Interview: Dustin Britt of St. John's Metropolitan Church's CORPUS CHRISTI

Pride Month begins with a production Terrence McNally's gay play.

By: May. 31, 2023
Interview: Dustin Britt of St. John's Metropolitan Church's CORPUS CHRISTI

Almost two years ago, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dustin Britt prior to a production of Peter Weiss’ MARAT/SADE he directed at St. John’s Metropolitan Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Now, he’s back with them helming an upcoming production of Terrence McNally’s CORPUS CHRISTI, which will be taking place from June 1st-10th.

Dustin is a Triangle-based theatremaker for more than twenty years as an actor, stage manager, designer, music director, playwright, educator, arts journalist, and director with over a dozen theatre companies. He has directed productions for Seed Art Share (THE MIRACLE WORKER), Sonorous Road (NO CONTEST, A TELLER’S TALE), North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre (HEATHERS, asst. director), and Bare Theatre (SHAKESBEER, SHAKESBEER II: THE BARD STRIKES BACK, TIMON OF ATHENS, SHAKESQUEER, and their 2020 production of MARAT/SADE). He has also completed extensive training with Theatrical Intimacy Education, is certified in Mental Health First Aid, and holds a Master of Arts in Special Education from East Carolina University.

To start things off, would you mind telling us about CORPUS CHRISTI?
DB: Yes. Corpus Christi
is a play that was written by Terrence McNally, a gay American playwright back in the late nineties. He actually workshopped it at UNC School of the Arts. So it has North Carolina roots. It is a retelling of the Gospels. So the story is following Jesus's life. It's a retelling of those, imagining Jesus as a young gay man named Joshua in Texas, the town of Corpus Christi, and his 12 friends, some of whom are, some of whom are not, but who vary in their gender identities and their races and their abilities. So whereas we typically see a story of 13 white men, we now have a story that's extremely diverse. Not only does the play change the time period, it also allows us to change the language. So while there are some moments of scriptural accuracy, most of it is a contemporary mirroring of the story. So instead of in a manger, the nativity happens in a motel room. Instead of Sermon on the Mount, it's out in a park. So it imagines things in different places. But we also imagine things like, “What if Jesus and Judas were in a relationship and what if they went to the prom?” “What would happen if Jesus got to meet his idol, which was James Dean?” So it incorporates a lot of comedy, a lot of silliness, but also a lot of the tragedy that comes with the story. So it starts with the very first Christmas and it ends with the crucifixion and all the things in between.

How did the opportunity for you to direct this production come about?
DB: I forced my way in as is how most of my directing gigs happen. I've loved the play for many years. About five years ago, I told a bunch of people that I was going to direct Corpus Christi
no matter what. Recently, as you know, I did Marat/Sade and Timon of Athens at St. John's Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh and had approached the leader there, Vance Haywood, and asked him if he would like to produce another show and he said, “Sure.” So I sent him the script for Corpus Christi. Since this church is very queer inclusive and has a very pro queer message, and that's kind of their focus, he agreed with me that this play would be perfect for their space. So I just knocked on his door long enough to finally say, “Okay, I'll let you direct Corpus Christi.”

How familiar were you Terrence McNally’s CORPUS CHRISTI beforehand?
DB: I was very familiar with it. I encountered it in high school. It was published around the time that Matthew Shepherd was killed. When I was in high school, I found it, read it, thought it was interesting, saw a documentary about it, and then put it back on the shelf. Years later, after I got back involved in the theater in the mid 2010s, I picked it up again, read it and said, “Hmm, this is not a perfect script. It has a lot of problems, but I wonder if it would be interesting to tell it with a group of actors that's not just 13 men,” which is who it's written for. Like “can we do something different with it?” And then for five years I just obsessed over it.

How are rehearsals going with your production?
DB: They're going really well. It's a very challenging play. Part of it is that the emotional content is very strong. So we're asking actors to live and relive trauma happening to people. We're asking one actor to live through the crucifixion and the actors who have to participate in it. So it's emotionally very challenging and because the cast is made up of queer people only, our entire team are LGBTQIA plus people from the area, because of that we're all bringing our own issues that have come up in our own lives, including me, our designers, our actors. So there are things that we're butting up against in the text and things we're butting up that we may not realize that we are bringing into the room experiences and trauma we have, which may differ from that of the other people in the room. So we're navigating our way together. We're having a very good time. It's very artistically rewarding, but it's definitely emotionally challenging.

What have you been enjoying most about working with St. John’s Metropolitan Church?
DB: So the thing I love the most about St. John's MCC is that they give us a lot of space in which to work. They give us time, they give us the room. They also are giving us resources. The church is officially producing the show, so they're supporting it financially. People in the church have been contributing props and things. The main pastor of the church, our producer Vance Haywood, has actually been building the set himself. The church is gonna be helping sell tickets. So everybody kind of came together to support the show. The community that's at St. John's to me is what makes it the most unique. It's interesting doing it not with a theater company, but doing it with a church because they don't have all of the baggage that comes along with working with a theater company. It also means that they don't have all the expertise that comes with a theater company. So there's kind of a balance that we play together, but they've been remarkably helpful in providing resources.

CORPUS CHRISTI is going to be running during the first two weekends in June to honor Pride Month. Not only that, but it’ll also be the first time the play is being presented in North Carolina in more than 20 years as well as its premiere in the Triangle area. What does it mean to you to be at the helm of this particular production?
DB: I think because in the country right now, queer people, particularly trans people, are under attack by the government. This play is celebrating the joy of queer experiences, the joy of queer love, the things that queer people specifically experience that's unique to us. I think it's a wonderful time to be telling this story and to tell a story that is about by and for the queer community. So I'm happy that it's North Carolina based because this is where it originated. I'm happy that we're the first ones to do it in the Triangle because so few people have seen it. I think after 20 years it's time for us to say something in a way in response to the things that have been going on legally in North Carolina and how queer people are being attacked by our leaders. 

Are there any directors who’ve been influential to you whenever you helm a theatre production?
DB: So there are a number of directors that I've worked with that have directed me, that have inspired me to be better at what I do and to think about things in different ways. I recently worked with a director named Mia Self who directed me in a Shakespeare production and she reinvigorated my love for the language of the plays we're working on. So that's something that was particularly exciting. There are a handful of directors that I kind of steal my ideas from.

Are there any dream shows you’d love to direct in the future?
DB: Luckily, my two dream shows were Marat/Sade
and Corpus Christi. So now we've checked both of those off the list. I've always wanted to do a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I have just been asked to do up in Henderson, North Carolina. So that's next on the plate. There are a number of Shakespeare productions that I would really like to explore. Particularly Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice are two things I'd love to look at. There are a number of plays out in the world that I would jump at the opportunity to do, but Shakespeare tends to come to top of mind when I'm thinking of the next project. I've been wanting to do an adaptation of Faust that incorporates Christopher Marlow's Faust and Goethe's original Faust and come up with something new. I’ve also been thinking about a way to adapt Beowulf for the stage. There's all kinds of creative, silly things going on in my head all the time.

For those who’d like to pursue a career in the theatre, where do you think would be a good place to start?
DB: If you're someone who wants to go into school for theatre, if you want to go into a university setting, there are plenty of great schools to go to. If you want to not go that route, I did not go to school for theatre (my master's degree is in education), what I recommend is find out what your local community theatres are doing. Start going to see all of the theatre that's being done around you. See everything you can. Then find out the companies that are doing work that excites you, that you want to be involved with. Find out when they're doing auditions, start working with them. That's usually a great way to start, whether that's acting or whether you want to find something in the technical field. Find your local theatre community, they need people, and start there. Build a relationship with the people in your community and then you may start finding opportunities for larger roles or stage management opportunities, directing opportunities. It can grow from there. That's for people who wanna do it part-time like me and who aren't doing it to make a living. To make a living doing it, you would have to talk to experts that know more about it than me.

Before we go, do you have any other upcoming projects that you’d like to share with us (other than the aforementioned MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM)?
DB: Just Midsummer
, which is gonna be at Henderson Rec Players in August. It’s going to be set in the 1930s in the Appalachian Mountains and have a bluegrass band. That's the next project. I'm actually working on costumes for that right now.

Dustin, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
DB: Thanks Jeffrey! It’s always lovely to speak with you.

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