene, and could also be used as a comedy device, is when the clergy (male or female) tells the believing spouse (fundamentalist) they no longer believe in the faith and the spouse’s response is that this is deal breaker and they must re-covert or face divorce, loss of children etc etc. “Why could’t you have just cheated with the organist, or started drinking, embezzled from the tithes and offering, or took to gambling,..I could, and God could, forgive you for that..but THIS! You’re now an apostate! Why, why?”

            This is a great movie about casting, rehearsals, etc. for a play http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0977648/

          • Linda_LaScola

            I think I see the makings of YOUR next play, Mason.

          • mason

            one way or another, the audience craves drama; exciting, emotional, unexpected…that’s the main thing I’ve learned in my brief neophyte experience

  • cadunphy280

    Linda I am so happy to hear that the reading went well. I look forward to the premier, it is quite something to know that the study and the phenomenon of non believing clergy will be immortalized in this way!

    • Guthrum

      “immortalized in this way” ? Indeed. You have to be kidding. Here you have people who have made a profession of faith in Jesus, have promised God and a church congregation that they believe in the Bible and in Jesus as the only Son of God, and that they will faithfully carry out the duties of a Christian pastor. This is not some situation for honor and glorification. You have whole flocks of people who are being misled. If pastors are having problem of faith then they should immediately discuss this with the church leaders and step down. To continue in the pulpit is fraudulent and deceitful. Do not stay and be a hindrance to God’s work.

      • Linda_LaScola

        HI, Guthrum – Carrying out the duties of a Christian pastor requires a lot more than believing in God — and of course you must know that many Christian denominations do not require their clergy or their congregations to “believe in the Bible” in a literal way.

        And please, no one mentioned “honor and glorification” (except you). These are real-life stories of people experiencing deep conflicts. You might be surprised to find out how good a person can be without believing in God.

        Many clergy who discuss their “problem of faith” with their superiors are not encouraged to leave but are encouraged to work through their doubts – which they try to do.

      • mason

        Get used to this phenomena because thousands of clergy are lowering the flag of intellectual surrender to absurd irrational ancient superstitious beliefs. Each one will do this in their own way and time to recover from religion. They realize no one has been hearing their private prayers but themselves, and they are now building a new rational secular life.

        How they handle the difficult transition out of the life they were, for the most part scammed and bullied into as credulous children, is their private decision. I interact with and offer support to many of them everyday and they are courageous and and brave humans moving out of the dark ages of theism into the age of reason. Bravo to each one of these heroic human beings!

      • Guthrum: “You have whole flocks of people who are being misled.” That could be true in both cases, don’t you think? So many Christians are leaving their churches because of what is being preached, not because the preacher may have doubts. Your demand of resignation is silly. Do you really think that those people sitting in the pews this Sunday morning believe all of the things that they were taught?

        Take Catholics and the doctrine of birth control as example. In the 1950 families of 5, 6, and 7 filled the pews. Now it’s four. Gosh, what going on? What about communion? How many people receiving communion actually believe ithe bread is the body of Christ? What percent of Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead? How many believe he changed water into wine at the wedding?

        I suspect that few Christians can match your rock-solid belief system. Good for you. You’ve got everything under control. If only other Christians had your faith!

  • Guthrum

    Any person who is a pastor of a church and is not a believer needs to resign their position immediately and seek the counsel, wisdom, and support of other pastors. It is a very serious, dismaying action to be preaching and teaching God’s word to a congregation as true if you don’t actually believe it or have lost faith. Go to the Lord in prayer and ask for guidance. Jesus will listen and restore you.
    Do not stay in a church as pastor: you will be a hindrance to God’s work.
    “If thou shall seek the Lord thou shall find Him” Deuteronomy 4:29 KJV

    • Elizabeth.

      I hear your concern, Guthrum…. Pastors who are in transition have prayed, and are praying, fervently and honestly. From a believer’s point of view, there is the history that God has often used people outside the faith tradition to accomplish God’s purposes, like Cyrus. And I am thinking of the promise in Isaiah 55 that “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire, and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

      In that same Isaiah passage is the reminder that God’s thoughts are different from ours… so when people are praying and working through excruciatingly difficult circumstances, I think a believer can feel concern, but safely trust them to the Lord. peace, and love

    • But Guthrum, if church pastors in America take your advice, where will the millions of Christians go to worship on Sunday mornings?