Tag Archive | Theatre

Wise words on Atheism, Musicals and more from Trey Parker and Matt Stone

I read  a brilliant interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park, Team America, and The Book of Mormon) the other day, and I had to share some of my favourite quotations with my own commentary. The interview was conducted by A.J. Jacobs… who wrote the hilarious and stimulating ‘The Year of Living Biblically‘ which I have actually managed to cite in a couple of presentations and a refereed journal. I would check him out, as well as the full interview here.

Here we go:

Here are some things that Trey Parker and Matt Stone hate: Scientology, liberals, radical atheists, conservatives, the Motion Picture Association of America, Glenn Beck, the TV show Whale Wars, and Sean Penn. Also this interview.

This quotation pretty much sums up the ethos that has been spilling out through South Park over the past few years. I am loving the fact that our new flat has a Sky+ box, which means that I have a constant supply of South Park episodes from Comedy Central to keep me happy. This is, I think, the central charm of South Park… nothing is off-limits. These guys will ridicule any position which anyone holds to rigidly… and rightly so. They don’t do this maliciously, but make serious points about what causes us offence, and why. The vast majority of time, when we find ourselves taking offence when someone ridicules our own perspective, it is either because their criticisms ring true and we lash out, or because we hold to the view so rigidly that the sheer presence of someone who disagrees with that view calls it into question. We need to be constantly made aware of our tendency to do this, and for that I respect these guys greatly.

“Whatever libertarianism is, it’s not Glenn Beck. It’s barely us, but it’s not Glenn Beck,” Stone said.”Whatever side Glenn Beck is on, we’re not on it.”

Enough said really…

But the truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade’s most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly … temperate. They say it themselves: “There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground.” Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.”The boys were in the middle saying, ‘This is fucked up,’ ” said Parker. “Any side who thinks they’re totally right is fucked up. That’s the heart of every show.”


Consider, too, The Book of Mormon. For a play that includes the insertion of a holy text up a missionary’s rectum, it actually offers a nuanced view of religion. Mormonism may be odd, but it produces kind, thoughtful, mostly happy people. “They always look like they’re just about to break out into song anyways,” Stone has said.Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.”He’s such a dick,” said Stone. “You read his book and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I agree with that. But it’s the most dicky way to put it… I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I’m a self-described atheist.”One of South Park‘s best episodes featured Dawkins as a substitute teacher who ends up having kinky sex with the boys’ creationist teacher, Miss Garrison (formerly Mr. Garrison, pre-sex-change-operation). The show ended five hundred years in the future, when Dawkins-worshipping atheists are at war over whether their religion should be called the “United Atheist Alliance” or “Unified Atheist League.”You could argue that their so-called moderation is actually just nihilism. They take potshots at both sides without ever committing to any direction of their own. And there’s some truth to that. So what do they believe in? The central thesis of The Book of Mormon is that storytelling, myths, and fiction are the only things that can save us.

To comment on the above, this is pretty much exactly where I stand on the ‘New Atheism’. And so does the philosopher Julian Baggini, in his article ‘The New Atheist Movement is Destructive‘. Sure they get a lot of people talking about religion, and sure they do a lot to advance a kind-of positive worldview which isn’t based on supernatural postulates. However, one always has to wonder ‘to whom are they preaching?’ Time and again I am forced to conclude that it is other atheists… who seem to purchase their books and DVDs by the dozen, and revel in attending sceptical conferences around the world to join together around the central fact that ‘we don’t believe anything’. Pointing out evil deeds which have been done in religion’s name, inspired by religion, or perpetrated by religious people is not going to convince people that religion is necessarily bad. Likewise, pointing out the ‘human’ origins of religions will similarly have little effect. As Amarnath Amarasingam writes:

Another notable characteristic of new atheist writings is the tendency to present to readers basic historical information about religion, particularly Christianity, as if it were new information. It seems that religious illiteracy is now so pervasive that simply revealing what theologians and scholars have known and published for decades is enough to create skepticism (Prothero, 2007). Having settled on the belief that religion is about blind faith, the new atheists present this information as if it will be crushing to the fragile faith of believers. Hitchens (2007: 102, 105, 115), for example, lavishes on readers such unremarkable insights as: religion is man-made, the Exodus likely did not happen, and Moses could not have written Deuteronomy because it discusses his own death. Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years. John Haught (2008: 31) similarly notes that Hitchens ‘‘seems unaware that exegetes and theologians have known about these discrepancies since antiquity, but they have not been so literalist as to interpret insignificant factual contradictions as threats to the doctrine of biblical inspiration.’’ In other words, just because religious people have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.

A particularly instructive case would be the ‘Church of All Worlds’, which my friend Carole could tell you a lot more about. Essentially this religion is based upon a 1961 science fiction novel by American author Robert A. Heinlein entitled ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. The religion was dreamt up by college buddies and it has now blossomed into a fully-blown religion. All adherents are aware of this man-made origin, yet it makes absolutely no difference to the fact that it seems to work for them, and is what they want to do with their lives…

This has been a rambling way of saying that I agree once more with Parker and Stone’s stance on the new atheists. You can be an atheist without wanting to shove it down others’ throats. You can even respect other people’s beliefs…

Moving on:
“There’s the Family Guy structure, which is ‘We’re just going to keep doing crazy shit, and maybe there will be a thread through it, but it doesn’t really matter,’ ” said Parker. “Our structure is, we’ll come up with this funny thing, and then make this funny thing go on for twenty minutes. Sometimes it makes really crappy television and sometimes it makes cool television.”

I don’t know how many times I have had the argument about Family Guy with friends… it just isn’t that funny. Each episode has a couple of funny moments, but it is essentially a glorified sketch show which would have to rank far below South Park, The Simpsons… hell, even 30 Rock in my estimation.

And finally two quotations which I just appreciated in general:

Parker especially says his worldview has darkened. “I was always a very happy, optimistic person,” he said in the little room off the cafeteria. “I’ve only become an angry person in the last two years. I’m becoming Carl Sagan. I used to be like, ‘Oh, the wonders of the universe.’ Now I’m starting to say, ‘Humanity’s fucked. The universe is going to collapse on itself. Everyone’s doomed.’ I think it’s just getting older.”

Parker and Stone say they don’t know what’s next, either. In seven years, will we see a Dianetics-based Broadway show? Probably not, for fear of being pigeonholed as the “guys who make musicals about religion.” Same with a Koran-based one. “You might have trouble getting people to invest in that,” Stone said. “I would watch it, though.”

I must apologise that this had been so long and rambling. I’d encourage you to read the full interview. And to take my comments with a pinch of salt…

London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Budapest: Drinks, Songs and an Emotional Roller Coaster

I have been pretty quiet on the blogging front for a while now… this is because I was at a reasonably useful conference on Young People and Religion at King’s College, London. This did mean, however, that I was able to catch with a number of good friends in London, and in Newcastle on the way back up to Edinburgh.

Upon returning to Edinburgh things pretty much immediately launched into the celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group, a wonderful group with whom I spent many a happy year and performed in, directed or produced sixteen productions of musicals, operas and operettas between 2004 and 2010.

On the Saturday night, we had a fantastic Ball at the George Hotel, Edinburgh… with over 140 people dining, and many dozens more joining us later for a good sing and a Ceilidh. Below is a clip of us singing Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Hail Poetry!”, a regular party piece from The Pirates of Penzance. Some of us may have had slightly too much to drink… but what we lack in tunefulness we make up for in enthusiasm. And I don’t think the hotel will ever have heard such a glorious noise!

The following day we gathered a group of 60+ singers at the Reid Concert Hall, with one of the best hand-picked orchestras in Edinburgh and performed a semi-staged version of The Mikado, under the able direction of my good friend Vincent Wallace. Here, Vince and I rehearse the song “Our great Mikado, virtuous man…” the afternoon before I reprised the role of Pish Tush, which I performed in 2008.

It was quite an emotional weekend, both with seeing many faces from years gone by, and with realising that that part of my life is now gone… but it was very happy, and great to get a group of lifelong friends together and have the dynamic be identical to ‘back in the day’. Thanks so much to everyone who was involved in the organisation of this epic weekend!

Things are looking similarly busy over the coming weeks, with two weddings, paid employment, and the small matter of writing my thesis… but I shall endeavour to keep posting on the more serious stuff. There are interesting plans brewing for this blog in the post thesis world… watch this space.

And also…. do look out for me at the European Association for the Study of Religion’s Conference in Budapest this coming September, where I am thrilled to be presenting a paper! The nerves have already started!

Review: Edinburgh Studio Opera’s “Opera Sins”- Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Opera Sins *** (3 stars)

Thursday 19th August: 4.30pm
Friday 20th August: 4.30pm
Monday 23rd August: 4.30pm
Wednesday 25th August: 2.30pm
Thursday 26th August: 4.30pm

St Andrew’s and St George’s Church, George Street; £12.50 (£8.50)

See here for more information: http://www.edinburghstudioopera.com/2010/08/30/opera-sins-fringe-2010/

Yesterday afternoon I made along to St Andrew’s and St George’s church to see the latest offering from relative Fringe newcomers, the University of Edinburgh affiliated “Edinburgh Studio Opera”. I didn’t quite know what to expect from what was essentially an opera sketch show, but at £12.50 for a one-hour performance I had high expectations.

The production took place in a beautiful oval church, with the entire building being used at various points during the scenes to greater or lesser effect. The nature of the venue dictated that there was no stage lighting to speak of, but the beauty of the surroundings and the limited costume and set combined to produce an atmosphere akin to a private performance occurring in an opulent drawing room, rather than a bawdy public spectacle, and thus the lack of “theatrical” lighting was of no detriment to the performance, and even added to the atmosphere. Nick Fletcher (Musical Director) provided a strong accompaniment to the scenes on the grand piano, and has successfully drilled the cast (who for the most part could not see him at the piano) in dynamics, expression and tempi. No mean feat with such a large, strong-voiced cast!

The scenes opened with the sin “Greed” portrayed through a scene from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”. Having been involved in a production of this myself (as Marco in 2006) I know how fiendishly difficult some of the larger ensemble numbers are. The scene revolved around the relatives of the recently deceased Buoso Donati, who were frantically trying to find his last will and testament. All voices were uniformly strong in this piece as the performers rushed around stage frantically trying to find the elusive parchment, eventually retrieved from the pulpit by the lovesick Rinuccio (Joe Doody), much to the consternation of his fellows. The audience’s enjoyment of this well-staged, vocally robust scene was emphasized by the extra whoops and cheers provided for the unfortunate soul who had to lie motionless from the moment the audience entered until the end of the scene. I still preferred the way we did it in 2006 though…

This excellent introduction was unfortunately followed by a particularly weak scene from Monteverdi’s,“L’incoronazione Di Poppea” depicting “Pride”.  The disappointment induced by this scene was not the fault of either of the singers, but simply because the music was dull, revolving around an uninspiring dialogue between two lovers. Halfway through I admit I gave up following the translation in my programme. One would have thought that a better example of pride could have been found amongst the multitude of scenes and arias at the production team’s disposal…

Next we were treated to Jerome Knox’s powerful rendition of a popular aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” – Non più andrai. Whilst the singing of all performers in this scene was up to scratch, something about the scene just felt a little flat. Maybe it is because I am comparing the scene to Opera Ireland’s excellent production (Dublin, 2008), but I don’t think I agreed with the Director (George Ransley)’s decision to go with Gilbert & Sullivan-esque physical actions to accompany the words being sung on stage. However, this blocking did ensure that those audience members who had not paid fifty pence for a programme, or were unfamiliar with aria, knew what was going on.

Things were quickly back to their impressive beginnings with the fourth deadly sin, “Wrath”, depicted in this context by a scene from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. I have never heard this opera before but after this taster I am most definitely going to have a look for it. The music was gorgeous and lush, with Suzanne McGrath’s soprano (Ellen) soaring elegantly over the awe-inspiring sounds of the ethereal chorus in the gallery behind the audience. The chorus was led by an equally commanding Frankie Powlesland as the Reverend, and although Ian McBain did not get to sing anything as John, his portrayal of the young apprentice was touching and complemented McGrath’s performance nicely.

“Gluttony”, my favourite of the seven deadly sins, was portrayed through another excellent piece of music – the scene from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel where the young children find the gingerbread house in the woods. This was another new piece of music for me, and another piece that I am definitely going to try and track down. The performances from Rachel Timney (Hansel) and Laura Reading (Gretel) definitely made this scene, their voices being up to the task, and some of the expressions of delight on their faces being worthy of Hallmark. It was lucky that their performances were so strong as the staging for this scene was virtually non-existent. It was a clever idea to have chocolate lowered down from the gallery, and I know it would be impossible for a fringe show to produce an edible gingerbread house, but it felt somewhat cruel to leave the performers wandering aimlessly around the audience for such a long period of time.

“Envy” was portrayed in another bizarrely chosen scene from Rameau’s “Zoroastre”. It seems that the performers (Gareth McGuigan and Lauren Fraser) drew the short straw in being allocated this scene, as both had robust voices which I would have liked to have heard tackling more pleasing music… but I guess if anything this production has demonstrated a wide-survey of the opera phenomenon and shown me what I do and don’t want to investigate further.

Finally, the audience were presented with a tour de force in form of Vanity Fair from Vaughan-Williams’ “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. The wonderful layers of frantic modern harmonies combined to produce a wall of breathtaking sound reminding me fondly of his “Dona Nobis Pacem” which I used to listen to on a regular basis. The entire cast were involved in this colourful scene, many of whom were wearing their costumes from previous scenes, which only added to the flamboyant and foreboding nature of the scene. ESO couldn’t have asked for a better finale to their production.

All-in-all I feel I can only give this production, as a whole, three stars. The music was uniformly of a very high standard throughout, and whilst some of the scenes were definitely worthy of a four or five-star rating, the whole piece was confounded by the inclusion of some less attractive music, and some scenes which seemed to have been directorially neglected, although admittedly to the benefit of others. However, everyone involved in this production should be proud as each and every one of them participated in some moments of greatness and the merits far outweigh the criticisms. Do try and make it along to their other two performances (and obtain copies of the Vaughan-Williams, Britten and Humperdinck).

I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby.

Review: Jacob’s Ladder – Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Jacob’s Ladder **** (4 stars)

Underbelly, Cowgate – 11:10AM (60 mins). 5th — 29th August. £6.50-£9.50

Yesterday I went to see my first show of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010…  at it was Jacob’s Ladder which was bloody awesome (however not in any way related to the 1990 Tim Robbins film of the same name).

On paper, everything about this play is “young”: The cast boast a couple of Fringe newbies; the production company has been birthed for the specific purpose of bringing this play to light (although under the experienced hands of Sam Hansford); and the website for the production describes it as having originated in the musings of “exciting young playwright Emily Moir”. However, these cursory observations are instantly forgotten the moment the action commences in this exuberant performance.

Admittedly, a play which begins with the small cast of six innocently formulating the specifics of a devil worshiping cult could hardly go wrong in my book. The Monty Python-esque logic of “What do cults do when they aren’t worshiping Satan?” – “They go in for animal sacrifice don’t they?” – “That falls under the worship, I reckon” – “Well, they must do a certain amount of farming… they have to take care of the animals they sacrifice” – “Does anyone here know how to keep animals?” – “I keep bees….” – had me squirming in my seat with joy, whilst at the same time provoking many tangential forays into the more philosophical crevices of my mind. A major achievement for a play at 11.10 in the morning!

Although nothing much happens – with the entire drama unfolding in front of a garden shed in the grounds of a sociopathic, wannabe cult-leader’s country home – this is theatrical social commentary at its best: think “Lost in Translation” rather than the stereotypically artsy 4.48 Psychosis. Whilst scattered with comedic gems, the script courses seamlessly through all colours of the emotional spectrum, and tackles all manner of subject matter – from pregnancy and sexuality, to the similarities between the British penal system, and the phenomenon of boarding school – and leaves the audience wanting more when the play comes to its all-too-abrupt end. Disappointingly, one couldn’t help but feel that the writer panicked about the time allocation in the venue, and signed off before the  story reached its natural conclusion – a shame considering the running time was only 50 minutes, instead of the advertised hour. However, this in no way detracts from the power of the piece as a whole.

All of the performances on display were of a very high standard, and every cast member should be thoroughly proud of what they have achieved. Ed Sheridan was particularly affecting as the awkward and creepily convincing cult leader (Jake), and at numerous points brought elements of Hamlet and Shylock into the mix – a testament, perhaps, to his work with the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company. And in strikingly different, yet equally powerful performances, Sophie Pemberton (Sal) and Emily Rose Hay (Mary) confidently articulated many unspoken, yet real and significant aspects of female sexuality, despite their young age – “I dangle the carrot because, frankly, I don’t know what to do with the stick” summing up Mary’s dilemma succinctly.

Naturally this production is not without its negatives. At times the inevitable shoehorning of monologue after monologue started to grate, and some of the caricatured characters on display rivaled the work of the Royal Mile’s finest. And although inevitable during the Fringe, the uncomfortable seats, ludicrously shallow rake and inappropriate music drifting in at points from adjacent venues did somewhat spoil the atmosphere in places. Be that as it may, the many pros of this production far outweigh these minor cons, and I would thoroughly recommend that you take in Jacob’s Ladder with your morning Starbucks.

If there’s any justice in this cruel world, tickets for this production will be very hard to come by. Have a good fringe, guys!  (And  I know a good joiner, if you want to get the shed door fixed…)

(I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby)