God Goes to Therapy, an Interview With Susan E. Isaacs
Susan E. Isaacs is an actor and writer with many credits in film and TV, including “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”; “Scrooged”; “Seinfeld”; “Veep”; “Blackish”; and “Parks & Recreation.” She is an alumna of the Groundlings Sunday Company, and cofounded King Baby Comedy in New York with Tony Hale and Jeannie Gaffigan. Her memoir, Angry Conversations With God, was named one of the top ten religion books of the year by Publishers Weekly and Relevant Magazine. She won the Best Adaptation Award at the United Solo Theatre Festival in 2015, and has been invited back in THE BEST OF category for United Solo’s 10th anniversary season in the fall of 2019. She earned an MFA in screenwriting at USC and teaches at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film & Media Arts. Meira Bienstock: Has writing this show, as well as your book, helped you cope with the bigger questions in life? Have you found the answers to the questions you wanted to ask God by writing this show? Susan E. Isaacs: The first time I wrote the material, I was living the crisis that ended up being the show. I had to write in order to stay sane. The workshop I was in, Terrie Silverman’s Creative Rites, became therapy, church, and community — the safest community I had. It helped me to not only cope but to transform. I didn’t find the answers I wanted, but I did find the answers I needed. We usually go into a crisis expecting simpler, less mature results. But if we’re lucky, we drop those wants for a more mature thing that we really need. In this case, it was grieving, loss, and accepting life on life’s terms. Did you set out to write your show as a comedy or drama initially? Well, the content was drama but my delivery has always been through humor. It’s how I’m hard‑wired. And when you’re talking about God, religion, or spirituality, you have to find the humor in it. It’s such a touchy subject. I have to assure the audience I’m not going to go ‘churchy’ on them, I’m not going to sell them Amway or invite them to a Dianetics meeting. In the show, you describe seeing your ex by a pretzel cart kissing someone else. Martha tells you, “Jesus is showing you he’s moved on.” When this happened, what was your first reaction? What did you want to say to him? To Martha? To the person he was kissing? I wanted to tell Martha she was lucky I didn’t have a gun. In the end, God was saying the same thing Martha was, but more like, “Susan, this asshat is so shallow, he’s already moved on. Don’t waste any more of your life on him.” But her timing was horrible. I was in shock. I felt like traipsing up to him and saying, “Haaay.” Just to see how he’d react. Martha had to hold me back. If I’d had anything to say to the new girlfriend, it would have been, “Guard your heart. This guy will eat it.” Why do you think it is so essential for everyone to ask God, or whichever spiritual force they believe in, these types of universal questions? I’ve been pleased that the show is a hit with people of all spiritual affiliations or none. They’re the same questions at the heart of every human experience. “Why am I here? Do I matter? What path am I on? Is it the right one? Was it the right one before, but now it’s not?” We don’t live in a very contemplative culture. We’re distracted by social media, political chaos, etc. But if we are brave enough to ignore those, we can face ourselves and ask these questions. I’m a big fan of Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward. It helped me to recognize that failing and falling are an essential part of the inner journey. It’s almost like if you do fail, you are probably on schedule. As Rohr says in his book, “Odysseus failed all the way home.” We have to reach the end of our youthful desires. We have to fail with our usual talents and desires. Then we can grow into something more mature, which for me was less about answers and more about mystery. I teach screenwriting, and it’s kind of silly that I found myself in my own “hero’s journey,” as Joseph Campbell calls it. It was comforting in a way. Can you tell us about your inspiration for putting you and God into a therapy session? I was in a sketch comedy group in NYC with Tony Hale and Jeannie Gaffigan. I wrote a sketch where a woman takes God to marriage counseling because they weren’t getting along. Tony played the therapist and Jeannie played Jesus. The sketch was a big hit. When my life really did fall apart and I did go to a therapist, we played it out in the therapy room. What was your creative process for putting together your show? Initially, I wrote to stay sane. Writing was therapy. At the end of one workshop session, I read an 8‑minute piece that got great feedback. I wrote more in class and added another section for the next end of term. Then I did a reading of a 15‑minute piece at a solo show festival called “15 Minutes of Fem,” and it did well there. I just kept adding pieces. I was also blogging, and an editor at Hachette Book Group came across an essay I wrote, “Rejected by eHarmony.” I pitched the book based on the show, and they bought it. After it was published, I went on a book tour with author Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz), and I did a 35‑minute version for that tour. When I returned, I went back to the material and grew it into an 80‑minute show. It’s morphed each time — not the content so much as the execution. I’ve added multimedia. The good thing is, I’ve got four versions of the show: anywhere from 35 to 60 minutes of a standup/TED talk, to an 80‑minute full production. What was your favorite part of the show? Why? I love the opening, because it was such a horrible thing to live through in real life. To take the audience through that and make them gasp and laugh, it’s kind of validating. But my favorite part is the ending. It brings together my love of astronomy, sacred music — the scene is set to music by Sibelius — and a shocking ending that really happened to me. Which do you think played a bigger part in your show: your Lutheran background, or your emotional situation at the time? I don’t know if I could weigh them. My Lutheran background gave me the ability to perceive God everywhere and the language to talk about it. But it was the situation that drove me to ask those bigger questions. I would never have asked them if I hadn’t gone through that hell I went through. I wouldn’t have grown. It really is kind of freaky how The Hero’s Journey is the journey we are all on. Thank God for art. It’s one way we can recognize it and then live into it. “Angry Conversations with God” Written and Performed by Susan E Isaacs Directed by Matthew Corozine Thursday, Sept 26th at 9PM Photo credit: Val Lieske 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival Theatre Row New York City
MEIRA BIENSTOCK has worked for Time Inc., and prior, interned at ELLE Magazine. Her work has appeared in The HuffPost, The Jerusalem Post, 34th Parallel Magazine, New York Dreaming Literary Magazine, The Herald Bulletin, and more. She has acted in an Off‑Broadway show as well as indie films, and her background is in sketch comedy.