MORMON THEATER: THE FABULOUS INVALID

(Technical note: it is appropraite to italicize or underline the titles of plays, but for some reason my computer does not allow this, so I’m using quotation marks).

I was a Freshman in high school. My familiarity with Mormon Theater was pretty much limited to particpating in BYU’s summer theater camp for youth (EFY for drama geeks) and watching the VHS versions of “Saturday’s Warrior” and “My Turn On Earth” (which, like many Mormons of my generation, my family had grown up with). C.S. Lewis had recently ignited my imagination towards religious literature through a book of his poetry which I had stumbled upon at the library– thus I was exploring religious themes through my poetry and early playwriting. Yet it was a general Christian religiousness, with very little of strong flavored Mormonism. Then one of those seemingly everyday occurences happened in my life that changed everything: my parents took me to a play at BYU.
Samuelsen’s “The Seating of Senator Smoot” was certainly not the “Saturday’s Warrior” I had grown up with. Here was something more challenging, more bold, more intelligent– and it created more of a change on my inner, spiritual geography.
Then the next year I took a good friend on a date to see Eric Samuelsen’s next play at BYU, “Gadianton.” Even more so than “Senator Smoot,” this play struck very deep chords within me. I didn’t then, nor do I consider myself now, a liberal (I rather buck at political labels, actually. I think they’re too confining). Yet this play was able to present to me the plight of the “laborer in Zion” under the whims of the business elite in such an intelligent, persuasive and spiritually personal way, that what natural barriers and prejudices I had built up in myself melted against the sheer humanity and vision of Samuelsen’s work.
As George MacDonald “baptized” the imagination of a young, atheistic C.S. Lewis, Eric Samuelsen baptized my imagination into a new life of Mormon Theater. Suddenly I didn’t want to veil the Mormonism in my writing, but, instead, celebrate it. Suddenly I wasn’t an artist who happened to be a Latter-day Saint, but, instead, a Latter-day Saint artist.
Since then I’ve thought a great deal about this shift. Most (not all) of my plays now revolve around Mormon characters and Mormon themes. My specific religious background and inground permeate my work.
Yet the question arises: is this really a good thing? Does this peculiar focus on our religion limit not only limit the Mormon playwrights’ audiences, but also the playwrights themselves? And is this the case with all fields of LDS art?
Theater is an especially interesting case study with this particular question of LDS art. Theater is riddled with obstacles as it is. James Arrington, in a radio interview which he and I particpated in promoting one of my plays, called theater the “fabulous invalid.” Doomsayers thought that radio would kill it, that film would kill it, that T.V. would kill it, that VHS then DVD would kill it. But theater has survived. But only barely. Yet throw Mormonism into it, and can it still stand on its own two feet?
Unlike, say, something like the LDS visual arts or even LDS Cinema, who, despite their own struggles, at least have the ability to provide a wider distrubition for their products to members of the Church across the globe through items like prints, books and DVDs– Mormon Theater does not have that luxury. Mormon Theater has to struggle with a limited geography. There are a few cases that a show has a touring company (as with “Saturday’s Warrior”) or that it’s innate nature allows the artist to pick up and go (like Arrington’s one man “Farley Family” shows or his “Here’s Brother Brigham”), but for the most part Mormon Theater hasn’t any mobility. It has the far flung hope that “if you build it, they will come.”
Then let’s take into account other factors. A play will usually only be successful if it can play in New York or some other prominent city and then attract a major publisher like Samuel French or Dramatic Publishing to pick up the rights and then advertise it in its catalogues and sell it to regional theaters, community theaters, universities and schools. And even a great deal of those are rarely performed again. Most Mormon plays have not been picked up by such publishers and even those few who are (such as Tim Slover’s “Joyful Noise” or LeAnne Adams’ “Archipelago”) generally do not have Mormon characters or overtly Mormon themes. There is a local publisher, Encore!, who has picked up Mormon plays such as Slover’s “Hancock County” and James Arrington, Marvin Payne and Steve Perry’s “A Trail of Dreams.” But looking on Encore’s website (which posts where else the plays have been performed), I could only ascertain that “A Trail of Dreams” has been performed in a handful of places (usually by LDS Church groups) and “Hancock County” hasn’t seemed to have gone anywhere beyond its excellent performances at Brigham Young University (although there was an excellent DVD that was made by the BYU cast).
Then there is the culture of the national theater market. Those plays which have been able to incorporate Mormon characters and themes usually at least have a veiled antagonism towards the Church or its policies. Tony Kushner’s pulitzer prize winning play “Angels In America” has done this famously (although it, fortunately, contains sympathetic Mormon characters, it certainly is attacking the Church on it policies towards practicing homosexuality). Then there was the one man show by Steven Fales (an excommunicated member), “Confessions of a Mormon Boy”– again taking issues with the Church’s stance against homosexuality. Even one of Mormonism’s most famous and skilled playwrights, Neil Labute, cast his Mormon characters in “Bash: Latter-day Plays” as homophobic folks who are willing to kill a homosexual passerby (by the way, are we seeing a trend here in regard to the role that the world wants us to play in their art?).
Admittedly, the Church’s core culture is chiefly conservative, especially on moral issues like homosexuality and abortion, while the national theater’s core culture is chiefly liberal. This puts those involved in both cultures in quite the pickle– stuck in between a rock and a hard place. The tensions that result usually play out into one of two scenarios. First, the tug of war leads the LDS Theater artist to abandon his craft and turn to law or financial planning or some other such practical occupation, dabbling only in theater as a hobby– perhaps acting in a Hale Center Theater play every once in a while or writing a road show when called upon. The other scenario is that the LDS Theater Artist will be so enraptured by the lure of theater that he will leave the Church, often after dabbling in immoral or alternative lifestyles. Yet there are a few who stay– but they usually teach at a high school or a university to pay the bills. There are a very elect few who actually make it big time in a Broadway show or through regional theaters (and even those usually end up in film and television).
So for those of us who have a passion for Mormon Theater, why do we even try? Why not just relent, leave it as a hobby and take the good advice all of our family and friends give us and take a nice desk job?
Well, the best answer I can find for that question is that Mormons believe in prophecy.

Spencer W. Kimball has said, “In our world, there have risen brilliant stars in drama, music, literature, sculpture, painting, science and all the graces. For long years I have a vision of members of the Church greatly increasing their already strong positions of excellence till all they eyes of the world will be upon us….For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the reestablishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter revolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counter-reactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of the miracle man, Joseph Smith…”

John Taylor has said, “You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as are today in religious matters. God expects Zion to become the praise of the whole earth, so that kings hearing of her fame will come and gaze upon her glory…”

Boyd K. Packer has said, “The reason we have not yet produced a greater heritage in art and literature and drama is not, I am very certain, because we have not had talented people. For over the years we have had not only good ones but great ones. Some have reached great heights in their chosen fields. But few have captured the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of it in music, in art, in literature. They have not, therefore, even though they were gifted, made a lasting contribution to the onrolling of the Church and Kingdom of God… They have therfore missed doing what they might have done, and they have missed being what they might have become.”

Orson F. Whitney has said, “We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are reserved for the latter times.”

David O. Mackay has said, “Away back in the days of Nauvoo we find drama introduced by the Prophet Joseph. We find acting in that drama men who later became prominent leaders in the Church. Among them was the man who succeeded the Prophet Joseph, Brigham Young. He, imbued with the necessity of influencing people in their amusements and of using their recreation as a means of instilling virtue, integrity, and honesty, brought to these valleys that spirit.”

Brigham Young has said, “If placed upon a cannibal island with the charge of civilizing the inhabitants, I would construct a theater.”

Those are wonderful words of comfort, but will words, even words of prophets, be able to get us through the strains and realities of life? Personally, I feel my situation very keenly right now. I am just barely through my first year of marriage, not yet finished with school (a little behind, actually), living in my parents basement apartment, stuck in a dead end job, and having our first son coming in about a week. What RIGHT do I have do dabble in the arts, when my beautiful wife Anne and soon-to-be-born son Hyrum, will be depending on me to make a living? What RIGHT do I have to not only put my feet onto such an unsure path, but also the feet of those I love?
These are not questions easily answered questions to be batted away with a, “Oh, you don’t understand the fate of a tortured artist.”
But the best answer I can give, again, is that I believe in prophecy.
Most of those who remain faithful in the Church AND faithful in their art do so because they feel that have been called to do so. With them, I can only answer such queries into my life with, “The only RIGHT I have to do this, is the right God gave me.” I, like many Latter-day Saint artists, have had many spiritual experiences that have confirmed my path. I won’t go into the details, because they are sacred, but let’s just say that such experiences can not be easily discarded or explained away.
I take comfort in the example of Joseph Smith. God gave him a mission– what did that mission give back? He went into one failed business enterprise after another (sometimes, like the Red Brick Store, they failed because he was too giving and honest). His family (and the Church) drifted from one community to another. Hatred, persecution and misunderstanding poured down upon their heads, their ideal of Zion failing time and time again. He held his dead son in his arms because he continued to follow the impractical commands of God. He was shoved into a dark, cramped, unsanitary, oppressing jail while his wife and children wandered homeless in the snow. His wife showed a degree of displeasure with him at the end of his life, threatening to divorce him (who can blame her, coming up against polygamy?). Eventually he would die, a sacrifice for a community and a Church he was trying to save. Emma would eventually leave the Church he founded, taking his children with her (which, if we can trust Mosiah Hancock’s account, Joseph knew about and prophesied about). The only one of his sons that would come even close to accepting the harder doctrines he taught in the Nauvoo period was David Hyrum Smith, and, because of his involvement in spiritualism (at least that’s my interpretation), he went insane and died in a mental hospital. There was no security for the Smith family. At least not in this life. The Church gained by his life and sacrifice, but when it came to the “profit” of Mammon, I’m sure many a financial planner would consider him a failure.
What RIGHT did Joseph Smith have to throw his family into such uncertainty? Only the right that God gave him.
So is that the fate of the LDS artist? Insecurity and a history of hardship? Perhaps, but then we’ll be ushered into the Kingdom of God, if we are faithful. If that’s the case, I’m okay with that. However, is there no way to make this a successful venture instead of a noble, lost cause?
Eric Samuelsen has suggested something very interesting in an essay which was published in BYU Studies, titled, “Whence Mormon Drama? Look To a Theater. He wrote, “What playwrights need is a theater. The great eras of the world’s dramatic literature have tended to come after the establishment of theater and theater companies sufficiently robust to support them… In short, we will never develop a satisfying Mormon drama until we have established and supported a theater from which such drama might emerge. The Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe.”
Ironically, I had just such an idea of supporting myself in theater by owning a theater, about the same time in my life that I saw Samuelsen’s “The Seating of Senator Smoot” and “Gadianton.” I hope that someday it comes to pass. But there have been others. The ill fated “Nauvoo Theatrical Society” founded by Scott Bronson and Thom Duncan, opened with a splash, but (as far as I can tell) faltered from a lack of publicity and word of mouth. It was a shame, for they put on some very fine productions of some of the best playwrights Mormonism has to offer. There are rumors, however, that (much like the Nauvoo Temple) they will rise out of the ashes soon, a phoenix, brighter and more glorious than before. Let us hope that this happens.
If such establishments cannot become solidly rooted soon, then we will press forward with faith, like Arrington’s “fabulous invalid.” Often pushed down, but never defeated. Often discouraged, but never despairing. If the Lord can clothe the lilies of the field, then he can clothe his chosen artists, writers and their families.

13 thoughts on “MORMON THEATER: THE FABULOUS INVALID”

  1. This is a great essay Mahonri! I’m impressed. Historically, minority theatre starts out poor quality and gradually gets better. It reaches a boiling point when a few really talented people who have worked outside of the minority arena and then come together as members of the common minority to put their work together.

    Brian Friel wrote his plays for and about the Irish people. Their purpose was, and is, to raise the awareness of the Irish people so that they can improve their situation. Mormon artists need to create art that moves, inspires, and challenges Mormons.

    As Mormon theatre artists, we can and must train and learn to the best of our abilities, then come together and create a forum for the gospel vision to come to fruition. A Mormon theatre is certainly an ideal. Where can this come from? I think we must look at history to see where and how other minorities started their theatres, then follow suit.  

    Posted by Cory

  2. Wow. A lot to think about here, Mahonri.

    As an initial reaction, I’d say that I agree with Cory. I would only add that by minority, I think it’s useful to look both at ethnic and at minor national literature movements (Greece, Romania, Argentina, etc.)

    —–
    As a sidenote because italics tend to be difficult to read online so I generally just put titles in quotes. 

    Posted by William Morris

  3. What RIGHT do I have do dabble in the arts, when my beautiful wife Anne and soon-to-be-born son Hyrum, will be depending on me to make a living? What RIGHT do I have to not only put my feet onto such an unsure path, but also the feet of those I love? 

    The same right so many of the early missionaries did to leave their families in similar situations and go abroad to spread the gospel. This is a great piece you’ve written here; you’ve addressed a lot of the same things I think about too, though I’m not in theater myself.

    To have Milton and Shakespeare you need to have a rich cultural background for them to draw on for their allusions to bring the right things to mind, and for their illusions to paint an accurate picture. The early Saints were mostly busy rejecting the culture of the world that had so violently rejected them. Having grown up in “the mission field” I can attest that most of the culture we have today isn’t that different from the culture around us — yes, there are many whose views are far more liberal than ours but there are at least as many who, while we disagree as to the nature of God and what the scriptures say, share the same basic core values of charity, modesty, family as us. There is no way out of this but through; we must make our own cultural tapestry and as much as some may revile things like “Baptists at Our Barbeque” or “The Single’s Ward,” they are at least steps in the right direction. You learn as much, if not more, about how to do something when you get it wrong as when you get it right.

    (I know you’re talking about theater and not cinema but as I said, I grew up in the mission field. I still live there. I’ve seen one road show in my life.) 

    Posted by Proud Daughter of Eve

  4. I enjoyed your essay immensely, Mahonri. I majored in theater at BYU and when I was there we worked on “The Seating of Senator Smoot” in a Playwrights- Directors-Actors workshop class I took. It was gratifying to read about it having such an influence on you. I took classes from both Eric Samuelsen and Tim Slover. Tim, in particular, was a big influence on me.

    However, I felt as if you dwell too much on the negative in your assessment of the obstacles Mormon Theater faces. I feel theater is widely loved and cherished in Mormon culture. It’s deeply engrained in traditions such as road shows, pageants, even ward talent shows. I’ve known many stakes to put on lavish productions. Mormons, in my opinion, are particularly crazy about musical theater. C’mon, now, there’s a reason every chapel has a stage.

    Compare this to attitudes about theater’s sister art, cinema, which is viewed with more suspicion and a favorite scapegoat of church members for the world’s problems. You presented a great array of quotes about theater, but cinema and TV are frequently criticized and condemned over the pulpit. Did you read the last part of the church’s statement about BIG LOVE?

    “Despite its popularity with some, much of today’s television entertainment shows an unhealthy preoccupation with sex, coarse humor and foul language. Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds. Parents who are casual about their viewing habits ought not to be surprised if teaching moral choices and civic values to their children becomes harder as a result.”

    Compare that statement with your quotes on theater and you begin to understand how and why Cleanflix stays in business.

    My point is not to decry the lack of support TV and film get from church leaders, but to say, you don’t know how lucky you are. When I was at BYU they had a great theater program that was committed to producing original work and student-written work. This is a rarity in undergrad theater programs. Perhaps I was there in some kind of golden age, but when I count the number of small community theaters in the Provo-Orem area I am quite impressed. I’m certain I could mount an original production in Provo for less money than I could in L.A. and if I promoted it properly I’d probably stand a chance of making a buck or two. I’d be willing to bet that in comparison with the average American, the average Mormon American attends much more theater.

    Even more important that that, the fact theater appears sick and dying in America actually liberates playwrights and producers to be more experimental and to drive theater in new directions. One thing Tim Slover taught me is that the more popular a medium is the more artistically conservative, formulaic, stagnant, and risk averse it becomes. I work in TV, which probably draws more eyeballs than theater and cinema combined, and I can tell you that the above principle is true.

    After TV arrived the popularity of theater declined, but that freed theater up to be more experimental and outside the mainstream. This environment allowed gay theater and theater of the absurd to flourish because there was less need to be commercial. Why can’t the same factors benefit Mormon Theater?

    I’m not immersed in the world of Mormon Theater in quite the same way I once was, but my feeling is the window of opportunity is open right now for Mormon theater to make great strides, and judging from your essay, it’ll be people like you who take those steps.  

    Posted by Brian G

  5. Mahonri,
    You really hit it on the head. How can you feel secure in trying to make a living for your family from the theater? Only Father can reassure you that your path is right, and only he gives you that right. I struggle with making my art a reality constantly because I know that I’m supposed to, but it’s certainly not easy.
    I do, however, feel that LDS theater has quite a bright future if people can actually grasp the intelligent art, and not stick with just the feel-good ‘Singles Ward’ type of shows. They’re fun to watch, but completely empty. You would think that an audience of LDS people would rather feel the spirit than be simply entertained and laugh a little. Give me ‘Man of La Mancha’ over that any day. 

    Posted by Nate Drew

  6. Mahonri–

    You make some very interesting points. I especially appreciate the quotes from prophets, some of which I have not seen before.

    You know what I think? I think half the problem lies in a lack of mobility among Mormons in networking. Mormons seem so reticent to the idea of working together. I think that is beginning to change. The success of some Mormons in Hollywood, in particular, is tuning people to the idea that it can be done. The irony is that Hollywood perhaps produces the worst in a certain type of arrogance, and I’ve seen it among our own. (I live in Los Angeles.) In any case, I see a lack of mobility in networking and community as a major problem among the LDS. I’m trying to do what I can to change it by blogging my share: http://www.rhapsidiom.com

    I noticed in your list of (attempted) Mormon repertory companies, you failed to list some of the fine folks over in New York who belong to the Handcart Company . Have you heard of them? 

    Posted by Rhapsidiom

  7. Rhapsidiom, I did know of the Handcart Company. If I had thought of them when I wrote the essay, I would have included them. However, I do not know a lot of details about them. What can you tell us?
     

    Posted by Mahonri Stewart

  8. Mahonri:
    I see two distinct threads in your post: (1) the propects for Mormon art in general, and (2) the individual decision to make art one’s profession.

    The first I think is the primary metatheme of this blog. We can (we have, we will) make several posts out of the many distinct issues and texts you raise. For example, for some time I have been contemplating and noting down thoughts for a post on the GC talks/Ensign articles on the arts. I have also been animated by these, but they seem to raise as many questions as they answer. I will try to get to that soon.

    The second I think is extremely personal; my experience tells me that there are a variety of appropriate responses to being moved by the idea of great Mormon art and creating it. So I respect your decision–I admire the uncertainty you and your family is willing to face in the name of art–but I seriously doubt that would be the correct decision for many people, even many potentially great artists. Email me some time, Mahonri (shawnpbailey [at] gmail [dot] com). I would enjoy discussing less publicly how I decided not make art my primary profession.  

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  9. You know, it was an Eric Samuelsen play that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of Mormon literature. It was Accommodations, which I saw produced at BYU in about 1993, I think. Mind blowing! And then I took Eugene England’s Mormon lit class and was hooked. 

    Posted by Chris Bigelow

  10. There’s a whole online community of Mormon artists. I just discovered it. Mahonri Stewart just invited me to view his blog post on A Motley Vision, and from there I found a whole bunch of Mormon blogs, websites, and other information. There are quite a few Mormon artists. Interesting to me that most of the actors who are considered up and comers got their start by doing all of those films that Halestorm did over the past few years (singles ward, saints and soldiers – (not Halestorm), the RM, etc). Now those guys are all in Los Angeles doing their thing. 3 of them have albums coming out. John Heder didn’t do that. His film was most distinctly not Mormon-centric. I still don’t know of any working Mormon theatre actors.

    What I’m trying to get at here, is that most of those actors who are working (and presumably making a living) didn’t go through the kind of intense training that I have been going through. They’ve studied via workshops, but no long term, intense, varied training. Does that mean I have the advantage of being able to do a lot, and I’ll do really well? Does that mean I should pad my resume by doing some more Mormon based film work? Should I build my own Mormon theatre company? They all built their reputations on Mormon films, and there’s a definite idea that a mormon theatre is needed, so should I just found my own Mormon theatre, or hook up with the Nauvoo Theatrical Society (if it reappears), and just pad my resume that way before I move to NYC? So strange.  

    Posted by Cory

  11. Thanks all for the posts. Mohonri, or any others, could cite your sources when quoting church athorities about theatre and the arts? I am writing my graduate thesis on the subject and I would love to read the original sources so I can cite them in my work.
    Thanks,
    Dan

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