When Lear deBessonet was ten years old, she made the decision to live for God. Now deBessonet is responsible for some of the largest and most inclusive theatre productions in NYC. On the horizon are big projects, including some that just might reshape theatre in America. Her faith has evolved, but it’s still a driving force behind her work. We take a look at Lear deBessonet’s faith and what it means to really, really believe.
February 12th, 2019
Eleven-year-old Lear deBessonet had a plan for what grown up Lear deBessonet was going to do with her life. She was going to start a theatre company in Russia. Not just any theatre company. A Christian theatre company. In Russia. The year was 1991. She had received some misinformation about Russia.
In 1990, deBessonet’s hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana had a population of 623,853 people and roughly 474 churches. Out of those, a little over 50% were Evangelical. Shortly before her 11th birthday, deBessonet underwent a conversion experience where, in a small room in a small, unfamiliar Baptist house church, she became so full and overflowing with the love of God that when a person—not a pastor or preacher or priest, just a person—asked if anyone was ready to commit to God’s love and to living life not for themselves but for God, she knew she had no choice but to stand up and say, “yes.” She was now going to live her life for God.
Six years later, in October of 1997, I found myself, for no particular reason, in a part of Russia that was east of Siberia. I had just turned 12 and, for reasons I can no longer remember, had recently become fearful of people blowing up airplanes. A middle aged American man who I knew in Russia and who was rumored to be ex-CIA told me the following anecdote: “What are the chances of there being a bomb on an airplane? Let’s say one in ten million. What are the chances of there being two bombs on an airplane? That would be one in one hundred million. So what’s the best way to prevent a bomb from being on an airplane? Bring your own bomb.” To this day, I think about that a lot.
I wanted to write about Lear deBessonet and her faith because I wanted to feel better.
Lear deBessonet’s office at the Public Theater is a small and windowless room, right off the elevator bank. There are some books, a show poster, and a Hillary Clinton action figure. She is going to decorate it soon—soon was a while ago. When I visited her office in June, she showed me a giant stack of index cards sitting on her desk that contain information on every participant of Public Works, the program that deBessonet started that unites members of underserved communities from across the five boroughs with professional theatre artists for workshops and community-building that culminates in an annual production in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The index cards contain things like name pronunciation, how long the individual has been participating in the program, and if they have any family members also participating. There are roughly 200 cards. Before each production, all staff members of Public Works—from deBessonet to the stage management team—are expected to memorize all the information on the cards so that from Day One, people can be greeted by name. For deBessonet, it’s a principle of Public Works that all the participants, “are that significant and that deserving of real consideration.” It is, she says, “the belief that people matter that much.”
In 2012, when she was 32, deBessonet, who has a demeanor reminiscent of the sensation of sticking your hand out the window in a moving car, founded Public Works. For the inaugural production in summer of 2013, she directed an adaptation of The Tempest with music by Todd Almond. The show featured Tony winner Laura Benanti, Norm Lewis, and over 200 community members including senior citizens, children, domestic workers, and recently incarcerated individuals. It ran for three performances. Now, Public Works is one of the Public’s most visible and growing initiatives, currently expanding to have units across the country and in the U.K. and with new, commercial partners like Disney. The size and scope of Public Works shows are some of the largest in the city, on par only with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and with the leadership of deBessonet, and now, Director of Public Works Laurie Woolery (deBessonet’s official title is Founder and Public Theater Resident Director), they offer a panacea to the chauvinistic thinking that large, high-profile theatre productions be helmed by men. Of the five Public Works shows (Twelfth Night, which ran in summer of 2016, was expanded to a full run as part of the Shakespeare in the Park season in the summer of 2018), four have been directed by women—three by deBessonet and one by Woolery—and this summer’s production, the largest and most high profile yet, an adaptation of Hercules in partnership with Disney, will be helmed by deBessonet. In contrast, in the period from 2008-2019 there will have been 24 Shakespeare in the Park productions and only four were directed by women, including one by deBessonet, and there were six consecutive all-male seasons. A driving force behind deBessonet’s work, both at the Public and beyond, is her faith.
For deBessonet, theatre and faith have always intertwined as simultaneous strands in her life. She no longer identifies as Evangelical, but she is still a believer. A few years ago, I was talking to someone about the challenges of being religious and working in theatre and she said, “What do you mean? Like having to perform on Sunday or do shows with sex?” None of that is what I meant. Maybe my mistake was that I said “religious” and really what I meant was faith. It is hard to have faith and work in theatre. Theatre, a place of stories and myths—the ones it tells about other people, other places, other things, and the metastasized myth of goodness it tells about itself—and faith in its own stories and myths, both asking us to believe in the unknown, with only the stories as proof. Faith is a difficult thing.
There was a fire in deBessonet from before she can remember. “The way I wanted to participate in life and in this world, there was a ferocity behind that,” she says. Growing up in Louisiana with her parents, Cary and Nancy, and younger sister, deBessonet, born Lisa Lear but called by her middle name all of her life, was an overachiever from a young age. She participated in everything except sports—except, well, briefly, in middle school, she was a cheerleader; she was an Honor Roll student and member of the National Honor Society; she was president of any club she could be, including trying to be president of the Spanish Club even though she did not take Spanish; she was in the choir; according to an old post from a high school friend on her Facebook, she was known for doing great Saved by the Bell imitations (the impressions have been confirmed, the quality has not); and she was a National Merit Semifinalist. It wasn’t until she got her SAT scores that it occurred to her as more than a sneaking suspicion that she might be smart and not just hardworking.
She was also fueled by her imagination. deBessonet started making plays in her backyard when she was five, something she credits to her mother, saying, “[My mother] was a speech therapist working with preschoolers at a United Way agency, and was amazing with imaginative play and language. My mom spent so much time reading to me, and from the time I was very tiny I remember how easy it was to lose myself in imagination. We would read a book and I would be vividly living in it, enacting it and continuing to live in the world of the book after we closed the pages.” Along with being taken to local children’s shows, her mother’s love of movie musicals and Bible stories and, the thing that most stands out to deBessonet, her mother’s love of people, translated into a love of theatre for deBessonet. She also credits her mother for recognizing at an early age that her daughter was a born leader. As an adult, deBessonet found a photo from her kindergarten play—she played the lead, Mother Nature—where she was dressed in a giant pink tutu and pointing a wand with her mouth open mid-sentence. She recalls, “I thought it was hilarious and commented to my mom on how committed I look in the picture, and she said ‘Oh honey, that wasn’t you performing; that was you directing the other children. You knew all the lines and where everyone was supposed to stand and took over mid-show when things went off the rails.’”
Christianity was the fulcrum around which middle-class life in Baton Rouge swung. “There are ways that, even if you never sought out religion, it’s in the water, it’s in the air,” deBessonet said of her hometown. Her early education was at an Episcopalian elementary school that had been founded by her paternal grandmother, Doris, with church services part of the school week, something deBessonet enjoyed. When deBessonet was eight, she started questioning God’s insouciance in the ways she suspects lots of children do at that age, wondering why, in the battle of good versus bad, the bad seemed to win so much more than it should. Still, she kept believing, and then, when she was ten in that small room in that small church, she accepted Christ and made the decision to live for Him.
When she accepted Christ, she dived into that with the same zeal she brought to everything else in her life, and came home and told her mother that she needed to quit school and spread the word of the gospels. Her mother told her that, no, she could not quit school, but maybe there was something she could get involved in at school, maybe she could start a club. deBessonet did start a club. And a Bible study. And a church. Yes, a church, where she would give sermons to her parishioners and, as her parishioners were her classmates, bribe them with Snickers bars. She kept notebooks full of her sermons and plans and ideas for her life—detailed, year-by-year, step-by-step plans. It was in one of these notebooks that she planned to start a Christian theatre company in Russia thinking that this thing she loved—theatre—could be used to spread God’s love, and that theatre could help make the world a better place; that it could save people.
There is an ease in making the assumption that deBessonet’s deep faith came from her family and community, a result of the culture in which she was raised. It is harder to believe that it was something that came from very deep inside of her, that she was a true believer. There’s a lot in this story that can be hard to believe. Just so you know, it’s that type of story. Sometimes, in our lives, there’s not much difference between what’s true and what we believe to be true.
The biggest distinguishing feature of the fall of 2002 in New York City was that it was not the fall of 2001. People had mostly stopped looking up at the sky every time they heard an airplane; Michael Bloomberg had recently started his tenure as mayor; Sex and the City had a truncated season due to Sarah Jessica Parker’s pregnancy; and Matt Lauer was still seen as a nice guy. It is a year that one imagines NBC executives looking back on fondly.
2002 was deBessonet’s first fall in New York, having moved to the city after graduating college that spring. deBessonet attended the University of Virginia as part of the Jefferson Scholars program where she majored in Political and Social Thought; did theatre pieces about things like Sex and the City and the quest for female ecstasy; and wrote her thesis on Brecht, Nietzsche, and Artaud. Spring break of her senior year, she visited New York for the second time (the first was a high school choir trip where she saw Rent and Les Mis), staying with the one person she knew in the city, a friend from summer stock, and spending her days trying to imagine if she could see herself living there. On her way home, while waiting for her flight at LaGuardia Airport, she looked up, and in a pool of light she saw one of her theatre heroes, director Anne Bogart. She went over and introduced herself and walked away with a job assisting Bogart on a show right after she graduated. deBessonet knew she was interested in exploring questions of faith through theatre. She’d held onto her childhood belief that theatre could be used for good.
During her early years in New York, she did all the things young directors are supposed to do—and she did them rapidly. By early 2006, deBessonet got her first bit of real attention as a director for a show called Death Might Be Your Santa Claus. It was a devised, site-specific piece about Christianity in America—the mega churches, the corruption, the corporatization of faith. Her dream had been to do the production at Bennigan’s in Times Square—“Do you know what Bennigan’s is?” she asked me and, specifically, no, I did not know what Bennigan’s was, but I grew up suburb-adjacent so I was pretty sure that in my heart, yes, I did know what Bennigan’s is—an establishment that describes itself as part of a chain of casual dining restaurants with an Irish Pub flair. To deBessonet, Bennigan’s (Times Square!) felt like contemporary Christianity in America. She convinced the management to let her use the restaurant for her show. Shortly before rehearsals were to begin, she walked by to discover that Bennigan’s (Times Square!) had been boarded up. deBessonet regrouped and ended up presenting the show at an abandoned bank downtown right next to the stock exchange, which also worked for a critique on American Christianity.
Extreme drive remained a hallmark of deBessonet’s personality and she channeled everything into an opportunity for directing. She had a coat check job at Lupa, a West Village restaurant by Mario Batali (chef, restaurateur, accused sexual assaulter) where, like most upscale New York restaurants, the women were supposed to be thin and attractive, preferably white or easily exoticisized. During this time, she was constantly trying to fundraise for her own work by applying for grants and throwing benefits. One such benefit hit a snag when one of the co-producers failed to procure food for the evening. deBessonet, easily confounded by professional incompetence, knew that one of Lupa’s frequent diners was Jason Who Owned a Catering Company. deBessonet got a phone number and called Jason Who Owned a Catering Company’s assistant and said, “This is Lear calling to schedule a meeting with Jason.” A strategy she’d discovered was you could get your foot in the door by not giving people information they didn’t need to know—like whether or not they knew you. deBessonet got her appointment, and when Jason Who Owned a Catering Company found The Lupa Coat Check Girl in his office he was, as deBessonet had suspected, stymied. She made her pitch: she ran a theatre company, they needed food, he had food. And in that moment Jason Who Owned a Catering Company looked at The Lupa Coat Check Girl and he said, “No.” deBessonet looked back at Jason Who Owned a Catering Company and she said, “Jason, I have to tell you, I am not leaving your office until you agree to the donation.” And so she sat on Jason Who Owned a Catering Company’s office sofa for 20 minutes, while Jason Who Owned a Catering Company attempted to run his catering company, and this time, when Jason Who Owned a Catering Company looked at deBessonet he said, “You wore me down,” and she got the food for her benefit.
Another job was at an illegal poker club and, after it was raided by the police, she got a job organizing a wealthy man’s library. The library, specifically, turned out to be an ample library of pornography. deBessonet once again found an opportunity, for as she looked at the lovingly assembled collection of pornography, she decided that this was a man who had a peripheral interest in the arts—a very, very peripheral interest—and she would cultivate him into becoming her patron. She asked him for money for her next show, Saint Joan of the Stock Yards, Brecht’s version of Joan of Arc set in early 20th-century Chicago where Joan ends up destroyed by the rapacity and moral ambiguity that surrounds her. deBessonet was given the money in exchange for her agreeing to have lunch with him every few weeks so he could give her business advice. For Saint Joan of the Stock Yards, in 2007, she received her first major piece of press, a New York Times feature where deBessonet, along with Young Jean Lee, discussed coming from religious backgrounds and religion in their work. deBessonet stayed in touch with her patron née pornography collector until he left New York in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.
It all makes for a pretty good story—the Bennigan’s, the sitting in offices, the kismet of seeing Anne Bogart at the airport—with deBessonet cast as the plucky, impervious heroine in a hermetic reality. But when I first read the story about deBessonet getting a job assisting Anne Bogart based on starting a conversation with her at LaGuardia Airport, I didn’t believe it. I thought, surely, there must be some details she’s omitting. There must have been someone who made an introduction, someone who gave a nod of approval. When I eventually mentioned the “story about you accosting Anne Bogart in an airport” to deBessonet, she laughed and said, “I’m sure you now have more context to be able to place that story within other [aspects of my personality] related to it.” And I thought, “Yes, Lear, I can believe you as a contemporary Lucy Ricardo. I really can.” And I did.
I believed it was possible for all of the things she said to have happened exactly the way she said they happened. Everything. From Anne Bogart to the benevolent pornography connoisseur to deBessonet having a more direct connection with God than I have had direct connection with anyone in my life.Then one night, months later, out of nowhere, I thought, “How did she recognize Anne Bogart?” This was 2002, before social media made it easier to know what someone looked like at every moment. “It’s hard to recognize people out of the context you expect them in,” I thought to myself. I had been ready to believe the whole story, and then a small crack in the logic caused the whole story to cave in on itself.
I was not entirely wrong. There were some extenuating circumstances (and deBessonet thinks a more apt comparison with her younger self is Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation rather than Lucy Ricardo). Bogart had just released a book, deBessonet had read it multiple times, and read every interview with her that she could find, plus she had participated in a summer program run by Bogart’s SITI Company (deBessonet says she’s positive Bogart didn’t remember her from it; she’d spent no time with her). And as for the rest of it, she knew that she was ending up with a string of pretty-girl jobs and she knew there were some other reasons why maybe she was allowed to sit on that office sofa. Nothing happened, but something doesn’t always need to happen; she was a director, she understood subtext. She knew what people thought when they looked at her, a young, white woman with a big smile and long hair and the slightest trace of a Southern accent. Her freshman year of college, while auditioning to be a judge on a student panel, she’d given a speech using her accent, and then stopped and said she bet, “Even though I’ve only been speaking for 24 seconds, everybody in this room has probably written me off.” She told the room full of students, “Justice is about hearing the content of what people actually say, not being fooled by the their social masks.” deBessonet tried to maintain her brazen optimism and consider it all sociological research even while finding it disturbing. “I made some very angry, dark plays during that time. There were big questions of God in the things I was making, but there was also a primal scream happening in those shows,” she says.
I was also not entirely right. deBessonet did see Bogart standing in a pool light, and to her, that artificial light refracting through the concourse meant something: a sign pulsating through her body that she should ask Bogart for an assisting job, that she was making the right choice to pursue theatre. And from there, she kept directing. And from the outside, things seemed to be going well. Things seemed to be pointing towards success. But that was where the trouble was. Success was no cure for a spiritual uneasiness that seemed to be pointing in no precise direction.
There was a blizzard. During the winter of 2003, there was a blizzard that was so huge it shut down the East Coast. The New York Times ran an op-ed calling the blizzard a relief. It was something that was not terrorism or the impending invasion of Iraq. It was weather. Epic, mythological weather, uncontrolled by reason, a brief escape from human choices and responsibility. In the middle of the blizzard was deBessonet with a cheap umbrella that had blown inside out, and without the right boots or coat, trying to make it back to her apartment in Astoria. As the snow blanketed the city, she yelled at God. A yell that had been building inside of her for the last few years.
From her teen years into early adulthood, boiling under the surface for deBessonet was a spiritual crisis. She explained, “Because the moment when I took hold of faith was this precipice between childhood and adulthood, there had always been this combination of some child ideas and some adult ideas. And some of the ideas that were more childlike were very deeply emotionally rooted for me. Essentially there had to be a moment of spiritually growing up.” Her childhood faith had congregated around the idea of love—feeling God’s love, spreading God’s love, and that God’s love is for everyone. She was torn between the mythos and the logos of faith—the meaning and metaphor of the stories and the logic of them. deBessonet had believed, on a certain level, in the literal word of the Bible. She would often find herself in quixotic deluges giving away half of her lunch to a homeless person or, once, going on a prolonged trip to a K-Mart to help a woman buy tampons. She’d found that wasn’t sustainable. Neither were some of the questions that had been ongoing in her mind: why weren’t churches doing more to help people? Why was there so much fraud happening in mega churches? And, mostly, if God was supposed to be invested in every human being, if God was supposed to be a parent, “no parent would allow their child to go through some of the things that human beings go through.”
God was, in many ways, a real person in her life, and like with a person, the line between mendacity and the complex had become unclear, and a fissure had appeared. It is painfully difficult to think that one minute you can feel such an overwhelming sense of love for someone and then a minute later feel like you don’t know them at all; and it is painfully difficult to think about the loneliness from missing a sense of being seen that comes from a person who still exists, only who no longer exists for you. She remembers the time vividly, “It was so scary to peek over the edge into the abyss of feeling like actually maybe everything I believed is wrong and what if God is not love?”
At the end of this period, when she was 26, was her production of Saint Joan in the Stock Yards. It asked many of the same questions deBessonet screamed at God in the blizzard: “Why is it so impossible to be good in your world? Why have you made a world that crushes any person that tries to be kind?” In the end, Saint Joan would come to be symbolic of the end of one stage of deBessonet’s career and the start of what would lead to Public Works.
deBessonet’s brain moves on a quick time signature where, on any given day, she can be circling around multiple intertwining questions, opening and shutting various doors in her mind. She jokes that time is sped up for her, but it’s not really a joke. For much of the last year, deBessonet has been focused on the “what next” of Public Works, in the practical sense, but also in its ethos. There is the national expansion and figuring out what community means in different parts of the country—how is it affected by history, by infrastructure, by the future coming in different-sized waves. And then there’s New York, where her focus has been on the deal with Disney and deBessonet’s production of Hercules. With that comes the new challenge of working with a major corporation and how to grow while evolving the values of Public Works in the right way. Where is the line between the choices made for the greater good, for the mission, and that other murky thing that keeps people up at night?
Shirley Brice Heath, an anthropologist who was working with the Public before deBessonet’s tenure there, has been documenting Public Works for the last six years, and with her help deBessonet has found that there is now proof that theatre, in the right environment, can have a positive impact in people’s lives. It has helped people get jobs and helped people in their relationships. “The huge deficits of possibility created for so many people in this country by the economic bracket they’re born into, the horrible violence of the criminal justice system, I now know that theatre has the potential to move the needle on these impenetrable problems,” deBessonet says, “Now that I know that, I am not free to un-know that. I have to act with that information.”
Beyond Public Works, she also has a few other directing projects on the horizon and she recently became the first resident director of New York City Center Encores!. The kind of work she prefers to make, even when it does not include casts of hundreds, gravitates towards a kinetic sense of life. She thinks about the way the work is made and whether entrenched ways of making professional theatre are healthy for people. She is talking more and more about some version of bringing back the Federal Theatre Project, only without government funding or involvement, and says, “Someone should do it, it doesn’t have to be me.” Only she is thinking about it. A lot. And she’s not yet 40.
deBessonet is ambitious. She sees ambition as a tool. “There is ambition that is about the great work of the beautification of the world, the project of working for justice, the project of humanity expressing its best self. I think there should be no limit to how ambitious we are about that collective project,” she says.
The precursor to Public Works was a short-lived program called Tickets for the People that deBessonet started in 2006 and which she frequently describes as being a huge failure. Tickets for the People came out of deBessonet’s disillusionment at the demographics of the average theatre audience (mostly white, wealthy, and older). Audience, for deBessonet, was a corporeal manifestation of the context and meaning of the work. For Tickets for the People, she distributed free tickets to communities that did not have easy access to the arts, and quickly found herself sitting through many bad productions. She noticed that many of the groups were not particularly comfortable in the theatres or engaged with the productions, which mostly fell into a genre she described as “rich people fighting over inheritances plays.”
Around the same time that she was reevaluating Tickets for the People, deBessonet started dating a Jewish lawyer from New York, Tom Gray, who was based in Philadelphia at the time (she’d go on to marry Gray, who is now a judge, and they currently live in Brooklyn with their son). On a Sunday in Philadelphia, they wandered into Broad Street Ministry, an organization that serves the local homeless population. There was a Church service going on and during the service, a homeless man dropped a roll of coins that clanked along the floor. People got down on their hands and knees to help the man pick up the coins, meanwhile the service continued. Like the pool of light at LaGuardia Airport, the scene of life happening within the service seemed, suddenly, to be pointing deBessonet in the direction she was looking for. “This place is onto something, I don’t know what it is, but I want to learn about it. I want to be a part of it,” she remembers thinking. She started regularly attending services there and getting more involved with the community. It was there that the basis for Public Works was formed.
She decided to put on a show within and with Broad Street Ministry, an adaptation of Don Quixote. Unlike in the past, where deBessonet used her work to explore her own questions about faith, this time she decided to put them into action in a different way. For 2009’s Don Quixote, she used a mix of professional actors from New York and Broad Street community members, working with them over months to adapt and stage the show. She picked Don Quixote because it had an epic, fantastical quality to it, and was episodic. Don Quixote is also the story of a man attempting to reconcile real life being different from stories, and is widely considered the first work of literature to acknowledge that people exist in relation to stories as much as in relation to reality.
For deBessonet, this was a way of working that finally started to blend the different aspects of her ambitions and concerns. She had a commission from The Old Globe in San Diego, and decided to use that as an opportunity to see if her ideas could work on a larger scale with a professional theatre. In San Diego she put together a large-scale community based production of The Odyssey. She also started talking to Public Theatre Artistic Director Oskar Eustis. According to deBessonet, The Public had been looking for a way to have more meaningful engagement with the wider community and had been working with Brice Heath to figure out what the benchmarks for that work would be. deBessonet’s work met that criteria and she believed that, yes, what she’d done in Philadelphia and San Diego could be replicated in New York, and not only that, but they could do a big show in the Delacorte in Central Park—because what better location—and not only that, but it could be a whole department at The Public where the work and relationships could be ongoing. At first, deBessonet would do everything—“you don’t have to hire anyone else or spend a lot of money,” she declared (she was also told it would definitely be better if she didn’t have to hire anyone else or spend any money). deBessonet joined the staff at The Public in February of 2012 and spent much of her first 18 months doing almost everything for Public Works. She ran all over New York City to the original five partner organizations that made up the program, figuring out a way to make theatre porous enough to work with the needs of each organization. The one thing too far turned out to be the senior center that needed a jazzercise class, which, no, she would not do herself, and so providing a jazzercise teacher is where a portion of her initial five thousand dollar budget went. That summer, deBessonet’s production of The Tempest endeavored to present the fusion of deBessonet’s thinking that “there is this other possibility of art, which is not just revelling what is currently there and is wrong, but actually offering something that could be but is not yet.”
On a Sunday in September, I found myself at a small Unitarian house church in Brooklyn with a Black Lives Matter banner, gay pride flag, and Refugees Welcome Here sign displayed on the porch. deBessonet and Gray were standing out front watching as their two-year-old son, Isaiah, and Isaiah’s stuffed rabbit, inspected the goings on.deBessonet frequently tells her son that God is everywhere, later telling me, “When we see something or we hear something that we know is unjust, the part of us that recoils at that, that feels like ‘that’s wrong,’ that is the God part within us that is in everybody and is everywhere.”
Isaiah and his stuffed rabbit made it through about half of the service before being taken to the playground across the street by his father. I liked having Isaiah around because I figured he was the only person there who knew less about what was going on than I did. Most of my theological education has come from movies and theatre and books and television. My childhood belief was in the people who made those things.
There was a clock that kept ticking loudly during the service, but nothing much happened. Afterwards, deBessonet went to meet Isaiah and Gray across the street at the playground where Isaiah was engrossed in a jungle gym. deBessonet switches focus like a nyctinastic plant and now her focus was on her family. I don’t know what happened next since they all went on their way to do whatever it is that people do on Sundays. I went home and turned on the TV, flipping through channels until I settled on a station I had never heard of that was playing The Brady Bunch. It was a Christmas episode—the one where Carol is supposed to sing at church, but loses her voice to laryngitis and Cindy uses her visit to a shopping mall Santa Claus to ask for her to be cured.
My Dead Best Friend, before she was my friend and before she was dead, used to list her religion on Facebook as “Idina Menzel.” She’d read a New York Times article about female, teenage fans of Wicked and one was quoted as saying, “I don’t know if I believe in God, but I know I believe in Idina Menzel.” My Dead Best Friend quoted it as a joke, but—although she was not an Idina Menzel fan—she wasn’t joking.
My Dead Best Friend had been my roommate for a while and then lived in a series of apartments with a series of other roommates. I only saw one of the apartments once—the last one—a small, dark place in Queens. The day I was there was during a heat wave and the apartment was too hot and there was dust everywhere. In the living room, to the right of a hand-me-down media console, she had made a gallery wall of framed Playbills and theatre posters, mostly signed from over a decade’s worth of shows starring people she loved.
My Dead Best Friend loved theatre. Or loved the people who made it. I’m not sure which; sometimes I’m not sure there’s a difference. She had, at one point, wanted to be an actress. She ended up working a series of menial theatre jobs where she still got to be around the people. She wanted to be their friend and sometimes thought she was. They’d tell her she was so great and they’d tell her she was so nice and they’d tell her she was so helpful, and she heard she was so loved—until she wasn’t. Her use had run out or she had never been useful or she had messed something up—the thing was not always clear—or because those are just things people say. And she would cry and she would drink and she would cut herself; her sense of self long ago given away to faith in someone else.
My Dead Best Friend died in January of 2016, the weekend before the Presidential inauguration. I don’t know which day since I don’t know how long it took them to find her body. Her body was found in her apartment late on a Monday night. That day I had interviewed Someone Important in Theatre and it had gone well and I remember feeling a strong sense of being liked, and that’s what I was thinking about that night. I never found out the specific cause of death, but alcoholism killed her, that much I know, and it seems important to say. She was an alcoholic and if it wasn’t theatre, if she had ended up wanting to be a part of some other community, she probably still would have ended up an alcoholic. Probably. But, either way, it was theatre, so I don’t know how much the “probably” matters.
There is a lot I don’t know about My Dead Best Friend. I used to wonder about what it was she hoped to get out of getting these people she believed in to believe in her. I realized later that most of my guesses had more to do with me than her.
The week after she died I was busy. I was being an Editor-in-Chief—there were interviews, there were protests, there were important decisions to be made about how to talk about theatre in the Trump Era. I concentrated on being perfect at everything that week, to make no professional mistakes, to make sure no one knew anything was amiss, to behave how I thought the people I had put faith in would behave. And I did get everything pretty perfect that week. I concentrated on that, but, in a small part of my brain, I hoped that maybe, someday, one of those people would tell me how great I’d been during that time.
My Oldest Friend, Andrew, was one of the few people I told about her death, months after it happened. When I told him she had died, he said, “Oh,” and then he said, “Well, she was crazy,” and shrugged. I shrugged and said, “Yeah.” I have been to a lot of theatre parties and events and coffees and meetings where Someone is so great! So nice! So talented! And then Someone is a bitch. Is a fraud. Is crazy. I stand there and shrug. Everybody is always so great until they’re not.
A few weeks ago, I dug out an old bag from my closet and a ticket stub from the play I saw the evening of My Dead Best Friend’s memorial service, which I did not attend or even remember was happening, fell out and landed at my feet. I looked at it on the floor and thought, “Well, that’s good symbolism.” But, the truth is, I had purposefully saved the ticket stub because it was a friend’s show. A newer friend whose name had been on one of those show posters on My Dead Best Friend’s wall, and who, if I were printing their name, I’d be too nervous to publicly refer to as a friend for fear that I’d end up embarrassed and hurt, and all of the things I had thought were signs of friendship were just the things people say until they don’t say them anymore.
Over the last few months, I’ve tried to find that New York Times article that My Dead Friend joked about. So far, I have not been able to find it.
I used to attribute the following statement about me to someone else: your problem isn’t that you don’t have patience, it’s that you don’t have faith. That’s actually something I said to myself about me. Because the best way to stop a bomb from being on an airplane is to bring your bomb. It never occurred to me that there’s a version of that story where there are no bombs on airplanes.
Every so often, I wonder how long My Dead Best Friend’s body was left alone. I am Jewish and in Judaism, it is a very bad thing to leave a body alone.
There was a flood. Last year, in Baton Rouge there was a flood and deBessonet’s childhood home was destroyed. Her childhood bedroom had been covered with a collage of mementos from her life, photos and notes and flowers taped all over the walls and saved objects and notebooks under the bed. Evidence of a person. As a child, deBessonet’s favorite picture that hung on her wall was a painting of Jesus hugging someone. The someone’s face is turned away. “If the picture was turned where you could see a face, I don’t think I would have liked that picture as much. It was this sense of just the embrace of Jesus,” she tells me. Someone could be deBessonet or it could be anybody or it could be everybody. But when deBessonet was a ten-year-old child it was her who felt so covered and complete in God’s love, in an experience beyond description, that in a small house church where she was the youngest one present, she raised her hand and said she was ready to live her life for Him. At 38 faith is still central to her life and work, only now with the added depth of having made work and lived a life. She is still drawn to that which we cannot yet know. She says, “At any given time, we are locked in our bodies and in our own reality, and we can’t see everything. We can’t see all of time. We can’t see all of history. But there is trust that in that big picture of all of time and all of history and every living creature that exits, there is love behind and hidden in that.”
Faith is hard. In theatre, people talk about the suspension of belief. To ignore what you know—that people do not fly; that rooms do not transform; that in life there is not a neat beginning, middle, and end—and believe. That is not so hard. I think it is much harder to know what you know and still believe, and still have faith.
I wanted to write about Lear deBessonet and her faith because I wanted to feel better.