Ahead of her appearance at the Sydney Opera House’s UnWrapped festival, Emmy Award-winning artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth tells features editor Makayla Muscat what inspired her new live show, HOW TO LIVE (After You Die).
The bi-annual festival features a series of works from independent Australian artists spanning dance, music, live art and theatre.
Wallworth is renowned for using emerging technologies to create profound works. She works primarily in immersive environments including 360 film, virtual reality and feature documentary and is recognised as a global leader in those fields.
She has won multiple international awards including two Emmys for her virtual reality films Collisions and Awavena and has a long track record working with communities that openly embrace spirituality and end-of-life rituals.
In a pared back monologue about a young woman’s slippage into a shared belief system that divides and polarises, she speaks to the visuals on stage. She reflects on her own personal experience of being manipulated by radical religious groups and navigates questions about how we are influenced by others and our beliefs.
“I abdicated responsibility entirely to a God-sized roulette wheel that made every decision for me, and it didn’t end well. I had lost my identity,” she says in the trailer.
According to Wallworth, she never thought she’d tell this story inspired by her own involvement in a Pentecostal Christian cult as a 17-year-old.
“I, for four years, was immersed in this quite extreme Christian community,” she tells The Sentinel.
“We had lessons around how we should dress, what music we could listen to and what we could watch. Basically [it was] a whole reframing of what was acceptable in my life.
“I had lost so much of my identity, and I’d given it over to a very strict understanding of an interpretation of biblical texts.”
Wallworth says her beliefs impacted everything she thought about or encountered, and admittedly, she got lost listening for God’s opinion when making the most mundane as well as the most profound decisions.
In her latest work, she also describes how her own near death experience as an 11-year-old changed her relationship with the idea of dying.
“For many people who have had a near-death experience like me, you’ll find that one of the main impacts of that experience is that it takes away the fear of death,” she says.
“We’ve medicalised away the experience of getting close to the process of dying, and in some ways, I think that’s to our disservice.
“I think to actually get closer to this process, which is an absolutely essential part of life, the less scary it becomes.”
After observing the political landscape during her residency at UCLA, Wallworth realised a need to improve society’s understanding of how beliefs are impacting legislative decisions.
She says in recent years, she started seeing resonances of that time in her life playing out in the politics of different countries.
Wallworth is especially concerned that politicians and other world leaders are appealing to Christian nationalism and forming strong alliances with implausible conspiracies like QAnon.
By way of example, she cites the Evangelical Advisory Board advising Donald Trump throughout his presidency. She believes the connection he developed with the Christian right was instrumental to his election.
“What we do know is that Donald Trump was enormously supported by the evangelical movement,” Wallworth says.
“What I’m talking about here is a version of Christianity which really wants to impact the values of a society.
“That’s not just happened in the US, it’s happened in other countries too; it’s happened with Brazil with Bolsonaro … it’s happened with different leaders where they have formed an alliance with strongly motivated Christians.”
Wallworth says it’s important to have difficult conversations about the long-term implications of biblical literalists on issues such as climate change.
She says there is a need to bridge the understanding between the tension of the literal interpretations and the issues we are facing today.
“We want to be tolerant of religions and belief systems, but we also need to be able to have the conversation as a community about what it means when people who are leading for us and on behalf of us also hold beliefs that might not be in concert with what the majority of us think in terms of climate change or gender issues or sexuality or identity or a whole lot of other things which are prescribed for people when they interpret the Bible in a particular way,” she says.
Wallworth hopes to use her own personal experiences to provoke discussion.
“Everything I do is driven from a perspective of trying to create some sort of change,” she says.
“I believe in the power of our communities to contemplate things together and to effect change together.”
HOW TO LIVE (After You Die) is on at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, from Thursday, 12 May to Saturday, 14 May as part of UnWrapped festival. For tickets and more information, visit www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/unwrapped/2022/how-to-live.html.
Makayla Muscat is the features editor of the Sydney Sentinel.
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