The Lotus Project Takes it Day By Day
For its inaugural production, new theater group presents a diverse and inclusive Godspell (Dec. 1 – 3)
If you’ve seen the musical Godspell, chances are you saw it in a church.
That’s where I first saw it. It was at Myers Park Presbyterian in the early 1980s. I was in 10th grade and had been listening to the soundtrack for years by then. The show’s Day By Day was one of my favorite songs. (Because I love Meet the Parents and this scene, in particular, I invite you to enjoy Ben Stiller-as-Greg Focker’s blessing. He “borrowed” some of the lyrics.)
I can still see the black, white and red album cover with an illustration of a man’s face. He had the most glorious head of thick, shoulder-length wavy hair. Although that face was meant to be that of Jesus, the man looked more like The Who’s Roger Daltrey to me.
Godspell’s Jesus was a hippie. Come to think of it, the real Jesus probably was, too.
The show, composed by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked) with a book by John-Michael Tebelak, is told in scenes that mirror parables, and it ends with Christ’s crucifixion – not on a cross but on a chain-link fence.
But for The Lotus Project, a new theater company in Charlotte, Godspell isn’t necessarily about Jesus. The website references “a character who shows up, challenges everything that has come before, dreams of a better world for ALL people and creates community among an incredible and diverse group of humans.”
All good gifts
Susan Cherin (recently seen in Three Bone Theatre’s Andy and the Orphans) and Kayla Piscatelli] (Children’s Theatre’s The Lion and the Little Red Bird), are partners in real life and in Lotus. When they left The Jewish Community Center, where they created the community theater program, JSTAGE, they started The Lotus Project, which aims to use the arts as a tool for empowerment. Godspell is Lotus’ first public production.
“People have found it interesting that we chose Godspell because it’s thought of as a religious musical,” Piscatelli said. (It is; the show’s subtitle is A Musical Based Upon the Gospel According to St. Matthew.) “And neither of us identifies as Christian. Susan is Jewish, and I hang out with the Jews.”
The two are trying what seems impossible: turning a religious musical into a mostly secular one. Cherin said, “We should be moving away from the assumption everyone is Christian and believes in God. And I know it’s ironic that we’re doing a religious musical to make that point.”
Make yourself uncomfortable
They’re prepared for criticism.
“We’re ready to have hard conversations,” Cherin said. “People may walk out or be uncomfortable with some of the casting choices. And we say: Good. If you’re uncomfortable, then we’re challenging the norm you’ve come to expect.”
“This person, this educator,” she continued, referring to the Christ figure, “shows up and teaches the community how to be good humans. And [in our work] we’re trying to build this beautiful community of people from every walk of life. Our cast of 50 is kooky and diverse. They’re insanely different from one another. But they’ve come together to build a beautiful community. That’s our whole mission.”
Cherin calls Lotus “an LGBTQ- and female-owned business dedicated to not only diversity and inclusion, but to amplifying marginalized voices.”
The principal cast has “performers of color and at least six queer people, including trans performers,” said Cherin. “Our goal is to [open a] dialogue about how organized religion and bigotry, homophobia and transphobia intersect, and what we can do about it.”
Cast members range from 6 to 70 years old. Cherin said, “They represent the rich diversity of our Charlotte community.”
‘The least of these’
Cherin and Piscatelli are the entire creative team. Together, they’re handling directing, musical direction, choreography and all design and tech elements – “a unique situation,” they admit.
Principal cast members – playing Jesus’ ragtag followers, Judas and John the Baptist – are Steve Berenfeld, Andie Jones, Valerie Thames, Shay Brummitt, David Catenazzo, Mary Thomas, Nicole DePietro, Maksim Rex, Zelena Sierra, Jassi Bynum, Sierra Key and Julia Straley. Kel Wright (she/they) is the Christ figure.
“That casting might unsettle people who think of Jesus as a cisgender, white man,” Cherin said. “We have trans cast members, people of color, people with disabilities, the whole gamut. Of the eight times I’ve done this show, four have had a not-male person in the lead. So, this isn’t unusual for me.”
Cherin’s eight times with Godspell have included her work as a performer, director and musical director. This marks Piscatelli’s third outing with the show. She said about choosing this show for their first production, “We looked for a show that was incredibly flexible, because we had no idea where we’d be able to perform it. And we wanted something that was sort of limitless in who we could have in it, which aligns with who we are as a company.”
They’ll perform in HUG (Hearts United for Good) CLT’s space. That’s a nonprofit focused on hunger, housing insecurity and animal welfare. (And don’t confuse that HUG with the HUG micro-grants Charlotte Is Creative awards.)
As for the “limitless” requirement, that’s because Lotus is open to all. No one gets cut during auditions.
“The audition process is a placement audition,” Piscatelli explained. “Musicals afford us the opportunity to take everyone and find a spot for them that’s appropriate and appropriately challenging.”
Cherin added, “It’s a different model. But if you believe the arts are for everybody, as we do, then everybody should get to participate.”
Theater’s life lessons
It was COVID, in part, that led Cherin and Piscatelli to start Lotus.
At the J, they’d been running a community arts program and producing five-plus shows a year. When COVID halted theater (and everything else), the pair began helping students with homework. During free time, they’d lead arts activities – singing, dancing, acting, visual art. Despite what a tough year it was, students were thriving.
That led them to think about using the arts as a catalyst for change. After all, theater teaches life skills – self-confidence, teamwork, public speaking. There’s a lot more to it than just the on-stage production.
Lotus started offering theater camps last summer – at Myers Park Baptist and Trinity Presbyterian – to kids and teens, who wrote scripts, choreographed, made their own costumes, painted scenery. Camp and workshop fees (financial assistance is available), along with ticket sales, fund Lotus. So, every ticket counts.
“When camp was over, some parents said, ‘My kid would rather shovel dirt with you than do anything else. I don’t know why that is, but thank you,’” Piscatelli said.
Godspell includes some of the Book of Matthew’s greatest hits – Forgive. Love your enemies. Let the one who is faultless cast the first stone.
And no matter your faith (or lack of one), those lessons are true and timeless.
Prepare ye for Godspell
See Godspell Friday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 2 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 3 at 3 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $18, including taxes and fees, and are available here.
What’s next for the Lotus Project?
Auditions for Grease are upcoming. “It’s a show that’s quite unexpected for us,” Cherin said. “We’re purposefully taking a piece that’s not our favorite in terms of its message” and casting it without regard to gender.
Grease auditions are open to students in sixth through 12th grades as well as to gap-year students. Also forthcoming: Magic To Do (for K through 8th graders) May 31-June 1 and two camp shows – Finding Nemo (June 27-28) and Junie B. Jones (July 26-27).
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