Homo Pentecostus asks what is your church?

by | May 2, 2024

Co-created by Joel Bray, Emma Valente and Peter Paltos, Homo Pentecostus will make its world premiere at Malthouse Theatre later this month. Billed as an odyssey of self-discovery and liberation, the work is based on Bray’s own experiences of growing up in a Pentecostal household.

“Joel has had the idea of this work for a long time,” says co-creator Valente. “He wanted to explore his childhood growing up in the Pentecostal church. Joel is an artist who primarily works in dance, and he pitched the idea to the Malthouse but wanted someone “theatrey” to be a part of the project.”

Bray and Valente have been around each other’s work for a long time and are trying to do similar things with image, form and juxtaposition. So, for Valente, the match up was obvious!

“I’m excited to work on the project because I feel like it’s an important story to tell, she says. “So many LGBTQIA+ people have suffered at the hands of organised religion, but also many want to maintain some kind of relationship with spirituality and faith. This work explores that tension. I wanted to work on it because it felt like something important that doesn’t ordinarily get explored on stage.”

Pentecostalism is Australia’s fastest-growing religion and Bray will lead you through an insider’s perspective on the intersection of faith and sexuality.

“Pentecostalism is Australia’s fastest growing Christian religion,” states Bray. “As we’ve seen with Scott Morrison, the Pentecostal Church is increasingly flexing its political muscle. Yet, I think, most people only have a dim awareness of the Church. I wanted to make a work that is an “insiders’ look” and to talk about how it fashions people, especially those who grow up in it: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

A three-way writing team can be a work in discipline and trust but when serendipity plays a hand, the outcome can be better than expected.

“Joel and I were talking about whether this piece was a solo show,” explains Valente. “I’ve directed several solo shows and I suggested to Joel we get an actor in just to see what it was like to have another person to work with. This was only supposed to be a trial for the first development. I suggested Peter because I was working with him at the time on Sshhh a play produced at Red Stitch. When Joel called Peter to chat to him about the project they realised that Peter also had experiences with the Pentecostal church. It was one of those coincidences that has shaped the project, some might call it fate.”

Valente says that the writing process has been a very collaborative one with most of the spoken text in the piece  coming from Bray and Paltos improvising. “They would tell each other autobiographical stories and we would record them and then transcribe them,” she says. “After this we would edit the material together. Sometimes Peter or Joel would go away and write a monologue for themselves if we were after something very specific. Then it has been a matter of trialling different texts with different movement sequences that Joel has choreographed.”

The project began in 2022 with meets between Bray and Valente. Two developments followed last year, and another small one this year before the rehearsal process. “I think the main challenge was deciding if the piece was going to be fictional or autobiographical,” says Valente. “In the initial development we made several scenes that imagined Joel and Peter as fictional characters who never left the church. Ultimately we decided to abandon this idea, but the ghosts of those characters are somehow still in the piece.”

Bray believes many people have been forged by religion and confesses that he is one of them. “As I’ve made this work, I’ve come to realise that growing up amongst the spiritual maelstrom of Pentecostalism has partly created the person that I am- how I move, literally and figuratively, through the world, how I speak and how I see the world,” he says. “And I think this is true for so many people who grow up amongst many different faiths, including Queer folk. And, when we grow up and leave our religions (or perhaps not leave), those experiences continue to have resonance in our lives. The work tackles the thorny subject of gay conversion therapy and the scars it leaves on us. Ultimately, though, I think the show asks us to think about what it means to be a contemporary person in this strange late-capitalist world we inhabit, but still cultivate and carry a spirituality for yourself and the people around us.”

A thought-provoking piece, Valente hopes that the audience will come out of the piece thinking about the intersections of religion, culture, spirituality, and queerness. “We are really trying to build a nuanced conversation around these themes,” she says.

“Yeah, what role can religion and spirituality play in our lives as Queer people?” adds Bray.

As a gay Indigenous man who grew up largely in a white word, Bray found his purpose and identity through dance, so it is no surprise that this piece blends choreography and theatre as complementary story tellers.

“Separating choreography from theatre (and these from music and visual art and so on) is a strange, arbitrary and uniquely European habit: a result of a civilisation that is obsessed with cataloguing and dissecting,” says Bray. “In First Nations cultures, you cannot separate the dance of the song from its words, nor are the sacred markings carved into the corroboree ground discrete artworks separate from the dance steps that traverse them. (Actually, of course, the roots of European theatre in Ancient Greece were the same. Europeans have just forgotten.) In Homo Pentecostus, two bodies craft and inhabit a world together, and those bodies are always thinking, dancing, talking, singing, listening, creating and demolishing: constantly and simultaneously.”

The cast is intimate – consisting of Bray and Paltos – and is completely satisfying but, as Bray acknowledges, performers and creators sharing the same body can have its challenges.

“I love performing. When I step onto the stage, it’s like I move from SD to HD. I feel, see, hear and sense…more. I fall in love with the audience and become intoxicated with them as they lean in, listen and engage. I can sense them comprehending me and, as we progress, rooting for me. The challenge for me is to resist the temptation to keep directing from inside the work. I need to totally inhabit my character and be in ‘performer-mode’. That doesn’t mean being rigid. I can still (and indeed love to) tinker, detail and experiment live in the performance, but I need to do it from inside as the performer and not from the outside as the director.”

As a creative, Valente is really attracted to contradictions or difficult conversations. The idea that most resonates with her in this work is that two contradictory things can be true at once. The church can be a homophobic, misogynistic place, that has done irreparable harm, but faith can also be a place of healing and sacredness that is a way to honour your culture and yourself.

Homo Pentecostus offers us a shared ritual that immerses us in the transformative power of music, movement, and collective experience This production asks the question – what is your church?

Says Bray, “Yes, the work tackles some tough subjects and Peter and I share some tough stories. But that’s the not the overarching vibe of the work. It’s alternatingly funny and playful and whimsical and tender. It oozes sex and sexiness and it is astonishingly and resolutely honest.”

May 10 – 25

malthousetheatre.com.au

Images: Lauren Gallina

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