Life imitates art for Ariel Estrada, who is currently starring as Charlie Bear in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play, currently playing at The Paradise Factory Theatre at 64 East 4th Street (next door to La Mama) in NYC through February 17th.
The Cult Play follows Mama Pearl, an enigmatic woman with alleged powers and leader of a secretive Goddess worshiping religious group, The Soul Scouts. As Mama attempts to retain control of her followers after the defection of a longtime member, the Scouts each find themselves exploring the boundaries of their faith. When Mae, a rebellious new recruit, introduces The Soul Scouts to social media, she inadvertently triggers a series of events that could end Mama Pearl’s great vision of the future.
Irene Lazaridis directs the 8-member cast headed by Lori Parquet as Mama Pearl with Layan Elwazaini, Ariel Estrada, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone. The directing and design team includes Aiden Dreskin, sound design, Attilio Rigotti, projection and video design, Debbi Hobson, costume design, JB Douglas, environmental design, Kevin McGuire, fight director, Madelyn Sher, choreography, Mason Delman, light design, Yeritza Madera, Production intern, and Meghan McVann is production stage manager.
Lori Parquet, Ariel Estrada, Layan Elwazaini, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s world premiere of Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play through February 17
After the show, Estrada revealed that he was 20 + years cult survivor. Naturally I had a few questions.
Lia: What drew you to being in a cult?
Ariel: I was a young gay kid from an extremely rural town in Alaska, in my second year of college in Portland, OR in 1988. I was just coming out at the height of the AIDS crisis, and I was longing for a place where I could be welcomed, feel safe, and be part of a family. I had always too, thanks to my own internalized homophobia and anti-Asian racism, wanted to train martial arts because I thought I needed to toughen myself up. A women-owned martial arts school had classes in both co-ed martial arts and women’s self defense on my campus, and I decided to check it out.
The very first day I walked into the school, they had a picture up of a handsome man, one of their black belts, with a candle next to it. When I asked who it was, they said he was dying of AIDS and they didn’t think he’d make it through the week. I found out more about the man later – that he was openly gay in a time when it was dangerous to be so, and that he was instrumental in getting martial arts included as a competition in the International Gay Games. I knew when I saw that picture, I was hooked. When I wasn’t doing shows, I would travel the hour and half bus ride to Portland from my college campus to train. When I went to grad school in Seattle, I would travel down every 3 or 4 months to take classes and private lessons, much to the chagrin of my movement teachers in my acting program. When I moved to NYC, I helped to open up a branch of the school here, even giving up acting for a while. I was in it for 20 years before I realized it was a harmful and dangerous cult that capitalized on the worst excesses of my trauma as a gay, Asian American man struggling against violent and hostile world.
Lia: What did it provide for you?
Ariel: Like most cults, it sounded good on paper: a LGBT-owned martial arts and self-defense system dedicated to empowering women, children, and men. Many of the students were survivors of rape and abuse. There was some decent self defense training, and it was a place where I could be an openly gay man while doing something decidedly not seen as something gay people do. As you got deeper in (and paid more and more money as part of its pyramid scheme), you got to feel special, like you were learning something magical that no one else knew or could do. And by magical, I really do mean magical – it was some wacky, ridiculous, clearly-not-true crap, like mind control, speaking to the dead, or the belief that illness is all in your head. It seems like such an obvious scam when you’re outside of it – but when you’ve drank the metaphorical Kool-Aid, you believe – or at least, convince yourself that you believe – every word.
Lia: How did being in a cult inform your work in the play?
Ariel: I’ve been involved in the play since its early development process two years ago, with Topher interviewing me about my experiences, as well as being involved in developmental readings. When my character Charlie Bear, who is a dissenting voice against Mama Pearl, the play’s cult leader, fights against the excesses of the play’s cult, I am definitely drawing from my own feelings and experiences about my time in a real world cult and its consequences. My body is a mess because of all that hard-core fighting, with a hip replacement, and reconstructions of both knees and both shoulders, to say nothing of my mind and its 20-years of memories of my time in the cult. It’s not hard to draw from those painful experiences and have it inform my work in the play.
There were times in the rehearsal process when I would walk into the room and see something that we used to do in my real world cult – trance dancing – and I would be floored, completely triggered with flashbacks. Being a pro, I used it, but man, those were not easy memories to re-experience. One of the movement pieces in the show, beautifully choreographed by Butoh dancer Madelyn Sher, is backed by an Enya song. During the segment the other night I started to weep: we used to do full-contact fights to Enya (a strange juxtaposition I know, but this cult was totally insane), and I was unexpectedly taken back to not just horrible memories, but good ones too: like feeling I truly belonged to something bigger than myself. The rehearsal process was at times painful and disturbing, yet cathartic and ultimately positive. The director, Irene Lazardis, is a genius who juggled just a monster of a complex play, making a beautiful, entertaining audience experience
Lia: What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?
Ariel: Our producer, Craig Smith, Producing Artistic Director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble said that the play was like Jacobean tragedy, cleverly disguised as an episodic dramedy for Netflix binge-watchers. Like any Jacobean tragedy, it has some crazy, over-the-top shit happening – things that almost strain the suspension of disbelief. However, speaking as someone who has lived through a real-world cult experience? The things we were asked to do in the cult I was in were COMPLETELY INSANE. For example, one of my black belt tests was 64 hours long with no sleep and a small handful of rice and a little rubbery steamed chicken once a day for food; or, being taught that energy healing could cure addiction, depression, or disease (it most decidedly doesn’t) – but when you’re in a cult, you do any crazy thing the leader asks. Worse, you actually believe, or pretend to believe what you’re told for fear of being thrown out of your surrogate family. These were not dumb people in the cult I was in – yet the members who were really deep in it? They all were extremely damaged on some level, which was roundly taken advantage of, physically, mentally, and financially, by the cult’s leader.
Lia: How long have your worked with Theatre Ensemble?
Ariel: I love PTE. I’ve worked as one of their ensemble of artists for 10 years, and I also work as their grant writer and occasional graphic designer. One of my favorite projects with them was a reading of a non-traditionally cast THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, directed by Asian American director Jesse Jou, with Cecily and Gwendolyn cast African American, and Algy and Jack cast Asian American. So fun, and it added a fascinating dimension to the play that was distinctly American. In their first show of PTE’s “The Charismatics” season, TARTUFFE, I got to play Cleante. These are characters I would rarely get to play in any other professional setting. They are really committed to doing intersectional work and it shows. Plus, the artistic leadership, Craig, with Co-Artistic Director Elise Stone, are just fantastic people – terrific friends and artistic collaborators.
Lia: What’s next for you?
Ariel: I’ll be producing the next show in the same space, Leviathan Lab’s production of TRIGGER by Sam Chanse, directed by Flordelino Lagundino at IATI Theater, running February 23 through March 11. After that, I’ll be acting for PTE again in the last show of their “The Charismatics” season in a show featuring someone who is arguably the world’s most significant charismatic, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and his disciple, the titular JUDAS by Robert Patrick. I’ll also be continuing my work in arts advocacy at the Asian American Arts Alliance – come to our Lunar New Year Town Hall on February 22nd and wish our outgoing Executive Director Andrea Louie well! Finally, you can always keep up on my latest goings on at my website, www.arielestrada.com.
The performance schedule is Wednesday – Saturday at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $25.00; Call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org. The Paradise Factory @ 64 East 4th Street Street (Bowery & 2nd Avenue).
Transportation: By Subway: 4,5,6 Train to Astor Place; F train to 2nd Avenue; N & R Train at Broadway & 8th Street. Bus 3rd Ave M103 to 4th Street; 2nd Ave M15 to 4th Street.
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is a non-profit theatre company now in its 14th season of presenting new and classical works. The 2017-18 season includes American Moor by Keith Hamilton Cobb (July/August @ Boston Center for the Arts); Tartuffe by Moliere (October/November in NYC), The Cult Play, world premiere of a serialized drama by Topher Cusumano (January/February in NYC); and a play to be announced (April/May in NYC). The reading series for 2017-18 will be rarely performed plays by Pirandello. www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.