Sacrifice, ritual, and trust falls: an interview with Matt Barbot

For Decent Company August: loyalty, Matt Barbot is writing a piece, performed by A.J. Ditty, about a well-known Biblical patriarch and his struggle to keep it all together. Matt and Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman hopped on Skype for a transcontinental discussion covering everything from sacrificing children to talking to walls.

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JOSH BOERMAN: So you’re coming to me live from sunny Los Angeles, California right now.

MATT BARBOT: West Hollywood, California.

JB: West Hollywood. How are things out there?

MB: Not bad. You know, TV meetings are lots of waiting. You do one meeting and then you have something you need to send in, so you do that in a couple days and then you wait again for them to get back to you.

JB: Yeah. So the excitement of the world of television aside, you’re for us returning to the world of legitimate theatre with your script. (LAUGHS)

MB: Yes. True art.

JB: Yeah. Real art. Real dramatic art. So you’re doin’ a piece that is about Abraham, the Biblical patriarch.

MB: Yeah, you may have heard of him.

JB: I have. I think most people have. Tell me a little bit about where you found the inspiration for this.

MB: Kierkegaard? I dunno. I always rack my brain when I get the topics to see, you know, how I would approach it. So this was loyalty, and a lot of my writing has to do with, I think, the way we relate to stories and particularly the faith we put in mythological figures.

And so because of that I think I’m very drawn to people of faith. And in high school, in one of our philosophy courses, we covered Kierkegaard, and Fear and Trembling, which begins with sort of a meditation on Abraham and this idea that faith means doing the thing that doesn’t make sense. Like, people of faith know the thing they’re doing is unreasonable.

JB: Sure. Well, and that’s part of what makes this narrative so compelling, of course, is that in the Biblical telling of it, you’ve got Abraham. He’s told by God, you know, “If you wanna show that you really love me, you’ve gotta go and sacrifice your son to me.”

MB: Right. Right.

JB: And it’s such a unreasonable thing.

MB: Which is, like, textbook abuse, right?

JB: Yeah, totally.

MB: “If you really love me, you’ll help me rob this bank. If you really love me, you’ll give me all your credit cards.” But I mean, Kierkegaard makes the point, and it’s been a sort of interesting, illuminating way for me to think about that story, that God doesn’t make him kill his son. He never does it.

So my Abraham is a guy who puts his faith in God knowing that it can’t possibly be really what he’s asking. And that’s the only thing that keeps him going, is the idea that, “Yeah, I know this is what you said, and I’m gonna do it because I trust you implicitly. And I know that I’m not supposed to ask questions, and I trust that when I get to the top of this mountain, this is not gonna be the thing that you’re asking.”

I’m intrigued by that sort of faith because I think that is what a lot of people who go through hardship deal with in their own way.

JB: Well, also, what you’re doing isn’t just a recounting of the story that we’ve heard. It’s imagining sort of the aftermath of this. And I’m curious, where did that come from? Because I think it’s so exciting.

MB: Yeah. I thought about, “Well, how do I make this work as a solo show?” And there are certainly ways I can imagine A.J. Ditty doing that.

JB: Yeah, that’s the other thing. We’ve got the incomparable A.J. Ditty playing Abraham.

MB: Yes. I have certainly ways I can imagine him sacrificing his son as a solo performer. But I think for me, it’s the cost of that, and the cost of the question. And this question of faith that Kierkegaard writes about, which is that doubt is kind of intrinsic and that the thing I’m being asked to believe is unreasonable, but my belief in it is the thing that makes it transcendent.

And I might be butchering Kierkegaard, too, and I’m sure someone will call me out for it on Facebook. But that’s very interesting to me, the cost of that kind of belief. The Biblical narratives are a lot of things, but they’re short on character flourishes.

JB: No, totally. Because they’re morality tales, right? The idea is if you are good or upright you’re gonna do the right thing, just like Abraham.

MB: Right, absolutely. And that’s probably why the Garden of Gethsemane is one of my favorite parts of the New Testament, is that we get a character moment out of Jesus. We get, like, this dark night of the soul, Save the Cat moment where the evangelists were like, “All right, now this will be good for the story if he has this moment of doubt and powers through it.”

And we don’t get that with Abraham. I mean, they’re older stories. It’s not that they’re bad writers, it’s that they were doing different things for different reasons. And I think that what I’m interested with Abraham here is this idea that it’s all so new. Like, he’s the forefather.

JB: Right. He’s the guy.

MB: And so if he’s wrong, there’s an enormous cost. But he has to believe. And wrestling with that there, and this question of, you know, what does my loyalty mean? What does it mean to my family? And the loss and the cost of having made this decision to be willing to sacrifice his son.

And to have that sort of misunderstanding, also. Because if he trusts that God wasn’t gonna make him do it, then is he really willing to make that sacrifice? You know, these are things that I think without clear answers from your personal deity, it’s not— I mean, these are questions that people of faith deal with.

JB: I think it’s not just people of faith. I think it’s also questions that people deal with in interpersonal relationships as well.

MB: Absolutely. I think the ideas of what is right, what is a correct choice— but I think that there’s this added weight for prophets. The rules that they’re operating in are maybe not intelligible. They’re not choices that people make, that people understand. And they’re not guided by mundane things.

JB: Right. They’re guided by something that is not understandable, really, to anybody else. And I think that sort of has an interesting connection to the way that those of us who are stupid enough to have tried to have chosen a career in theatre— (LAUGHS)

MB: Yeah.

JB: We throw ourselves out there and do our best to try to create something, anything, without any guarantee of returns on it. And it’s like, where do we find our loyalties? That was something that we discussed a lot during the work in progress presentation.

MB: Yeah, that’s really fascinating. I think there is a kind of faith that we all sort of have in our own talents. There’s a faith that we have, I mean, even if you’re not a theistic person, there is a faith you have in the universe to reward you.

JB: Right, that you’re gonna get that big break or whatever.

MB: Yeah. That if I’m good and I work hard, I will get what I want, or I will be rewarded. My life will be happy, and that’s how things work. You know, sacrifices and all. I think faith, and I think life choices, and I think the causes we choose to throw ourselves behind are immensely resonant at any age. And as we can see from stories like Abraham and Isaac, they’ve been questions that we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years.

JB: What about you? Are you keepin’ the faith that things are gonna turn out well? (LAUGHS)

MB: Yeah. I mean, between meetings, I have moments of darkness. (LAUGHS)

JB: Yeah, no, totally.

MB: But, you know, things turn out. Things don’t work out, like, maybe they weren’t going to be the best thing either anyway. And we hear back and you get good news every once in a while, and that sorta keeps you going.

JB: ‘Cause that was one thing that was sorta connected to that too, is this story’s as much about doubt in a higher power as it is doubt in oneself.

MB: Yeah.

JB: Like, am I really doing the right thing? What am I doing in this moment? That’s a big question.

MB: Yeah. And I think they’re probably the same. I think this idea, especially for Abraham in that moment, they’re the same question. Because it’s, “Is this thing I’m doing the right thing? Am I talking to myself?” And I think that we all feel that way.

I mean, we spend enough time in rooms talking to walls and wondering if anybody’s really paying attention, I think as writers, I think as performers. Particularly the sort of performers that come through Decent Company where they are actors and writers and people who are very often being very autobiographical and putting themselves out there and writing something for themselves to perform. And then inhabiting that with their own body, and in front of a crowd.

JB: And that’s the other thing. The crowd, that’s another form of loyalty too. You’re putting your faith in a group of people who you may very well not know that they’re going to receive you with open arms.

MB: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s sort of the ritual of it, right? We are in agreement with the audience that the audience will behave a certain way, and that we’ll behave a certain way, and that we’ll respond a certain way when we’re out for drinks afterwards. And then a different way three days later.

But yeah, I think there’s an enormous amount of vulnerability in sort of putting oneself out there for what they believe in or putting themselves out there for something that you have to say. And there’s a faith in the connection you have with other people that, like, the thing you say will connect.

That if I say something deeply personal, I’m not the only person who’s felt it. I’m not the only person who’s thought it. And that my unique position of being a person who routinely stands in front of rooms full of people and says things will allow me to offer someone else who has felt this way something.

JB: Does that scare you? Excite you? How does that impact you?

MB: It’s scary and exciting. It’s like a trust fall, right? You’re goin’ out there and there’s an understanding that the audience will be there, and you believe that. When you’re creating it and when you’re putting it out there, when you’re committing yourself to a performance, you believe that the audience will be there in some way, even if they don’t like it, to catch you. (LAUGHS)

And they always are. I mean, I’m sure that there are horror stories out there, but I’ve never encountered an audience who was just, like, super not there. Who just doesn’t show up in any way. The worst thing they can do is leave, and I’ve seen that a couple times. But, you know, then at least they’re not choosing to— they’re breaking the covenant there for a minute. They’re deciding, you know, “I’m out.”

JB: Well, sometimes covenants are sacrosanct, and sometimes they need to be broken. (LAUGHS)

MB: Absolutely. And that’s fine. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you.

To buy tickets for Decent Company August: loyalty, click here.

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