‘Hell House’ draws on past religious experiences

By Jacob Pierce |@JacobPierce1_DE |Daily Egyptian

Religion can be a tricky topic, but for one performance, that’s the point.

The Marion Kleinau Theatre is hosting the experimental show “Hell House” from Oct. 29-31. The performance is written and directed by Colin Whitworth and co-directed by Ashley Beard, who goes by the stage name A.B.

The production is an interactive experience, with the first half of the show being about a character growing up with a religious background. It also involves the process of his church putting up a hell house. 


A hell house is like a religious haunted house but instead of zombies or monsters, they bring up topics like abortion, drug use and adultery to scare the sin out of the viewer.

After the show’s intermission, audience members will be asked to go on stage and travel through the house with various characters.

Whitworth, a doctoral candidate in performance studies from Athens, Ala., said the play is drawn from a lot of personal experience.

“Writing about religion is in line with a lot of things I write about,” he said. “I am really interested in the southern identity.”

Whitworth said the show is a mixture of his life and the lives and thoughts of cast members.  

The production uses a devising technique, which is when a performance takes stories various cast members have created for characters that is incorporated into the show.

Combing the religious experiences of his life with the lives and thoughts of other cast members was an interesting process, Whitworth said.

He said when talking about a life event in writing, the author has to be careful of being mentally distant enough from the topic. 

“I do think there are certain things you learn to do as a writer,” he said. “Like an ethic of care, knowing when you are far enough to write about it.”

Beard, a doctoral candidate in performance studies from Los Angeles, said she agrees with the idea of taking a little care when religion is involved.

“I think there’s maybe a temptation when you are hurt by a group of people to sort of demonize them,” she said. “One thing I asked Colin was if I could try to help in the process of the show to make sure we are respectful of this faith community.”

While the show is being critical of religious ideals, especially against the LGBT community, it must also be conscientious when examining a religion, Beard said. 

Beard did not write anything in the show, many of her personal experiences went into her directing notes for cast members. 

Beard identifies herself as a lesbian. She said she also once worked in a ministry for a long time. She was the creative arts and design manager for a mega church in Los Angeles.

Beard said she never worked on a hell house personally, but she did work on passion plays and Christmas shows, which can have a similar process.

After coming out, Beard resigned from the ministry position, which she said she loved. Walking through this hell house was a complicated experience, she said. The first time she went through, she found herself teary eyed. 

“Performance can be a catalyst for so many things,” Beard said. “It’s a way to push ideas that really matter.”  

Shelby Swafford, a master’s student in communication studies from Tampa, Fla., also thought the process was interesting and complex.

“These are characters we are writing and creating,” she said. “Even though they are fictionalized, they come from a personal experience.”

In the performance, Swafford plays one of the church members putting up the house. This was both a role reversal and a connection to the past for her. 

Swafford grew up in a Southern Baptist family. At about 16 years old, she started grappling with the idea of religious identity.

While she found writing and performing about this difficult, it also served to be therapeutic.

“I am kind of able to understand a littler bit more about where my family is coming from when we have these sorts of conflicts,” she said.

“Hell House” takes information from two documenataries, “Jesus Camp” directed Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, and “Hell House” directed by George Ratliff, along with various other pieces of non-fiction.

The show involves mature themes and will be running at 8 p.m. It is $7 for general admission and $5 for students.

Jacob Pierce can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JacobPierce1_DE.