Interview: Heather Christian on What Helped Her Navigate the Pandemic: Music and Faith
When Heather Christian was approached to turn her show Animal Wisdom into a filmed theatrical experience, her first response was, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, it wasn't built for that." The show had been a hit when it was first performed in 2017 at the Bushwick Starr, where it extended multiple times. Christian was going to perform it again in 2021, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC., but the plan was scrapped because of Covid-19. And then she was approached to film Animal Wisdom, and release it as an original theatrical film on Broadway on Demand.
Suffice it to say, Christian eventually did say yes. Animal Wisdom is currently available to view on Broadway on Demand through June 13, as part of the newly launched National Theatre Network, where filmed shows from theaters around the country will live online, Netflix-style.
Initially, Christian was hesitant about the idea. "I was like, I need control over how people are viewing this," she said. It's partially because the show is personal. Animal Wisdom is an autobiographical work, where Christian talks and sings about her childhood growing up in Natchez, Mississippi, and being able to see ghosts.
Yes, you read that right. Christian is part of a long line of women in her family who she says are clairvoyant. Growing up in a century-old Southern house, Christian saw ghosts. And she sees ghosts to this day — her dead grandfather likes to hang out in her car. Her grandmother is in her backyard.
But Animal Wisdom isn't just a show about Christian's ghosts; it's also about the ghosts we all carry, either literally or metaphorically. And the show is about how to acknowledge them and let them go. In the live show, the audience is invited to participate in a Catholic-inspired Mass, which then becomes a séance. To adapt the show into a film, Christian had to first figure out how to create that kind of interactivity and a sense of communion, with an audience she doesn't see.
So in this new Animal Wisdom, which was filmed at Woolly Mammoth in March, Christian frequently breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience at home. She also teaches them how to create their own kind of ritual space. The filmis also meant to be viewed entirely in the dark.
"It's not a filmed version of the show, it's a different thing," says Christian. "I'm trying to lead the audience with me — the film audience, in their houses — through a ritual that takes place in their personal space and in their internal space, that can ritualized this letting-go of whatever the hell it is that we've all been going through for the last year and a half."
In it has been quite a year and a half for Christian. Last year, she was in the middle of a new show, Oratorio for Living Things, off-Broadway at Ars Nova. She had gotten through two preview performances before Covid-19 shut down theater in New York. Christian then went up to her home in Beacon, new York. She hunkered down. She started a new quarantine hobby, raising chickens.
And Christian turned to the one thing that gave her comfort: writing music. She wrote an audio musical called Prime: A Practical Breviary, that was released by Playwrights' Horizons. (A breviary is a Christian prayer recited at certain times throughout the day.)
Christian also wrote and recorded another new musical called I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, based on the writings of Mother Teresa. It was performed by Joshua William Gelb, who lip-synched to Christian's voice, while in drag as Mother Teresa. Gelb performed the show in his closet, and livestreamed it, as part of his Theater in Quarantine series.
All of this output might sound extremely stressful, but Christian has actually found the process of writing something quickly and then putting it online to be freeing.
"I've been trying to let this go, but I'm very self-deprecating when it comes to the work that I make. It's hard for me not to be overly critical," explains Christian. But with the fast process of writing something and then putting it online immediately, Christian has realized something: "I don't have to throw my entire life and all of my passion behind one project for a year. I can throw myself at it for a month. And then it's out in the ether. And I've already moved on, I've already forgotten what it was. And that feels good, that feels active."
The pandemic has also allowed Christian to further explore her relationship to religion and faith — something that she had started on with Animal Wisdom, and has since continued to touch on with her quarantine projects, as well as on ''Oratorio for Living Things" (which Ars Nova hopes to remount in 2022).
Christian was raised Catholic, and worked as a musician for the Catholic Church until she was 26. She's lapsed now, but she does consider herself spiritual (she does see ghosts, after all). "I consider myself to be someone who is continually mystified by the things that I don't understand," she says. "And I'm a person who acknowledges that there's something bigger, whether that's the collective unconscious or intelligent design or evolution."
While in quarantine, Christian turned to the text of religious figures such as Mother Teresa and Nicholas Black Elk, who was a Sioux shaman. At the very least, it helped her find some comfort during a once-in-a-century pandemic.
If there's anything Christian hopes we take away from the pandemic, it's the comfort in the not-knowing. And living in the gray, and continually asking questions. "Most religions, especially the evangelicals, definitely feel like they've gotten it figured out, and that turns me off," says Christian. "I would much rather live in a society where vocal ignorance about something is celebrated—acknowledging that you're ignorant about something and asking somebody the question, and not assuming that you have the best idea or that you know how to fix something."
Even if Christian doesn't have a way of abolishing doubt and fear, at the very least she can try to find inner peace through music and through her brand of spiritualism, and invite the audience to find it with her. In that way, Animal Wisdom, and Christian's other quarantine works, is a kind of musical prayer.
"I think that praying is a beautiful thing," says Christian. "I think the idea of it is beautiful, I do it — just trying to shine a positive light on somebody who needs it, without physically being there. I think that's a lovely thing."