BWW Interviews: Suzanne Bradbeer Talks Religion, Politics, and THE GOD GAME
We are all familiar with the "flip-flopping" and duplicity of politicians. George Bush and his dubious Texan roots, Barack Obama and his "evolving" position on gay marriage, but, and please put your stones in the safety position, who among us hasn't hidden an opinion in the service of politeness or, at the very least, not making waves? True, most of us are not leaders of the free world, but lying about sex, religion, and money is the human way.
Enter THE GOD GAME. Tom, a charismatic, Republican candidate on the rise is asked to enhance his non-existent religious beliefs to further his political career, which seems an easy enough task for a politician. But, Lisa, his deeply religious wife doesn't think it's so ethical or respectful of her beliefs. How does this human and political drama unfold? You'll have to see the play. But, until then, take a look at the discussion I had with author of the play Suzanne Bradbeer.
BWW: When you were writing, what were your intentions? Were you politically minded? Or were you more interested in the human drama? Or both?
Suzanne Bradbeer: I was ultimately much more interested in the human drama. The framing of it came from watching the political processes and being fascinated by how candidates would negotiate getting themselves elected. Then, I wondered, what does that look like from a personal point of view? What does that look like across the breakfast table when it's just you and your spouse? And your spouse is somebody that keeps you "honest." There are no cameras. You're not trying to impress anyone, tow the party line, or do the thing that will get you elected. I was curious to explore what that might look like. That was the impetus.
BWW: When I was researching the play, in many of the synopses I found, the characters seemed very Barack and Michelle Obama. Did you have any real life corollaries in mind when you were writing?
Suzanne Bradbeer: Oh, I love that you say that! I think both Tom and Lisa are really strong and they're both really smart. That's what I take from what you said. I was thinking of him as a Republican Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton just had a sort of outsized charisma and was super smart. And, of course, his wife, Hillary Clinton, is extremely accomplished. That is a very interesting political marriage. Lisa, the wife in my play, is not in politics at all. She's, in fact, kind of suspicious of the whole process. I think she's more of an idealist. She sees compromises that people make and she doesn't necessarily get on board with that.
BWW: This play has been performed around the country, what has been the reaction in general?
Suzanne Bradbeer: It's been wildly positive. Whenever we have a talk back, people are so enthusiastic to stay and talk about the questions that come up in the play, which is just thrilling. One of the really important things to me when I was writing is that - I'm not really interested in preaching to the choir. I'm not interested in coming in with a sledgehammer with whatever my point of view is. What I am interested in is exploring something and seeing what questions come up. Ultimately, as you say, it's the human story. It's the personal angle: the dilemma and how it translates into a relationship between a husband, a wife and also a best friend.
The audiences care so much about these characters. Lots of audiences like identifying themselves with them.
A person will comment, saying, "I'm an Episcopalian, and I think this!"
"I'm a Catholic, and I think this!"
"I'm an atheist, and I think that!"
It's fun to hear.
"I'm a Democrat!"
"I'm a Republican!" [Laughs]
"I think they're all crooks!"
"Well, I like them!"
Then you get some cross talk in the audience, which is usually fun.
I noticed in one of the audiences some of the Republicans were afraid they were going to get bashed and made fun of. Because the stereotype is that theatre is much more liberal, which, I think, is pretty fair. But, that's just so not interesting to me. I think that's better for a lecture. [Laughs]
BWW: The Republicans just have really bad PR. But, your task as a writer, I guess, is to break through false images.
Suzanne Bradbeer: Yes, exactly! We're all so quick to paint everybody into black and white positions. I think a lot of people have more nuanced positions than we give them credit for. I really love it when a political figure, or anybody, really, says something that surprises me. That makes me think, "Wow, I never would have thought that you thought that!" It's so refreshing when somebody does actually seem to be direct and willing to take political consequences for coming out with a position that might not be the party line.
BWW: We were talking about how it's very in vogue to mock Republicans in theatre and art, in general, which you avoid. THE GOD GAME is also known for treating religion and religiosity with a certain amount of respect. Were you doing that purposefully?
Suzanne Bradbeer: That was so important to me. I feel like, sometimes, the religious right has run away with the conversation in a way. It's not accurate to the vast number of people who identify as Christian, who are not to the right. I grew up in such a family - a church going family who is not conservative. I felt like that story was not being told. I felt it was important that somebody who is a committed Christian, as Lisa is, is fun.[Laughs] So often they're portrayed as dull, screaming, or narrow-minded, instead of having all the colors that anybody would have.
BWW: What is Tom's perspective on religion?
Suzanne Bradbeer: He's an agnostic. They met in college. Their belief systems drifted apart, but they love each other and they work it out until this question in the play where he's asked to sound more Christian. In order to sound more Christian, it would mean, basically, lying. Because he's not a Christian. [Laughs]
BWW: It would be a little inauthentic.
Suzanne Bradbeer: Yeah! And privacy guides him too. What should be public, and what should be private? There should be this separation between church and state. He's a local Virginian senator, and I'm from Virginia. He's a Thomas Jefferson fan. Thomas Jefferson accepted the idea that separation should exist between church and state. So, my character, Tom, is very much in that tradition. Of course, if you were cynical, you could say it suits him because it would not be good for him if people knew he did not believe in God.
BWW: Yes, I believe that would be hurtful to any political candidate.
Suzanne Bradbeer: Exactly. I saw some research where the polling suggested that Americans would rather vote for anybody else other than somebody who doesn't believe in God.
BWW: That's so interesting.
Suzanne Bradbeer: Yes, somebody being an atheist was considered the worst. The bottom of the barrel.
BWW: I'd love to pursue that line of conversation. But, I'm not going to open up that can of worms. [Suzanne Laughs] Speaking of opening up a can of worms, your play can be seen as doing just that. You seem fearless about "attacking," if that's the right word, certain issues. The play has been described as polemic. Is that something you intended to do, or did it happen and you found yourself OK with it?
Suzanne Bradbeer: I think what people will find is it's not a polemic, but it does raise big, hot button issues. I love that you used the word fearless. Not that I necessarily felt fearless, but, it was just burning at me to do this. It's one of those things that wouldn't let go. I started thinking about the play in the back of my mind in 2008. I didn't start writing it until three years later. It was just sitting there waiting for me. [Laughs] When I started to do research, I found it fascinating. I can be cynical and not cynical about politicians. I believe there are people who are going into it with good intentions, but I think the process can be very damaging to everybody.
The spark was, "What happens when a candidate is asked to change or adjust an opinion? What does that look like in private? Then, what if that thing is this most important part of the spouse's life? As for her, Lisa, it is religion, it is her faith. Also, by the time I started writing it, the election cycle was in full force. You had this group of Republican candidates falling all over themselves to out-Christian each other. Plus, church, in my family, had been a part of my upbringing. For my mother it's still such a motivator for her. It's still so much a part of her life.
BWW: Do you think your mother inspired the character Lisa?
Suzanne Bradbeer: Probably, to some extent. There's also a college friend of mine that inspired Lisa.
BWW: You let the play sit for a while, three years, what made you pick it back up again?
Suzanne Bradbeer: It was more like I was letting it percolate while I was working on other things. It was more letting it find it's path. What would be the hook? What would be the story? How would we get into the story? It's really, as you said, a story about human beings and not a story so much about ideas, but the ideas are very important in these people's lives. I think they're fun to be around.
BWW: I'd like to sit down and talk with Lisa. I haven't seen the play yet, but in the various places I've seen her described, she seems sexy and feisty - fun as well as religious.
Suzanne Bradbeer: Thank you.
BWW: Some writers say they learn something new about themselves and their craft with each piece. Is that true for you and THE GOD GAME?
Suzanne Bradbeer: I think in some ways it got me thinking about faith and the role of faith in my own life. I grew up with certain assumptions. It just got me in a questioning mode.
And the play, I love the subject matter so much that when I started my next play I bounced off of this play. My next play has a tie-in to this play. It's another three-hander. I love three-handers. I love the triangle. I love the mix. Hopefully as audiences, we feel our allegiances go to one person, then another person, then another person, and back to the original person. You can play two against the other one and back and forth.
BWW: Do you have any words of wisdom for writers just starting out? Or the so close but so far crowd not just starting out?
Suzanne Bradbeer: [Laughs] I would say there is no one path. That's for sure. But, find a community that can help inspire you. For me, finding writing groups was really fantastic. If somebody offers to help out in some way, like make an introduction, don't wait to take advantage of it. Don't have fear about it. Then thank them. [Laughs]
BWW: Good advice.
Opening on Friday, September 5th, and running through September 20th, THE GOD GAME is a compelling and thought-provoking political drama written by award-winning playwright Suzanne Bradbeer, and starring Justin Doran, Philip Lehl, and Kim Tobin-Lehl. Performances will be held at STUDIO 101, Spring Street Studios, located at 1824 Spring St., Houston, TX 77007. For more information visit starknakedtheatre.com.
Promotional photo by Gabriella Nissen
Photo of Suzanne Bradbeer courtesy of Suzanne Bradbeer