Some of My Best Friends Were Scientologists
Allen Barton, on his new play, Disconnection
By Pauline Adamek
Writer-director (and classical pianist) Allen Barton gained critical acclaim last year with his play Years To The Day, presented by Skylight Theatre Company. It was a futuristic satire of our self-important discussions of movies and tech gadgets via the reunion of two long-time friends at a coffee shop. During their meeting, they psychically and spiritually disemboweled each other. Barton’s latest play, Disconnection, tackles cult-like religions and organizations.
Inspired by painful, personal experience, this new work rigorously assesses the various facets of freedom of speech, thoughts and beliefs. In the drama, the playwright holds up to scrutiny what he calls “totalitarian, highly-restrictive modes of thought” that exist in popular religions today.
A church associate for about seven years, Barton was eventually ex-communicated from the Los Angeles fold of Scientology, and suffered the subsequent destruction of his friendships with other members. (The play’s title refers to the term used to cut off communication with former members.) Specifically, the play covers the damage that was wrought on his relationship with his mentor and long-time piano teacher, Mario Feninger.
Barton is now an official Steinway Artist, “As a pianist, I’m still active, I usually perform every 18-24 months. I’ll prepare a 60-90 minute program and perform it here in L.A. as well as in Boston, New Hampshire, sometimes New York as well. I’ve recorded five CDs that are out there on iTunes.” He’s currently on the short-list as a piano soloist with the Boston Pops for a Gershwin concern in May.
Still, he devotes most of his time to writing plays, teaching advance-level acting courses at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, administrating the school there, and maintaining his Playhouse blog “The Study & Pursuit of Acting.”
Allen Barton grew up outside Boston, attended Harvard University, after which he moved to L.A. In 1990 he joined the Beverly Hills Playhouse as a student, and by 1992 he had entered into a close apprenticeship with its founder, Milton Katselas. Barton worked with Katselas for the next 16 years until Katselas’s death in 2008.
Recalls Barton, “Katselas was a famous and talented teacher, but also infamous for being a Scientologist. As I got to know him better, and the staff of the Beverly Hills Playhouse and some of the students who were also Scientologists, I became curious as to what it was all these people were into. There was no calling, I wasn’t horribly messed up and ‘looking for answers,’ nor was there any particular pressure to do so from Milton or his associates.”
Barton delved into some of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s books, and through Katselas’s largess was able to attend free courses at the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. “I found the information there helpful. A bunch of my friends from the Beverly Hills Playhouse were already involved, and they had a wonderful piano in the lobby that I enjoyed playing. I acted in several of their in-house films they made to illustrate various facets of Hubbard’s philosophy.”
Barton became known for those performances, gaining some special attention as a result. “They sent me down to join the Freewinds ship in the Caribbean for a month to play piano during mealtimes. So, being young and unmarried and with some time on my hands, studying Scientology with a bunch of cool people in a very nice building, getting to act here and there and getting paid for it, getting free trips to play piano on a swell ship in the Caribbean – you could do worse in your 20s in Los Angeles.”
Katselas became instrumental in furthering Barton’s piano training – introducing him in 1992 to his first teacher in L.A., Bernardo Segall, and even paying for several of the initial lessons. Barton studied under Segall for several years, until Segall’s death. Next Barton went on to study with Mario Feninger, whom he’d learned about through his Scientology connections. “Mario was a longtime guy – 50-plus years in the church but our relationship was strictly teacher and student. He altered much about how I played, solved physical problems I was having with my technique, and was in general just a complete mensch. We had many conversations about the Church, and by that time I’d become pretty savvy with the ins and outs, the goods and the bads… Mario and I saw eye to eye on much of that.”
Somewhere around 2001, Barton says he saw a distinct cultural change within Scientology. Suddenly, a steely-eyed dedication to the cause became in vogue. It became more militant, less friendly. Barton began to tune out. “I watched Milton get embroiled in disputes over there about this or that, and became aware of their ‘disconnection’ policy as it affected Milton and the [Beverly Hills] Playhouse in those years. Students began ‘disconnecting’ from the theater; we were being asked to ‘disconnect’ from other students.”
Barton found it abhorrent. By 2003, Katselas himself became subject to “disconnection” by almost all of the Scientologists who had studied and worked with him. He was suddenly out of fashion – not dedicated enough to the cause, and excluded from special Church events.
“They took exception to his teaching style and they became quite puritanical on how he chose to live his personal life. I was there at ground zero for all of this,” recalls Barton. By this stage, Barton has become CEO for the Playhouse. “The behavior I saw, the write-ups, the ‘knowledge reports’ that people filed on Milton and the Playhouse, the screaming and yelling – it was just psychotic bullshit!”
Barton distanced himself from Scientology in disgust. He says he refrained from speaking out, partly because he felt he didn’t have a means to do so and partly in respect of Katselas. “It just wasn’t my place to make a fuss while working for him. In 2008, when he died, I felt freer to speak out because I was now the owner of the company.”
Additionally, Barton had begun extensive research via online blogs and published books. He saw news reports about and by former staff members, some of whom he had known. “My eyes popped out of my head at what they were describing as going on ‘behind church walls.’”
Finally, in 2012, Barton participated in an interview with Lawrence Wright for his book, Going Clear, granting Wright key information about Katselas’s experience. As a result, Barton was issued with his own “Suppressive Person Declare,” which meant that all Scientologists had to disconnect from him per the policy of the church. “This included Mario, my piano teacher, who I had been helping with a personal situation. Two weeks after he came to see me to ask for help, he sent me a little card in the mail stating, ‘I can no longer communicate with you.’”
Furious, Barton picked up the phone but was reluctantly told by Feninger that he had been ordered to disconnect by Church staff. “He didn’t want to, but he didn’t feel strong enough for a fight at his age. By then I had written two plays, and I knew right away what my third would be, including its title. My journey with Scientology, which began with curiosity in 1994, fell off with disdain at 2001, and had reached its terminus with anger in 2013. Anger is a great place from which to start writing,” the playwright adds.
Barton emphasizes that Milton Katselas and Mario Feninger were first and foremost his mentors. Neither one was ever his Scientology “recruiter” – rather, they simply were influential figures in his life that shared this particular philosophy.
He says he was “in” the Scientology church from 1994 until 2001 or so. “But you don’t have a membership card. You don’t sign something declaring, “I’m a Scientologist.” It’s a matter of what you choose to say, how you present yourself. I wasn’t that ‘in’ because I was never much of a cheerleader; I wasn’t a proselytizer. There are many, many more people who’ve invested years, decades, hundreds of thousands of dollars, etc. ad nauseum. These people truly paid a price for their involvement, and then spent years getting their lives back once they woke up. I was in it more for the curiosity, the fun, the friends, and the community.”
He sounds happy to admit he “barely ever spent a dime on the joint. I was very fortunate that way. For me, it wasn’t some glorious path to spiritual freedom, and perhaps my non-religious background and maybe my higher-than-average education helped me out; I was able to see the patterns as they emerged and realized what I was dealing with. So when it rubbed me the wrong way, I was able to talk back, to make counter-arguments, and I was out of there.”
For all that, Barton insists he didn’t want to write a docudrama all about Scientology. “It’s a minor cult and is of little significance in world affairs.” He claims he’s more interested in the specifics as they inform a larger portrait of human experience. “Theatre works best as a metaphor, not necessarily as a literal experience. I wanted the freedom as a writer to move without being beholden to every Scientology factoid.”
Barton maintains he uses Scientology merely as the starting point for Disconnection. “My play is not about it. I don’t mention the word ‘Scientology’ or refer to L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology is just an echo of other systems — totalitarian, controlled thought systems. ‘Scientology’ is analogous — the inspiration for the play.”
Much as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is really about the witch-hunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), Barton asserts that Disconnection is non-literal in a similar fashion. “I wanted to create an experience where if someone knows about Scientology, they’ll come in and feel I nailed it, that it’s been researched by having lived it. But I also needed to create an experience where someone who knows nothing about Scientology can also understands every word of the play, and hopefully care about the characters and what happens to them. It has to speak to both audiences. I think as a dramatist, that’s your responsibility, not to balkanize your work so that only some small speck of the populace can understand it.”
As for its potential impact, Barton says, “I hope audiences come out with some concept of what a controlled-thought system can do to people, how it affects different people in different ways, whether in religion or government or a school. And I hope they simply have a provocative, thoughtful evening at the theater.”
Disconnection is being performed by the Skylight Theatre Company at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 South Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri., 8:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 1. (213) 761-7061, http://skylighttix.com