The writing part was amazing, too, because again, you know, as I said, I wrote for a hobby. So I would write sketches. I started writing a bunch of sketches for Intervarsity to perform. I was writing sketches for, you know, for the school itself, just for fun. We would do a show every year where the criticism and dramaturg students and the management students, the not-artist students put on a show for the directors and the playwrights.
I was writing for that show. I started working on a novel for fun. And within that, I’m personal assistant to Howard Stein. I’m learning amazing things at this program. My favorite semester was when we had two directing classes back to back and two criticism classes, back to back. The directing classes, one was being taught by a Broadway director. And the other classes being taught by a fringe, indy director.
The criticism classes, one class was being taught by the head critic for The New York Times, the other for The Village Voice, which was the alternative paper. So four different quadrants. You couldn’t get further apart. The two would leave their class, go to get a cup of coffee before heading home. The other professors before their class would be getting a cup of coffee to prep them for the class. So all four would be right around our coffee machine. And I took my break every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at that time and I would just sit out there because invariably one of them would say, hey, did you see such and such a show? And off they would go. Four completely different opinions. Wrestling with each other. Very respectful of each other.
I learned so much And at one point too, which again plays into God knowing where I was gonna end up, Howard took me into his office … and I got to type up all of his … every time he wrote a paper, I got to type it up for him. So I’m learning a lot already about writing. I’m sitting in all the play writing and and directing classes because I was one of the requirements at Columbia at the time is that the managers could not just take management classes. They also had to take some art classes. I’m still not thinking of myself as a writer. When Howard asked me, ’Is there anything that this program is not giving you?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’ll be honest with you, if I watch a play, I know if it’s any good, it is easy for me to watch a plane and go, “Yeah, that’s not a good play.” I don’t know how to read a script and know whether that’s going to become a good play. Im trained to be a producer and I don’t want to spend 5 million dollars on a play to find out that the play stunk the whole time.’ And so he said ‘OK.’
So what we did is we had an independent study for a year with him. Every week he would give me five plays to read and I would read the plays. And then on Friday I’d have to go into his office and discuss the plays. There were famous plays. There were bad plays. There were good plays. One of the five every week was typewritten without a cover page. So I didn’t know. Was it written by Arthur Miller or was it written by one of his students who flunked out? I don’t know. And he made that important. It’s like you can never judge a play based on who wrote it. You have to judge a play in itself. So it’s basically a yearlong masterclass with the master. It’s driving me to understanding what I teach now. You know, so much of what has separated me as a teacher comes directly from sitting at Howard’s feet and studying plays. When I did not think I was going to be a writer.
So another thing that happened there when I was an undergrad. My Christianity, I was in the theater department. There is only two other active Christians in the theater department. It was very lovely because I was surrounded by people who loved me, who didn’t agree necessarily with my Christian thing. Our sexual lifestyles? Very different. Our sexual preferences, very different. I to this day, I can tell you what weed smells like. I’ve never smoked, but I’m very, very familiar with it because I’ve been to many, many parties where that was very strong. But they they really embraced me.
There was a group of seniors my freshman year who saw how young and naive I was, so incredibly naive, who just completely embraced me, protected me. I was in an environment where I was never, ever pressured to do anything I was uncomfortable with, because it wasn’t an environment of judgement. It was an environment of ‘we love each other. We want the best for each other. And if Gaffney doesn’t want to drink, you don’t force him to do that, because that’s not healthy to force you to do anything you don’t want to do that you’re not comfortable with.’
So it was it was a great environment just for opening my eyes to … Because of that, I could never become as stodgy in my faith as I wanted to be, because I always understood that this was the kind of place where Jesus was, these were the kind of people that Jesus was around. So it helped me a lot in that way.
However, on the other side of it, one of the bad habits I kind of picked up with it was starting to feel like, well, faith is just a personal thing. It’s just a personal choice. So by the time I got to Columbia, people didn’t know I was a Christian at all. And that’s just fine because it’s not really, you know. It wasn’t a hotbed of, you know, it wasn’t where all the conservative Christians go.
One example of that is our our chapel, St. Paul’s Chapel on campus. It said, for the Church of God above it, carved into the stone. And while I was there, there was a student movement to get that sandblasted off and instead say to the glory of man because offended some people that they had to walk by a building for those people. You know, for those for those Christian people.
So that was the environment I was in. But I started to get involved in Intervarsity, which is a mistake. If you want to be a lone-ranger Christian don’t get involved in Intervarsity. And my faith became more and more about, you know, it became integrated into who I was. And in a very positive and healthy way. But I knew that that meant that I was going to be outed before long.
You know, skipping lunches to go to prayer meetings. This was during the first Gulf War. There was a a group of Christians and a group of Jewish people who would gather every night for a vigil to pray for peace, pray for safety, for the people involved in the war. So I knew that, you know, it was becoming more and more obvious. And the day did come.
Howard was Jewish. Howard was very clear that Jew and Christian are not the same, do not get along. And he invited me into his office one day. So I was sitting across the desk from him and he said, ‘Sean, I’m noticing that you’re getting more and more involved in this intermural varsity thing, whatever.’ You know, I’m like, ‘yeah’. And he says, ‘So are you a Christian?’ And I said, you know, being being this strong, bold Christian, I said, ‘Well, I guess I am.’
And he started to get really, really annoyed with me. He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking, do you actually believe that stuff?’ I’m like, ‘It’s now or never.’ So I said, ‘Yes, I I do.’
And he just about came over his desk at me. He’s like ‘Sean, you have to understand, faith in art, do the same thing. They ask the same questions. “Who are we? Where did we come from and where are we going to?”’ He said, ‘I believe the reason there is no great art being made in America today is because we have separated our faith from our art.’ He said, ‘It is your obligation as an artist of faith to combine your faith and your art.’
Not quite what I was expecting, but he would point to his favorite writers who were often lapsed Catholics. There are people who were struggling with their faith. They were struggling with existence. They were struggling with why? What are we doing here? And he was he was insistent. He’s like, if we’re not if art is if we’re not asking the big questions, the same questions that faith asks. Not necessarily answers, but asks, why are we here? Why are we bothering? We’re just passing time as opposed to changing our society. Y
ou know, so things like Angels in America. Like he is like sending me clippings when that came out. He’s like, ‘This guy is a Mormon and he’s writing plays. You got to see this.’ He sent me. We had a sister relationship called the university has a sister relationship with Union Theological Seminary, which has has a lot of negative distinctions in certain circles. But that’s where Bonhoeffer went. So I’m fine with it. But there was a professor there who was a Shakespeare scholar, and he said, you have to take a class with him before he retires. The only class he was teaching was Christology. So I have a Christology class on my Columbia University degree. He prompted me. He encouraged me. My master’s thesis from Columbia is called Approaching the Arts, a Biblical Perspective. It was all about combining faith and art.
So like I said, it’s a secular. Yeah, a huge part of how I approach my faith. Huge step. Absolutely.
So then I went into producing. I’ll try to be briefer here. I worked for a company off Broadway, I kind of rose through the ranks. That company closed, I did some producing for free and off, off, off, off, off Broadway. Now it’s kind of producing where you’re losing money because you’re paying for the programs, kind of a thing, and got a job offer.
I was actually working my day job as a church receptionist. I was answering the phone for Redeemer Presbyterian Church and a job opened up, being a managing director for a theater company in Seattle for Taproot Theater, which I was very reluctant to go, I’ve already taken up way too much time. But on another podcast, you’ll have to ask me how God tricked me into going there.
Yeah, I went. I went very reluctantly for all kinds of pride reasons. All kinds of reasons. The idea that I was going to leave New York City to do theater in another part of the country.
Yeah, who would do that? But it was a fantastic decision. Went there to run a theater company. I was a managing director. I worked for an artistic director who we just became really close, fast friends, I was really able to get behind his vision. Met the associate artistic director. I mean, these are people who I love to this day. They’re the family friends that you can not see for two years. And it takes, you know, five minutes to just fall back into the same level of intimacy that you had. Way back when. And I met Katherine there who became in Katherine Gaffney.
So I was wondering where she would pop up in this whole story.
So the sappy story and please cut this from your podcast.
I had sent my resumé in, again, reluctant and thinking, you know, I have an MFA. So I’m back to my ‘I’m hot stuff. Who wouldn’t want me?’ mode. And they never responded. So I called to find out. ‘Why didn’t you respond to my resumé? I’m hot stuff.’ And the person who answered the phone said, ‘Well, Scott Nulty is not available. But I can tell you that he did a little happy dance when the resumé arrived.’ So Scott and I had already were seeking each other out before this in different ways. So I was like, OK, OK. So he was happy. So I was like ‘As long as I have you on the phone. Let me ask questions about Seattle. What’s life like? What’s the theater scene like? Give me some more details that I couldn’t get from the things I’ve read about the theater. What’s the culture like?’ And I must have talked to that person for an hour and a half, two hours, which is really bad because I was on my lunch break, which was only half an hour.
But we talked forever and I hung up the phone and called a friend of mine and said, ‘Well, I think I have to move to Seattle just so I could marry that person. She’s like, great, great voice.’ You know, I got there and I had to tell God like ‘I was kidding. It was a joke. You didn’t have to make that happen.’ But it happened.
And taproot is also where I started writing professionally.
There was a play that fell through that we needed for touring. So I went home and wrote it. They did not know I was a writer, so I went home and wrote a play that fit what we were looking for. Handed it to my boss on Monday said, ‘Hey, a friend of mine wrote this, does this help us?’
He said, ‘This is exactly … It’s like he was reading my mind. This is exactly what we need. Would your friend be willing to give us the rights?’ And I had to admit ‘Well, I was that guy’. So yes, I became a playwright, started to phase out of that job to be writing more full time.
Veggie Tales had just come out, which like most adults, I loved it. At that time I didn’t know any kids who were watching. It was all as all people of college age and up that were watching. I had a friend of mine, we were talking about veggie tales and he said, ‘Too bad they’re so limited because they’re so funny.t And I said, ‘Limited?’. And he said, ‘Well, they’re you know, they’re telling Bible stories and there are so many Bible stories you can’t tell for children.’ And I said, ‘OK, well, like what?’ Because I couldn’t imagine a Bible story you couldn’t tell for children. And he said, ‘Well, like David and Bathsheba, you could never tell that story for children.’
So I took that as a dare and wrote story about a king who collects bath duckies. Because because part of the dare was we had to include the scene where David sees Bathsheba taking her bath. So I’ve got a king, who collects bath duckies, and who looks over and sees this little kid who has one bath ducky and ends up sending him off to the pie wars so that he could steal his bath ducky.
And then Nathan, the prophet, comes and uses flannel graph to tell him off.
Ooooh flannel graph!
Yeah. So I wrote a Veggie Tales episode.
It’s fantastic. Everyone should watch King George and the Ducky. It’s important.
Because what happened with it. I wasn’t intending to sell it. And Veggie Tales was not taking outside writers. They weren’t even looking at them. So for me, it was just for fun. It was just to kind of prove I could do it. I had another friend who worked for Microsoft. His wife is actually one of the key things that helped me get introduced to Tap Root to begin with. His wife was one of two people. We had two people at our wedding who knew both of us had worked with both of us independent long before we met each other. She was one of the two.
Well, her husband was an animator who was being wooed by Big Idea, and for his interview, he was at the part of the interview where they flew him and showed him houses and said, ‘Well, what else can we do for you?’ He said, ‘Would you read my friend’s script?’ and handed them my script.
They ended up buying it. Phil Vischer completely rewrote it, like a massive rewrite. Massive rewrite, which is a very good thing because by comparison, my script is nowhere near as good as that final product. It’s great. I get story -y credit for it and it’s great that I get to take credit for it. But it’s really because Phil Fischer saved me.
But it launched the into writing animation and started launching me into the idea of writing for TV. I took a program, Act One Writing for Hollywood in L.A., which was training Christians to be writers in Hollywood. From that, my wife and I felt like God was calling us to L.A. We move to L.A. and continue to do some work with Big Idea, wrote some books and started to do some more teaching and ended up getting a mentor, Dean Vitale, who told me that I need to get a job on a lot because I needed to see how the business of Hollywood works so I could understand. It’s not enough just to be a good writer. You have to understand the business side of it. So I ended up getting a job at Warner Brothers, started temping there, and then in their story department, which is the library for the Warner Brothers features.
So every script that they’re looking at that they’re considering goes through the story department. What’s being developed goes through the story department. So it was, for a writer, it was a dream place to be. It was purely administrative. There was no creative. I had no input into the quality of what was being done. But I was there for, you know, for most of Harry Potter. I was there for the Chris Nolan Batman series as I was there at a really kind of a golden age.
I got to learn great things and then I didn’t get to teach much while I was there. I could do church drama conferences, weekend things. But because of my schedule, like I couldn’t do a lot of adjunct work or teaching. Really, you’re getting my whole life story.
You tell a good story, Sean.
So we had a member of our community named Jack, who was just an amazing writing professor rate, writing teacher. He taught with Act One. He ran the Warner Brothers television writing program for many years.
He taught in Chicago, taught overseas, taught it at any university that needed somebody to come in. So he’s teaching at Christian University, he’s teaching at secular universities, just a fantastic, fantastic man. And a stronger man of God you’d have trouble finding. He passed away suddenly, kind of a surprise. He was he was in great health, but apparently it was his time.
He was the kind of guy that, you know, he had to have several memorial services because there wasn’t space enough for everybody to say what they needed to say. At his funeral, they they had a slide show where they were just running quickly, the titles of television shows and movies of his former students. And by the time they hit 70, they stopped because they just didn’t have enough time to describe the impact he had there.
There was one writer who is well-known in L.A., a very successful TV comedy writer. He says, ‘I don’t believe in God. I’m not part of your Jesus freaks. However, I will tell you that I’m trying to understand you guys. I tried to understand who Jesus was. And I realized if every time anybody he told a story about Jesus, if I pictured Jack Gilbert, I would understand what you were talking about.
Oh, my goodness. Is that not just how we want to be? Like that’s the plan.
Absolutely. But he left a huge hole. And I remember after one of the … because I attended every memorial service I could, even if it was just to listen to other people’s stories. I’m going to tear up now. Friends of his gave me a poster that hung in his house of Oscar winning film. So I have a piece of him with me. I remember we were talking and we said, ‘We can’t find another Jack Gilbert. It’s gonna take all of us to fill the gap he’s leaving behind.’ So we all kind of made this commitment that we would all in some way, if we could find a way to step in and fill the gap, we would. And that’s when the teaching kind of came back. There was opportunity for a school to maybe teach the course that the Jack taught, just kind of a one-off thing, which turned into a possibility of maybe doing full time instead. And every step of the way, Catherine and I felt like God was saying, ‘Yep, that’s what I want you to do. It’s what I want you to do.’
And so I ended up also being being convicted by my friend. Bob said he was talking to me just about, you know, he’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve got a nice gig at Warner Brothers.’ It’s a nice, sexy gig. Warner Brothers. Yeah. If you want to come, have lunch with me. We’ll have lunch on the Warner Brothers lot. Maybe we’ll see The Big Bang Theory cast. Who knows? Who knows who you’re gonna run into? It’s a very kind of a sexy thing. But he was reminding me that, you know. Well, what he said is. He said when I was thinking about making this decision and leaning not to going into full time teaching. He said, ‘Warner Brothers, great job, isn’t it?’ I”m like, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘because it’s safe.’
Ouch! Kidney punch. Yeah. We’re safe. I had a nice salary. I had health benefits. I had a job that looks sexy on paper. I didn’t have any artistic input, but I didn’t have to have any because it was safe. And the whole reason I took the job was to learn the business. And I had learned all I was going to. Having spent nine years in the system. So he was dead on. Right. And I had we had good people in our lives who was able to speak truth in love to us. So that made a full time job.
So Catherine and I, we moved to the East Coast, took a job with a university. They were trying to change the direction of their program as a Christian university; had a president who just aligned with me. I knew that when I disagreed with him, I’d always respect him the way he was doing his decisions. I was there for a couple months and they fired the president.
And I know you worked at uni like me. So you kind of know the politics.
A different kind of president stepped in and then a regime behind that stepped in and they really went in the exact opposite direction of everything that I think the kingdom wants us to do. In extreme ways. I mean, it wasn’t just ‘this is an uncomfortable place’. It was a ‘use Jesus’s name to get students to come in and not giving them the quality that that Jesus expects of his people’. They want to become a diploma mill. That’s their dream is they want to be able to brag about how many students they thrust through their system. While I was there, the university grew four times the size. I was there for only a few years. They grew four times the size. And they would brag that they decreased the number of professors during that time.
So fewer professors than they had when they were a quarter of their size. And they were very proud of that. That was the direction they want to go.
So it was it was very difficult. And this is part of the this is a hard part of the story and journey for Catherine and I, because it was it was hard for me.
My showing of the fruits of the spirit was tested daily. And I lost. I did not pass. I did not come out of that. I did not come out of the Lion’s Den. If you want to call the Lions Den, I did not come out of Ninevah with a stronger love. I did not. I just I failed this test, as it were. I allowed who I was to be controlled by the fight. So that’s one hard part is admitting the weakness of my own faith in that testing.
One thing that makes it even harder is because some people are people will ask us, it’s like, ‘Aren’t you sorry you guys made the mistake of making that move?’ And it wasn’t a mistake. God wanted us to go there. For whatever reason, you know, part of the reason Catherine got her MFA there. So for Catherine’s life, it was it was a great move. So maybe that’s why I was there. There were individual students that I got to work with that were great, there were faculty I got to work with that were great. There is no doubt whatsoever in our minds that God wanted us there and he wanted us there while we were there, and we left when God wanted us to leave. Because God doesn’t say, ‘I’m gonna put you in places where it’s comfy and cozy all the time’. You need people who who want to sit on the couch and surf all day. Right?
You know, if you wanted to be safe, you would’ve stayed at Warner Brothers.
Exactly. Yeah. It was very difficult. It was very challenging. I lost.
The only regret I have is that I allowed them in my head.
Which is something that … I’m a big Harry Potter fan. And at one point, I felt like all I should be rereading. Going through the Harry Potter books. So I did it by tape. Jim Dale, if you if you haven’t listened to Harry Potter books, if you’re Harry Potter fan and you haven’t listened to Jim Dale, do it. It gives you a whole another approach to the books.
See, I’m a fan of the Stephen Fry books.
Oh, there you go. There’s that too. And I haven’t done the Stephen Fry yet, so that’s next. So you’ll recall there is the entire time when Voldemort is getting into Harry’s head and he needs to practice how to prevent that from happening. And his anger is getting in the way. His dislike of Snape keeps getting in the way, his pride keeps getting in the way. He has all of these excuses for why it’s OK that he is not learning occlumency. And I’m out there jogging (because at that time, I was actually exercising on a regular basis) out there jogging, listening to this, just going, ‘oh, God. Do you have to be so obvious?’
Because that was exactly what I was doing. I was allowing my pride, my sense of justice, my my sense of of what is right. And I don’t disagree. I was not wrong in any of that. But was my pride tempered with humility? Was my sense of justice tempered with mercy? Was my sense of what is right tempered with love?
Not so much. Not so much.
And as a result, Voldemort was in my head. He had free access. I would have,you know, I would have nonstop arguments with people who weren’t there. Who didn’t care. You know, there’s no way you’re going to win that argument, cause they’re not even there. They’re not thinking about you. They don’t care whether they’re right or not. They know they’re not right. They know what they’re doing.
So that was a tough lesson for me to learn about how weak I was in that situation. And I’ve had to had to recover for a year after that.
And then Asbury came up. And Asbury, it’s night and day. As far as administrative approach to things. Asbury is the first place, I will say this, it is the first place I worked in in a long time, because Hollywood much like this last school that I worked at, they’re run almost exclusively by fear. Fear controls every decision. ‘We’re afraid that we’re gonna close like so many other Christian schools have closed. So let’s do this.’ ‘Well, is that really the most Christlike thing you could do?’ ‘Well, is it more important, Sean, that we do things that you feel is Christlike or more important that we stay open because we can’t be Christ work if we stay open? So let’s not do things the way Christ would do them so that we can stay open, so that we can tell people that we’re doing Christ’s mission.’
It’s so easy to fall into that, isn’t it?
So easy. We do it all the time to ourselves. And I remember here having a conversation with the president during my interview and she said …
You know, God has asked God has told them to do certain things. For example, they want to be a small school. They want to stay a small school. They said, ‘we feel that God wants us to do that. Does that mean that will that result someday in us having to close?’
‘Maybe. Because, God didn’t say that Asbury is going to last forever. God didn’t say that as a very was the key to his kingdom. Asbury’s here to serve God for as long as God needs it. So if we do what God tells us to do and it fails, we then have to rejoice in that failure because we know that God is doing something with it.’
And if you’re somebody in administration, to have a kingdom view and not a ‘I’m the most important thing for God if I don’t succeed. God can’t succeed.’
Well, that has never been true of anybody. Jesus was the one and only person since Adam, you know, that God has been reliant on. Because they screw up, all of them. Peter did, you know even after his conversion Paul screwed up. And the kingdom didn’t crumble because of it, the kingdom actually was strengthened if they had the humility to understand the mistakes that they made.
And I have switched careers enough in my life to finally start to realize that God’s plan is bigger than any piece of it. And, you know, I got in trouble at the last place I worked because at one point I was asked point blank rhetorically, and I had I had a habit of answering rhetorical questions.
But they said, you know, yes, maybe they were acknowledging that they did something, that what they did, the way they did it was wrong. They said, ‘Sure. What we did. You can look if you look in a small view, what we did was wrong. But in the big picture, isn’t it more important that the university stays open?’ And we were talking specifically about mission. And I said, ‘Well, if we’re changing our mission, if we’re not doing our mission, then no, it’s not important to stay open.’
And if this script I’m working on doesn’t … do I need to do everything for every script to make this script work? No, no, no. That’s my ego talking. That’s me saying my work is is more important than the kingdom.