In discussion with: Andrew Dinwiddie and Jeff Larson

This discussion with Andrew Dinwiddie and (towards the end of the chat) Jeff Larson, about their piece Get Mad at Sin!, is the fifth installment of my archival dramaturgy project. Get Mad at Sin! premiered at The Chocolate Factory Theater in May, 2010 and included performance by Dinwidde, direction by Larson, lighting by Chloe Z. Brown, sound by Jon Moniaci, and spatial design by Sara Walsh.  The text for Get Mad at Sin! was originally written and delivered by Jimmy Swaggart, as a sermon.

SM:  Did you initially decide to work with one of Jimmy Swaggart’s sermons from an interest in the content itself, or was it more an interest in the idea of reconstructing something from a recording?

AD:  I originally found the record.  My friends and I were trying to teach ourselves how to scratch, and so we would go to thrift stores and try to find cheap records that had interesting sounds on them.  I found this and another sermon by him.  (The other one is much nicer; it’s about family.)  Really loved the record then.  We would scratch it and put beats behind it.  Really loved it, and would listen to it for fun occasionally.   Then, I started getting into using documentary sources in making art, and eventually put those two ideas together.  I was like, “Oh, I could use this as a documentary source.”  It wasn’t that I was like, “Oh, I should do a preaching thing.”  But, I’ve always had an interest in religion and having religious themes in my art, so the documentary interest and the religious interest connected with this source that I already had and loved.

SM: One of the things that I thought was so effective about the piece was how uncomfortably tense it was to be in the audience, because we were very well lit, and we were facing each other.

AD:  By raising the audience at The Chocolate Factory, we were trying to give them more separation and agency.

SM; I felt like there was a shared response, at first.  It was as if we in the audience had all already decided what we were going to think about what you were going to say, and the person you were playing.  Then, as it went on, I felt like there was this cloud of confusion that settled over us.  I felt that I could see the mechanism of Swaggart’s skill at manipulating people, and at the same time, I was being manipulated.  I started to question things.  I felt, by the end, that everyone was very solemn and quiet, listening to you.  Did you feel that shift as a performer?

AD:  Opening night was the loudest audience – lots and lots of laughter.  The rest of the time it was a lot quieter.  I don’t know how much I experienced a shift.  I feel like for a performer, anything except for laughter feels like they hate you, because a “paying attention” face looks a lot like a totally bored or mad face.  People go slack when they are really paying attention, and it looks terrible.

SM: I know exactly the face you’re talking about, and it’s a terrifying face.  You were working so hard – really preaching for an hour.  If you had let your guard down or winked at the audience in some way, the whole thing would have been shot.  What was the balance between your focus on total commitment to the material, and your ability to read anything that was happening with the audience?

AD: There was definitely a very tight score.  One of the things that continues to haunt me is my failure to sound exactly like him.  I do a pretty good job, but I still I would like to go back.  I’m excited, if I do it again, to have the opportunity to study it fresh and try to get even closer to what he actually sounds like.  I had this very strict score, and so I really had to keep going – had to stay in the rhythm of it.  But, all during that, I’m trying to also focus in every moment on whether I’m communicating it to the audience, whether the message is reaching people.

SM: That was clear.  That was what made it so intense.  When I heard about the show, I thought that I was going to see “hipster-does-southern-preacher,” and it wasn’t like that at all.  Your complete sincerity of delivery was unexpected and unsettling.

AD: It was also a conceptual struggle for us, because we were recreating this document, in which Swaggart was preaching to an audience.  So, we struggled with the question of: “How does that audience that he was preaching to relate to our audience?”  Jeff really made the decision pretty soon into our rehearsal process that I should not be preaching to the audience at The Chocolate Factory, that I should be preaching to some other audience.

SM: Did you define who that audience was?  Was it the audience on the recording?

AD:  It got more complicated than that.  The goal was going to be to somehow be in two places at once – two realities at once.  I compared the idea to Ebenezer Scrooge.  You know when Scrooge goes back in the past, and he can see, but he can’t communicate?  So, the idea was somehow that the audience was like Scrooge going back into the past.   The audience were ghosts.  The audience at The Chocolate Factory had these privileged seats, but the audience that I was preaching to was the original audience in the original church.  Jeff compared it to a crazy person on the street, who can be interacting with this whole other universe right next to you, and then you get to experience it.  They might occasionally seem to be talking to you, but they’re not really.  It’s a whole other thing going on in their mind.  So, even if they look at you and address you, they’re actually not seeing you.  That’s how we rehearsed it, and then dress rehearsal, Jeff was like, “No, that’s not what we should do.”  For me, it was a relief.  We decided that I should really be addressing the people who were there in that room.  But, still, there’s an issue of interpretation within that addressing that in some way I couldn’t react emotionally to what I might be getting from the audience, or I had to interpret what I was getting through the lens of that original audience.

SM:  I think that’s what kept it from ever feeling like you, Andrew, winked at us from behind the mask of Jimmy.

AD:  I just had to generalize the response that I was getting, so that laughter could be an affirmation, like someone saying, “Amen.”  Although, there’s a great part in it that was always kind of a relief for me because it was an easy way to work with that kind of confusing setup that we had:  when he talks about the White Panther Party, and he talks about them promoting “fucking in the streets,” it’s a laugh line.  And then, Jimmy Swaggart says, “You say, my God preacher, that’s ridiculous!”  So it’s an opportunity for me to really acknowledge that laugh in an appropriate way.

SM:  Even though you relaxed the extreme construct of the audience as ghosts at your last rehearsal, some of that distance was retained because you couldn’t always directly acknowledge the audience’s response.  It did end up, in a way, like the crazy person scenario you described.  You were experiencing our responses, but you were acting as if we were responding in some other way than we actually were.  So, the moments where our actual response and your interpretation of our response synched up created a creepy confusion in the audience.  We were surprised: “Oh, wait; he is talking to me!  I didn’t think he was talking to me.  I thought we were watching this funny archival footage, but this is actually directed at me.”  I think we thought we were safe, and then we weren’t.  There’s also an element of “time-shifting” in the piece: the “Scrooge” idea you were talking about.  Was that just a solution to the problem of how to present this material, or was the element of time a thematic interest?

AD:  I think it just came from the material.  It was not a separate interest.

SM:  As you continue to perform the piece and to think about presenting it other places, are there elements that you’re thinking about re-working?

AD:  No.  I’d like to continue to pursue perfect audio fidelity and have it sound exactly like him.  I can’t grow and be as tall as he is, but I would if I could.  Other than tinkering with putting it in different spaces and just bringing it to more audiences, I think the only other thing that I’m interested in doing in this direction is that I’m considering whether I ought to have a larger collection of his sermons.  There were about five that he put out around the same time.  So, I ‘m considering learning them all, so that I could do what he would have done and go to a town and do a sermon on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and have it be a different sermon each time.

SM:  That’s ambitious – and kind of awesome.

AD:  I just turned 31, so if I did it in 4 years, I would be the same age that he was when he recorded it.

SM:  You realize that would start you down a road of potentially dedicating your life to Jimmy Swaggart, right?

AD:  It’s like Hal Holbrook.

SM:  Yes, exactly!  And he’s had a very lucrative career, so perhaps, that’s not such a bad idea.

AD:  Or, maybe it’s just like, “Hey, these are the five years where I painted in blue.”

SM:  You’ve said that you’re interested in religion, and now you’re talking about learning and performing five, lengthy sermons.  You also served cookies and lemonade in the basement of The Chocolate Factory after the show.  All of those things point to an emphasis on creating a community with the audience.  Presumably, if you’re going to do a different piece each night in the same town, you would hope that some people would come back to see multiple performances, creating a kind of community for a period of time.  What’s your ideal situation in terms of the audience’s involvement with the piece and with you?  What do you want the audience response to be?

AD:  Worship.  Worshipping me as a performer. (Laughs).  I did a few early drafts and one of things that made me feel like it was worth pursuing and continuing to work on (besides just liking it) was that I got more after-show response after doing this work than after anything else I’d ever done.  I think it strikes things in people, and they want to talk about it.  People want to tell me about their religious experience.  They want to talk about it a lot, and that’s really rewarding.

SM:  Do you think that, on some level, people are conflating you with an actual preacher?  Are your audiences perhaps hungry for religion, and you’re giving them an opportunity to interact with religion in a “safe” way – a way where they don’t have to commit to becoming religious, or face the related politics?

AD: I’m the safe stand-in for a real preacher.

SM: It’s interesting that people wanted to talk to you afterwards, not just about the show, but that they wanted to express their personal experience.  People are connecting their experience to this content.

JL (just arrived):  After the show, a lot of people would disclose their personal experiences with religion growing up.  A lot of other people, who maybe didn’t have those experiences, would often say, “Gosh that was very scary, or hard to watch, and I found myself often agreeing with what he had to say.”  That’s the exciting thing about tackling this: to bring it to an audience that it wasn’t intended for and still have it resonate.

SM:  At what point did you decide to present the material in such as straightforward style?  Was that the plan from the beginning?

(Andrew nods, “Yes.”)

JL: No.

(Laughter.)

JL: It wasn’t always going to be that way.  I mean when we started working on it that was a big question.  Is it this historical document or is it us presenting…?  I guess the straightforwardness of it was always there, but the slant on the straightforwardness was a question.

AD: I would say that there was a basic…

JL: – earnestness.

AD: – desire to present it “straight,” but, still, there’s room for framing it a little bit.  So, we were wondering, “Am I a robot who’s been programmed with the voice of Jimmy Swaggart and certain moves? Or, are you somehow looking into the past?  Or, is it a play about Jimmy Swaggart, and this text is the script but we can go in and…?”

JL: – interpret it?

AD:  We talked about having video projections of things that were going on at the time:  “Should we show Woodstock footage?”

SM: That all got cut?

JL: It never really even got added.  I guess we were so invested in the audio fidelity aspect of it that all those other things fell away as we put more and more of our energy into that particular aspect.   So, that just ultimately seemed so right, and everything else was window dressing trying to make it feel like we were making it more full, or that we were doing a more complete version.  But, ultimately, it felt like the completeness wanted to be in one particular area, and that any other choices we made wanted to fuel that choice, not augment it.  We weren’t trying to make a big, nice, full painting; we were really trying to get all of the detailed lines of one particular thing.

SM: I think that was really effective.  Probably, part of why so many people wanted to talk about it after, was that the audience really had to confront the content.  There was nothing to divert our attention from it.

JL:  The other things would have been potential distractions, and instead we were able to spend a lot of time thinking about, for example, the way we ended up staging it, which changed pretty dramatically, very late in the game.  The development of that use of the space was sort of late in coming.  We had really been focused on what we were trying to communicate.  I feel like that made it a lot easier for us to say, “Wait, maybe this is the best way to communicate it,” and we weren’t already tied down to a bunch of other ideas.  So, we were able to run with changes at a stage where, considering how long we had already worked on it, I think in a lot of other processes we might have already committed ourselves too far in another direction.

AD: To a frontal orientation, or a screen, or whatever.

JL: And that remained true up through to the end.  We had intentions about having the audience on either side, and then having them actually above him.  Up through until just before we opened we were playing with to what degree he’s separate from the audience and to what degree he was in the same space.  All of it always seemed to be focused back on that audio fidelity.  How are we helping people to hear this more clearly?  I loved listening to this record, and so, I was interested in what would be the challenge of bringing that experience to an audience full of people who were sharing it together, and having the live performance aspect also brought to it, but really trying to recreate what that experience is when it’s just you and a very narrow focus.

AD: It reminds me of the review of Gatz, which talked about it not really being a dramatization of the novel, but about it being a dramatization of the act of reading the novel.

JL: That’s interesting, and, in a way, this is sort of the dramatization of you listening to the album, with a couple of flourishes.

AD:  It all started with the record.  Then, we had some other desires that came up in the process, like making people appreciate Jimmy Swaggart the way that we appreciated him – as a performer and as an artist.  We didn’t do this for this purpose, but I think we wanted the audience to consider what things were good and what things were bad, and whether their personal actions were helping them be good, or helping them be bad.  Is that a way to say it?

JL: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say.  I think that came from a place of having done that ourselves, listening to it.  That was the inevitable question that you start to ask yourself as you listen to it.  It was kind of intriguing.  What would other people think?  And then there is something so unique about having a room full of people sharing that experience.  How different that is from the experience of listening to a record?  There’s an accountability of sorts and an awareness of everyone else – that social reality.  Once you add that into the equation, it transforms it without us having to do much, but we spent a lot of time thinking about how Andrew moved and looked.  We spent a lot of time considering his physicality because those things were a vehicle for making sure that people were actually hearing.  The problem with having a person there is that he is a potential distraction from hearing.  Sometimes the sound of it is very repetitive.  So, if you have this body up there, the words can just become [gibberish], if you don’t have the right presentation of it.  Marrying those two parts was crucially important, and they had to come along together because, there were certain ways in which it took a physical breakthrough to really start to access certain aural moments and vice versa.  It wasn’t until Andrew really got something to sound right that, all of a sudden, physically he was able to find something.

SM:  That attention led to a sense of sincerity, I think.  We believed the person on stage was saying these words and meaning them.

JL:  It would have been cool to have a group of people listen to the record together.  That would have been cool too.  We changed the apparatus.

SM: From the record player to Andrew?

AD: Yeah, and the frame; the frame is the audience.

JL: But, it’s just the frame that changes; the content stays.  We’ve spent so much time thinking and talking with other people about what it was.  Just like memory in general, every time we talk about it, we’re loosing what it actually was and solidifying a false, limited, perspective of it, which is fine.  That’s the way things work, but I don’t want to make it too neat and tidy.

SM:  Your show is becoming another link in the chain of recordings.  You have Swaggart’s recording, and now you have your presentation of it.  Each is a sort of “pressed moment” that you’re only able to see now in artifact.  You lose whatever part of the experience wasn’t persevered.

AD: That was a very interesting question for us: “What is not on the record?”  We know that there would have been other things that happened that night.

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2 Responses to In discussion with: Andrew Dinwiddie and Jeff Larson

  1. Fritha Dinwiddie says:

    I was very pleased with the respect Andrew and Jeff showed toward Swaggart. Even the worst and best people in the world aren’t perfectly so. We’re all a mixed bag of good and evil. Most people, I think, would have played Swaggart as farce; in fact, I think that’s what the first audience was expecting. But what they got was a performance that treated this troubled soul as a servant to his parish.

  2. smaxfield says:

    Indeed, Fritha. Farce can be fun, when everyone is in agreement on the subject, but it can also be reductive, divisive, and isolating – especially if the topic of the farce is a person. As you suggest, we are complex creatures, and I agree that Jeff, Andrew, and their production team did a great job of presenting this snapshot of Swaggart with very little commentary. It was up to us in the audience draw our own conclusions, and face our own biases, which was challenging and refreshing.

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