The People’s Temple Looks Towards 2007

by Leigh Fondakowski

The People’s Temple was one of the highlights of The Guthrie Theater’s season last year, with most of the original cast from the Berkeley production traveling to Minneapolis to perform the play on their legendary stage, a beautiful 1500-seat theater, three times as large as Berkeley Rep. It was one of the last shows to be performed on that stage, as The Guthrie recently moved to a newly-constructed multi-million dollar theater complex in downtown Minneapolis.

Joe Dowling, the Artistic Director at The Guthrie, saw the play in Berkeley and knew he wanted to bring it to his audiences. Typically, The Guthrie does classic plays, and so The People’s Temple was one of a handful of new works produced at the theater last year. Joe is interested in challenging his audiences and saw this play as a step in the direction of bringing more cutting-edge work to his theater. The audience response was amazing. Joe called me into his office to read letter after letter congratulating him for bringing the play to Minneapolis.

Jo Holcomb, The Guthrie’s Literary Manager and Dramaturg, was especially passionate about the play. With the help of Denice Stephenson and the California Historical Society, Jo created an impressive program for the show, which included lots of archival material and photographs. Jo also organized a weekly talk-back series for the run the show. I had some concerns that once we left the Bay Area, the story would resonate less for the people who saw it. My experience in Minneapolis proved to be exactly the opposite. With some distance from the actual events, the Minneapolis audience actually seemed more eager to fully enter the world of the play. They didn’t have the same memories, the same grief, the same guilt that many people in the Bay Area had. There were audience members who came back to see the show two or three times, and the talk-backs were very well attended. One older couple came to every single talk-back and sat in the front row asking questions of the creators and cast. I think all of us will remember a tear-filled and impassioned 21-year-old University of Minnesota student who said that he knew nothing of this story when he walked into the theater, and how moved he was by the lives and stories of the characters he had witnessed.

One special talk-back included Walter Mondale, a native Minnesotan who was Vice President under Jimmy Carter at the time of the Guyana tragedy. I was introduced to him just moments after the curtain call of a Sunday matinee. He was clearly moved by the show. He shook my hand and said, “Thank you for doing this. There was so much about this story that I never knew.” A few minutes later, when we were all on stage for the talk-back, he became much more the politician again, distancing himself from the events and from Jim Jones, whom he had met during the 1976 campaign. Although he didn’t express the same vulnerability and appreciation publicly, he did defer to us when talking about the people and the complexities that he simply did not know or understand.

Many of the actors talked about the importance of remembering that, when we talk about the people of Jonestown or of Peoples Temple, we are talking about many individual lives, situations, perspectives, and not necessarily a collective where everyone agreed and all blindly followed. My collaborator Margo Hall was especially dynamic in her recounting of her friends, Shirley and Marthea Hicks, and how complicated it was for her to know these people and this family and yet to see how they were characterized in the media. This opened up a very frank discussion about how many of the people who died in Jonestown were the disenfranchised in society – the forgotten people in many ways – and how they found a home and meaningful lives in the Temple. Their lives were a reflection of the society within which we all live, and therefore, ourselves. It was very encouraging for me to see how the audiences responded to these ideas and questions and to the show itself, how deeply they were affected, and how much they cared about the story.

Some local survivors were there, including Mike Carter and his family, as well as his brother Tim Carter who traveled from Oregon to see the play. Another local surviving Peoples Temple member I had never met also attended with her family. The company felt a lot of support from their presence. It is important for us to have that contact with the survivors, and to hear that our work has made some difference in their lives.

The timing of the rehearsal process was such that we spent Christmas together in Minnesota. We gathered for brunch on Christmas day, sharing small gifts, food and stories. I was able to bring my dog, and a number of us used him as a good excuse to walk along the Mississippi River in the snow. The theater threw us a big potluck dinner right before we opened, where we all learned about “hot dish”…sort of. “Hot dish” is a Midwestern term for casserole…I think. Every dish prepared for us had the phrase “hot dish” tagged on at the end. I’ll leave it at that. There was also plenty of “Spam” served, the “ham,” not the unwanted email. Of course, Minneapolis is not that far from Austin, Minnesota, the birthplace of Spam.

I did my very first live “call in” show on the local NPR radio station. And as always, I heard the same questions: “What are the lessons here?” “Isn’t this a simple story about religious extremism, about blind faith?” “How could all those people kill themselves?” I am still struck by how the questions remain so fixed and familiar, even after all these years. I remember what John Hall said, how it’s hard for us to imagine those people as having agency. Because the end was so horrific, people simply cannot comprehend it and therefore forge simple answers to complicated questions. I’ve always hoped the play would expand the dialogue, push at the boundaries of the conversation, consider what the lessons are. To me the lessons of Jonestown and Peoples Temple are so rich and complicated and deserve to be explored in all their complexity and contradiction. And they seem to become more relevant with every passing news cycle: the slow erosion of democracy and dissent, how fear can work us over and be used against us, how we can destroy the thing we love while seemingly trying to protect it. We’re living in a time when our rights are being taken away to “protect” us, when dissenting discourse is becoming more and more rare, more difficult to engage in, when the overreach of power by the executive is becoming a real danger to us all. Hopefully, the play will be able to engage audiences in these questions raised by Peoples Temple – and their parallels in today’s America – for many years to come.

A number of artistic directors came to The Guthrie to see the play. Kent Thompson of the Denver Center Theatre Company came and wants to do the play in Denver next season. A number of New York institutions brought people out to see the play, and a few are interested. I have been in discussions with various artistic directors and producers for the past nine months. Some questions have come up in these discussions about the focus of the play: can the people and the movement be the driving force of the piece, when Jim Jones looms so large a historical figure? It is very important to me to tell the story of the people and of the movement, and so I need to be sure that I am on the same page artistically with any institution before committing to a production. Will they try to change the play? Will they try to make it more about Jones and less about the people? There are so many ways in which the media still influences people’s understanding of the story, and I have to be careful in finding the right artistic home for the play. Most decisions will need to be made by early 2007.

I’ve been re-writing the play over the last six months, mining the transcripts for the things that I love and that are important to me, pieces of story and text that were forgotten in the rush of the premiere.

I have been asked, “How can you keep writing this? How have you been able to live with this story for so long?” The answer is easy: because I am still inspired by the people who lived and the people who died, and I am still learning about myself through this process, both personally and artistically. And as an artist in society, making work that I love and that is meaningful to me is the highest expression of my profession.

I consider myself a very fortunate person to have encountered this story and all of you.

(Leigh Fondakowski is the writer and director of The People’s Temple. Greg Pierotti, Margo Hall and Stephen Wangh were her collaborators on this project. A second article appears here as part on the forum on murder vs. suicide. She can be contacted through this website.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 7th, 2014.
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