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Comedian Brynley Stent on becoming Providence Gratitude, Gloriavale escapee

Natasha Hoyland sat down with Brynley Stent (Funny Girls, Snort Comedy) over some delicious pie at Federal Deli to discuss Gloriavale, cults, and Stent’s new NZ International Comedy Festival show.

Natasha Hoyland: Can you tell us a bit about your comedy festival show?

Brynley Stent: It’s called Escape From Gloriavale and it’s about a young girl called Providence Gratitude who grew up in Gloriavale and has escaped from there. She sets herself up in Auckland and becomes fascinated with celebrities and wants to become famous, so puts on her own comedy festival show.

The play will be half direct address and her doing stand up, well… trying to do stand up, so it probably won’t be very good. The other half is flashbacks that show how she got to where she is now. There’s a tiny bit that’s set in Gloriavale, a bit of her exploring and travelling, and a big chunk of her living and trying to make it in Auckland.

Pictured: Brynley Stent as Providence Gratitude in Escape From Gloriavale

NH: What made you want to do a show about Gloriavale?

BS: There are two reasons. The first is because it’s a character and idea that I’ve been playing with for quite awhile now. So many people have said to me “you need to play a cult member or religious character” just purely based on how I look, mousey brown hair and white [skin], some say ‘Brethren looking’. My brother’s friends used to think I was Brethren because I apparently never swore and I had long hair.

The second reason is that I’m very interested in the community. I love watching the documentaries and a small part of me is so fascinated and excited by what they’re doing. They’re a closed off community, they live off the land, they work for their own keep, they’ve got this amazing structure, but at the same time there’s this horrible underlying dark thread which is the fact that they believe these crazy things and that they treat their women terribly. It’s sort of a morbid fascination, I guess.

NH: I’m kind of the same because I’m obsessed with the series, anything that’s about religions and cults I just love learning about.

BS: Yeah, like the Amish community. If I wasn’t doing a show about Gloriavale, I think I would have definitely done a show set in or about some other closed off religious community or a cult. All of those sort of things where people are disconnected from the outside world and they think everyone outside of their own community is wrong or they don’t want to be associated with them. I think it’s interesting because that means they just have this hive of timidity that we don’t get to see unless it’s shown to us.

Like with Gloriavale, we only get to see what’s shown to us in the documentaries, but every two years or something they do a show, a huge high budget show, apparently it’s really high scale. Because they don’t believe in evolution, apparently they have some scenes with people walking around with dinosaurs. They do believe that dinosaurs existed, but they believe that they coexisted with humans.

NH: Yeah, they teach creationism in their science classes instead of evolution.

BS: I would LOVE to see one of their shows, so bad. That whole night is catered to just the outside world, so it’s interesting what they pick and choose to showcase.

I’m also intrigued by the Amish community, and I’m not sure if it’s the whole Amish community or not, but they do this thing called Rumspringa where they allow teenagers to go out into the world on their own for a few months and experience it, and then they come back and they’re allowed to decide whether they want to get baptised and stay or not. The problem though, is that they’ve never experienced the outside world, so they just go out and get effed on everything and just do drugs and drink, and they’re encouraged to do that. Because they haven’t experienced it, they find it horrific because they’re not used to it.

NH: I guess they’re so used to everything being so structured and taken care of for them back in their community. It would be a huge culture shock.

BS: Exactly, and I think that’s the community’s way of really solidifying their members, rather than the children getting a bit older and starting to get curious and questioning what life is like outside of the community.

NH: It’s a good way to get them to not think about it anymore, because they would’ve experienced it first hand and not want to go back because they’d remember how bad it was, if that was the case.

BS: Which I think is fascinating, because some do choose to stay out. But with Gloriavale, there’s nothing really like that. The only connection with the outside world they have is that concert every few years.

NH: Yeah, and they get to talk to some of the audience members after the show. I remember in one of the documentaries one of the girls, Dove Love, was talking about how she talked to a little girl who had so many hopes and dreams for the future and she thought it was really sad that this little girl was thinking so freely.

BS: Most of them think that way, and because they’ve been brought up that way, they genuinely feel sorry for us and anyone else who isn’t following God’s will.

NH: Like when they went out shopping at the mall and one of the girls said something along the lines of “I don’t think the clothes they wear are very nice, they obviously don’t care about the way they look.” It’s amazing.

BS: And all of them seem so satisfied with everything-

NH: But also, I wonder if they actually are? Because in the documentary series, whenever one of the girls gets married, I’ve never seen a single look of joy on their faces. Most of them look disinterested, scared, unamused or in pain. They don’t really look like they want to get married.

BS: And the boys are so young, that’s the first time that some of them have even talked to each other. They all know each other but the marriage proposal is one of the first times they ever properly talk because they’re not allowed to talk to each other in case they get tempted and start to like each other or something. They also have to have a chaperone throughout the entire courting period. It’s mental but it’s fascinating, and it gives a real good insight into humans, what they believe and how they act when they’re brought up in a certain way. I think it’s incredibly fascinating.

NH: Are you worried about how your show is going to be received?

BS: The thing I’m most worried about the most is because there’s been quite a lot of media coverage, and you have to be sensitive about the fact that there are some people who have left Gloriavale, not that they’re necessarily going to come to my show, but people out there who have had a rough time in there. I don’t want to make the show about incest jokes all the time, so there’s a really fine line between representing it well and accurately, because you don’t want to shy away from that stuff, but at the same time still making it funny but not too dark.

I think that’s what I’m scared about the most, is that people are gonna find it offensive and think that I’m making broad strokes about the community that I’ve never actually visited. All the research I’ve really done about it is on the internet, and there’s only so much from Gloriavale that’s on the internet and only so much that they choose to put out. It’s hard, but I think as long as I focus heaps on the character and who she is, Providence Gratitude the made up character and her relationship to Auckland, because I know Auckland. Hopefully that will be a good recipe rather than deliberately being offensive.

Brynley Stent performs her show Escape From Gloriavale as part of the upcoming comedy festival. Tickets to her Auckland and Wellington shows can be found here.

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