Thursday, November 3, 2011

An Interview with Kevin O'Brien

This is an interview David Higbee of St. Irenaeus Ministries conducted with me. Please click on the link and check out the good work David is doing in his apostolate. I'm told his podcasts are especially good. In fact, you'll find one of me performing my one-man Hilarie Belloc show, as recorded last month in Rochester, New York.

This will be published in the newsletter / magazine of St. Irenaeus Ministries. Thanks to them for allowing me to mirror it here.

Arts and Entertainment for Christ
An Interview with Kevin O’Brien

Q: Kevin, you are known for your one-man shows, like the one you recently put on at the Rochester Chesterton Conference in October, where you portrayed Hilaire Belloc, and, of course, from your theatrical performances on Catholic television. In 2007 you organized a theatrical endeavor with the potential to touch many souls. Please tell us about the origin and concept of Theater of the Word, Inc.

The Theater of the Word Incorporated is named after the “Theater of the Word”, Karol Wojtyla’s drama troupe, the clandestine theater company of Nazi-occupied Poland. We add the title “incorporated” to our company to emphasize that we are the Theater of the Word-Incorporated, or the Word-become-flesh. For as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, we, as actors, flesh out words on the printed page by bringing them to life in performance. And so we travel the country evangelizing through drama, and we also produce material for television, the internet and audio books.

As to how we came about – well, that’s a long story of the Providence of God acting through a number of seemingly incredible coincidences. But our main benefactors in the beginning were Father Joseph Fessio and Ignatius Press as well as then-Archbishop Raymond Burke of my home archdiocese, St. Louis. They provided the resources and encouragement for us to go forward and to answer God’s call in this creative and challenging way.

Q: You mention Archbishop Burke (now Cardinal Burke). What have you found or what do you sense of the hierarchy’s attitude toward using the theatrical arts and media to reach souls?

I am sorry to say that we’ve discovered a kind of institutionalism widespread in the Church, and even in many lay apostolates. A typical diocese or parish settles into the attitude of maintaining the status quo, and, above all, of not taking risks. If you approach a pastor with the opportunity to allow their parishioners to see a live performance that would stir their souls, engage their emotions, and perhaps encourage them to grow closer to Christ, the typical response is, “Well, we don’t do that”, or “There’s no committee for that,” or “That might work as a fund raiser, but BINGO and fish fries do much better.”

On the diocesan level, it is all too often a question of how much insurance do you carry and what can we do to make sure we don’t get any complaints about this.

On the other hand, there are enough priests and bishops out there who like what we do and who see the value in it, that we are, in fact, able to spread the Word through comedy and drama – though not without a good deal of resistance along the way.

Q: You come from a theatrical background. How did the faith come to figure in your life?

At age nine I considered myself an atheist. It wasn’t until I began to appear in plays as a teenager that I discovered tangible evidence of the realm beyond, of something outside of my control that was best termed “spiritual”. Things would happen to me and to my fellow actors on stage that we could not force, that we could merely prepare for and invite – a kind of spontaneity and authenticity of performance that was in fact a “spiritual” thing. It was an experience you could kill by trying to be in total control of what you were doing; it was an experience you could not make happen, but you could prevent from happening – which is precisely how we stand in relation to God’s grace. Once you were totally rehearsed and prepared, if you lost yourself in performance, you might gain yourself in performance, so to speak. And this is what led me, over a long and adventurous path, into the Catholic Church.

As to my background in theater, I have been making a living as an actor, playwright or director for thirty years, doing everything from stand-up comedy, magic, and singing telegrams to movies and TV – and that storehouse of experience in “show biz” taught me that you can’t evangelize though drama without at the very least being entertaining.

Q: I can see that evangelizing and transforming our culture are at the heart of what you do with the performing arts, but could you elaborate on how the idea of entertainment fits into this?

I think the great challenge facing Christians today is how easy it is for our faith to become “unreal”. A sanctimonious faith, a faith divorced from real life, a faith that is squeamish and diffident, is bound to be a sterile and fruitless faith.

Thus the gateway to a transformative drama is to make sure that drama or comedy is first of all entertaining. And how is something entertaining? Drama is entertaining by being real at some level; it’s entertaining by engaging the whole person, and not by presenting propaganda, or by presenting a false image of a false humanity. Drama and comedy must deal with the human heart in its fullness, its sinfulness, and its relation to the demanding love and awesome presence of God. A drama that attempts to grapple with real men who themselves are grappling at some level with a real God is bound to be entertaining.

Q: You’ve done intense, dramatic portrayals, but you’ve also done comic satires, like your portrayal of Standford Nutting, seen by thousands of people on YouTube. Would you explain the creation of this memorable character – and what you hope to get across to your viewers?

We have two choices in dealing with the Standord Nuttings of the world: to laugh at them or to kill them. It’s more effective to laugh at them.

Stanford Nutting, who “Stands-for Nothing”, is an amalgam of many real people. For example, two ex-seminarians came to a meeting at which we were discussing Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy, and kept interrupting the discussion by saying really foolish and insipid things. “It sounds to me as if you haven’t even read the book,” I said to one of them. “I haven’t!” he replied, “But I object to the title!”

Then there was the tired old liberal in a sweater, who worked at St. Louis University High School, and who proudly told me that he teaches his students that “there is no difference between fiction and non-fiction.” At that moment I decided I would not be sending my son to St. Louis University High School, thus saving myself $40,000, and adding another element to the mix that became Stanford Nutting.

Q: I can see where certain so-called liberal or “progressive” elements might react negatively to your message, but you have also gotten negative reactions from certain so-called conservative quarters. How do you find people reacting, positively or negatively to your message and approach?

The liberals at least are comfortable with drama and with the idea of people having fun. The more Puritanical conservatives are seriously uncomfortable with the whole concept of drama because it involves fun. The more radical-right elements in the Catholic Church are indistinguishable from Puritans, both the modern and the historical variety. And it was the Puritans who shut down the theaters in England, putting an end to the most rich and beautiful period of dramatic art in the history of the world.

But the push back comes from both right and left.

Take, for instance, reactions to our show The Journey of St. Paul. The liberals would complain to me that I included Paul’s admonition to practicing homosexuals that they will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9 and elsewhere). Conservatives would complain to me that we showed Paul confronting Peter, our first Pope, opposing him “to his face because he stood condemned” in his timidity in teaching how Christ fulfilled the Law (see Gal. 2:11). Both scenes in my show come directly from sacred Scripture. And in both cases, the truth of Scripture was being objected to by folks with a certain agenda. And so the fullness of Christ’s message continues to act as a sign of contradiction, even within the Church.

Q: Kevin, I know that you’re concerned about capturing the moral and spiritual imagination of a new generation and have a unique vantage point in gauging the response of your audiences around the country. You’ve worked closely with Dale Ahlquist, who has been so effective in his work with the American Chesterton Society and a host of projects everywhere. Do you see a revival of interest in the Catholic arts? What do you make of the current climate, its receptivity, and the prospects?

I have been honored to have Dale Ahlquist as a good friend and to play an important role in the American Chesterton Society for many years now. And I have seen the growth of interest in Chesterton – it’s been a kind of resurrection from the dead of one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Chesterton is alive again – and popular.

As to the receptivity – young people are hungry for intellectual and cultural stimulation, but they don’t know how to think; they don’t know the vocabulary of culture. This is why drama is so important. A high school or college student may not pick up Peter Kreeft’s book Socrates Meets Jesus, which would take several hours to read through – but this same student might come to a 90 minute presentation of our stage adaptation of the book, especially if it’s funny and thought-provoking and if it hits him where he’s at.

One of my most memorable experiences in this regard happened not on stage but in the men’s room. I was attending a performance of Chesterton’s play Magic produced by the Blackbird Theater Company of Nashville, and during intermission I overheard young college students discussing the theology of the play at the urinals! Now that’s a good sign – a sign that a dramatic work is making an impact.

But it is almost impossible to explain the reactions we get from our audiences and from the people who book our shows. When people come up to you with tears in their eyes and tell you something you just did was the most moving performance they’ve ever seen, it really strikes you and you realize that it’s not you accomplishing this, but the Spirit working through you. Actors and other artists, in this sense, are like priests – bridges connecting people with something beyond themselves. And our vocation is therefore somewhat sacred.

And yet I have a better answer to this question. I have a quote from a sixteen-year-old girl who saw our play The Call, our show on vocations, at the Institute on Religious Life Conference in Chicago. She sent me this email:

I am so glad I got to come and experience seeing “The Call” this last weekend! You guys showing up in my life has got to be one of the best things that has ever happened! You and your crew have been an inspiration! I saw God shine in every single one of your faces! ... Last night when I got home after 11 pm, my grandma and I had a little chat about the conference and of course, about you! I told her how wonderful you guys were and how being with you guys has helped my discernment a lot! I was telling her that whenever I heard a talk on evangelization and missionary work ... my heart felt pulled, and also when I watched the show you put on ... I also felt pulled. So to sum it all up, I feel God might be calling me to go out and evangelize. I don’t know, though, whether it could be through talking, acting, singing ... Not sure on that part ... But I know your prayers will most definitely help!

An email like this tells you why we do what we do.

Q: This is all very exciting, very promising. What are your hopes and dreams for the Theater of the Word, Inc? Do you hope to encourage other Christian writers and performing artists?

I think the future for us will involve much more presence on internet TV. And, yes, I very much want to encourage others in the performing arts. I blog regularly about the relation between acting and the faith and this seems to be encouraging many in the industry. So I encourage people to follow our blog and also our YouTube page, both of which can be reached from our website I hope all who are interested will follow us, help us, and thereby become a part of the renewal of the theatrical and cinematic arts for the greater glory of God.

Q: You put on well-received performances at local conferences and in parishes or other venues across the country. How can interested persons contact you to check out the possibility of getting you into their area?

Through our website ( or by phone at 1-888-840-WORD. We price our shows below what it costs us to produce them, in the hopes that as many parishes, schools and conferences as possible can afford to book us, enabling us to “bring light to the world by bringing words to life”.

Kevin, I can only wish and pray you God’s good success in reaching our society through the theatrical arts. This is what people are watching and listening to today. I applaud your efforts to use various media and technologies. You have a vision and passion, and this is a vital endeavor. Thank you for sharing your vision with us.

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