Genesis 19, the story of the salvation of Lot from the fire and brimstone rained down by the Lord upon Sodom and Gomorrah, has long been a cornerstone of conservative arguments against homosexuality. God despised the sexual immorality of the wicked citizenry, runs the refrain, and thus destroyed them all, sparing only the righteous. But the end of the tale, in which Lot’s two daughters, hiding out with their father in a mountain cave, get him drunk, sleep with him, and wind up pregnant, muddies the waters a bit. Just who’s calling whom immoral here?

When the WNEP Theater company met last March to plan its 2002-’03 season, the enigmatic phrase “Dirty Bible Stories” was on the list of suggested plays. There was no proposal or script attached to the title, but when company member Emily Dugan heard it, something clicked. She made a pitch on the spot, then rushed home and churned out a proposal for a piece that looked at “some of the more scandalous, morally questionable, or violent stories in the Christian Bible, with the intent to expose both the hypocrisy and the validity of these parables.” She E-mailed the company’s steering committee that afternoon, and a few days later the as-yet-unwritten Dirty Bible Stories was announced as one of six plays slotted for the forthcoming season. Dugan signed on as director (her Chicago debut) and got to work, spending the next four months poring over the Good Book, looking for passages in which God encouraged or condoned acts of incest, murder, and drunkenness.

Growing up, Dugan and her family belonged to the United Methodist Church in Perry, Ohio, and she says she had good experiences with her religion. But when she was about 15 she quit listening to the sermons on Sunday and instead would sit in the pews reading scripture. “I was fascinated by the fact that the stories were so often silly and so often contradictory. The Bible would say things like ‘don’t wear two kinds of fabric blended into one garment’ or ‘don’t eat pork.'” It occurred to her that many believers probably hadn’t read the texts that anchor their faith. “If you read the stories you realize that any information you get from a religious institution is an interpretation,” she says. “I’m very passionate about the concept of finding out your own information, not doing what you’re told just because you’re told.” She began to compare the Bible stories to the Greek mythology she had always loved, seeing them both as full of dramatic, cautionary, and fundamentally entertaining tales.

Dugan graduated from Ohio University in 1999 with a BFA in directing, and moved to Chicago shortly thereafter. She’s been performing, stage managing, choreographing, and doing costume design around town ever since, including with WNEP, where she’s been a full company member since October and was an associate for a year before that. To support herself she teaches dance and improv to teenagers through the Park District and at suburban middle schools.

Last August she gave a list of 60 or so passages from scripture to three writers, each of whom chose one Old Testament and one New Testament story to research and develop. Dirty Bible Stories was cast in October, and through November and December the actors improvised to find ways to make the work relevant to a contemporary audience and to reveal the way religious texts can be manipulated to serve the purpose of the interpreter. Using the videotaped improvs as reference points, the writers–Seth Fisher, Jenny Seidelman, and Dave Stinton–finished the scripts, and a round of rehearsals began in January. The resulting play presents each story within a different scenario. The story of Lot and his daughters, for example, “will be presented as seen through the eyes of children at Sunday school.” The story of Josiah, the young king of Judah who slaughtered the idolatrous priests of his realm, is recast as a Disney musical.

“We did not add any filth or obscenity to this show,” Dugan notes. “The Bible did all that work for us.” But, she adds, the show’s not an attack on the Bible. “I have a number of ministers in my family and some deeply religious relatives. Once I explained to them that the concept was to explore existing stories and interpretations, they provided me with quite a bit of help.

“It’s been impossible to do this work without gaining a great deal of respect for the way religion has been used as a tool of manipulation throughout history,” she says, “both to the good end and the violent, incestuous, drunken, and bitchy end.”

Dirty Bible Stories runs Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 PM, February 7 through March 8, at WNEP Theater, 3209 N. Halsted. Tickets are $12; call 773-755-1693 for reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.