By Barbara Kay
Sean Gordon, a senior theater and performance major and playwriting minor, strides into the Hub. He seems timid but can’t contain his passion, and loyalty to his art as an actor. In his Purchase career, Gordon has brought to life your worst nightmares– a pedophile in Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive;” an assaulter in María Irene Fornés’ “Springtime;” and a gentrifying college student in a devised show [collaborative, improvised work by actors] “Not My Place.” In his final Purchase production, “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath, he has taken on the role of Pastor Paul. The production follows the aftermath of Paul revealing he doesn’t believe in hell, a belief that doesn’t sit well with his congregation.
You’ve been in a lot of Purchase productions. I’ve seen two you were in this year, “How I Learned to Drive,” and “We Are Proud to Present.” How do you juggle that?
Right now I’m extremely busy. We’re in the middle of “Proud to Present” which opened last weekend running through this weekend and then once that closes, I go into tech for “The Christians,” and then dress [rehearsal] for “The Christians,” and then we have two weeks. Staying on top of that is really knowing what you can do, working outside of rehearsal, and knowing what to say in rehearsal. Right now I’m lucky enough my course load is pretty light so I can devote a lot of my time to both these shows. Doing shows in the past on campus has really been about being open and communicative with all the SM [stage management] teams.
If you had to give a number, how many plays would you say you’ve been in?
If you want an exact number you’ll have to give me two seconds. All right, so 1…2…3…4…5…6…7… and then "The Christians" will be my eighth play on campus– and fun fact, it’ll be my 50th show overall, which is a really great capstone.
Really?! That’s so cool! This is your 50th performance?
Yeah, I started acting in the sixth grade, and since then there hasn't been a time where I wasn’t doing stuff. I think my record was once five shows in eight months, which I’ll never do again, that was my freshman year of high school. That was atrocious. It's how I feel I can express myself in the most real way. They say, “nothing new is ever created,” but why not try?
I think that's a great perspective for an artist to have. Wow, you must be proud, at least you should be!
Especially since “The Christians” is something we’ve been working on for so long, and I’ve spent so much time with this character, it's something we’re really proud of. And the script is just so beautiful, Hnath doesn’t play sides in the writing; he doesn’t underwrite, or overwrite so each person isn’t set up to fail, or succeed. You aren’t sure how to necessarily feel about Paul, it becomes evident that he had felt this way, and didn’t believe that there was a hell for a long time and had been leading this church and didn’t tell them how he felt until the church was debt-free so there was no financial ramification in doing that.
Okay cool! So, why “The Christians”?
The Christians is a play that I found my freshman year here. I worked on it in a directing one class. They needed actors and I knew someone in that class. I took directing the next year when Milan [Milan Castro, senior theater and performance major and the director for the “The Christians”] needed someone to be in that scene and I loved working on it, so I was like, “I’m willing to do this.” That's my history with the play, and I think “The Christians” is my favorite script. What I really like about it is the title of the play, it’s pretty confrontational but what's interesting about it is it's not like poeticizing, it's not believer versus non-believer. It's a theological debate– believer versus believer. Also– I could talk about this play for hours– it's interesting that Pastor Paul, the person we’re following, comes up with his own theological answer to the moral questions he's asking, and he pretty much determines that if God is so loving, then there isn’t a hell. If he’s so forgiving, then you should be forgiving for all. What's so interesting is, on paper, that sounds like an idealistic world to live in, but other people in his church don’t believe that.
Yeah! Is there anything about that that relates to you and your person?
Yeah, the show, in general, I relate to. I grew up Christian, I went “church shopping.” I’ve been to denominational, Evangelical, Presbyterian, Catholic churches– I’ve been around the block in terms of Christianity. Paul has some interesting conversations between himself and his faith that I find really interesting to stage, especially at Purchase, which is a pretty agnostic or atheist campus. What me and my fellow seniors [Castro, and Giovanni Minio, senior theater and performance major, and dramaturg (a research/literary advisor for a play) for “The Christians”] talked about while we were proposing this play is that it's not necessarily a show about religion or a show about faith, it's a show about your beliefs, and how we define those. How they’re influenced by the people around us, and this whole thing about group identity.
I can definitely see the appeal in that, and wanting to speak to a broader scope. Pastor Paul has always felt this way about hell not existing. Have you ever kept a belief to yourself?
One that is the most readily available was when I did a show once because I wasn’t doing anything over the summer and I wanted to do something. It was a collection of 10-minute plays and there was this one show that I got cast in that was deeply transphobic, so I turned down the role. I tried to articulate why and what the issues with it were, but being where I was and the group that was putting on the show, it was hard to articulate that in a constructive way. This was really upsetting because when I say the place that I was doing it in, and the company, it was all very progressive.
That’s frustrating, I’m sorry. I read a sort of synopsis of the play and the audience kind of sits as if they’re in a megachurch, right?
That’s a huge part of our production as well. We’re casting the audience as the congregation. We’re working to build this immersive field, so as soon as you get on the floor of the theater, playbills are going to look like bulletins so that you feel like you’re entering a church. The show starts with a 17-minute sermon and he’s presenting his argument to his congregation. The next scene– not to be a spoiler alert– is when one of his associate pastors gets up and they have it out in front of the congregation, and the associate pastor says, “Let's do a vote. Let's see what the congregation says.” And in our production, we’re going to prompt the audience, and give them little pamphlets to answer, and at the end of the show, as you're exiting, we’re going to set up a display and show what that night’s tally was.
That's amazing, I love that. Is that something you're interested in? Audience participation?
Oh yes! My whole senior thesis is on how modern theater is starting to look at sharing the authorial right with the audience. It's really interesting to me and more provocative if the audience has stakes in what happens on stage, and opens a much larger conversation.
Is “The Christians” your last Purchase performance?
Yeah!! Well, we’ll see. Me and a collaborator of mine are working on something right now that might go up as an independent, or guerilla-style [spontaneous performances] theater sometime in April. But, right now yes, “The Christians” is my last performance.
Do you have plans post-Purchase?
YEAHHH, so right now that thing I’m on with my collaborator is a “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation of being a young artist. Right now, its working title is “Batshit.” We’re going to workshop that in April. Postgrad plans are working with the Glow-Worm [theater] company that works on experimental Shakespeare productions. It’s a group of recent graduates that have a desire to make Shakespeare accessible and provocative for new audiences. Last summer, they produced their first work at the Shakespeare Academy at Stratford, titled “Castaway: Hamlet (or The Life Rendering Pelican)” and for grad school, I plan to take a year or two off to do work in the industry and then apply to schools like Yale or Brown. In addition to having amazing programs, their master’s programs are free!
Wow, how does that feel?
It feels CRAZY. It feels like so many things, especially since I’ve done so many things on this campus, it seems hard to try and pull that into a final moment, especially with all the roles I’ve played, my career has been playing the morally dubious characters, really troubled, and faulted, and just bad people because the playwrights see the value in this perspective. They haven’t depicted these characters as two-dimensional. Leading to “The Christians” where Paul is the least problematic, he’s still morally complex so keeping that in mind with all my trajectory is like a weird cathartic coming to the end.
“The Christians” opens March 31 and runs through April 2 at 7:30 p.m. in the CMFT Performance Studio. Tickets are free of charge.