MAGGIE ROWE: Dominatrix of Incendiary, Fundamental Religious Theatre and Film
According to my research, in North America, God’s debut was in 705 BC. Since the dawn of man 400,000 years ago, religion has informed our choices. God could stoke a flame for warmth and sustenance. From the sky, he could gleam a potent yellow light, and end lengthy droughts. In summary, God was a fucking rock star, purring life altering ballads. With over 6 billion copies of the bible sold in over 2,000 languages, historically, the bible continues to be a bestselling work of fiction or non-fiction, depending on your interpretation and degree of sanity.
God’s mad popularity has made him the celebrity and subtext of some of the most lauded television shows, movies and literary works, even though he’s never received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an Academy or Emmy Award, much less a Pulitzer. A real estate tycoon with over a million homes in every part of the world, God has literally trumped Trump. The earliest religious cartoons date back to 1517; caricatures in various artistic expressions originated as propaganda between Christians, Protestants and Catholics. Surprised?! What’s changed in 2011?! Well, according to Adherent.com there are over 43,000 listed religions. Christianity has 2.1 billion followers. Islam has 1.5 billion followers. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist has 1.1 billion followers. In short, we have more religions and cults to ponder and mock, and with good reason.
Humans have been sprinting for answers, and perhaps redemption, for centuries. Our religious curiosity is rooted in science, philosophy, atheism, organized religion, or zealot cults. We ponder how we fit into a bigger picture. Maybe we’re conditioned to feel this way. Maybe it’s wired into our DNA. There are thousands of statistics, theories and hypotheses – pick your poison. As a race, we often use this organic intrigue to create art designed to challenge organized religions.
Which brings us to the voluminously talented and respected, Maggie Rowe; like some of her colleagues and predecessors, Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Bill Maher, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gertrude Stein, et al, they’ve been practicing the art of religious counterculture for years. Rowe’s endeavors in theatre and film are brilliant and challenging. Outwardly, her work is shocking, irreverent and bold. The subtext hits just as hard and begs the questions, “Am I religious?””What does religion mean to me?” “What is the origin of my belief system?,” and scores of other questions. Rowe’s work resonates deeply with audiences because nothing she does is gratuitous. She practices with precision; a great deal of thought and a clear vision.
Rowe is an exceptional person. When you meet her, no matter how many people are beckoning her for a moment of her time, she’s fixed on you. With an unforgettable smile and a heart spun of gold, everyone who speaks to Maggie falls in love with her. She’s confident and grounded in who she is and the work that she produces. She cares about all artists, cheers for their triumphs, and catches them when they fall. That and Rowe is so fucking rad, in that “doesn’t even know she’s rad” kind of way.
Rowe is the creative force behind critically acclaimed productions such as “Hollywood Hellhouse,” “Pyrasphere,” “Purity Ball” and her latest film now in production, “Outwest.” Thematically, Rowe’s work centers on religion. Specifically, taking zealot beliefs and repurposing them into elaborate, interactive productions that include actors Melinda Hill, Eddie Peppitone, Bill Maher, Richard Belzer and Gillette Penn, in addition to other astounding actors, comedians and writers. Audiences from all walks of life, from all over the world pay top dollar and buy tickets months in advance for a glimpse into the supernatural worlds Rowe creates. The outward, immediate response is entertainment and subversive humor. However, the subtext of every production is evident – think, think, think. Challenge our religious beliefs and enforce the concept that it’s okay to scrutinize and question God.
It is my great honor to introduce you to Maggie Rowe.
Katie – You have a penchant for turning religion inside out; always with purpose and never gratuitously. What lead to your passion for creating religious countercultural material?
Maggie – I grew up as an Evangelical Christian and to say the least the belief system was not a good match for me. The doctrine of hell was particularly horrific– the possibility that I and that others I loved could be tortured eternally by a God I was supposed to love and worship – well, it just seemed unspeakable. At the same time, I loved the music, the poetry of the Bible, the sense of community, the wonder, and feeling of being small before something vast.
Katie – You’re a celebrated actress, author, playwright, screenwriter, essayist and producer; how much of your work is based on religion and why?
Maggie – Most of the work I do is related to religion. I have a love/hate relationship with religion. It makes me angrier than anything in the world. However, I’m a devout meditator, member of the LA Zen center, I teach yoga, read religious texts, done the gamut of self-help, and listen constantly (much to my husband’s annoyance) to gospel music, Indian ragas, and Islamic prayer chants.
Katie – What kinds of non-religious works do you create? Is there a common thread in those works?
Maggie – I wrote a film with Andersen Gabrych called “Outwest” that is shooting next month. It’s about a girl going on a Wizard of Oz type of adventure to come back to where she started. I like that theme.
Katie – What is your religious background?
Maggie – Specifically, Southern Baptist. We believed every word of the Bible was literally true and that Jesus was the only way to know God.
Katie – What, if anything about your background impacted your passion for providing a satirical religious experience?
Maggie – I lean towards satire as an approach to dealing with religious subjects because with satire you can really express – “now c’mon guys, you gotta admit this shit is ridiculous.”
Katie – You have a MASSIVE following, locally, nationally and internationally, why do you think that is?
Maggie – I think sometimes it’s hard to call bullshit on religion or even New-Age self help-type movements. It’s easy to put spiritual authority outside yourself and slough off your doubts. But when someone else says something against the group, you can say “omg I was thinking the same thing.”
Katie – Hollywood Hellhouse, a theatrical production was a critically acclaimed, smash hit, with a rotating enormous cast, including some renowned actors. What was the impetus for creating this extraordinary show?
Maggie – I wanted to create a large theatrical event that expressed how truly terrifying fundamentalism can be. It’s like a haunted house.
Katie – Your latest endeavor, “Pyrasphere” began as a series of vignettes, which lead to a feature film. “Pyrasphere” parodies cult religions. How was this project born?
Maggie – Pyrasphere began as a parody of what has been termed “prosperity theology” – basically movements like the Secret and the Forum that encourage people to seek their own self-advancement above all else.
Katie – Thousands of people ask if this is a real religion. When you hear that, what do you think?
Maggie – I love it.
Katie – What’s next for “Pyrasphere?”
Maggie – In October, the film is going to be a part of the Chicago Film Fest. I grew up in Chicago so it’ll be great to go back there with Pyrasphere. Also, the festival is the weekend of my 40th birthday. Nice little circle.
Katie – Do you have a favorite project? If so, what and why?
Maggie – Hellhouse is probably my favorite project. Such great personal therapy on a large scale.
Katie – Can you tell us about your creative process?
Maggie – I brainstorm about an idea for a long time, filling a bunch of notebooks with a bunch of notes before I go to the computer. There might occasionally be marijuana involved.
Katie – Many of your projects have been grass roots, indie oriented endeavors. Actors, writers and producers always clamor to be involved in your work, which speaks volumes about you as a person and the caliber of work you create. If you were speaking to someone who was embarking on filmmaking, what advice would you give them?
Maggie – I would say focus artistically on what you can’t stop thinking about.
Katie – What’s next for Maggie Rowe?
Maggie – Four years ago I staged “Hollywood Father- Daughter Purity Ball” – an interactive theater experience much like Hell House – a satire of evangelical abstinence balls where daughters pledge their virginity to their fathers.
Katie – What is Maggie’s quote?
Maggie – My bumper sticker and favorite quote is “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.”
Where you can find Maggie Rowe’s work online:
Watch the trailer for the Pyrasphere feature film
Purity Ball will be at the Actor’s Gang in November.
The Pyrasphere movie “Bright Day!: an Expose’ of Hollywood’s Fastest Growing New Religion” will be at the Chicago Film Festival October 15th.
Pyrasphere | Hollywood Hellhouse | Hollywood Purity Ball