Let’s get formal, let’s get official. Today’s guest is is Sean Gaffney, and my parents met Sean when they were in the United States. With the Christian Performing Arts Fellowship and then Masterworks Festival. And then mom and dad moved back down here to Tassie. And Sean and Catherine came and visited. And we spent an amazing evening together getting to know these guys. And so grateful for the friendship that we have. So Sean is a writer. So we might get all writerly again, but, you’re a screenwriter or a script writer, right?
And Sean works at Asbury University, It’s a Christian university in Kentucky.
In Kentucky. Yeah.
Where Sean and Catherine never thought they’d end up.
Yeah. I mean, the equivalent of it, let me know if I’m wrong. The equivalent of it would be somebody from Sydney explaining to somebody that they have found Hobart and love it.
Yes. More than you would think. Exactly.
And that actually is the perfect metaphor for it because Kentucky’s lovely. I just, it’s like, like nobody talks about it. It’s not even like, oh, I would never want to go to Kentucky. It’s just not on the register. And I think Kentucky does that on purpose so that people don’t come here and mess it up for them, because it really is. It’s a beautiful state. It’s a beautiful part of the country. And we’re just adoring being here. And is true with Hobart. When we when we visited Tasmania, we fell in love with it right away.
You’re country people, and you didn’t even know it.
We didn’t know it, we didn’t know it.
That’s cool. I’m going to start where we normally start. How did you become a Christian?
Good question. I know you get that a lot.
Your dad talked about becoming a Christian via osmosis. And there’s a little bit of that for me as well. I don’t remember any moment of my life where I didn’t believe in God. It was just natural. It’s just kind of a part of who I was. I was always interested in religion. I was an altar boy. And as an altar boy, I used to drive our priest crazy because after mass, I’d have a list of questions that the sermon brought up, everything from, you know, kid level questions of, ‘OK, so if the wise men gave all this stuff to Joseph and Mary, how come they were poor? What happened?’ Or more kind of questions above my age type question. So I was always curious. I was always interested. I always believed and it never occurred to me not to. But it didn’t really make Christianity personal until I was thirteen. Twelve, thirteen is kind of when I started, I was a bit discontent with my local parish as far as teaching, as far as what I was getting out of it. I started hanging out with my friend George at his Baptist church youth group. And one of the things that triggered it is I had a friend in school who was an atheist. At age 12 he knew he was an atheist. He was very staunch about it. And he was kind of talking about who God is and who you guys say God is. And it occurred to me, so step one was an intellectual moment where I thought, oh, he’s kind of right in that we all have these ways that we that we define who God is and if God is real we don’t get to do that.
The metaphor I made at the time is it’d be like saying, ‘Oh, I believe that Jimmy Carter is real and Jimmy Carter is a three foot tall female. He’s African-American and he really likes spaghetti.’
It’s like, no, Jimmy Carter’s who Jimmy Carter is not how we choose to define him. I’m just you know, I’m giving you my age by using Jimmy Carter example from when I was twelve. But that sent me on this journey of going, well, if God is real, then God defines who God is. And it’s up to me to figure out how he defines himself as opposed to just assuming I know who he is.
That started a journey. So when I was 13 I got to a point, I was on a youth group retreat and I just felt compelled, I went off into the woods on my own so that I could have a conversation with God. And I talked to him a lot already up to this point. But that was a that was my, ‘Yeah. You are who you say you are. And I’m 100 percent in.’ That was my step in to a personal commitment and a personal relationship.
Yeah. Awesome. Yeah. I think often when I listen to atheists talk, I think. ‘Well, yeah. I don’t believe in your god either. Like, your god is way too small.’
Because it’s the God they want to not believe in.
Much as for a lot of people who would qualify as as Christians or godly. It’s the God they want to believe in. Not necessarily the God who is. It’s like well how come you know, how come the God that … you’re saying this. But in the Bible, Jesus acted this way in direct contradiction to what you’re saying all good Christians should do. Where did that come and you realize. Oh yeah. We always keep falling back into the trap of following the God we want to follow, not the God who is.
So what university do you teach at?
Asbury, in the middle of Kentucky.
And that’s a Christian university?
Yeah. Asbury university is known for, its had a couple different revivals during its hundred plus year history. So it’s it’s kind of semi famous in some circles for that. They actually had to shut down the university, I think for two weeks, one year, because in the middle of a chapel service, the Spirit just came upon everybody and they kept that service going for two weeks.
Oh man! I so want to be part of that.
It’s beyond my understanding. They say, yeah, people people would just walk in and start shaking. They would feel it so strong. People were prophesying and confessing. And that’s kind of, I guess, who they are.
That’s it. Yeah.
So they’ve got a pretty cool history. This is my second year here and I’m still kind of, you know, figuring out the ins and outs of it. But it’s my kind of place.
Yeah, for sure.
It really is my kind of place in a lot of ways. And I’m not a very … I’m not charismatic at all. I’m not a revival kind of guy, if that makes sense. So that side of it, I’m learning. You know, I’m not up to par, I guess, in some ways. But their entire philosophy, they’re very practical about how they approach life.
They’re not driven by fear. And it’s a school that has a hundred plus year tradition and they’re not driven by tradition.
Yeah. So they have things like, you know, some of the some of the rules that were created in the eighteen eighties when the school was founded they still follow. But their approach to them I find very sensible even if I don’t agree with them.
For example, no alcohol. Faculty members, we’re not supposed to drink on campus, off campus, whatever. The students have to sign the same thing even when they go home. They’re committing while they’re here to no alcohol. And so in my interview asking about certain things like, you know, I was ready to say, ‘But Jesus… ‘
And before I could even say that, they said, ‘We acknowledge that, you know, this is an old rule and we acknowledge that the Bible doesn’t align with that rule, that there is nothing in the Bible that says you can’t have alcohol. And and we fully acknowledge that. And as soon as somebody makes an argument for us as to how our university will be a better place when we change the rule, we will change the rule.’
However, three quarters of our student body is legally under age in the US, cause it’s 21, and so for three quarters of our population it’s illegal for them to drink. Not just immoral. By anybody standards, whatever. And they would say it is not immoral to drink. They say we’re not saying that, but we’re saying that in our environment we don’t think we don’t see an improvement. They also have all kinds of stats to sexual crimes related to alcohol on college campuses. And, you know, a lot of things are like, ‘would our culture be better if we if we get rid of that rule? And if it is, we’ll do that.’
So they have a ‘no dancing’ rule that slowly over the past several decades has been going away. And they actually hosted two dances on campus last year, even though the rule is still technically there. They’re like, ‘yeah, that rule is going away because people have been able to say socially …’ First off, our society. The rules against dancing do not apply to theater. And then we have choreography.
And then it became, ‘Well in worship, the Bible is very clear about there’s a whole worship of dance.’ So it became, ‘Yes, so the exception is worship.’ And then it became culture. Like if I go to a wedding where it’s expected to dance, like, well, of course. And people have made the argument and we’ve gone. Yeah. So we’re kind of at a point where we’re ready to just kind of check the whole rule.
And if you remove the alcohol from the dancing, socially, you don’t have the issues that you have if you combine the two. Yeah.
Yes. I worked for a theater that was in a Nazarene church. And so there’s a crass joke, but it is a church joke. I was asked, you know, do you know why Nasreen don’t have sex standing up? Because it might lead to dancing.
And that’s exactly the philosophy, right? Like, oh, dancing now is more important than sexual purity.
That’s what happens with legalism isn’t it? That’s what legalism is all about.
Yes. Legalism is all about making sure the loopholes drive your society and not the other way around.
I did a talk with my students just recently, I do a talk on the power of story. And one of the things I talk about is that Jesus did not like to explain his stories. He was notorious for not. And if he did, it was only to the disciples and only after they whined about it. That they didn’t understand it.
And part of the thing is that the Bible verse says that Jesus only spoke in parables and he was revealing mysteries hidden. Since the dawn of time, ancient, long hidden mysteries, I think is the way it’s worded. And my personal opinion is that that Jesus was hoping that people would figure out the parables without an explanation, because he knew that the moment you explained the parable, they’re going to stop thinking about the story and they’re going to focus on the explanation. And the more they focus on the explanation, the less it is saying. So the parable reveals mysteries hidden. The explanation doesn’t reveal anything.
No. That’s right. Yeah, that is true. So that’s interesting because I heard somewhere about comparing British fairytales to American storytelling, and saying how British storytelling tends to still leave it open at the end, whereas American storytelling tends to tie it all in a neat bow and say, here is the moral of the story. Let me bash you over the head with a few times before we finish off here.
Yeah, even requiring that you state the moral.
Cool. So. So now you are a lecturer at a university. But shall we go through a bit of the path that you took to get there?
Yeah. Because this is a 66-hour long podcast.
That’s right. Absolutely. And can I just say, for people who … Yes. Whether I ever get my YouTube channel up or not. But for people who can’t see a video, there’s Larry Boy just over Sean’s right shoulder.
I think I’ve Larry Boy up on one side and I have super book up on the other side.
I’ve had a lot of fun. Yeah. Boy. So many twists and turns in so many ways. And my life is typically atypical in that I’m blessed in that I can look back on my 54 years now and I can see very clearly how things that looked like they were mistakes or looked like they were heading me off in the wrong direction was all a straight line in God’s eyes. Career wise and even faith wise. My faith influences, many of which now turn out to have been secular. Well, at the time there were secular. There were always secular. But in hindsight, it’s really interesting to look at at how much even secular individuals have shaped my faith in ways that have prepared me to be a screenwriter, scriptwriter who happens to follow Jesus. Yeah. So I’ll try to not be ultra long on this because I can I can get very long winded.
Ever since I was seven years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a lawyer.
And that’s not where he ended up.
But I knew I just I knew in my heart of hearts when I was in third grade, I was reading Reader’s Digest’s You and the Law for fun. By the time I was a fifth and sixth grade, I was reading collected closing arguments by lawyers for fun. You know, I was always a storyteller, constantly telling stories. But I never thought of that as who I was going to be. I was going to be a lawyer.
One of the jokes in my family, my sister Patty and I were really close and we would walk everywhere because back in the day you walked everywhere. And so I was her entertainment. So she called me her walking radio. It was before I actually had Walkmans. And I could tell a story or I could sing or I could tell jokes. I could do whatever I wanted to do. But the rule was she could change the channel anytime she wanted, and she would literally just put her hand forward and go click. And I would have to change to something else because that meant she was bored with whatever I was doing. And I had to change to something else. So I was always a storyteller, always a storyteller.
But I was really drawn to this law thing until my sophomore year of college. So I had done theater in high school. I thought I was really good at it. I wanted to go to a school that had a good math program. I was a math major because law schools love math majors. Because it’s all about logic, right? I wanted to go to a school that had a had a law school attached, to a university that had a law school attached. But I also wanted to continue playing around with this theater thing. So I wanted to go to school that would let me be in theater starting my freshman year. And, you know, one of the schools that I did not choose, that was one of the reasons. You had to be a junior up in the theater program before you could be onstage. So I ended up going to Drake University in Iowa.
I was born and raised upstate New York so it was a big jump for me is halfway across the country, but it had everything that I wanted. But but I was a theater major because I was in the School of the Arts, primarily because I did not know the difference between a university and a college. That university is a bunch of colleges made up together.
So when I applied, I ended up applying to the School of the Arts. Not knowing that that was different than that. The math school was in a completely different school. So it was a double major in math and theater and I loved theater. I just, I was skipping math classes for it. Math was getting to imaginary numbers anyway. It was too theoretical, I wasn’t enjoying it as much. And I decided no longer was I to be a lawyer, but I was going to be an artist instead. Then I went off to … I spent my senior year … because I tried acting and I realised I just wasn’t disciplined enough to be anything but amateur. I still act for fun, but it is for fun. You compare me to my wife, who is a pro and there’s no competition. It’s embarrassing.
So, you know, of course, you try the acting thing. And then I thought, well, maybe I’ll direct or maybe I’ll … I don’t know what I’ll do. And then I found management and I was good at it. The logic. So I was a stage management emphasis with a with a BFA and in theater with a minor in math.
And it turned out that most of my math classes also transferred to business. So I was also a minor in business, which was kind of silly because I was going off into the arts. Because I was a business minor before I even knew I want to be a stage management emphasis. And so going into management, sure. That that all kind of makes sense.
I went off to New York City. I spent my senior year doing an internship at the Juilliard School as a management intern. And they only train performers. So to do plays, they have to have a professional scene shop and a professional costume shop and professional stage managers. So the internship program there was fantastic because I was I was basically in a professional environment working at a top notch school where they’re doing really … I worked in theater, I worked in opera, I worked in dance. And I was allowed – it wasn’t part of the internship, but I had the availability to also work in concert stage management.
So I got to do that, which came into play a couple of years later when I was Performing Arts Fellowship.
So, yeah. So it all it all kind of played together. So I became a stage manager. I told you this is a really long story.
Going into my senior year of college, one of my professors from undergrad asked me what grad school I was gonna go to.
And I said, I’m not going to grad school. I’m done with school. It’s over. He was like, ‘Really? because I see you as a professor. I always thought that that’s what you’re going to end up being.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’re wrong.’
So instead I launched out from you know, I recently graduated with a BFA emphasis in stage management. Juilliard, the internship helps you get your next job. So, you know, back in the day, I made up one hundred, because they paid for one hundred resumes, and I sent out one hundred resumes, to jobs at community – anything that was paying for any kind of stage management, box office, house management, any management position whatsoever. All over the country, summer stock, professionals, you know, every level. Out of one hundred. I only got one interview and they did not hire me.
I’m coming out thinking I’m hot stuff. Who wouldn’t want me? Well, 100 people didn’t want me.
So I’m not quite sure what to do. And so I started just freelancing.
I worked in a prop shop. I would do concert management, one night here, you know, there at a concert halls. I would do lighting board operator for small theater.
So I’m making, you know, ten dollars a gig, scraping together as much as I can, just taking really any job. So here it gets a little complicated. You’ll need to edit this because it is it is long.
But Howard Stein at that time was the chairman of the theater department at Columbia University. Howard was, this was gonna be his last job of his career. He was a playwriting mentor, professor extraordinaire. He ran the program at Iowa. He ran the program at University of Texas. He was the dean of the Yale School in the Meryl Streep years. A good chunk of the playwrights who were being performed in New York were were mentored by him. He was running the Columbia program, at that time they didn’t have an acting program, but they did have directing, playwriting, drama criticism and producing. And he was looking for a production manager to oversee the theater where the students were having their work done. This was all graduate school.
And he was at a Yale reunion in New York talking to one of his favorite students who at that time had a scene shop and was building a lot of the Broadway shows. He said, ‘hey, I’m creating this position of production manager. They didn’t have one. I want to create this position. They’re gonna be overseeing all the management students as well as the theater itself. Do you think that’s a good idea?’ And Ted’s said, ‘Yeah I think it’s a great idea.’ And he said, ‘So now I just need to figure out who to do it.’ And Ted said, ‘Oh, my wife is a stage manager at the Juilliard School. She just worked with this intern kid that really impressed her. I think that he might be your guy.’
So they called over Rene and she said, ‘Oh, yeah. Gaffney’s great.’ And so the next day. Howard called me and said, ‘Hey, I’m creating this production management position. I want you to do the job.’
And I said, ‘I’d love to interview.’
And he says, ‘No, that’s not what I said.’
He had never met me. We had never spoken. I didn’t know who he was.
He said, ‘If you want the job, the job is yours.’
So I got this. I applied for one hundred jobs and didn’t get any of them and instead got a job I couldn’t imagine that I really wasn’t qualified for, in many ways, because it was because God had it set aside, is my opinion.
So I went to Columbia. I did that for a year. I learned a lot from Howard. And then when that was done, I kind of stepped away and I did some other projects for them. And then as the summer was closing, I got a call. I was back home. And Howard said his administrative assistant was leaving and he wanted to know if I would take that position. Well, by then, I was able to watch their graduate program for a year. I said, ‘I would I would love to be your administrative assistant on two conditions. Number one, you accept me into your graduate management program and two, you allow me to take a part time so I can do it while I am working for you full time.’ And he said yes to both.
With tuition exemption, it meant that if I took only one or two classes a semester, the entire thing would be paid for. I got a graduate degree at Columbia University and I didn’t have to take a grad loan until my last semester when I stopped working there. So again, you see you see God’s lines.
And then the next part of that story is I had one of my professors come up to me after I was in the program for a little over a year. And she said, ‘I’ve been watching you.’ She’s an amazing woman, Tori, an amazing mentor. I learned so much from her.
But she said, I’’ve been watching you.’
And I said, ‘Why, have you been watching me?’
She said, ‘You are one of the youngest people in the program. You’re the least experienced.’ Because this was grad school. So there were there are people who go off, they would manage places and then you come back to get their grad degree. So there was widespread depth and they were all I mean, my classmates were amazing.
She said, ‘However, in certain areas you’re excelling where where they’re not. And I don’t understand why.’ And she said, ‘I figured it out.’
I’m like, ‘Well, what do you figure out?’
‘Well, we have two kinds of students in the management program. We either have people coming out of the artistic community who are scrambling for the management brain or we have people who are coming out of the management side who aren’t artists, and they’re scrambling for the artist side of it. However, I realised you’re an artist who thinks like a lawyer. That’s enabling you to leapfrog in these areas where other people are struggling.’
So God is like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be in this program in your 20s. And if you train yourself for that program, you’re not going to be ready for it. So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think you’re gonna be a lawyer and train yourself to do that until you get to college. And then I want you to think you’re gonna be an artist and train yourself to be an artist. And then you’ll be ready when I open up this door for you that you’re not even looking for.’
So that’s a small part of it.