SUMMERWORKS: Interview with Alistair Newton by Chris Dupuis

Chris: I’m intrigued by the fact that you make musicals, which is a form we associate with things like “The Lion King” and countless annual pop-culture centred Fringe productions. What is it that draws you to this form? Is it just because musicals are so damn gay?

Alistair: Mother Teresa is fond of equating suffering with a transcendent experience and I suppose I feel the same way about music. I always strive to marry the intellectual to the physical and emotional in my work and I've found music to be the most effective vehicle for such a nuptial. On the gay point (generally one of my very favourite points...) it always annoys me when "camp" gets confused with "kitsch" (I would, albeit somewhat clumsily, state the difference between the two as being that "camp" involves the good taste of bad taste, while kitsch is simply a celebration of bad taste). I find something condescending and slightly smug about the enjoyment of kitsch; it seems to exist solely to make us feel better about our own more advanced sense of good taste. Camp is self-effacing, self-aware, and revels in it's own tastelessness. For me, John Waters is a good representative of "camp" taste because he truly loves so-called "bad taste" and "low culture" in a profound and genuinely moving way. Musicals, and especially cabaret, has a fantastic way of combining "high art" with "low art" for me. High art, low art, good taste, bad taste, the intellectual and the physical, the body and the mind, I guess I'm fascinated by juxtaposition, paradox, and contradiction.

Chris: This is the first show you’ve made where you’ve written a part for yourself. Any particular reason why you decided to walk the boards for this specific piece?

Alistair: I performed in a few projects in University so the idea isn't totally foreign for me. I suppose the main reason I decided to perform in the piece was to show a sense of personal accountability and some kind of immediate solidarity to the politics I'm exploring (and specifically the statements I speak in the show). While I do think it's important for the ensemble to be able to morally stand behind the politics they are presenting, I would never expect any performer to have "blind faith" in all of my socio-political views; I also would never want anyone to compromise their own morals or personal ethic in performing in one of my shows. I love working with people who represent divergent religious, political, and cultural backgrounds to ensure a healthy discussion and thorough interrogation of the subject matter at hand as well. All this, and I wanted to impress a boy...

Chris: There’s a fairly heavy critique of organized religion in this piece, specifically the Catholic Church. What is your personal history with religion and why do you feel its something that should be discussed/lampooned on stage?

Alistair: I would describe my family background as something like "very, VERY lapsed Church of England" (essential whenever I asked my mum "What religion are we?" she would invariably reply "Your Grandma is Anglican" prefaced with a drawn-out "well..."). I grew up entirely without religion but encountered it in a quite fundamentalist form in high school: I had three friend who were devote Mormons. I became interested in learning more about their beliefs (one particular friend converted on her own, independent of her parents) and when I got a hold of the Book of Mormon and learned the fatuous story of Joseph Smith (with all the scurrilously racist underpinnings) a growing atheism began taking hold. More specifically, I'm mistrustful of any religion that proselytises and especially when it takes the form of Missionary work. There is something deeply problematic for me in the idea of polluting highly commendable and life saving charitable work with the taint of colonialism (and sometimes out-and-out imperialism). Offering impoverished people aid with a chaser of Jesus leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There's also the little matter of organized religion's long history of subjugating women, repressing all forms of sexuality, and oppressing homosexuals. Add to this the concept of Catholic guilt and a belief in the glories of suffering and you have a toxic cocktail of masochism. I should say though that I am more a Christopher Hitchens atheist then a Richard Dawkins atheist (the latter seeks to eradicate religion while the former only wishes that people would keep it to themselves).

Chris: I understand that this show is part of a sort of trilogy, along with The Pastor Phelps Project and Leni Riefenstahl VS The 20th Century. Why did you decide to take on Mother Teresa as a cultural figure to examine alongside Phelps (an anti-gay pastor whose church protests the funerals of AIDS victims) and Riefenstahl (a filmmaker who made propaganda films for the Hitler)?

Alistair: The trilogy all relate to various figures from the 20th Century who exist in a world with no sense of irony. Pastor Fred taught his children that all men are created equal and that we are all of the same blood...and he also taught them to believe in two rights for fags: AIDS and hell. Leni Riefenstahl had no problem with absolving herself of her role in the creation of the Hitler personality cult by constantly asserting the fact that she had no personal politics. With no trace of irony she could say things like, "If I had lived in Russia, I would have been making films for Stalin" (the 20 million people murdered by the Stalin regime apparently notwithstanding...). Mother Teresa is a bit different in that outwardly, she seems to exist in a similar state (the only thing most people seem to know about her is that she was some kind of living Saint, indefatigably pious and charitable; however she actually believed that poverty is good for mankind because it brings us closer to Jesus. So, in an important sense, she loved "poverty" as much "the poor" themselves) but inwardly, she was having an intense crisis of faith that shook her to her core; this shows quite a heroic sense of self-reflection. The most interesting question to me, is how could she personally reconcile being so conflicted and doubtful about her faith, while at the same time preaching a constant stream of fanatical Catholic fundamentalist dogma condemning contraception as murder and campaigning for laws against divorce?

Chris: I understand a portion of your research on Mother Teresa came from author Christopher Hitchens. His documentary Hell’s Angel in particular contains many of the quotes that you use in the show and also follows a similar trajectory in how the events are laid out. Hitchens himself is a bit of a controversial figure having written articles about why women aren’t funny unless they are “hefty or dykey or Jewish” and that Barak Obama is not black because he’s not from “the plantation”. There are a plethora of other examples online of Hitchens writing misogynist, racist, and homophobic things. Given these tendencies do you see him as a credible source for information on Mother Teresa and why?

Alistair: I think it is very important not confuse political correctness with correct politics. Hitchens has reported from dozens of war-torn countries and continually risks his own life in order to produce heroic defences of oppressed minorities and victims of tyranny. I would describe Hitchens as one of the great contemporary champions of human dignity and freedoms on the international scene. I had the privilege of sharing a drink with The Hitch when he was in town speaking at the ROM (he drinks double Johnnie Walker Blacks at a much quicker pace than I was able to keep up with...) and I found him to be a man of rigorous morals, a staunch personal ethic committed to overturning of political, social, and religious despotism, a muscular intellect, and wicked (and deeply politically incorrect) sense of humour. Does he have an occasionally troubling demeanour which makes one think of the stuffy smoking room of a particular form of British old-boys-club? Maybe. I appreciate your question because I know there are many people (especially on the left) who find Hitchens to be boorish and mount the same kinds of attacks on him. The claim that he is either a misogynist, a racist, or a homophobe is, for me who has extensively studied his literary output, is simply not so. I would encourage anyone unconvinced to pick up a copy of Hitchens' collected essays "Love Poverty and War" or "For the Sake of Argument" or follow his columns in Vanity Fair and Free Inquiry. As for why Hitchens ought to be trusted as a source on Mother T (and I have to take issue to the idea that my show follows the trajectory of Tariq Ali's documentary too closely...though it's certainly an important influence) I think his greatest strength as a thinker is his ability to, as his friend Salman Rushdie once said when asked for his thoughts on the job of the poet, "name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep". My ex-boyfriend had an issue with my crush on Hitchens though too (and he was extensively lovely as well as being a genius) so I'm always up for a debate on the subject...especially if you happen to be an extensively lovely genius...

Chris: What responsibilities do you think writers have when dealing with historical facts? There are a number of small details about the history of the Catholic Church in this show that were incorrect based on my research. For example, you state that Pope John Paul II canonized more saints than “all other popes combined”, when in fact he canonized more saints than all his predecessors in the five centuries before him, not since the beginning of the Catholic church. You also say that “JP gave us Rocco: patron Saint of Bird Flu”. Saint Rocco (or Saint Roch as he is normally known) was actually canonized in the 17th century not by Pope John Paul II. While these are small details, their presence could lead people to question other information that you present as facts in the show. How do you respond to this?

Alistair: What a delightfully Christopher Hitchens-ish questions...(I live for the dialectic!). Firstly, I take your point, and I appreciate the question. I do value the truth claims I make in all of my work very highly because it is important for the audience to trust the veracity of my arguments and the rigour of my honesty. So, I should point out that when I say that Pope JP made "more Saints then all other Pope's put together" I am excluding the first 800 years of the Catholic Church's history wherein Saints were simply martyrs around whom a personality cult had naturally arisen. According to my research, The Vatican established an official system of Canonization at a later date (though, I take your point that it is surely a bit specious to ignore eight centuries of history...). As for Saint Rocco, as far as I could find, JP declared him the Patron of bird flu in the same way that St Theresa de Lisieux is recognized as the patron Saint of AIDS despite being canonized in the 20s by Pius XI (and, come on be fair now, it's cute line...). I'm not trying to take the Michael Moore position that says if something doesn't fit the argument, cut it, or tweak it, or simply ignore it altogether...that smacks of demagoguery to me (and my number one personal rule is "don't be a demagogue". In truth, I may slip every now and then...). In fact, just the other day I had a vigorous debate about ways to make my shows more emotionally satisfying by slightly altering the facts to make the dialectics more complex and dramatically satisfying. It's likely true that it would make my shows more theatrically successful, but I do care about attempting to get at the truth of any situation I'm investigating. Of course, I am nothing more or less than a flawed, doubtful artist myself with my own personal/perpetual crises of intellect and ethics trying my best to constantly challenge myself to look deeper; at myself and my world. I think it's a worthy endeavour but I'm always open to a dissenting voice...any takers?

The Ecstasy of Mother Teresa or Agnes Bojaxhui Superstar
Written and Directed by Alistair Newton

Presented by Ecce Homo

Featuring: Kaitlyn Regehr, Nisha Ahuja, Andrew Bathory, Matthew Boden, Matt Eger, Jason Gaignard, Andrea Kwan, Michelle Langille, Chy Ryan Spain

Presented at The Theatre Centre,


August 6th 4:00pm
August 8th 12:00pm
August 9th 6:00pm
August 11th 8:00pm
August 13th 8:00pm
August 14th 6:00pm

1 comment:

Wes Berger said...

This is a terrific interview.

Challenging, stimulating, probing, playful; just like the interviewee.

I am looking forward to seeing this show and to debating it afterwards.