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Peter T Chattaway

when theatre companies become cults

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Under the spell of a cult

A young man joins a theatre group for a wonderful, bizarre and then

nightmarish experience

Douglas Todd

Vancouver Sun

March 24, 2004

It was wonderful. It was bizarre. It was my two years in a "cult." At least that's the word many people use to write off such spiritual organizations. It helps them believe the groups have nothing to do with them.

It started out as an adventure. I was 18, a student in Arts One, a liberal arts program at the University of B.C., when a theatre director from Toronto came and led an improvisational workshop. About 60 students took part.

Louis Capson was a 28-year-old with a master's degree in theatre from Yale University. He was on a tour funded by the B.C. government's 100th Centennial Commission. He invited whoever was interested to continue the workshops later in the Student Union Building.

I showed up, with about a dozen others. It was the first small, crucial step on a youthful experiment that would slowly, imperceptibly, turn into a nightmare. Sometimes it still seems like a hazy dream.

Louis led us all in a lot of body-stretching, mind-expanding exercises. I found out Louis ran a theatre company in Toronto called Creation 2. They all lived together. They'd received critical acclaim.

Louis (pronounced Lew-is) also seemed to understand theology, with which I was growing intrigued after being raised in an atheist family.

Wiry and quick, he was passionate. He was funny. He was warm and incredibly engaging. After a few weeks, I was captivated by Louis' invitation to go to Toronto to take part in a summer youth theatre program.

It would be fair to say I was searching, in the storm of my youth, for an identity.

I finished Arts One in the spring. I no longer wanted to live at home. I said goodbye to my girlfriend and began hitchhiking across the country.

I showed up at the home of Louis's troupe. They had been living together for three years in a grand old house at 105 Bernard in The Annex. They seemed like a kind of family.

The 12-member company had an Ontario Arts Council grant to run the summer theatre, called Blizzard. Louis effortlessly adapted Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper to the stage. Even though I had far less acting experience than others, Louis gave me a big role: Miles Hendon, a swashbuckler who protects the prince.

We got some nice reviews. And it turned out Creation 2 was receiving a lot of good press. Then-Toronto Star theatre critic Urjo Kareda had just described Creation 2's True North Blueprint as "powerful, bold, innovative," with "remarkable," "versatile" and "dazzling" performances. Written by Louis, the play was about technology creating a fascist future for Canada.

Cool. I wanted more. Louis had a tremendously fertile mind. He seemed eclectic and open-minded. To top it off, he acted as if I had some special something to offer.

I soon moved into the communal house. Louis gave me a part as an old bottle-collector named Abraham in his next play at the St. Lawrence Centre, Everlasting Salvation Machine, a foreboding piece based on his growing up in New Brunswick in the Salvation Army.

Creation 2 was making a splash in Toronto's legendary 1970s theatre scene. I would soon be meeting and working with some of its big names. Louis, as writer-director, was giving me more roles in his plays, which were far removed from the upbeat Prince and the Pauper. We did Midway Priest at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, about a futuristic dark ages in a separate Quebec.

When I wasn't acting, I was designing sets and leading theatre workshops in Ontario schools. The teachers thought we were great. Other members of the company were becoming like brothers and sisters to me.

Louis seemed hip and full of special wisdom. I was acting as one of his script consultants. And he was introducing me to famous thinkers such as Jacques Ellul, a critic of technology, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish sage and mystic. His theology seemed to fluidly blend Judaism and Christianity.

It all seemed exciting and freeing.

I should have been more aware of the signs.

There were those intense times, for instance, when Louis was directing a play and everything would suddenly crash to a stop. Louis would spend up to an hour in some heartfelt attempt to straighten out an actor, who he would claim was emotionally blocked.

There would be great agonizing as Louis publicly dissected the actor (sometimes a company member, other times an outsider), ostensibly to provoke a healing catharsis. Often the actor would afterwards show tearful gratitude.

Then those fearsome sessions began happening more often within the house at 105 Bernard, where Louis would target one of two people about their psychological and spiritual inadequacies.

Some of us quietly began to call these sessions "heavies." Our little attempt at humour.

After a year I was feeling increasingly confused.

Private questions were arising about this person in whom I put so much faith, this visionary who acted like a priest and a dictator.

I was becoming more uptight, over-earnest and highly self-critical -- like the other members of the company, who were from evangelical Christian or Jewish backgrounds.

The newspaper reviews were also getting much worse. For instance, Kareda, who had adored us just a year earlier, was now tossing out barbs like "very depressing," "rather pretentious" and "arid."

But what did the critics know? As Louis suggested, his plays were "prophetic" pieces -- often about a future dystopia where individualism is lost and conformity reigns. It's no surprise, he said, the media couldn't stand to hear his warnings of looming doom.

However, when a young actor named Paula, from Boston, left the company, we had a truly memorable "heavy." The short version is Louis got all worked up and wished Paula dead. I think he said she was returning to her upper-middle-class spoiled life and he hoped she'd go to hell. He meant it.

Things got freakier. Sometime after the Paula incident Louis told me in a late-night tete-a-tete that he was some sort of incarnation of Jeremiah, the fiery, justice-seeking Hebrew prophet.

Whoaaaaaaa.

Did not compute

I made a secret note to myself: You need a break.

We were working hard and often didn't sleep much. Louis also was pushing himself impossibly. He was growing more morose -- and he would still be writing some plays the day we opened. It was absurd.

When I look at the press reviews now, I realize the critics actually had Creation 2 pegged perfectly.

Kareda began dismissing Louis's plays -- which I had assumed were packed with important meaning that I couldn't quite understand -- as "pathetic," "ideological" and "incoherent."

Louis responded by publicly ridiculing Kareda in a production called The Lonely Ventriloquist. He included a character called Durjo the Dummy, who was dismembered. Cute.

There are many more odd stories to tell, but suffice to say by the spring of 1974 Louis was living in an apartment in a Rosedale mansion with his young confidante, Stephen.

When I eventually went there to say I wanted to leave, at least for a while, he harangued me for an hour or two.

I didn't respond. I couldn't get into a back-and-forth with this man I thought was a brilliant persuader. I grimly returned to my shared room at 105 Bernard.

I threw all my spartan belongings in one black garbage bag. I phoned a cab. I stayed with my old friend from Vancouver.

I was at Toronto's airport the next day, looking over my shoulder. I was afraid Creation 2 members would find me and lure me back. It turns out they had tried.

I returned to Vancouver, got a summer job and wrote letters back to the people who remained in Creation 2. They'd picked up Louis's toxic mix of concern and copious put-down.

Kindly Lance wrote initially about his love for me, his "brother." But in a following letter Lance told me my sudden leave-taking was "sinful." He added: "You must return."

One of the higher-ups in Creation 2, a Texan named Gary, taunted, not inaccurately, I was afraid of Louis. He signed off: "Let me know when you discover how ridiculous you are."

Fortunately, I also corresponded with an ex-Creation 2 member. Greg talked about the "Capsonian monastery" and poked holes in Louis's word games and how he always pushed members to make "The Difficult Choice," which invariably meant remaining loyal to Louis.

I was not only angry. I wanted an answer: What was it that had made me give away my independence to Louis?

Debate continues to rage over the pros and cons of "cults." It was like a punch in the gut when Jonestown blew up in 1978, with 900 dying as a result of both suicide and murder. Later, more mass deaths occurred in Quebec's Solar Temple, Japan's Aum Shimriko, California's Heaven's Gate and Waco's Branch Davidians.

There were clearly some sick folks running these sects. But, for someone like me, the media reports didn't ring true. They painted the groups far too blackly. They assumed members were simply "brainwashed." They ailed to recognize followers, in many ways, found something worthwhile.

I eventually came across a lifeline. It was a book by a Toronto psychiatrist who had studied young people who join new religious groups, from Scientology to the Rajneeshies. It was titled Radical Departures: Desperate Detours to Growing Up.

Dr. Saul Levine's thesis was that radical movements are filled with wholesome people from decent homes. Joining an alternative family, he says, is a not-entirely-unhealthy way for people who lack confidence to "practise" breaking away from their nuclear family.

Like me, most aren't "tricked" into joining, Levine said. And most end up, long after, looking back fondly, as I do, on many of the people with whom they lived so closely.

Amazingly, Levine also discovered nine out of 10 people who join radical movements leave within two years. I had left Creation 2 after exactly 104 weeks.

Much later I picked up Robert Lifton's Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, in which the noted sociologist outlines the characteristics of authoritarian groups.

Louis, somehow, had intuited Lifton's control techniques. Louis had "denied followers' emotions," such as anger and doubt. He also had us believing he might be the "only source of truth."

After his initial love-bombing, in addition, Louis expected a kind of "perfection" that led to guilt. Our heavies were also what Lifton would call a form of "confession," which handed Louis intimate information to use against us.

I sometimes wonder if Louis was who he was because he came from a crummy home. Or was he just naturally arrogant and self-important?

Then again, maybe he was a psychopath.

UBC professor Robert Hare says psychopaths not only haunt the criminal underworld, they can be bullying football coaches or glib corporate honchos. Or theatre directors.

In Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, New York University psychiatrist Marc Galanter agrees people can be mistreated in cults, which he prefers to call "charismatic groups." (So do I.) But Galanter goes out of his way to explain that they are much more common than we think -- and can be therapeutic.

Intense Christian, Muslim and Buddhist organizations can be classified as "charismatic groups," Galanter says. He also includes some healthy-lifestyle movements and 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which promote personal change through social cohesion, behavioural norms and undying devotion to a belief system.

My unusual adventure in Creation 2 taught me several lessons, including it's not always bad to try a different way of life. At the minimum, as I look back I feel, despite the embarrassment, at least my life hasn't been boring.

More importantly, I learned to truly appreciate the advice of thinkers such as James Cone, of Harvard Divinity School, who tells anyone checking out a new worldview:

"Any kind of theology that is not primarily concerned with liberation is no kind of theology at all."

Amen.

Creation 2 struggled on under Louis's oppressive theology for more than five years after I left.

I heard Louis died in Toronto in the late 1990s. He had been living in a Toronto apartment. He had had a few small playwriting successes, but never realized the potential envisioned by Kareda and many others.

I was told Louis's death had something to do with heavy drinking. What a waste.

Was it the universe's rough justice? I can't help but think so.

dtodd@png.canwest.com

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