June 1, 2022


Spirit moves: ‘How to Live (After You Die)’

By Steve Dow
Image of Lynette Wallworth, courtesy Lynette Wallworth

Image courtesy Lynette Wallworth

Lynette Wallworth’s one-woman show, exploring her past in a Pentecostal cult, continues her lifelong search for meaning

Filmmaker Lynette Wallworth was 17 when she joined a new Pentecostal group for young people in south-western Sydney in the late 1970s, where she soon rose to become a prophetess. Gaining for herself an “intensified sense of belonging” from this “cult”, she failed to question why her power was proscribed by the group’s foremost belief in male headship, which held that women could never be leaders over men.

Nonetheless, Wallworth gave herself over to the group’s literal readings of scripture, and for four years would not make a move without asking: What does God want of me? She restricted the clothes she wore to the modest and denied herself the pleasure of popular music and films: Monty Python’s Life of Brian, she recalls, was too blasphemous, even though she secretly wanted to see it in the cinema.

Instead of stepping into a new life after high school, Wallworth had locked herself in a spiritual jail. She completely forfeited a social life at art school, where she also attended classes during those years, in favour of forever rushing off to pray. One day, Wallworth decided that God was now speaking through her, an event that inspired group members to come and ask her for guidance: “My role was to speak and say what I was inspired to say in the moment.”

Wallworth, now 61, and best known for her Emmy-winning virtual reality films Collisions, about the Martu of Western Australia, and Awavena, about the spirituality of Brazil’s Yawanawa people, has the strength now to analyse and even make light of these formative experiences in How to Live (After You Die). In the premiere solo performance at the Sydney Opera House, to be repeated at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image during Melbourne’s RISING festival, Wallworth, dressed in a woollen striped Issey Miyake poncho, deployed charm with a carefully enunciated, languorous step back in time.

Wallworth possesses charisma, although these days it arises from a sense of self, not from her lofty position in a restrictive cult. In How to Live, she simply stands at a lectern, recalling her stolen youth. There is a wonderful humour to this work: I adored the sly tale, for instance, of a love triangle between Wallworth, her betrothed boyfriend (also a group member) and Wallworth’s female spiritual head – although Wallworth’s heart was clearly broken when the predatory spiritual head pulled rank and claimed Wallworth’s husband-to-be for herself.

Wallworth has a higher purpose with this autobiographical storytelling, and spirituality hasn’t left her, even if it took years to rebuild her shattered psyche after exiting the cult. She wants to make sure that no other 17-year-old gets lured into fusing their individuality to a rigid belief system. She never names this now-dissolved group, which had been an offshoot of a Los Angeles evangelical movement.

By 2050, it is predicted that one in 10 people globally will be adherents of Pentecostal Christianity, and the politically rightward shift of the movement from the Reagan era onward has had a profound impact on the United States as a political power bloc. While Wallworth did not name Donald Trump in her show, a picture was projected behind her of Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White, and other evangelicals laying hands upon the former US president when he was in office. This support of Trump as “God’s chosen president” factored into his conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, which is now poised on the precipice of restricting abortion rights.

In the audience of Wallworth’s Sydney show was the Chinese-Australian photographer William Yang, whose own carefully calibrated live stage performances share some DNA with Wallworth’s approach: both are beautifully paced personal histories and engaging social records of cultures. Yang’s judicious use of his black-and-white photography in his live performances is emotionally affecting, and I would have liked Wallworth to make use of more of the imagery from the films for which she has been lauded, rather than some of the eye-assaulting pastel and fluoro block colours displayed on the screen while she speaks.

This is because Wallworth’s films Awavena and Collisions are highly relevant in the context of How to Live, given they mark different points in her spiritual quest. This search for meaning began in childhood when she suffered grand mal seizures (never diagnosed) that led to out-of-body experiences, hence “after you die” in the show’s title. The films are certainly represented on screen, just not quite often enough.

One of the best things that could have happened in Wallworth’s life, she recalls, was when the Martu people of Western Australia asked her to come and film them, in what became Collisions. The experience helped return spiritual solace to her life, which had been deadened for years by the rule-based rigidity of Pentecostalism.

The Martu “had understandings about people who were just like me, who had seizures and left their bodies,” says Wallworth. “There were words to talk about that, and ways to talk about that, and I felt like I wasn’t an anomaly, and that part of my life could make sense somewhere.”


Lynette Wallworth’s How to Live (After You Die) is playing at Rising Festival in Melbourne from June 3–5.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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