(Editor’s note: In the spring of 2023, De Tempel, a co-production of Firma MES and Bruckman Projecten based upon the life of Peoples Temple, was staged in several locations throughout the Netherlands. The following interview with both the director and the playwright was conducted on 6 March 2023, by Fay van der Wal, and was translated for this website by Jeffrey Krul. Mr. Krul’s review is here.)
In a radical and tragic act, more than 900 people collectively committed suicide in November 1978 in Jonestown, a commune in the jungle of Guyana, South America. They were members of the left-wing radical group Peoples Temple, founded and led by sect leader Jim Jones. The story of this group forms the starting point for De Tempel, a co-production of Firma MES and Bruckman Projecten. Just before the rehearsals, director Thomas Schoots and playwright Nic Bruckman explain how they tackled questions such as: how do true ideals develop into madness and extremism? And what drives someone to cross boundaries in the name of a philosophy?
Why did you choose to base the performance on this story?
Nic: “What happened at the Peoples Temple is almost unbelievable. But I still see parallels with the ideas that, for example, terrorists and conspiracy theorists from the present hold. The difference is that I have to take a step of thinking to empathize with the motivations of terrorists or conspiracy theorists. While that step is much smaller compared to the ideals that Peoples Temple initially based on. They were one of the first churches in the US to welcome gay people and were one of the few churches where black and white people practiced their faith together. They stood for left-wing ideals that I also agree with, for equal opportunities to sufficient food, health care, education. The fact that I understand that gives me an entry point into writing.”
Thomas: “Nic’s preliminary research revealed a quote: ‘you don’t become a cult member, you become a member of a group of inspiring dear friends’. One of the members said that and it irritates me. We discovered that a lot of research has been done into who is susceptible to joining a cult. This shows that there are actually no similarities to be found, no qualities that people who take such a step possess. The only thing they found is that receptivity is slightly greater when you have just experienced something drastic in your life. But that could be something as simple as a move or a breakup. Almost everyone will think ‘that wouldn’t happen to me’, but that may be unjustified. With the performance we want to entice the audience to step into that world for a moment, to understand the dynamics.”
The events are very intense, which also makes it a precarious story to work with, how do you approach that?
Thomas: “From my position as director, I do not have a clear answer to this now, before the start of rehearsals. There are quite intense scenes in the performance, and I find it exciting to shape that cruelty. It demands a lot from the actors and that must be done with care.”
Nic: “For me it starts with very extensive research. I wanted to be guided by what really happened, without prescribing my story to it. There is a lot of material available about Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Mainly a lot of audio, because they created an archive themselves. They found their own way of life so successful that they felt others should learn from it. I went to historical institutes in San Francisco and San Diego where a lot is preserved, and I delved into the mountains of material there. In addition to this source research, I have had conversations with former members of Peoples Temple. People who had gotten out before, but also a woman whose husband and daughters died. She was on a mission in another place at the time.”
What were those conversations like?
Nic: “I knew they had an emotional connection to those events, but they were disconnected from them in a certain way. The choice they made to belong to that group led to the death of everyone they loved. That is a trauma that is incomprehensible. Afterwards I realized that they had to tell this many times. They have given it a place for themselves by turning it into a story. In a story like that you can’t just dig around and ask to see things from a different perspective. They need distance, especially from someone they don’t actually know like me. That distance also made it extra tragic in a way.”
What does the performance look like?
Nic: “In the performance we follow six characters and their relationship to the group. Not so much to tell the story of Jonestown from A to Z, but you do get a lot of it through those relationships. Those characters are fictional, but they are based on a combination of real people and their stories. Besides Jim Jones himself, none of the characters can be directly traced back to anyone.”
Thomas: “As a visitor you enter a church service. You are a participant, but also a fly on the wall; something unfolds while you are right next to it. It is a very musical performance, with lots of harmony singing. The music is partly based on an album that the Peoples Temple itself released. Gospel-like songs, with a lot of optimism in the lyrics. This communal singing is a kind of enchanting ritual, but also a means of expressing the tension between the group and the individual. A storytelling tool, but also historically accurate.”
Nic: “We hope to get to the core of what motivated these people, so that we can move beyond the story of brainwashing and mass hysteria. By showing the build-up that the characters experience towards this extreme act, I hope that we and the visitors gain more understanding of our own extremism.”
(As a writer and editor, Fay van der Wall focuses on art, films, (pop) culture and the city of Rotterdam. She teaches creative writing at the Willem de Kooning Academy (Rotterdam).)