Rounding out the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's 41st season is a bright and bold reimagining of the hit musical "Godspell." Based on the Gospel of Matthew, this production uses all of the original script and score, but instead takes place in a circus in rural Alabama in the 1960s. The show follows the circus performers as they learn from a mysterious traveler, helping him tell his parables.
Here's our hilarious and heartfelt conversation with show creators director Donna Drake and 2 Ring Circus directors Joshua Dean and Ben Franklin; along with Hakim Rashad McMillan, who plays Jesus; Kris Coleman, who plays Barker; and Aymee Garcia, who plays the Bearded Lady.
Opening night for “Godspell" is Friday, June 2 (complete with a carnival). For tickets and more information, click here.
Let's start out by describing about your roles and what you love about them.
Aymee Garcia: I play the role of the Bearded Lady and my favorite part is that I don't have to work too hard because I'm already adorable and lovable, clearly. Haha.
Ben Franklin: I play the Hula Hooper and I also helped create the show with Donna and Josh. My favorite part? It's all my favorite part because it's a dream come true. I enjoy the challenge of all of the different things that have to be done in a two-hour period of time. There's multiple instruments, multiple circus apparatuses, singing, dancing — yeah, I like that challenge.
Joshua Dean: I'm the White Clown and I'm also the choreographer with 2 Ring Circus. My favorite part about the show is that I don't have to speak until the very end. Haha. I love being on stage, but speaking on stage is not my favorite thing.
Kris Coleman: I play Barker. My favorite part actually is more of an internal thing. Barker is kind of the salesman of the circus, the one that gets you to come see the animal attractions and the Bearded Lady. But when he sees Jesus, he has a question that he wants to ask him, but he can't. Every time he tries, Jesus does a trick or gives him something to do or read or examine, so he sort of gets his question answered throughout the story, in a way.
Hakim Rashad McMillan: I play Jesus and my favorite part of the piece is that I'm playing Jesus. Haha. It's such a cool role, and I don't think I've ever actually said this, but I've actually always wanted to play this role in this show, and now I get the opportunity.
Donna Drake: I'm the director and I love what happens before opening night. I love the preproduction I've had with [Ben and Josh] for the last year trying to put this together. The rehearsal process, for me, is where all the magic truly happens. Of course, then I have to give it all up because it's no longer mine.
Donna, Ben and Josh, as the creators of this show, can you tell us where this circus reimagination come from and how it came to life?
DD: When Josh and Ben brought this project to me, they had the idea to set it in a circus. Then, for a year, we sat in my living room playing the "what if" game. I wanted to have not only amazing entertainment through the circus element, but also a lot of the storytelling to be truth.
We all know the christ story — I haven't changed that, but I've put it in 1968 on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama. It's a young evangelical preacher who has very enlightened high thinking that the public leaders do not agree with, so he is wanted for his blasphemy and is on the run from the law, literally hiding in the woods. He finds sanctuary in this small, family-owned circus that has just performed its final performance. They're getting ready to strike down and in walks Jesus. They embrace him. The misfits, the outcasts all come together in his teaching about the true meaning of love and coming together.
I like to also say that because we chose to set it in 1968, if you go back to that time, it was a time of social unrest, it was a time of racial tension, it was a time when I don't think we were very kind, especially in the South. So my question to the audience is this: It's now 2017, have we learned our lessons?
JD: One of the things that I really wanted to do is change the fact that these shows are often done with a random bunch of clowns. We don't necessarily know who they are, but a group of people come together and they put on clown makeup and they become clowns for a little while. I wanted to bring people together in the same way, but do it with a community that is already circus performers.
Many of these people aren't playing dress up, they are actual circus performers. So then when a number happens, it's not a random skill that someone magically knows, it's their profession. When the animal trainer does her act, that's what she does in real life. Everyone has a specialty and throughout the evening, you get to see them paired with a lot of heart, with a lot of joy, with a lot of love that the music and the story bring. Some of my favorite parts of this are going to be when our aerialist never touches the ground during her entire number.
BF: Setting this show in 1968, it was a really big time for circus in America as well. It falls right into the timeline when most small tent circuses were shutting down, when Ringling Brother moved indoors to an arena. The big ones survived, but many were gone. When [original composer] Stephen Schwartz talks about this show, he doesn't necessarily believe it's actually about Jesus, but about building a community. It's not about resurrection, it's about bonding people together with his teachings, with his love, his kindness.
This was a crazy time in the circus world. When your livelihood is gone, where are you going to go? Who are you going to go with? We've got a family that is being pulled apart, but this man comes in and puts them back together to send them back out. I think it has this kismet moment where actual history comes together to give it a realistic quality. I also kind of think that this version is more of a play with music than a musical. There's a full storyline with these people on top of what's usually there.
"Godspell" is a huge, well-loved show. Why does it beg to be retold, especially within this unique frame?
KC: For me, it's actually really simple. My grandparents are from the South, so church is a big to do. As a kid, I'd get frustrated because I didn't want to wear a suit because it's too hot and there's no air conditioning in the church. But the one day I'm listening — as I'm sitting there sweating in my suit — the reverend said, "Come as you are." Of course, I got in a big argument with my grandmother about how that meant I should be able to come in my pajamas. But that idea in this setting, Jesus comes into a circus of freaks. We're all accepting of him, we play with him, he accepts us for who we are, we accept him for who he is. Especially now, in this specific time in our world today, that message of love and acceptance and forgiveness and repentance, it can be told time and time and time again. It never gets old.
HRM: This play, especially with this sort of reimagining and the question Donna poses for the audience, it really does beg to be told right now. We need this story to be retold, we need that reminder of love.
It's an interesting concept to tell this story of the South while actually being in the South. What's it like to do that?
BF: It's exciting. I think it's important. I grew up a Southern Baptist boy. I was practically the son of a missionary, my father went to Africa to build churches, I spent my summer in Mexico working in a small church and building houses in Kentucky. I've seen it, I've been there, I've lived it. But if we're talking about biblical things, and following the Master who is, I think it's important to get down to the root of what those teachings are and not get stuck down in all of the other stuff, the politics of church and all that. I think it's important, and it's important to me. I'm very excited for my family to see the show, and I think, as good Christian people, they're going to be proud of the story that we're telling in honesty and truth and love.
I think it's important to ask people to look at themselves and ask: Am I walking the walk, talking the talk, living the truth? You can take that any way that you want, but I think it's important and I think it's exciting. I hope people understand that we've come at this show with absolute respect of the message that we're telling. It's not to point fingers at anyone, but to hold up a mirror. I think that's what art is meant to do.
AG: I am not religious in any way, shape or form, but I have personally gone to several churches finding my own way in the world. What I as a human get from doing this show is the community aspect of it, but also how important it is for all of us globally to listen to each other's stories because we will always gain something by opening ourselves up to whatever culture, whatever race or gender, we will be able to receive something from it. That's why I subscribe to the church of theater.
You know, I sit in my seat and that's where I get my lessons. Yes, the show's about God — it's "Godspell," it's in the title — but it's bigger than … Wait, can I even say that it's bigger than God? Haha. What I mean is that it's for everybody, not just for people who subscribe to Christianity, it's about humanity
HRM: I think it's definitely interesting that it's placed in the South right now and we're performing it first in the South, but you can take this show anywhere, to New York, Chicago, Berlin, anywhere and it would resonate with people.
DD: That's the plan!
JD: What we're saying is that anyone from any religion will enjoy this show. It's good storytelling. Whether this is the religion you believe in or not, it's still a good story and you're going to enjoy it, enjoy having a lot of fun and seeing a lot of spectacle.
So is there a moment in the show that resonates with you personally?
JD: For me,what's going to be the hardest thing is when Jesus dies. That's going to be the hardest thing to get through every night.
BF: It's been very interesting from day one. When we started staging the first time Jesus walks into the tent and sings "Save the People," everyone instantly could feel it already, it was palpable. So now to have built off of that to where we're going, it's going to be an eight-week emotional catharsis for us. This is one of those shows as a young actor that you want to do to feel all the feels, but it's really about being there and letting it happen. We are so lucky with this company because all of these people have come to play and give their hearts to it all. It's been an absolute joy from the first moment.
KC: The other day, we were staging "Beautiful City" and I started crying. I was like, ok, come on, gotta pull it together, because I sing the next song. This whole thing just hit me right then, what he was saying. This man is being searched and people want to put him to death for what he believes and for teaching his philosophy. It makes no sense.
AG: The beauty in that moment, too, is that on top of everything that he's going through, there's still that hope, that little lotus in the mud.
KC: Yeah, sometimes all it takes is the power of one individual to change the world, and it's in each and every one of us.
HRM: Ben mentioned the opening when Jesus first comes on stage, and I'd say that's one of the most powerful moments for me as well. It's very internal for me as an actor. He's being hounded, but all he wants to do is spread the message of love. He's at one of the lowest moments of his life — he's dirty, he's tired — but then he comes to this place of freaks who are so accepting and loving. There's nothing more you can ask for in that moment.
And yes, the first time we staged it, I started crying. I just couldn't believe that it was already this electrifying moment, and the audience will definitely feel that from the moment it starts. It's been a lot of fun and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Everyday something new is discovered in this show. We're excited to offer this to people and to have them experience it with us night after night.
DD: There's a song in the show called "On the Willows" and it takes place after the Last Supper. The three performers that do this song, it's just very interesting to me, and I'd love to say that it was my brilliant direction, but it wasn't. It just sort of happened that this song about oppression and persecution is sung by a black man, a Jewish man and a gay man. I was looking at that trio and just lost my breath. It's a lovely moment.
Ok, favorite song in the show and why. Go.
JD: "By My Side" for me. I just love the folk sound of that song. I love listening to those two women sing those harmonies. It feels very 1960s/70s and I just gravitate to it.
KC: "Beautiful City." You can't beat it. It's the whole show wrapped up.
HRM: Same for me. It just resonates on so many levels for me to sing about always having a community that you can come to.
BF: From a complete showbiz and entertainment point of view, "Bless the Lord." It's always been my favorite song, and what [animal trainer] Lani Corson is doing with that song is just unbelievable. She's cracking whips, she's doing handstands on top of people and she's just belting the hell out of it. It's a showstopper. It's just exquisite.
JD: "Turn Back, O Man" is actually my new favorite. It always makes me laugh.
AG: For me, it's the movement of "Beautiful City" into "On the Willows." It's like your heart is just laying on the table and you're just watching it pump. It's so beautiful.
So by all accounts, this is going to be a visual feast. What can you tell us about the costumes?
HRM: Once Jesus changes into the clothes he's given by the circus performers, he's wearing all white except for this beautiful, sparkly, red coat and tails and it is gorgeous. [Costume designer Rafael Castanera] has done such an amazing job with it. It's absolutely stunning and he just keeps putting more rhinestones on it.
KC: And I get the pleasure of walking on stilts. When I auditioned, they nonchalantly asked me if I'd be comfortable walking on stilts and now it's actually happening. But part of the costuming in that is that I'm about 9 feet high, so my striped, bellbottom pants are rigged to fit that.
JD: I'm the White Clown. Guess what. I'm in white and I'm a clown. No, but I do love my costume. There's all of these ruffs and gorgeous intricate details.
BF: Rafael's just given me everything I need to be able to do my act — slim-fitting, makes me looks great, cool coloring. So yeah, I'm delighted.
AG: So as the Bearded Lady, I have a couple of different looks. The first time you see me, I'm this split between man and woman, complete with a full beard and a bouffant hairdo. There's this babydoll polkadot getup with ruffles and Mary Janes, but when I come out for my number, it's all stripped away and I come out in this delicious, bejeweled, busty getup with a feather boa — and what human doesn't want to hang out with a boa for a second? — and just my bloomers. It's sexy and silly and all the things that I kind of love to embrace.