Richard Kelly Kemick’s I Am Herod is truly a remarkable piece of religious parody and will make for the perfect Christmas gift for Christians and non-Christians alike. Take a look below at an exclusive interview with the author to get some sense of the outrageous, tongue-in-cheek account he has in store for us.
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, and when my friend told me that one of the world’s largest religious performances takes place not ninety minutes from the city, I was shocked that I had never heard about it. I’m not religious, but I thought that something this large would surpass cultural boundaries. I asked other people in my orbit (all of whom are secular), and it seemed like this play — despite welcoming thousands and thousands of people each year — wasn’t making anyone’s news feeds.
I began to understand that religious and non-religious communities have gotten so far apart that it’s like we live on different planets. Therefore, if I really wanted to write about the Passion play, I knew it wasn’t enough to simply see a show or even sit in on a couple rehearsals. If I wanted to earnestly try to capture the true scope of this play, and what it reveals about the modern state of religion in a compelling and unconventional way, I should be in it. This was all well and good, but as the summer wore on, I had to admit that I had tried to tackle far more than I could take down, and the entire story was galloping over me.
Did you do any research on Herod or did you feel like your time in Catholic school prepared you enough?
Catholic school isn’t really known for teaching well-rounded and accurate international history. So, while I was familiar with Herod Antipas, I only knew what the Bible said: that he was lavish, feckless, lustful. (But, like, who isn’t?)
As I started to research him, however, I saw that this wasn’t the case — at least not entirely — and he was a far more complex and compelling character than I had been led to believe. Most importantly, I saw that he — 2,000 years ago — was living with a theological outlook similar to the one of our own cultural moment: of wanting very badly to believe in something but finding doing so to be so callow, of having a religious disposition while lacking any form of religious belief.
Do you have any favourite or standout moments from working on the play that didn’t make it into the book?
This is a good question. The one that jumps to mind first is how, during morning warm-up, I would position myself beside Jesus in an effort to befriend him (he was quite reclusive). When we were all to stand on one foot and stretch our other leg behind us, I leaned against him in an attempt to get him to say, “Lean on me,” so then I could say, “when you’re not strong,” and then we’d both say, “I’ll be your friend,” and then the whole cast would say, “I’ll help you caaaarry on,” clapping along in perfect four-four time.
Unfortunately, however, we were unable to obtain the rights to this song and had to cut it from the book. But in my heart, it liveth on forevermore.
Were the vegetarian options on set always as bad as the hot dog bun and dry lettuce of the Welcome BBQ?
At the start of the season, the vegetarian options were nothing short of a human rights catastrophe. As the summer progressed, however, the cast and crew adapted to having a vegetarian in their midst and would bring meat-free options. I found this change indescribably kind: that they were changing, in their own small way, to make room for a newcomer.
Changes such as this really deepened and entangled my relationship with the cast. On one hand, I felt like there were several aspects of the Passion play that needed to be held to account; on the other hand, it was also important for me to convey how much I was genuinely grateful for the cast’s friendship and camaraderie. We were living beneath the hellish temperatures of the Badlands in summer, performing and rehearsing all day, and there was a genuine solidarity that developed between us. The cast had a potluck every week, and to see someone bring chicken-free shish kabobs seemed like the ultimate expression of Christ-like kindness. But then we’d talk about something like global warming and everything would be back to square one.
If you could choose to play any character in the Passion play besides Herod, who would you choose?
I started the summer hoping to be cast as Judas, because my plan was to sneak into the play, befriend the entire cast, and then betray everyone in a most public and lucrative fashion. I am glad, however, that I didn’t get the burden of that role — not just because my intentions for the book changed drastically over the course of the summer, but because the actor playing Judas got wrecked by that character every night; it really tore him up inside, while all I had to do was wear fake jewellery and defile the baptismal pond with roguish charm.
Going in to auditions, the only role I didn’t want was to be a Villager. Now, however, I think it would have been kind of fun to be one. You can make up your entire backstory. In some ways, it is the ultimate expression of freedom. Also, as I found out quite late in the show, when the Villagers assemble into a hoard, there’s so much noise that you get to shout whatever you want . . . like, whatever you want. It seems nothing short of thrilling to stand in the centre of the country’s largest stage and confess your darkest sins, to shout at the top of your lungs, “I ATE ARBY’S FOR LUNCH TODAY.”
Do you think you will ever participate in another Passion play as an actor or even just as an audience member?
I think my acting days are (thank the Lord) long behind me. I wrote what I wanted to write. But I would go back to see the Passion play in a heartbeat. They have real horses onstage! Who wouldn’t shell out a couple shekels to see that?