April 3, 2016
It’s subtle at first, innocent, even rational. Guidance, during a difficult time, we all need it. Maybe there is a promise of salvation, or just something to hang onto that will get us to a better place. Or unstick us in our careers.
Ever wonder if you could be taken in by a cult? When we see stories like HBO’s “Going Clear,” with recognizable stars joining Scientology, or hear about Jim Jones and the murder-suicide in his Peoples Temple where over 900 followers perished, most of them by downing cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, we instantly think, ‘no way, not me.’ But there is a window into all of our minds and souls. It’s called faith; a vulnerable place with just enough space between you and the divine for the manipulative to slither in.
THE END TIMES draws from the true experience of Jesse Mu-en Shao, playwright and former member of group that still practices today. In this world premiere play, he calls the group, The Lord’s Restoration; a cult that he says was founded in Los Angeles with controversy somewhat similar to groups like Scientology and Berg’s Kabbalah Center. Shao slips us in a side door of this religious group to witness the spiritual intoxication of his main character Tim; born and raised within this religious community,
and a devout follower of Witness Lee’s ministry. When his best friend is cast out of the church for ‘living in his mind,’ Tim’s life slowly unravels as he begins to question the foundations of his faith.
Tim’s manipulation seems so obvious at first but the subtle and insidious influences from the leaders and caring followers within, make it quite plausible that rational and intelligent people could be easily ushered into a mindless loop of spiritual addiction to the church. As an ex-Jonestown member recalls, “vulnerable people feeling disenfranchised, for whatever reason, find comfort within these communities,” and as long as they conform there will be rewards. Try to get free; and there will be consequences. Stay with them; and you are instructed to avoid your own thoughts. It’s a rabbit hole that takes your free will and from there, truth fades.
On the outside, many of these groups seem to be an easily recognizable con. But, witnessing the inner workings through The End Times might make you question just how easily you, or someone you know, could slip down that rabbit hole too. Playwright Jesse Shao shares his perspective on it:
This cultish theme seems ripe for Hollywood, with controversial groups here like Scientology and Kabbalah. Was that a consideration when planning to have the world premiere of “The End Times” open in Los Angeles?
Given that Scientology and Kabbalah exist here, it’s certainly appropriate, but not intended. However, it is a bit ironic considering that the introduction of this religious group in the United States began here in Los Angeles. Skylight Theatre produced last year’s hit “Disconnection” written by ex-Scientologist Alan Barton, so it’s clear that they have an interest in raising these questions about cults and audiences are eager to hear these stories. Disconnection had an extended run, and played to full houses.
What did you want to say with this piece?
Jesse: The journey to identify and to leave a cult is already filled with trial, to stay away and grow into your own life is another. The process of this play has allowed me to adequately define
my own experience with this religious group, I call it the Lord’s Restoration for the play, which I grew up in. It is a cult. Being able to say that has been critical to my own healing. I hope this piece speaks to others who have been raised in religious extremism, so perhaps they can use the play as a tool to better define their own experiences.
Why is it important to produce this play now?
Jesse: The story needs to be told. Since I was in high school I don’t recall a public voice that has spoken out against this group, that wasn’t silenced by them. In the last few years they’ve patched up their image, and indicated that previous statements contesting their practices had been recanted. The public voice that seeks to expose, must come back. Practitioners of any faith deserve the truth. Those who tried to reform the movement from the inside, and were isolated and pushed out for trying to reveal truth, need vindication.
Jon Lawrence Rivera (Director): It’s important to give some insight into the worlds that we are unfamiliar with. I was drawn to it because it’s a play about people that scare me. About a system that scares me.
What’s your relationship with the two producing partners, Skylight Theatre Company and Playwright’s Arena?
Jesse: I knew the Artistic Director of Playwright’s Arena, Jon Rivera, from USC as he directed many shows for playwrights in the MFA program. It wasn’t until he came to see my thesis reading for, The End Times that we really began to communicate. After the Hothouse Reading with Pasadena Playhouse, Jon expressed interest in directing it. He plugged me into Skylight and the rest is an ongoing journey of discovery.
Now that you’re in rehearsals, can you share your experience on the advantages, and disadvantages, of working on a new play as it unfolds with the director, and the cast every day?
Jesse: I think that there are only advantages, I’ve yet to find any disadvantages. Previously, I spent a year writing The End Times and another year developing it with a different group of wonderful artists, this experience works as an advantage to the production. Those who helped me develop the play in it’s early stages, Nancy Keystone, Wyatt Fenner, James Ryan, Christopher Rivas,
Virginia Vale and Timothy Jo – they helped me get the world that I was trying to build off the ground. This built a life into the play. They became very close to the text, and we developed something that became unique to our collaboration. Bringing in a new set of eyes to that picture and being with them day to day really lets me understand what parts of that collaboration hold up on the writing end of the spectrum. I can only say that with each rehearsal I grow more excited with what comes out of the room.
From Jon Lawrence Rivera (Director): Playwrights’ Arena and Skylight Theatre Company only do new works. So the process is the same for all work. Both companies are committed to helping the playwright tell their stories in the most theatrical and clear way possible.
Has your own belief system wavered, or grown stronger, through the process of developing this play?
Jesse: I’ve gained more courage. The inevitability of it being performed means that I can no longer be timid about the implications of what that means. This play and what I’m talking about is now in the public eye, it’s something the Lord’s Restoration could hear about. Honestly, that terrifies me, but excites me at the same time. I have to stand by my work and my beliefs.
From Jon Lawrence Rivera (Director): It reinforced my belief that there is something wrong with any structured religion.
Does it matter if your audiences are devoutly religious or atheists? Do you have any hopes about what the audience experience might be?
From Jon Lawrence Rivera (Director): It’s a play for everybody. It’s like watching a political play. Everyone comes to it with his or her own bias. Hopefully they come out of it with a slightly better understanding of what a young person goes through when they start questioning their beliefs.
Jesse: I used to hope for atheists because I wanted to see if they could relate and understand the world that I had portrayed. But, as I began to hear the responses from audience members who came from devout religious experiences, I was really intrigued by the parallels and connections we shared. I think more than anything, I hope to have plenty of audience members who have shared a similar experience, and hopefully they find some comfort from the work.
As far as the audience experience from the show? I hope they understand the love and comfort that is within some of the communities like this. It’s an important reason why people stay and why the rigidity and suffocation from that culture is overlooked.
The End Times opens on Saturday, April 16th and runs at 8:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, 3:00pm on Sundays through May 15, 2016. Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. Tickets are $15 – $34. Reservations: 213-761-7061 or online at http://skylighttix.com