In his A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Father James Martin recounted his experiences in 2005 as a consultant to the off-Broadway play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman:
During the first two weeks in January 2005, the cast of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” which featured actors like Sam Rockwell and Eric Bogosian, traveled painstakingly through the text, as they sat around the plastic tables in New York’s Public Theater. All along, Philip Seymour Hoffman offered, like any good teacher, insight, encouragement, and direction when needed.
Clad in rumpled jeans, a faded sweatshirt, and a woolen cap pulled over his reddish-blond hair, Phil, as everyone called him, projected a unique blend of relaxed intensity as a director. While he approached the text with an almost scholastic seriousness, carefully attending to every line in the script, he was nonetheless a relaxed presence among the cast. Phil’s style was a rarity, I would discover. I asked an actor friend, “Are directors normally that relaxed with the cast?” She laughed and said, “You’re very lucky!”
From time to time, to illustrate a thorny point, or to describe the emotion that might underlie a scene, he would offer a story from his own life. “Did you ever have this experience?” Phil would ask, and recount a tale illustrating despair, or hope, or joy, or betrayal or trust.
It began to dawn on me that Phil was providing something like contemporary parables for the cast. In the Gospels, the parable is one of the primary ways in which Jesus of Nazareth communicates his understanding of elusive but important concepts.
In Luke’s Gospel, for example, Jesus tells the crowd that one is to treat one’s neighbor as oneself. But when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he offers not a precise definition, but instead spins out the story of the Good Samaritan. When asked to explain what he means by the “kingdom of God,” the central message of his preaching, Jesus likewise talks about mustard plants, wheat and weeds, and seeds falling on rocky ground. …
The power of the parables of Jesus were that they went against the expectations of the audience, as when the Samaritan, hailing from a hated ethnic group, was ultimately revealed as the good guy who cares for the stranger.
Phil’s direction embodied this insight. Beforehand I expected a director would say, “Say your lines like this.” Or, “Move your arms like this.” Instead, Phil provided the actors with a deeper level of understanding. One actor said that Phil’s direction enabled him to understand the script on a more personal level. This was also what parables did for the disciples whom Jesus had gathered around him. At one point, I blurted this out. “You’re doing just what Jesus did,” I said to the cast. And Elizabeth Rodriguez, the outgoing actress who would play Saint Monica, laughed and said, “Hey, Phil is Jesus!”
When I asked Phil Hoffman about his directing style on “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” he readily agreed with the inherent strength of the parable—or, in his words, the personal anecdote—in its ability to communicate more than a strictly worded directive.
“It’s the way I normally direct,” he said. “The anecdotes and stories spark a discussion with the actors and it starts a give-and-take about the character or the scene. And the more personal the better. If I can be open with my life, then the actors usually feel more comfortable expressing themselves through the work.”
I asked if he ever felt the need to be more specific in his direction. “Sometimes you have to tell someone exactly what you want, but you can’t dictate,” he said. “You have to keep suggesting. Otherwise, the person becomes a sort of empty shell, and they end up performing in a way that’s not at all, well, spiritual.” …
In a sense, his approach mirrored the way that Jesus invited people to consider his message. For apart from the initial calls of the Apostles, which seem peremptory, brooking little dissent (”Follow me,” he says to Peter) most of Jesus’ preaching involves inviting his listeners to consider something new. Jesus approach was primarily one of invitation, inviting his followers to consider, to think about, to ponder. (”Consider the lilies…”)
Or, in Phil’s words, Jesus was always suggesting, in order that the decision to follow or not follow was always that person’s own decision.
Phil’s strength as a director of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” which debuted at the Public Theater in 2005, was partially the result of his interest in, and familiarity with, the raw material of play. From the beginning, he encouraged the cast to ask questions about the Gospels and the story of Jesus and Judas. Some of this comfort had to do with his religious background.
As a boy growing up in a town outside of Rochester, New York, Phil attended Sunday classes in preparation for confirmation in the Catholic Church, though his parents were not especially religious. “My parents were pretty liberal people, who didn’t talk about God much in the house,” he said.
Early on, religion was uninviting to him. “Those Masses really turned me off,” he said. “Lots of rote repetition, pretty boring and sometimes really brutal.”
His perspective changed when one of his two sisters became active in a Christian evangelical movement, to which she still belongs today. She encouraged her brother to accompany her to meetings with her friends, and Phil went along happily. “There was something that was so heartfelt and emotional,” he said. “Nothing about it felt crazy at all. And my sister was certainly the sanest person you could ever meet. It all felt very real, very guttural, even rebellious.”
The idea that a young person could be sane, generous, intelligent and Christian held out great appeal for him. So did the palpable sense of community he felt with his sister and her friends. Still, he held back from the total commitment that his sister made. “It was a little too much for me,” he said. “And by that time I was more into partying and acting.”
So Phil, who describes himself as a believer and someone who prays from time to time, carried this positive approach to Christianity with him into the Public Theater during the rehearsals for the new play about Jesus and Judas. “My time with my sister and her circle of friends is something I still think about today.” He noted that he is often defensive about the way that many actors react to the idea of evangelical Christians. Is there a bias, I asked, against that kind of person in the acting community?
“Absolutely!” he said. “It pisses me off that there is this knee-jerk reaction against them. There is certainly an antipathy against them in the acting world, just like there is an antipathy in the politically liberal world. And, as a result, the liberal Christian is not heard from as much. And, you know, a liberal person who has a deep belief in Christianity can be a very powerful influence on things.”
His natural curiosity also prompted a desire for further study of the Gospel narratives. Consequently, Phil was sometimes the most animated person at the table readings at the Public Theater, especially when we talked about Jesus of Nazareth. “My image of Jesus is someone who is exciting,” he said after the show had closed. Though that word is too infrequently used to describe Jesus, I agreed with him.
“Were he alive today, he would be causing havoc!”
The Rev. James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, author and editor at large at America, a national Catholic magazine.
James Martin was born in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., and was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in 1982, where he received his bachelor's degree in economics (B.S. Econ.) with a concentration in finance. After working for six years in corporate finance with General Electric in New York City and Stamford, Ct., he entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1988.
During his Jesuit novitiate in Boston, Martin worked at a hospital for the seriously ill in Cambridge, Mass.; in a hospice for the sick and dying with the Missionaries of Charity in Kingston, Jamaica; and at the Nativity Mission Center, a school for poor boys, in New York City. In 1990, he pronounced his simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. From 1990 to 1992, he studied philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, and worked in an outreach program with street-gang members in the Chicago housing projects, and at a community center where he helped unemployed men and women. He worked for two years with Jesuit Refugee Service/East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, where he helped East African refugees start small businesses, and co-founded a refugee handicraft shop called The Mikono Centre. While in Cambridge, he worked as a chaplain at a Boston prison.
Father Martin is the author of several award-winning books. His most recent book is Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, (HarperOne, 2011), which was named as one of “Best Books” of 2011 by Publishers Weekly. Next year his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, which combines travel narrative, biblical study and spiritual reflections on the life of Christ, will be published.
His memoir My Life with the Saints (Loyola, 2006) was named one of the "Best Books" of 2006 by Publishers Weekly.
His book A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas and Life's Big Questions (Loyola Press, 2007), was named one of Publishers Weekly’s “Best Books” of 2007.
Responsive prayer of remembrance lead by Father James Martin outside Hoffman's beloved LAByrinth Theater: