I’m intriqued! SoPAC tonight and tomorrow

By mark-slade April 22, 2011

HBO WRITER BRINGS PLAY TO SOPAC

The Gospel According To Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy will be presented this Friday evening at 8pm and Saturday afternoon at 2pm. A Q&A with Scott Carter, playwright, and Dossie McCraw, producer, will follow both performances.
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In 1986, after a near-death experience and a week spent in the hospital, Scott Carter, a stand-up comedian turned television writer and producer, began to feel what he calls “a sense of urgency.”  Carter, now writer and executive producer of Real Time with Bill Maher, says that like others who go through serious trauma, he felt that he had experienced an epiphany and “transformed into a new kind of life.”  Comparing his post-hospital eureka moment to the storyFlowers for Algernon, where Charlie Gordon temporarily becomes a genius, Carter explained that the “bliss-state experience” soon began to dissipate.
Just as Charlie Gordon would not forget his experience as a mastermind, Carter needed something to hold onto.  “I made this kind of vow to myself that for the next two years at least, I would do anything that anybody suggested that I do, spiritually.”  Carter had no strong religious background, and as were many of his fellow stand-up comedians, he was “cynical and hostile to religion.”
Since his profound experience in 1986, Carter says he’s never doubted the existence of God, but did not have a connection to a particular adaptation of any faith. So he opened himself to any religion-based suggestion.  Walking down the streets of New York, where he lived at the time, he would “have to stop” and listen to the religious zealot preaching that the end of the world was on its way.  For two years, he had a Jehovah’s Witness come to his apartment every Wednesday at 1 o’clock, “and even though I didn’t move toward that at all… I still listened to the guy for an hour every Wednesday afternoon.”
Carter first learned of The Jefferson Bible one day while watching Bill Moyers interview Forrester Church, a Unitarian minister who wrote an introduction to a reissue of The Jefferson Bible. According to Carter, Church spoke about how Jefferson created a version of the Gospels in which he took copies of the bible, used a razor blade and cut out everything he did not like, kept everything that he did, and pasted the remaining words into a scrapbook.  A student of history, Carter purchased the Jefferson reissue, thinking that perhaps something “like a play,” could be created out of it.
In the meantime, Carter produced television shows, and when Politically Incorrect with Bill Mahermoved production to Los Angeles in 1996, he moved with it.  In a bookstore close to his new home, Carter discovered the Charles Dickens Bible.  This cemented his idea for a play – having Jefferson and Dickens meeting in a sort of purgatory, discussing their philosophies and ideas.
While working on his theatrical project, Carter learned that Tolstoy had performed the same biblical exercise as Jefferson.  Carter took a step back and researched Tolstoy to add into the mix, and so did not build his first draft until 2004 – a draft that he says everyone, from his wife to his agent, hated.  Carter put his draft away until he found himself with two months of downtime.  “So I thought, let me go back to that play.”  With the help of what became his personal library of over 200 books on Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy, he made revisions, paring it down from 150 pages, and called on his industry friends for their feedback.  From Gary Shandling to Norman Lear, Carter read his script to them and took in their criticisms.
An ever-evolving document, this weekend’s staged reading at SOPAC is only the fourth time thatThe Gospel has been read with actors.  Carter is very excited in anticipation of this weekend’s show and the Q&A afterwards, which he predicts will “elicit some very useful rewriting.”
Dossie McCraw has worked with Scott Carter through HBO, and is partnering with him to produce this weekend’s SOPAC staging.  McCraw says that despite the title, The Gospel is “by no means a religious play. It starts in religion and then becomes … a springboard for three highly intelligent, very passionate men to then debate essentially the meaning of life – which I think is a timeless topic.”
Carter has said that working with the highly intellectual people that he has, from Salman Rushdie to Ariana Huffington, has enabled him to create the imagined dialogue between Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy.
Both Carter and McCraw are eager to hear what the Maplewood/South Orange community will have to say about The Gospel. McCraw lives in the area and says he knows M/SO to be a theatre-literate community that really embraces the arts, adding, “the price is right.”
Carter hopes that his play will give the audience a similar “sense of urgency” that his hospital stay in 1986 gave him.  “If you’ve had a near death experience, you have a much more urgent approach to life… you know that you’re not going to live forever; you know that life is precious, and you seek to… integrate that lesson into your daily life.”  Carter wants to translate his sense of urgency to the audience, so they may in turn reflect on, and make the most of their own existence.