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Award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and director John Patrick Shanley talks about Doubt, faith and theater

Eccentric Faith



John Patrick Shanley's 2005 play Doubt: A Parable won the Triple Crown for drama: a Tony Award, an Obie, and a Pulitzer Prize. The 2008 film version of Doubt, which Shanley directed, stars Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and was nominated for a Critics' Choice Award, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It wasn't Shanley's first run at the Oscar: His script Moonstruck won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 1988. His prolific output includes 23 plays and 10 films — everything from the Emmy-nominated Live From Baghdad to Joe Versus the Volcano, which received mixed reviews.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Shanley is a product of that borough's parochial schools, a fact that figures heavily in the design of Doubt, the story of a mistrustful, conservative nun who suspects a progressive parish priest of having an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy.

Shanley will speak at Lipscomb University's 30th annual Christian Scholars' Conference at 4 p.m. June 3 in Lipscomb's Collins Alumni Auditorium. A Q&A session will follow. The conference also offers a staging of Doubt, produced in collaboration with Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Actors Bridge Ensemble, Amun Ra Theatre and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Doubt will be performed June 4-13 in Lipscomb's Shamblin Theater. Visit or call 966-7609 for showtimes and ticket information.

In advance of his talk, Shanley discusses Doubt, faith, theater and other topics:

Are you a practicing Catholic?

No. But I had a lot of interaction with the Catholic Church during the making of Doubt, both the play and the movie. My first-grade schoolteacher was a Sister of Charity, Sister James. I put her in the play assuming she was dead, but it turned out she was very much alive. When I went to see one of the early previews of the play, I sat with her. She's still a nun, and she's still teaching. We had a powerful shared experience, so I hired her as a technical adviser on the film — adjusting Meryl Streep's rosary and showing her how to work the cape and all of that. ...

Some say that the church has relinquished its responsibility to use art in the service of spiritual formation. Do you see your own work as somehow making up for this deficiency?

You can't build on a deficiency; you have to have a firm foundation. A long time ago, when I was a kid, my teachers took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was a very down-the-line Catholic at that time — 12 years old. And we go in this room that has a Roman sarcophagus, which is heavily carved. I read the sign, and it points out to me that one of the [carved] figures is Jesus, but then all of the Roman gods were there, too. The guy who was put in this thing wasn't taking any chances.

That kind of broadness of spirituality has many names; faith in God has changed 10,000 times. But there is some kind of direct spiritual experience that does bear some visual signs and language signs. These things can be used to help maintain or to form a connection with spiritual things, and I am utterly ruthless in my quest to find a live line to the sky. If one of them isn't working for me, I will try another until I find that one [image], or series of images, that connects me to my original spiritual experience.

Do you think your audience at Lipscomb, a Church of Christ school with a conservative reputation, will be open to hearing that?

We'll see. I hope I don't terribly offend anybody.

When I was a kid, they gave you the Old and the New Testament in a single book. They presented it as if the Old Testament was the preparation for the New Testament. In that sense, it's sort of like that sarcophagus. I wasn't taught, for instance, that before the arrival of Christ that there was no God. I was just taught that God had a different faith. Then around the time of Christ, something transformative happened to the operating philosophy of many, many people. That new idea gradually spread and was a very useful idea to many, many people—a civilizing idea, a helpful idea. It's an idea that always goes away and always comes back.

For instance, people are stoned to death in stadiums in Iran, and I keep waiting for someone from that community to say, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." That would still be an act of extraordinary courage, and it would still be a new idea in that community, in that particular context. Of course, during the time of Suleiman the Great, there was a major cultural expansiveness going on in the Middle East, but at a certain point they stopped accepting expansion of thought and culture. It caused them problems, and certainly we should learn lessons from that.

What role does doubt play in faith?

It's absolutely essential, because doubt is the space that you leave to listen to other people. If you don't have that, then you're completely insular — there's no way to reach you. I would say the effect of Jesus Christ as a speaker was to create doubt all around him.

Pope Benedict's response to the child-abuse scandal seems to be long on forgiveness and apology but short on discipline and accountability. That hasn't played well, even among Catholics. As an artist interested in issues of authority and the channels of power, what do you think his stance says about the current state of the church?

I think that Pope Benedict has lost sight of the fact that the moral authority of the Catholic Church in the public forum is at this moment nonexistent. When you do something very wrong, you must—and this is a tenet of the Catholic Church — admit what you've done, ask forgiveness, and do penance. I haven't seen any penance. The Pope will say on one day that he's very sorry for these things, and the next will preach to people about what is right and wrong. I would say you cannot do that. You really have to be quiet in terms of suggesting that people should listen to you. That's an act of humility. When an institution such as the Catholic Church commits widely documented crimes against children and against their parents, it's very important for them not to turn around the next day and say you shouldn't wear condoms. You have to recognize what humility means on the earthly side of the equation. What you expect of your parishioners you should also expect of yourself.

Speaking of humility, you took some critical heat for Joe Versus the Volcano. When it came time to direct Doubt, did that reaction change your approach to filmmaking?

It couldn't really, because Doubt is such a different kind of film. Joe is a very fanciful, fantastic story and is stylized for that reason, whereas Doubt is extremely grainy and realistic. When you do these things, whether it's a play or a film, people hate some of them, and some of them they like. You have to try to be true to yourself and express [yourself] the best that you can, and then people are entitled to their reaction. Then you move on; you keep going.

Of course, the criticism that you take is something you have to weather and it batters you, but you've got to be tough to do this stuff. You keep writing about the new thing, because if you stay with the old thing, you've got no place to go. It's great to have another script ready, so as the thing that you're doing is going down in flames, you can think, "Ah, yes, but the next one. ... Certainly that will go well." I've written an extraordinary amount of stuff, and I try to get everything out there. In spite of that, I still feel the pain and everything, but now I've come to expect pain.

To read the full transcript of this interview and to see more local book coverage, visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

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