Religious Rite Theater: A Collaborative Process

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 3/4, "Changing Scenes: Theater in the South." Find more from that issue here.

This article was drawn from a May 1986 interview with Levi Lee and Rebecca Wackler by guest editor Rebecca Ranson.


When Levi Lee takes on the role of an evangelist in the production of Tent Meeting, he walks into the audience to shake hands with the "congregation." He may ask them to stand and sing a hymn.

"People stand before they think about it and they feel like they were tricked because it's such an automatic response," he says. Lee draws on this trained response and the conflict it produces. "Those similarities between church audiences and theater audiences are part of the reason we do the kind of plays we do."

The plays that Lee does, with Rebecca Wackler and Larry Larson, are the product of a unique collaborative effort. All three writer/performers are part of the Atlanta-based Southern Theater Conspiracy which was invited to perform twice at the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays — sponsored by Actors Theater in Louisville. Not only do the three perform in the plays — referred to as religious rite theater — they also write and produce them.

Such loaded subject matter is bound to create controversy. Tent Meeting, for example, has at times offended audience members. "I can see some people with their arms crossed and hostile looks on their faces," says Lee. "In Louisville, we would have maybe four people walk out a night. Some people stay until the end and say they hated it but wanted to see what happened. I think it's a valid response."

At the same time, the plays have proved remarkably successful, especially with the Louisville audience, more accustomed to innovative theater. Says Wackler, "In Atlanta, we were lucky to have an audience of 30 people. In Louisville, we would have over 300 people a night. We would go to the bar after a performance and people would stand up and applaud us. We didn't quite know what to make of it."

Besides Tent Meeting, the trio has also seen its work Illuminati: Some Things You Should Know Before The World Ends produced at the festival, which selects about a dozen plays a year from over 4,000 entries.

Tent Meeting, the play performed at the 1985 festival, rides a dangerous line between comedy and uncomfortable religious blasphemy. In the play, an evangelist kidnaps a baby with the assistance of his son and daughter and advice from God. The play treads on Southern stereotypes, fundamentalist religion, family values, and incest.

The idea for Tent Meeting began when the threesome attended a party and guests suggested that they ride to a tent meeting in progress. "As soon as we heard that, we knew it was going to be the next play," says Lee. "We had always been interested in religious rite theater. Illuminati takes place in the context of a Lutheran religious service and Rebecca had written The Gospel of Mary; we just knew that a play that took place during a tent meeting would be a great play."

Lee, Wackler, and Larson, veteran actors in a number of Atlanta theaters, often make use of improvisational techniques — an outgrowth of previous acting work at Atlanta's Academy Theatre. "We do a condensed version of improv now," explains Lee. "We do a sit-around-the­table version." Lee generally places himself at the typewriter and edits while Wackler and Larson forge ahead with ideas. "They get ahead of me and I have to stop them to get our thoughts down," says Lee. ''.All writing is based on improv but most writers do it alone in their heads."

The concept for Tent Meeting was discussed for months and kept changing. After deciding that they would perform the roles themselves, Wackler, Lee and Larson began to create their characters. Lee found the writing process to be amazingly easy. "It was almost totally free of ego problems. You can run into problems doing collaborative work where the sharp edges and the highs and lows of the piece get voted out and you turn out something bland. In the work we've done so far we've been lucky enough to have the same sense of outrageousness and generally the same point of view."

"We build on each other," Wackler says. "We just roll." Lee laughs, "It's a rare experience and we don't count on having it all the time." But they prefer writing collectively. "It's easier than facing that white paper alone." And decisions get made. Wackler wanted to set Tent Meeting in 1945 because that "felt" right and after discussion it made sense because the writers believed the police would have caught the kidnappers quickly in 1986 with a dragnet of helicopters.

Drawing audiences from around the world, the Humana Festival provides opportunities for the playwrights and the players. In Louisville, Lee, Wackler, and Larson had the unusual chance to perform their own work — unlike most other plays staged there with local actors — in an amply funded production. Following the festival, the cast spent eight months touring with Tent Meeting, taking it to Charleston's Spoleto Festival, to Ireland, and to Philadelphia. They hope to open the show in New York next fall.