‘Going to a Place’ takes on questions about existence of heaven
BETC stages regional premiere of play by a ‘This Is Us’ writer
By A.H. Goldstein, for the Boulder Daily Camera (Read the original.)
The books about heaven were piling up.
Five years ago, playwright Bekah Brunstetter was building up an impressive collection of literature about the afterlife, tomes that delved into timeless questions about the ultimate fate of the human soul. The specialized library wasn’t exactly intentional for Brunstetter, an accomplished artist whose credits include a post as a writer and producer for the popular NBC TV show “This Is Us.”
“Every time my mom found a book about heaven, she’d send it to me and my brothers. There was one in particular called ‘Heaven is For Real’ that she sent three different times,” Brunstetter said. “She put a note in one copy that said, ‘You should write a play about this.'”
That not-so-subtle hint ultimately yielded “Going to a Place Where You Already Are,” a play that was originally produced in 2016 as a commission for the South Coast Repertory theater in California. The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is running its own regional premiere of the drama from April 12 to May 6, at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder, as the capper to its 12th season.
For Brunstetter, writing the show was a springboard for examining and refining her own view of the great beyond. Though she was raised in a Southern Baptist household in North Carolina, her own convictions run more agnostic. Writing this show was an opportunity to ask herself and clarify some hard questions.
“The one thing I knew to be true was that I can’t not believe in something,” Brunstetter said. “I wanted to start from there, asking the questions like, ‘What’s the harm in believing that we go somewhere after we die?’ I wanted to step outside of the religious idea of heaven.”
“Going to a Place Where You Already Are” revolves around Joe and Roberta, a couple who’ve always been skeptical about spiritual matters. Their mutual atheism is challenged when Roberta finds herself facing her own mortality, and her view of the afterlife begins to evolve in a religious direction. The resulting rift between dubious and devout partners summons profound questions about the ultimate fate of the human spirit. The spiritual views of their granddaughter, Ellie, also figure into the drama and add a generational element to the conflict.
Brunstetter’s research for the show turned personal. In tackling her own spiritual questions, she turned to her own family. Her own grandparents offered a study in opposites.
“Two of them are Christians and two of them are atheists. I decided to spend a lot of time interviewing my two grandparents who are atheists. When I started writing the play and interviewing them, they were both healthy. A year later, they were both dead,” she said. “The gift of the play, rather than a huge epiphany, were these conversations I got to have with them before they died.”
The experience reinforced major themes of the show — namely, the fleeting nature of the human experience and the need to answer deep-seated questions about the spirit’s next steps. It also pointed to the value of the playwriting process for Brunstetter, who approaches the craft in a profoundly personal and immediate way.
“Writing has always been incredibly therapeutic,” she said. “I think I would lose my mind if I didn’t have a play that I was putting myself into.”
Indeed, the craft offers a valuable creative alternative to writing for TV, Brunstetter said. With as much success as she’s seen as a writer and producer for “This Is Us,” which has garnered rapid and widespread popularity, theater has remained Brunstetter’s most profoundly personal field.
“The good thing about TV is that it’s incredibly collaborative … For every episode of ‘This Is Us,’ there’s 15 different brains in the room,” she said. “For me to keep my plays going, that’s where I’m fully myself. I’m really wrestling with what’s going on in my head, with my perception of what’s going on in the world.”
There’s a bit of irony in the fact that “Going to a Place Where You Already Are” has arrived in Colorado before “The Cake,” Brunstetter’s piece that tackles issues from a local court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. That show takes its dramatic cues directly from a Lakewood shop owner’s refusal to make a cake for a same sex couple’s wedding.
Though “The Cake” has direct ties to Colorado, the creative brass at BETC saw a correlation between the themes in “Going to a Place” and the troupe’s fundamental creative mission. In addition to performing works by contemporary playwrights, the troupe is committed to telling stories that break down barriers.
“It’s a play that really fosters and encourages empathy, which is something in the past couple of years we’ve been really focused on, bringing stories about people who are not necessarily like the people who live in the 10-mile radius of the Dairy Arts Center,” said Rebecca Remaly, BETC managing director and director of the troupe’s production of “Going to a Place.” “It’s about how we sometimes can’t or don’t say what we want to say to the ones we love the most.”
That theme yields moments that can be uncomfortable and difficult. There are no definite answers to the questions raised during the course of the play, but that’s what makes it interesting for Brunstetter, who’s quick to cite advice she picked up in one of her playwriting workshops.
“Be mean, be gross, be weird. Don’t tell sweet Hallmark stories,” she recalled.