Interview: Irene Marquette, director and creator of The Raven and The Messenger

Thank god for The Annoyance. There is nowhere else in Chicago that would but such immense support behind an original comedy/drama/musical about Jim Jones that isn't about Jonestown. In addition to the really, really great new Mick Napier-directed sketch show Invisible World, the brand new Annoyance Theatre is staging the world premiere of The Raven and The Messenger a new play created and directed by friend of The Steamroller, Curio Show curator, and Super Human Irene Marquette, and written by The Reckoning's Charlie McCrackin.

The Raven and The Messenger explores the relationship forged between 1960s spiritual leader Father Divine and Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones, who would eventually absorb Devine's followers into the Peoples Temple. The cast features Paul Jurewicz, Greg Hollimon, Sarah Ashley, Laurel Krabacher, and Michael Brunlieb, with original music by Lisa McQueen. The show opens tonight, (Friday, June 6th) at The Annoyance at 8pm and runs every Friday through July 25th.

In anticipation of tonight's premiere, I spoke with Irene about the show and got her thoughts on why media based around New Religious Movement is so engaging.

Shannon Jenkins/Flaming City Photography

Shannon Jenkins/Flaming City Photography

The Steamroller: As creator and director, what has your involvement with this production?

Irene Marquette: After doing a lot of initial research, I came up with the general arc of the story that I wanted to tell which was basically exploring the dichotomy between the two preachers and their wives. I knew I wanted to show the followers of the religions and that the music wouldn't come from the main characters in the play but from the followers and that they could be a Greek chorus and a church choir. When Charlie agreed to write it we checked in with his drafts every few weeks and talked through ideas. We workshopped the characters with the actors through improvisation, having them act through historical events we knew took place or things we thought might have happened.

Then when the great and wonderful Lisa McQueen agreed to write her music for the show, the three of us collaborated on how to make that work. A fair amount of the music comes from off stage choral interjections during scenes so that all took everyone working together in order to pull it off.

TS: How did you end up collaborating with the show's writer, Charlie McCrackin?

Irene: Charlie is someone I have always respected. He's a member of The Reckoning, the greatest Harold team ever at iO. When my husband and I first moved to Chicago they were at maximum impact, performing twice a week, Harolds on Thursdays and then an explosion of late night creativity on Tuesdays where they were always experimenting and trying something different. There was one Tuesday night where Charlie read a short story about a man who finds a hole in the air in his office and starts putting things through it to see what would happen. It was so beautiful and creepy and always lingered with me. He's a great writer who can balance comedy and horror with great imagination and structure. I have always wanted to work with Charlie.

TS: What was the casting process like? Did you have people in mind early on in the development of the show?

Irene: The four main characters were always in my mind as they are cast. Paul Jurewicz and I were in a show together at the old Annoyance where he would absolutely captivate the audience with an inane tirade of improvised nonsense every week. It was always the funniest thing ever and you could feel the energy in the room - he could do/say whatever and they would listen. So he was Jim Jones from the beginning. 

When I started researching Father Divine, Greg Hollimon was always the person I wanted. There was no one else and I thank my lucky stars every day that he said yes. Laurel Krabacher was always Marceline Jones to me and she has taken that role to parts unknown. And Sarah Ashley (Mother Divine), who is petite and beautiful, has a frontierswoman spirit to her - gentle but fiery. If she lived 150 years ago I could see her cursing and fixing a wagon wheel and then serving up some campfire cocoa to everyone and laughing with her hands folded in her lap.

TS: How did you first learn about this story? What made you think it'd be a good fit for the comedy/musical format?

Irene: I can't remember a time when Jonestown was not on my radar. My dad and I share macabre sensibilities (he runs a murder mystery dinner theater and plays Edgar Allan Poe in a project he and I worked on together) and I recall him telling me a very abridged version of the story when I was young. My parents are artists who have anti-authority streaks, religious skepticism and both have a strong sense of history in all it's ugliness. They are also goofballs and I feel like all that creepy talk was balanced out with watching the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks. Maybe because of that foundation I've always felt that comedy and horror are two sides of the same coin.

Several years ago I watched a PBS documentary (now on Netflix) called Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple and was horrified and fascinated by it. I watched it a few times and couldn't stop thinking about it, how could people be convinced to do something so horrible? How could something so idyllic go so wrong? I developed the opinion that it was mass murder. I was stewing about it for years afterwards, I wanted to do something about it but wasn't sure what.

I read The Raven, a biography about Jim Jones that was written by Tim Reiterman, one of the journalists who had been at Jonestown and was shot when Congressman Ryan was murdered. Jonestown itself is so massive and unbelievably tragic that I knew I could not sing and dance about it, I wanted to find something in Jim Jones' earlier life that would indicate Jonestown. In the book I came across a couple paragraphs describing his relationship with a preacher named Father Divine and the descriptions of that man and his larger than life persona jumped out at me and actually made me laugh. As I started researching Father Divine and the Peace Mission, the story about these two cults coming together and Jim Jones learning how to be what he became seemed like an unusual and exciting story to tell.

TS: Many of your past productions have been put up at The Annoyance, what is it about that venue that you're drawn to?

Irene: There are so many things that draw me to the Annoyance. Mick and Jen are so generous with their encouragement and always approach notes and feedback by looking at how to make the thing you are creating better, not by trying to make it what they want it to be. More than anything the 'fuck it' mantra. Fuck it. Do what you want. Fuck it. Go big. Fuck it. Have an eight person choir. Fuck it. Take a risk and do a dramatic comedic play about the early life of Jim Jones with only mentioning KoolAid once.

TS: I've found myself watching a fair amount of documentaries about cults over the years, mostly about infamous groups like The Peoples Temple to Heaven's Gate, and was totally enthralled by Going Clear. Do you think there's something specific about The Peoples Temple and other new religious movements that makes for engaging media?

Irene: I'm almost done with Going Clear! I want to answer this question but am having a hard time formulating an answer. Let me skip this one for now and think on it more. Maybe we can gchat about it?


Matt Byrne
Hey! You mentioned chatting out the cult doc question though?
Irene Marquette
and thanks for asking!
let's talk cults
I was thinking a lot about your question and trying to figure out why that is
as in, what is so appealing about it as a casual viewer/armchair expert
and I think it's a faith thing
I don't know really
a willingness to die for a cause?
I don't know - i feel like this is a very tricky subject and I'm sort of malformed on my thoughts
Matt Byrne
I totally get it
we're watching/reading/otherwise consuming these narratives with morbid curiosity, right?
looking at these groups formed by people with such strong, magnetic personalities that they can get them so invested that they get away with exploiting and manipulating people to a crazy degree
a big reason why I asked you this question was because I wasn't sure either.
i was wondering if it's like, a safe way to dip our toes into these secretive groups that offer salvation/enlightenment/etc.
you're getting let in on these groups with no risk of getting sucked into them
Peoples Temple and Heavens Gate are obviously not around any more
Irene Marquette
yes I think so
because i think that we want answers
and someone vehemently claiming that he has them is extremely appealing
and there is something appealing about letting go and having someone else drive
I think humans want structure and can be obedient
and have a strong sense of the social contract
that you have to give x up to have safety
and i think that idea gets heightened to the point it loops back around and becomes the least safe thing
Matt Byrne
and then, in the case of Jonestown/Heavens Gate etc, when all is said and done and the kool aid's all gone, people on the outside are able to get a glimpse into these grandiose seeming organizations that reached their logical conclusion
I'm trying to like, do you think there's any validation felt when watching these things
like 'see, no one has the answers'
Irene Marquette
ha - yes, I guess I didn't think about it like that
Matt Byrne
i'm not sure if thats the case
that paints people as pretty arrogant
but like, you feel vindicated, like "yeah I would have never fell for that can you believe these guys??"
that's a pretty cynical reading
Irene Marquette
ha - i think that's part of it
I don't necessarily think that
because i think the people who get wrapped up in that stuff are very much looking for something to hold on to because it's lacking in their lives in some other way
Matt Byrne
oh for sure, yeah.
Irene Marquette
Did you ever see that documentary Ken Burns did on the Shakers?
Matt Byrne
I haven't!
Irene Marquette
the longest running Utopian experiment in american history
Matt Byrne
Irene Marquette
and they just died out because they didn't believe in sex
Matt Byrne
Yeah I'd watch that
Irene Marquette
and they stopped getting orphans
it's super interesting
started by a woman!
I am very interested in faith
I'm not a religious person
but was raised Catholic
my grandmother on my dad's side was raised in a catholic orphanage and my great grandmother on my mother's side was a feminist atheist badass who taught me about Egyptians and the inquisition
I pretty much became an atheist in 5th grade
i started public school
and realized that there was so much bullshit in the world
hahahaa I was a cynical little thing
Matt Byrne
haha you figured it out early
Irene Marquette
so did I tell you that someone from the peace mission reached out to me?
Father Divine's church
Matt Byrne
Oh man really?
Irene Marquette
he doesn't want to be listed by name on anything, he said they still have 'henchmen'
Matt Byrne
Oh wow.
Irene Marquette
his mother kidnapped him and his sister and delivered him to father divine and he was raised as his son to thwart the threat of Jim Jones
this all came about maybe 6 weeks ago
but he was able to tell us a lot about Father and Mother Divine
and called Jim Jones 'the incarnation of evil'
Matt Byrne
that's so amazing
Were you able to incorporate his experiences into the show at all? Even in small ways?
Like character choices and stuff
Irene Marquette
oh yes
I looked at Mother Divine as this saintly benevolent figure who had to stand up to Jim Jones
which is true
but he painted her as a gold digger
and cold
and manipulative
and as someone who saw and opportunity to be a milionairess and took it
so that was incorporated into Sarah's performance but we don't really get into that side of the story so much
it was important to me to know that the way we painted Father Divine was accurate
and important to Greg too
he's so amazing
I only have great things to say about him
about a month ago he watched the CNN doc about jonestown and came to rehearsal rattled
and he said 'if i had known what i was getting into i wouldn't have agreed to do this show'

The Raven and The Messenger show premieres tonight at 8pm and runs every Friday through July 25th, tickets are on sale now!