The End Times: Last ‘Jesus in Montana’ for Aspen
December 7, 2011
ASPEN – When you casually mention that you’ve dwelled in the House of the Lord – and we’re not talking about regular attendance at a church where people gather on Sunday mornings to pray, or a metaphorical “dwelling,” as in you follow the dictates of the Holy Book, but have actually been roomies with Mr. Jesus Christ, and maybe at the dinner table once asked J.C. to pass the ketchup – that takes a bit of explaining. And not just a few minutes of offhanded comments. Informing people that you and Christ spent a summer kicking hacky-sack and arguing over house chores takes time and preparation.
“When I talked to people about this experience, there was no short answer,” Barry Smith, who spent the summer of 1993 living with a housemate he believed was Jesus – yes, that Jesus – said. “The answer seemed like it needed to be an hour long. With pictures. And jokes.”
And a title: “Jesus in Montana: Adventures in a Doomsday Cult,” the one-man, multimedia show that attempted to explain exactly how Smith, 27 at the time, came to believe he had found the second coming of the Son of the Lord, and lived in His basement, in Missoula, Mont. In 2004 Smith, who had previously been an A/V guy, a dishwasher, a construction worker and a poet, did a pair of script readings of “Jesus in Montana” in Carbondale. Early in 2005, Smith debuted “Jesus in Montana” as a full-fledged show, full of pictures, charts and observations on spiritual questing, at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre.
That launched a career. Smith brought “Jesus in Montana” to the New York International Fringe Festival, where he earned an award for Outstanding Solo Show, and across the Canadian Fringe Festival circuit. And he created more shows, using the template of personal narrative through old keepsakes, video and insightful humor that he had established in “Jesus”: “American Squatter” was about the months he spent in a squalid London flat; “Me, My Stuff, and I” examined Smith’s life-long obsession with collecting things; “Every Job I’ve Ever Had” looked at the way we relate to work.
Along the way, programmers have maintained an interest in “Jesus in Montana.” Rather than an embarrassing novice effort best forgotten, the show has been booked over the years from Fresno to Orlando, and at colleges in Boston, New Jersey and Rhode Island. “Beginner’s luck – or maybe divine intervention,” Smith said. This past summer, Smith did 14 shows over two weeks on across Canada. The show has achieved saturation coverage in the Roaring Fork Valley, having been staged at the Aspen Art Museum, Theatre Aspen, Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale and the Masonic Lodge in Glenwood Springs.
Thursday at 7:30 p.m., “Jesus in Montana” makes its Wheeler Opera House debut, and Smith vows this will be the final valley performance of the show.
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Smith is on to his next projects. His next show will be “Before and After: A Comedy About the Ravages of Time,” in which he will use photos of himself as a kid in Mississippi, then restage those images in the exact same spot as an adult.
“You know I like pictures. You know I like pictures of myself. You know I like telling people I’m from Mississippi,” Smith (who writes a humor column, Irrelativity, for The Aspen Times) said. “Going back to Mississippi and recreating those photos – something will happen to me along the way. Something like going back to your origins.”
Smith, who moved from Aspen earlier this year after living here since the late ’80s, has also been working on a non-theater project: a thorough renovation of a century-old house in Paonia. He’s not certain whether the project will become the subject of a future show, but if it does, there will be an abundance of visual material. He’s been putting in 70-hour weeks, which he breaks down as 80 percent construction, 20 percent documenting the process.
“It makes me realize that construction is not a fallback career option for me,” he said. “I need to focus on talking about myself on-stage. That’s where my true skills lie.”
Smith has performed “Jesus in Montana” an estimated 300 times. But as familiar as he is with the material, his view of himself 18 years ago and why he chose to believe he had found Jesus Christ can still seem like foreign territory.
“Even when I connect my own personal dots in my life, it seems like a strange decision to have made,” he said. “The show was my attempt to answer this for myself. I’m not sure the answer. I just know it happened. Probably, based on my Southern Baptist upbringing, I wanted to meet Jesus in person. I think ultimately, people believe what they want to believe and they find evidence for it everywhere.”