In Conversation: Moses Storm and Brook Tate

The American comedian and English theatre-maker-musician get together to discuss growing up in religion and what it means to leave this world behind

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Brook Tate, courtesy of artist / Moses Storm, photo by Morgan Demeter
Published 26 Jul 2023

Religion is a fairly common subject area when it comes to shows at the Fringe, whether it be comedians unpacking their religious upbringings or theatre makers setting shows against a backdrop of religious unrest. Two shows at this year’s Fringe take an exploratory look at religion, but in a highly unconventional way. American comedian Moses Storm makes his UK debut with Perfect Cult, in which he takes audiences through his childhood and adolescence, which was spent in an unsuccessful doomsday cult. Having been raised on a repurposed Greyhound bus with no formal schooling, Storm eventually left this all behind and came to find comedy. In Perfect Cult, he uses cult leader tactics, behaviours, and exercises to create the perfect one night only cult with the audience, immersing them in his strategies and taking away their identity in the process. 

Brook Tate, meanwhile, is bringing his gig theatre show Birthmarked to the Fringe, which offers his personal story of growing up as a young gay Jehovah's Witness in the UK. Like Storm, Tate grew up believing in a world that would be destroyed at Armageddon but when he started to question these beliefs and the people around him setting the rules, he was also able to find his true self. Despite being excommunicated, Tate’s show is not one created out of anger but instead, is full of colour, heart and music, with the artist choosing empathy over hate.  

In this conversation, Storm and Tate come together to speak about their respective shows, their experiences growing up in an intense religious environment and what it means to leave this behind. Both performers use their art to analyse and confront their own trauma, but in doing so they hope that others in similar situations might find some support and levity. 


Moses: Brook, your artwork is great, and one of the things that initially jumps out to me about your show is how many mediums you’re actually good at. I feel like sometimes I push myself to be a jack of all trades. But what ends up happening is you end up being pretty mediocre at a lot of things and you're never known for that one thing. But you seem to find a way to do it all – while you're incredibly musically talented, you can also actually paint. 

Brook: Thank you! And Moses Storm is such an interesting name. Did you say it was a cult name? Was it given to you?

Moses: That's my real name. But the Moses part comes from the cult. My parents helped start the cult, which had no name, so I can't even look it up. They gave all their kids Bible names. There's five kids in the family and I'm the second youngest. Their Bible names are more common ones that everyone uses and then mine, especially with Storm, makes me sound like a magician. 

Brook: So your parents started the cult that you were involved with. Can you explain that to me?

Moses: So essentially, I was raised in a failed doomsday cult, with similarities to Jehovah's Witness. There were only three families in the cult and it was started by my great-uncle on my mum's side. The story goes, he got hit really hard playing American football. And then God comes to him and says, ‘this is the new way. Stop partying, stop doing drugs, clean up your life. Every religion on earth is wrong. This is the one true way.’

Brook: Oh! So he had a concussion and then decided to start a cult?

Moses: I don’t think that he knows that he did. I would see him tell this story publicly, and he was very proud of it, but it was such an underwhelming story. And then maybe 10 years ago, it hit me – oh no, he’s just had a concussion. He explained this really vivid image of God coming down onto the football field, and how he didn't believe before, and it shifted everything. And it's like, well, this does sound in line with what CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] is. I’m making presumptions of course but it happens all the time, where someone will hallucinate.

Brook: Wow, that's so interesting. Only recently, in the last few years, a big part of what I've found fascinating is the history of hallucinogens in religion, and how things look like they're just traditional practices, whereas actually, when research goes back, they're highly likely to have involved people using medicinal herbs and hallucinating and thinking that that was them communicating with the spiritual realm. Even in the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, if it was an Acacia Bush when it was burning, it would give off the same fumes as LSD. They would have a trip so they would hear and see things. I don't know how much research there has been but I'm fascinated and it's kind of what I'm leaning into now in my own work. 

Moses: Yeah and it is one of those things where it is real to these people. So let's say that Moses was having a hallucination in the desert and saw God or they were on psychedelics, and they believe that they saw God. I think what I was getting from you is you're not just coming at the criticism of religion as like, this is all bad. How can any idiot believe this? It is saying when most of these religions were created, they were living in really scary, hectic, unpredictable times. And knowing nothing about science, it makes sense – they’re in the woods, they eat a psilocybin mushroom and believe in their heart that that was a religious experience that they did see the one true God. It's nothing new in comedy, at least in my world, to criticise religion. And I think that's something I never wanted to do. So in my show, essentially we create the perfect cult with the audience that night. Maybe by me trying to create the perfect cult through comedy, and failing at it, it could create some space for forgiveness or understanding, or at the very least be a fun interactive Instagram trap.

Brook: It sounds fascinating. I've not seen your work and I'm very excited to see you. It would be fascinating for me to sit in a space and see you do that and achieve that or attempt to. And I think for the general public who, most of the time in England, at least, they're quite disconnected from religion, and even more disconnected from a cult. I don't think people quite understand what it means to be in a cult whereas potentially in America, there's more of a connection to religion and church now still. So for you to create something where people can, in one hour, feel that and feel what happens to their emotions is so powerful. 

Birthmarked, photo by Paul Blakemore

Moses: There are a lot of natural parallels between cult leaders and stand-up in that you're talking to a group of people, isolating that audience, which is a common cult tactic. Even Jehovah's Witnesses would say you can't have a birthday or Christmas, they keep you wrapped up in hundreds of meetings every week. I wish I was smart enough to say I didn't want religion or didn't want something to believe in. I think sometimes life is just so painful and so chaotic. And to have someone say, this is what's happening and this is why – that's such a comforting feeling. Why would you not want that? So everyone enters my show, they get a white robe and then we go over what my cult was, how it failed. And then using people in that room, we try to create the perfect cult with them. 

Brook: That's intense to get everyone wearing the same clothes. But brilliant. And quite triggering!

Moses: It's such a big part of your night going out and to take that away from people? There's an immediate sense of control. And it's so scary because yeah, I'm doing it tongue in cheek, but there is a level of control. We made them change something about themselves immediately. You just gave up your personal identity. 

Brook: My show starts with me and my band dressed as Jehovah's Witnesses. So we're in suit and tie, I come on with the Bible, and then I ask a member of the congregation, as in the audience, to read a scripture. Someone will put their hand up hopefully, and then they have to read a section of Jonah. And then I start playing the guitar and it goes into a song that I wrote about Jonah, when I was coming to a new understanding of what that story actually meant. I was excommunicated in 2016. But I still had to attend the meetings, but be completely ignored by everyone else, if I wanted any contact with my family. Jehovah's Witnesses aren't allowed to talk about it once you've left. And if you talk about it publicly in a negative way, you will be made an apostate. And that word is even worse than any other label you can be given. So in order to avoid talking about it, I sing to you about it with these songs and then it just opens up this conversation. 

Moses: There’s so much there to unpack. And it's such an important thing to know that you're not just going on stage and bitching for an hour. You’ve clearly done the work as a human being to heal in your own life. And I think it's a trap that artists fall into where they aren't far enough away from this experience and it's still so raw that they don't really let the audience know that they're okay now. Or they were able to dig themselves out. And it seems like you've done something really beautiful out of something that is so painful. People don't understand what it's like to be isolated by your entire family, to still see their faces and there's this coldness. And then to have you transmute that into something that is actually art, because everyone that's coming into that theatre that night, they're coming from their own trauma and their own horrible days. 

Brook: Thanks for saying that! I still have to check in because this is a current situation – my siblings are still in the religion. And we were such a strong unit, and I love them so much. And I’ve chosen to believe that they still love me. But unfortunately, the strength and the power of the Jehovah's Witnesses, they will lose everything. And not only will they lose their belief system, they'll lose their belief of living forever, and they'll have to face dying, which when you've grown up never having to face that, is a terrifying thing. The consequences are humongous, so I don't blame them. As soon as I realised that I could focus my energy on not so much the belief, but the systems that are in place, I was like, that's where my energy goes. But it’s all very positive energy.

Moses: You mentioned how the worst thing you could be considered is an apostate. And you’ve done all these steps to remove actually commenting on it. How much of that is the theatre and how much of it is the fact that there’s still this fear inside you that there’s a 2% chance that they're right. Because I have that sometimes where it's like what if the belief was right?

Brook: At this stage, no, I don't have that anymore. I did for a while until I found out about the way that child abuse was dealt with. That was the nail in the coffin. But the apostate thing – I explain that at the beginning of the show, so that the audience understands why at the beginning of this process, I was not talking about it. And that's why I wrote these songs. But the journey of doing this and the support I found and the encouragement through art, as wanky as it sounds, I've found a new belief. This is actually what I believe in. So that label, although it used to terrify me, even a couple of years ago, I've reached that place and all I've done is be myself and tell the truth. And if that's what causes this word to come about then so be it.

Moses: That's exactly it. My deprogramming in the cult was just falling in love with someone. I was 16, I definitely believed in the heavy emphasis on doomsday. I've never been to school in my life, not even homeschool. We grew up in a converted city bus that they ripped the seats out of and then tried to make into a home. Cult documentaries, they always have the episode where they do the fast montage and then things just start to explode. But we never had that, it was just a miserable slog of a failure until it fizzled out. And then the way I felt about this girl I fell in love with, it just didn't match up with what this religion was. It was just so much hate, and so much control. And the way I felt for this person felt so honest and so true. 

Brook: People want a community, people want something to connect to and a belief and I think people want escape. Having something to believe in beyond climate change, the end of the world – people are desperate for things and we fall into traps of other people's stories all the time. And that's been really interesting in my years post leaving, seeing what else is a cult for people without them realising – what is their religion, what is their faith, even though they don't believe in anything? 

Moses: My situation is so specific, but then you realise as you do the show, because you're reaching out to a lot of people that people have had similar and or worse experiences than you. And that's a really beautiful thing. So that's what I think about all those days I don't want to write. I think this was just a show at the end of the day that I wish existed for me.