FOUR cups of Apple Sauce. Four canvas camp beds. One Comet. Heaven’s Gate is closing and the Away Team are ready for Graduation, but whatever you do, don’t mention the C-word. Cult, that is.
Premiered by the new York company Cosmic Collective Theatre at last summer’s Great Yorkshire Fringe in York, the 55-minute Heaven’s Gate is orbiting Yorkshire on its first tour, playing the Visionari community programming group’s Studio Discoveries season at the York Theatre Royal Studio tonight (February 7) at 7.45pm.
Written by company co-founder Joe Feeney, this intergalactic pitch-black comedy imagines the final hour of four fictionalised members of the real-life UFO-theistic group, Heaven’s Gate.
“As they prepare for their ‘Graduation’ to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, initially the excitement is palpable, but soon the cracks start to appear,” says Joe, an alumnus of York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre, along with fellow cast member Anna Soden.
Is the Heavenly Father really waiting for them in a spaceship? Is the Earth actually about to be recycled? Was castration obligatory or not? Is Turkey Potpie an underwhelming last supper?
“I’ve always been interested in slightly unusual stories, like the paranormal,” says Joe. “I remember reading about the Heaven’s Gate cult, a real-life cult in San Diego, California, who believed God was an alien in a space ship and they were aliens too but wearing the bodies of humans, but actually being versions who would be beamed up to heaven.
“A lot of their religious mantras were from Star Trek and Star Wars, and they all had matching hair-dos and tracksuit clothing.”
Joe was not aware of any previous fictionalised works telling the Heaven’s Gate story. “About 18 months ago, I was watching this BBC Four documentary about meteorites, and it got to 1997 and they started talking about the Comet Hale-Bopp in the sky in March that year,” he recalls.”
“They mentioned an American cult who said it was a calling from God and they could see a UFO in the trail that would take them to heaven.”
These are the facts: On March 26, 1997, the San Diego County Sheriff’s department discovered 39 bodies of Heaven’s Gate members in a house in the suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. They had participated in a mass suicide, co-ordinated in ritual suicides, in the belief they would reach the aforementioned extraterrestrial space craft trailing in Comet Hale-Bopp’s slipstream.
“Learning about this, the story quickly went from humour to thinking that, ‘oh my god, people need to hear this story and the terrible things they all went through,” says Joe.
“That’s why I’ve written about the fictionalised last hour of four members, drawing on the iconography and ideology of other cults, as well as Heaven’s Gate, in the play.”
Joe has created four “relatable characters”. “They are everyday people who found themselves in the right or wrong place and who felt themselves being swept up in it,” he says.
His writing tone is humorous but darkly so. “The play is a comedy, albeit a black comedy that takes the subject seriously but in a satirical way, managing to find a critique within that satire,” he says.
In the publicity material, Cosmic Collective Theatre make a point of saying “Don’t say the C-word. Cult!”. Why not, Joe?
“The word ‘cult’ always has a stigma to it, but a lot of people in cults don’t know they’re in a cult. They think that they’re in a religion. I don’t want to stigmatise it,” he says. “What’s the difference between God being in a UFO and God being someone with a white beard?
“We hope there are 39 people in a spaceship on the other side of the world. That’s a lovely thought, but the reality is those people are buried somewhere in America.”
Joe was keen to address another subject in the play, amid the rising tide of intolerance and division in the 21st century. “Heaven’s Gate is also about identity, how we make our journey through the world, when we’re now living in a polarised world where we all pin our beliefs to the mast,” he says.
Cosmic Collective Theatre, who enjoyed a sold-out run at the Drayton Arms Theatre, London, after the York premiere, have so far played Harrogate Theatre Studio and The Carriageworks, Leeds, on tour. Still to come are Hull Truck Theatre Studio, on February 14 at 8pm and Slung Low at Holbeck Theatre, Leeds, on February 16 at 5pm.
Joining Joe and Anna in the cast are Lewes Roberts and Kate Cresswell. “The four of us all went to Mountview [Academy of Theatre Arts]. Myself, Lewes and Kate were there from 2015 to 2018; Anna was in the year above – and we’d already been part of the York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre together and worked backstage there too,” says Joe.
“We started the company with a punk ethos, and this time last year I wrote Heaven’s Gate and we managed to get it into the Great Yorkshire Fringe festival last summer. On the back of that, we got a London run, and now we’ve booked this winter tour, stopping off at venues all four of us have admired or performed in,
“We kind of shot for the moon with all the venues we wanted to do, and if you don’t ask, you don’t get. We had a bucket list of ideal locations and virtually all of them said ‘yes’. Doing the tour at the start of the year is great too, as we can then plan the rest of the year, like going back to the Edinburgh Fringe.”
Performing at York Theatre Royal has particular resonance for Joe and Anna. “This is incredibly special for us,” says Joe. “I’ve been involved with York Theatre Royal for more than 20 years. I was a Youth Theatre member for ten-plus years and have worked as crew backstage on and off since 2010.
“As an actor, I’ve performed across the country and internationally, but nothing will compare to performing at home in our wonderful theatre. It’s honestly a dream come true.”
Anna agrees: “I wouldn’t be working in this industry if it wasn’t for York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre, which continues to be the greatest youth theatre in the country!” she says. “To return all these years later and perform here as a professional actor is beyond a pleasure and a privilege.”
Explaining why Cosmic Collective Theatre are so named, Joe says: “First of all, we were a collective, with our own individual strengths, but given that our first play is ‘astronomical’, and we want to make theatre that is out of this world, we settled on that name and we’ve gone from strength to strength.
“It was our first goal to do the Great Yorkshire Fringe and we had the honour of doing the first play on The Arts Barge’s new home, the Selby Tony barge on the Ouse, so we can always say we had our world premiere on water and then our world premiere on land in the Basement at City Screen a couple of days later…on two days that happened to be the hottest two days of the year!
“Me and Anna have been involved with Arts Barge for ten years, with Anna’s mum performing in the Bargestra, and so it felt like a homecoming doing the first show. As does this return now, performing as professional actors at the Theatre Royal for the first time.”
York tickets for Heaven’s Gate can be booked on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; Hull, 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk; The Holbeck, slunglow.org/event/heavens-gate.
Please note: Heaven’s Gate contains references to abuse and suicide and has mild swearing. Age recommendation: 15 plus.
DO mention the C-word. Cult!
The Visionari community programming group’s final choice for this week’s Studio Discoveries season is One Foot In The Rave, the debut verse play by writer and performance poet Alexander Rhodes at the York Theatre Royal Studio tomorrow (February 8) at 7.45pm.
Rhodes relates the story of a disillusioned 23-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, who breaks free free from the cult and lands on the Ecstasy-fuelled dance floors of Nineties’ clubland. Shunned by everyone he knows, he is not prepared for what lies ahead.
“In 1976, Sean’s world changes for ever. Dragged into a doomsday cult, by parents who are struggling to find their own identities, the family are brainwashed into believing the end of the world is nigh. But the route to salvation is not as it seems,” says Rhodes, introducing his his verse play.
Billed as “an energetic mix of agony and total Ecstasy”, One Foot In The Rave is set to a backdrop of club classics as Rhodes moves hypnotically between the characters and scenes to deliver the chemical highs and pitiful lows. Expect wry observations, chemically induced inspirations and twisted logic in a warmly witty, soulful, self-aware story of survival.
Who Is Alexander Rhodes?
“Alexander Rhodes” is just an idea…says “Alexander Rhodes”.
This idea is, in fact, the third incarnation of a career as a DJ and producer spanning 18 years. Having moved through three different genres, each with its own stage name and distinctive sound, the Alexander Rhodes music project became a spoken-word and performance art project in early 2015.
“If you look hard enough you will find a few house music mixes here, the odd chill out track there, echoing in the digital ether,” he says.
Since 2015, “Alexander” has written and performed spoken word all over the UK. He started Plymouth’s Pucker Poets, hosts of a regular poetry slam for cash competition.
Rhodes has taken part in numerous poetry slams and will take One Foot In The Rave on tour in April and May 2020.
Visionari Studio Discoveries presents Alexander Rhodes: One Foot In The Rave, York Theatre Royal Studio, tomorrow (February 8), 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or atyorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guide: 16+; show contains drug and alcohol references.