Hell House: A Tour With Back to Back Theatre

September 17, 2012

By Rosalie Ham

Hell House, performed by Back to Back Theatre.

Meat Market Arts Centre, North Melbourne, August 3rd – 5th, 2012

Photo courtesy Ponch Hawks

Recently my friend and I popped over to the Meat Market in North Melbourne for a tour of Hell. Our guide was a particularly good-looking Devil’s disciple, complete with Grim Reaper costume, black lips, but only tiny horns. Scurs, really. After a brief time in a chapel in the care of two very creepy undertakers, organ music playing softly, candles and sympathy cards flanking a bowl of complimentary mints, a funeral took place. Our Devil’s disciple condemned to Hell the young man snug in the coffin in front of us because he had contracted, and died of AIDS. His ‘parents’ were appropriately aggrieved, though we were not sure if it was because of grief or because the hovering disciple was malevolently cruel in a very theatrical way in his condemnation of victims of Auto Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Our Devil’s disciple then led us past a teenage girl crying, ‘I want my baby’ while enduring a gruesome abortion, the ‘foetus’ dismembered and tugged from her loins. She was suffering the consequences of indulging in premarital sex in the back of her Dad’s BMW. We stepped over the fake blood stained gauze and cloth offal in the abortionists dish and wound our way through dark tunnels created form black plastic, the din of anguished cries reaching us from suffering sinners off in other parts of the Hell created between the brick walls of the Meat Market Arts Centre.

As our journey through Hell progressed we passed small caves framed with orange cellophane flames and clear plastic stalactites, God’s failures, grotesque sinners, blackly sunken-eyed, writhing and taunting us, pleading and reaching. We recoiled, appropriately, engulfed as we now were in the theatricality of the performance. Another den in Hell depicted a car crash site, a dummy thrust through the windscreen and splattered on the bonnet, fake blood dripping. A back seat passenger, a young girl, spilled from the open door, supposedly dead, and her father, the drunken driver, was beside them, unconscious among empty beer cans. Our disciple stood on his injured leg and the drunk driver roused and saw the consequences of his actions, and so his anguish and fear became palpable. For a moment I slipped from being amused by the grotesque near-comedy to being quite moved by the actor’s evocation of pain.

On we went, happy as clams, to a coven of Satanists who pulled a protesting and terrified ‘innocent young woman’ (read actress) from the crowd and ‘sacrificed’ her in front of us. More fake blood…which the Satanists drank.  We passed through what seemed to be a butcher’s boning room, a macabre scene whose meaning was lost, so taken was I by the madman – a member of Back to Back Theatre company – pounding what looked like a boned leg of lamb. Further on an addict standing on dozens of discarded syringes offered me drugs and then Satan’s disciple tempted a self-doubting and disappointed teenager to ‘suicide’ in front of us. All of this pleased Satan’s disciple a great deal, and he lusted over his collection of corpses. We understood well and truly that the actors were warning us: ‘If you go against God’s goodness, you will die, and you will go to Hell. Embrace God, for He will save you.’ Through the tunnels we happily went, the slippery walls billowing and dangling cotton cobwebs brushing our faces. These effects, plus the choking fog from the smoke machine and ominous lighting, recalled the ‘House of Horrors’ of sideshows at Agricultural Field days in country NSW. I remembered I’d seen a bearded lady once, but even as a kid I could tell her beard was fake, and so I knew I wasn’t really in Hell, that I was in an inner urban arts centre, but I wondered if some who experience this Hell House show, mostly in the USA’s Mid West, actually believe what they see and hear?

Then it was time for Lucifer, aptly cornuted, and weirdly charismatic and evangelical. ‘I recognise you all,’ said Lucifer, and listed most garden-variety sins. I looked at my fellow sinners grinning in the glare of Fresnels and strobes and saw that yes, indeed, we looked the sort – hypocrites, liars, deceivers, vengeful people with lurid fantasies, gluttons, those who suffer envy, adulterers, some weakened (strengthened?) by avarice, those who possibly drank alcohol excessively and maybe even gleeful consumers of recreational drugs – perhaps even a homosexual or two. We shrugged as Lucifer harangued us, ‘You will all burn in everlasting Hell.’

Photo courtesy Ponch Hawks

Happily, we were saved. An angel drew us far away from Lucifer’s black plastic Hell and His menacing echoes of pain, torture and damnation, and we squeezed, one-by-one, through a cushiony air-tight doorway into a giant inflated womb, virginal white, that smelled of lavender, or some such pleasing olfactory lubricant. And there was Jesus, waiting for us, very young and very good-looking despite the fake beard and bad wig. Around him a chorus of smiling, dancing angels floated, affecting delightful montages emphasising Jesus’ promises. We kneeled at His feet and He prayed over us, the backdrop of sensory angst in the form of loud sinners being tortured in dark dens throughout the Meat Market still calling us. But Jesus assured us all that if we put our names in His book – one of those Visitors books you sign at Regional Craft Museums and the like – we would be saved. A ‘member of the audience’ joyously offered himself to be saved. The rest of us considered ourselves saved, I guess, by proxy, and pushed out through the inflated fold, a kind of vaginal door, to be born into a room of smiling happy clappers, thrilled to see us. These were the audience members who had preceded us. Each tour, or performance, took 40 minutes, though it seemed to take only ten. We were absorbed into the chirpy, love-filled and saved audience, kept in limbo, sitting on hay bales consuming red cordial and lamingtons offered by overly kind, fashion challenged, good Christians while the worst dressed folk band I’ve ever seen beneath a big red, white and blue sign that read, ‘Welcome’ sang pleasant hallelujah songs about the love of Jesus.

It was a place of tickled pink and chatting audience members, all of us amused, delighted, animated. We all truly loved each other at this point, our shared conversation thrumming along with the folk Hymns and our journey through Hell and our Salvation. A few of the ‘audience members’ swayed, one arm raised, eyes closed, and one good woman stopped the buzz by loudly declaring how privileged we were and how happy and blessed we were to be part of God’s love…or some such.

Obviously, and sadly, by the time you read this the Hell House show will be long over, and the discussion Forum post performance, inconsequential – there’s no point ‘reviewing’ a conversation, especially one that raised issues that were ‘mediated by the spectacle that is Hell House’ as the program explained. The Forum didn’t solve anything, and isn’t really relevant unless you were there. But what remains is, again, as ever, the residue from a night out with Back to Back Theatre company. Such a night casts a bright light on many things, for example, some other theatre companies that blanche in its glow. To leave a Back to Back show is to be, I find, a little more alive, challenged, intrigued, delighted, and did I say challenged? It’s a noticeable feature of that particular theatre company. In some post-performance foyers the audience shuffles in subdued silence, yawning, but after a Back to Back play (usually confronting, which is how it should be, shouldn’t it?) the foyer is loud with laughter and even the odd astonished expletive.

The cast of Hell House was numerous, and included volunteers from around Geelong, the home of Back to Back, and of course, some members of Back to Back Theatre company, whose presence in those lurid and ridiculous depictions of Hades added a further florid visual aspect. To some, unaccustomed to seeing and hearing some members of Back to Back Theatre company, this would have been an additional surprise. Some have come away from a Back to Back show a little appalled and somewhat doubtful about including our more physically and mentally altered community members in these productions. Usually, eventually, these well-meaning but slightly confronted spectators ‘get it’ – there being nothing to ‘get.’ The people they see on stage acting, but not appearing in the same ‘normal’ physical compilation as the majority of bodies we see – magazine covers, bathers at a beach – are actors and members of their own theatre company, which they love, and the program tells us that these actors ‘create new forms of contemporary theatre imagined from the minds and experiences of a unique ensemble of actors with disability, giving voice to the social and political issues that speak to all people.’ It stands to reason that these actors understand many things far better than ‘all people’ because they are not like all people, because they see the social and political issues from the point of view of ‘the other’, and hence, they need to make us understand. So perhaps it makes perfect sense that disabled people are actors in theatre performing in a play called Hell House, which, on the surface, advocates that we be aware of the consequences of what we do, say, and think. Compounding this, by presenting Hell House, the community that is Back to Back, ‘face[s] the political, spiritual and moral position of  “the other” – another community’s religious beliefs – and in doing so we seek to understand our own position.’

Even more inspiring was the Forum after the show, titled Provocation. On subsequent performances the Forums were titled Belief and Morality, and were chaired by luminaries such as Dr Rachel Kohn and Dr Andrew Singleton. Back to Back’s luminary and muse, Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director, and a man with a very busy inner head, introduced Scott Stephens who hosted Provocation. Scott Stephens, theologian, writer and radio presenter, then lovingly and expansively introduced the panel: Clare Bowditch, musician, writer and creative-business coach, and Dr Benjamin Myers, writer, and Lecturer in Systemic Theology. Also Waleed Aly, radio host and lecturer in the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University. And it was here, in the discussion afterwards, with a crowd of possibly 150 enthusiasts fresh out of Hell and ‘saved’, where the purpose of Hell House was realised, and where it acquired perspective, which was entirely the aim.

The flyer for Hell House informs us that the earliest Hell House was probably created by Trinity Assembly of God in Dallas, Texas, sometime around the 1970s. These days you just download the script or buy the Hell House Outreach Kit from the New Destiny Christian Centre’s Senior Pastor, Keenan Roberts of Thornton, USA, and it includes a script with guidelines to depict the consequences of homosexuality, abortion, suicide, drunk driving, Satanism, Hell, Heaven, with optional additional scenes on domestic abuse, teen suicide, gay weddings, mother’s womb abortion, or Raven Scene. The intention of Hell House, 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!”

Hell House is performed each October by Destiny Church to an audience of about 13,000 young people.

Back to Back set out to ‘present the work as a museum would exhibit a religious artifact…a series of three public conversations which are mediated by the spectacle that is Hell House.’ Clare Bowditch made the first point saying the play had shown her that we learn more from kindness and beauty rather than shock. Dr Benjamin Myers observed that there was a potent lovingness and a kind of gratifying pornography to some of the play’s content. The writer seemed to have spent a lot of time on the sins and sinners, Lucifer and his bad disciples, yet his angels and heaven were a bit ho-hum. A question was asked: do we love ‘sins’, do some of us love drugs, alcohol, violence and sex (even if they’re not married!)? In asking us to modify our behaviour by showing us graphic depictions of the consequences, has the author revealed his enamour of bad things? Was the Devil working in him?

Waleed Aly noted that material things and thoughts were at the basis of these particular depictions of Evil, and he asked the question, ‘Why threaten us with death? Why should death concern us? We’re all going to die sooner or later.’ Aly also commented on the play’s ‘sensationalism,’ not unlike the Grim Reaper in early AIDS ads, the TAC ads, or anti smoking, ‘…or even the evening news,’ ventured Clare Bowditch.

Another question: does showing us what’s bad keep us good? By this time the big brains on the stage were sparking and they turned to ideas of Deontology. Then a point was raised about morals – we dare not, these days, moralise about anything, which begged the question, have morals changed? Only a reluctant few raised their hands when Scott Stephens, asked, ‘Was anyone shocked by what they saw in the play?’ Just a very few out of a crowd of about 150 or more, raised their reluctant forearms.

Consequentialism then entered the discussion on the stage – do we really form ways of thinking by being shown things through the prism of consequences? Do people really believe they will suffer for their sins in an afterlife? The subject of theatre and truth was raised and Dr Myers discussed the Bible’s attitude towards lies, ‘A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will perish.’ (Proverbs 19:9) which prompted from the audience, ‘But theatre is lies,’ and from the audience again, ‘The Church has a lot of theatre,’ and there was a collective, “OOoooo,’ from the audience, and the subject turned to what is wrong with showing us what is wrong in order that we might see what it ‘right,’ and back to consequentialism, and Deontology.

So, did Back to Back Theatre Company show us ‘the other’? By showing us Hell House, do we now understand our own position on religion? What is ‘right’? Or even our own position on disabled actors asking us to consider the consequences of our own thoughts and actions on ‘the other’? My friend saw Hell House as a kind of social, political and spiritual excess that raised questions about humans, how we understand God and religion, and Hell, and whether or not we should behave according to the threat of the possible consequences of our actions. Should we be judged according to what we do, should someone else moralise about what anyone else does anyway? Should we judge some Churches for exposing good people to some ghoulish, scary, ridiculous and false depictions of what could happen if we stray, should people promote and perform ridiculous scripts with dubious messages? My friend and I continue to discuss this show with anyone unfortunate enough to ask what we’ve been doing lately, and finally someone asked us, ‘Did Back to Back Theatre Company actors show us the sort of theatre that is, for them and their devotees, ‘the other’?’ To which we replied, ‘Why would the disabled actors, ‘the other’, not show us something other than we normally see?’

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