“This Morally Inverted Universe:” An Interview with Max McLean

Janice Walker

Coming to the end of the curtain call, award-winning actor Max McLean broke the fourth wall to inform the audience of the Lansburgh Theater in Washinton, D.C. (which included your humble interviewer) that he “worked for [Screwtape's] ‘Enemy.’” Paradoxically, precisely by positioning himself firmly within the service of Christian theatrical arts, McLean has liberated himself and his production company, The Fellowship for the Performing Arts from the restrictions and stigmas of that genre.

McLean’s seemingly inexhaustible drive to share the Gospel manifests itself on stage, in recordings, and in print. But McLean goes further, and in his theatrical excellence he conveys the message all the more powerfully. He demonstrates a critical understanding of his audience that is rare (if not unique) among self-identified Christian performers. The hunger for Truth is indeed universal; however, the receptivity of a diverse audience to the Truth depends on one thing: you have to put on one helluva good show. — Janice Walker

Janice Walker: Why make the point of classifying the Fellowship for the Performing Arts as specifically “Christian”? What is lacking in secular theater productions that attempt, like FPA, to explore the themes of “conflict and disintegration?”

Max McLean: I think everything we do in art has a point of view and we want to be really clear as to what ours is. I think it’s very liberating to say, “This is who we are and this is how we view the world and we want you to get a glimpse into the world that we see.” When I won the Jeff Award for Solo Performance for Mark’s Gospel in Chicago this year in my acceptance speech I mentioned that art is a result of the thoughts we think, the conversations we have and the books we read. What we do in the theater is to take those and organize them into a coherent whole which is executed onstage. I want to share stories that are really significant to me and they most often come from the canon of Christian literature.

JW: Do you find that there are unique pressures on specifically Christian productions, either internally or externally imposed?

MM: Yes, there are. There is a tremendous stigma that goes along with identifying yourself as an artist and a Christian. This is primarily because Christian art is usually in service to some agenda and this weighs the art down.

JW: A top-heavy Christian art?

MM: Sort of. The church likes the idea of art but they put a bit of a utilitarian pressure on it and that does weigh it down. We want to take that burden away. Obviously, if you’re a Christian you have a motivation that’s always there. But it’s organic. Or, it needs to be organic in the art. Oftentimes so much of that work towards becoming organic is done just by the choices you make in terms of what you’re going to invest in.

JW: So, why choose Screwtape? Obviously it’s Christian literature, but it is a departure from the Biblical narrative shows you’ve done in the past. Why would Screwtape be the next logical step?

MM: I was led to it. I certainly knew the Screwtape Letters and was very moved by them in my early 20s when I read them. But, I never saw them as theatrical literature—never, ever. And, then someone came to me—he saw one of my performances, I think it was from Genesis—and said, “You know, I think you’d make a great Screwtape.” I didn’t know if that was a compliment or not! (laughs) I thought: “Well, alright.” We at FPA started talking about it and said, “Let’s pursue the rights.” That’s when we started playing around with the prose, trying to come up with a means to tell the story in a theatrical way and still be faithful to the book. It’s called The Screwtape Letters so it’s a book about correspondence—which doesn’t usually lend itself to theatrical treatment.

We also knew that the way it was written was from the mind of a senior demon. And, we trusted that as opposed to opening up the story into the various other characters that were mentioned in the book. This was primarily because we love words. We still believe theater is about words. [Within Screwtape] are some of the most amazing constellation of words ever put together. The fact that there is this morally inverted universe makes it really challenging, crazy, wonderful, compelling, mind-twisting and all of that seems to work.

Although, it didn’t work in the beginning.

JW: What were the challenges that you had in the beginning? Just the epistolary novel as theater or …?

MM: Yes, that and just tackling the words. They are so big—the ideas are so massive. How do people receive them? And, will they receive them or will they just tune out and say, “This is like drinking from a fire hydrant?” (laughs) In a certain sense I think it is drinking from a fire hydrant and, if you can make that work, it’s compelling. But, if you can’t make it work people will tune out. I think the biggest challenge was really understanding the ideas vocally, getting them out of my mouth, in a way that engaged the ear and then the mind so that [the audience would be] transported into that world.

[Do] the audience see themselves as collogues of Wormwood or do they see themselves as a voyeur of the Patient or do they see themselves as the Patient? Somehow they’re in that room overhearing this correspondence and thinking, “If they’re doing that to the Patient, are they doing that to me too?” You get involved and try to figure out, “What do I do [to escape that fate]?”

JW: As an audience member I did feel a certain—I won’t say kinship with Screwtape—but I did occasionally feel that I was his collaborator. It was very uncomfortable! But, it did add to the experience of entering into the book. Screwtape is so difficult not to like because he has that wit and charm and, of course, those amazing words. How do you as an actor keep him from becoming too likable?

MM: Sometimes I do wonder in terms of the production itself: have we made Hell a little too comfortable for the audience? We’re going to reopen the show in New York. Our first preview is April and opening night is May 10th and we’re going to try to run as long as we can at the West Side Theater on 43rd Street. We’re rethinking the surroundings, the place and the sounds to remind the audience of where they are [all the while] without losing that charm. The charm has to be there. [Screwtape] is very, very charming.

I think he [also] has to be compelling. In the growth of Screwtape—and I’ve lived with him now for almost five years —I have found that the more competent he is seen [the more compelling he becomes]. He is really good at his job—I mean, he is SO good at his job and he is so confident in his abilities! He is the proudest of the proud. There is simplicity in that which would cause you to say, “You know, I’m going to follow this guy! (laughs) I’m going to go to his church.” And that’s exactly what Screwtape wants. He lives in a world of illusion. He lives in a world of delusion. He lives in a world of lies. He constructs beautiful lies. And, you [desire] to be a part of that.

JK: Is that one of the reasons you decided to create the character of Toadpipe? Is she meant to reorient us in a diabolical space when Screwtape becomes too charming?

MM: Yes, I think that’s a very good point. Toadpipe was originally conceived for purely utilitarian reasons in the sense that [the story] is about letter management, in a way, and we did not want to limit Screwtape to writing behind a desk. We wanted him to be free to express himself without limit to pen and paper. We needed a secretary. Toadpipe is mentioned once in the book as his secretary. It’s not developed in the book but we thought that was enough to use it. We could have that person in the room and we could construct the mailing system and all of that. That was the first use of Toadpipe—purely utilitarian to free up Screwtape.

The second use emerged really out of casting. Hiring someone as talented as Karen Eleanor White who has these marvelous skill sets made us realize, “We can use these when Screwtape is exploring a particular temptation technique!” She can physically morph into those [techniques] so that the audience can better see them, feel them, and understand them.

JW: What has been the reaction? You are taking this to a diverse audience. Are people responding in the way that you had hoped? What are they getting out of the experience?

MM: I think it has exceeded our expectations. People come to the show having admiration for Lewis and the book and a little skepticism as to how this will translate to theater. [They’ve] been delighted at the results. I also think that the book is not an easy read. I think more people have tried to read it than have read it. There is a tremendous appreciation for how the theater translates the book in a way that [the audience] really gets it. We’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback as to our faithfulness to the book.

JW: Do you find your audience is coming from a predominantly Christian perspective?

MM: I suspect so. Mind you, that’s a very broad universe in itself: left, right, Catholic, Pentecostal, Fundamentalists, Episcopalians —we get all of those. I do think the audience is primarily Lewis lovers. I also believe that the nature of theater is that people just self-select. You’ve got 100 shows [and theatergoers ask themselves]: “What do I want to see.” People do self- select based on their literary and entertainment interests. I hadn’t read Lewis until I was converted but, I do think that Lewis is obviously someone that Christians adore. I do find he is also someone that agnostics respect.

JW: What’s next for FPA? Are you going to continue to do one-man shows based on Biblical accounts? Or are you going to more toward the literary, Screwtape-esque productions.

MM: I think we’ll do both. We’re looking at The Great Divorce, for instance. We’re doing a stage reading of it in March just to see how it will translate. I’d like to do much more in the producing role where we can encourage young talent that also share our worldview to write more and do more. There are just many more Christians being educated in the arts and are therefore able to begin to translate works into the arts. You have to select very carefully and execute very, very well—and you have to be hard-nosed about it.

Janice Walker, art director for Dappled Things, is a freelance graphic designer living and working in Williamsburg, Virginia. In common with all her fellowmen, she has a blog: questingvoledesign.blogspot.com.