The Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak musical Godspell has always been a bit controversial. From early portrayals of Jesus’ disciples as clowns and hippies, to the 1973 film version set in a contemporary New York City, to the recent Vancouver production that saw it take place inside an episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in, there is an irreverence that has endured. Director Sara-Jeanne Hosie continues that tradition in the upcoming Arts Club production, by casting a woman in the role of Jesus Christ.

“I was looking to cast in a non-traditional manner,” admits Hosie during a break in rehearsals. “First and foremost I knew that whoever was to play Jesus would be someone we would want to follow, and when Jen walked in the room that is exactly what it was like – we knew we would want to follow her.”

Hosie also admits that while it may sound a bit cheesy, there was an ethereal quality to Copping that she was immediately drawn to.

“Jen radiates a light, and her eyes radiate a compassion,” says Hosie. “She also has this ability, like great Shakespearen actors, where you understand every word she is saying.  Plus she can sing and dance too.”

For Hosie though it isn’t so much about creating controversy, but looking at the story from a different perspective.

“Everybody has their own vision in their minds about who Jesus was – and more often than not we picture a man because that is what all the illustrations show – but by casting someone that is female, or very different from what we would normally associate with Jesus, helps to create recreate a fresh take on things. It allows the story to focus on the message of love rather than on religion.”

Jennifer Copping, the actor who will play Jesus and just happens to share his initials, agrees. That, and the opportunity to work with Hosie.

“It was almost like divine intervention from the beginning,” says Copping of her being cast as Jesus. “I saw the posting that the Arts Club was going to do Godspell and that Sara-Jeanne was directing. I’m attracted to her energy and the way she invests herself in her art, and knew I wanted to work with her.”

Jennifer Copping takes on the role of Jesus Christ in the Arts Club production of Godspell
Jennifer Copping takes on the role of Jesus Christ in the upcoming Arts Club production of Godspell. Photo by David Cooper.

Not specifically auditioning for the role of Jesus, Copping admits that it did come as a bit of a surprise when she received her sides (audition monologues).

“I actually thought I got the wrong sides,” laughs Copping. “I didn’t immediately realize that this was on purpose, and if I’m really honest, I thought she was going to give me a different part.”

Getting word that it wasn’t a mistake, Copping looked to her childhood and a trip to bible camp to draw some inspiration.

“When I came home from camp I was somewhat afraid of what I had been told, and there were things that I didn’t understand,” she says. “I bought a bible and read through it twice every night before going to bed to get a better understanding for myself. It helped me see things differently, and that is what I think people will see if they come to the show – something fresh that can help them see things differently.”

Not wanting to sound too political, Hosie also sees the gender-bend as a comment on our modern day quest for leaders.

“I think there is a longing for women to be in leadership roles in our world right now, and if there was a great leader or a Messiah to come into the world right now, I do feel it would be a woman,” says Hosie.

And even while a female Jesus might be the most potentially provocative of Hosie’s casting choices, she does point out that it doesn’t stop there.

“It is not about gender,” insists Hosie. “It is about finding a mix of people that would guide all of us. I have a 12-year old playing John The Baptist; Andrew Cohen who is Jewish plays Judas; a 50-something actor. They all combine to help us look at Godspell a little differently.”

For Copping it is also about creating a dialogue with the audience that a female Jesus might spark.

“I’m excited to see what kind of conversations it brings up,” she says. “It is exciting as an artist, as a human being, and as a mother.”

Based primarily on the Gospel of Matthew, Godspell is a series of parables, with the Passion of Christ as its finale.  The Tony-nominated score comes from Stephen Schwartz, perhaps best known as the composer and lyricist for Wicked, and includes such hits as “Day By Day” which reached #13 on the Billboard pop singles chart in 1972.

Godspell plays the Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston Street, Vancouver) June 18 to August 1. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

Vancouver Presents

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