Over the next couple of weeks, the Oak Ridge Playhouse is taking on Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play about suspicion, conflict, and repression in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964. The play’s director, Tony Cedeño, talks about the play, his methods as a director, and his own Catholic childhood.
How did Doubt come together?
I was on the [Oak Ridge Playhouse] play-reading committee, and we had recommended the script. Reggie [Law, Oak Ridge managing artistic director] approached me about doing it. I’ve worked in a lot of positions at the theater. In addition to directing for both the main company and the junior playhouse, I’ve also worked props, costumes, everything except building scenery. Must be my natural aversion to power tools.
You’ve been working in the theater for a long time. How did you get started?
I have a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. I was there from 1994-97, during the period of the International Actors Training Program. As actors we learned to be an ensemble, and that was really important. Then I taught acting as an artist-in-residence for five years. Since then I have been a freelancer. Most recently I was an actor for Duck Ears Productions [Rabbit Hole] and the Clarence Brown Theatre [A Streetcar Named Desire].
How is your work as a director different from your work as an actor?
In the approach to the material, not that much. I am not a director who sits there with a plan and says, “This actor will go here,” and has everything drawn out, because I’m not that way as an actor. The process has to be organic. I give them a basic structure, but then I kind of let them go. And occasionally I’ll have to turn to them and say, “Do something else, anything other than what I told you to do, because that was bad, bad, bad!” But doing it this way we often discover aspects to scenes that wouldn’t come up any other way. We worked one scene a few nights ago, and I told two actors to switch chairs, and suddenly the scene just took off.
How familiar are you with the world of the play?
I was raised Catholic. I’m familiar with the rituals and was taught by nuns. But I grew up at a time when the church was starting to change—not unlike the time in which this play takes place.
Did you know anyone like the character Father Flynn?
I had a priest who was very good to me when I was learning to become an altar boy. He would walk by me when I was ringing the bells, usually at the wrong time, and would take the ashes from his cigar and drop them on my head. I think he saw something in me that was special, that needed nurturing. He wasn’t a pedophile, but he gave me a lot of special attention.
Doubt isn’t really about Catholicism.
No. It isn’t about pedophilia, either, really. The play is called Doubt: A Parable. Parables are stories with a lesson. The play tells a bigger story through the metaphor of a smaller one. Doubt doesn’t bash Catholics, or deliver an exposé on priestly behavior. It doesn’t point a finger at a character and say, “You’re evil” or “You’re good.” I told the cast that in this play, everybody’s right. It’s very easy to make Sister Aloysius a monster, but ultimately that’s a less interesting choice. And Lisa Slagle, who plays her, is a wonderful, kind woman. And to direct her is a matter of letting her go too far to find Sister’s humanity. And she’s incredibly brave—can you imagine a nun taking on a priest in 1964? It was incredibly brave. And still is today.
The elements of the story are extremely specific.
It’s an accurate description of what the church was going through in the early 1960s, with the modernization of the church, the Latin liturgy, etc. And those reforms caused many older Catholics to question the direction of the church. But the play is very specific to the story Shanley wants to tell. And ultimately Doubt is a drama, a clash of wills, and not an essay. Some people may think the play is about how the church is bad, or this priest is a pedophile, but no, no, no. It’s much bigger than that.