An Interview With Eric Samuelsen

For those of you who are not familiar with Eric Samuelsen, in my opinion, he’s one of the finest playwrights Mormonism has produced so far. He is a playwriting Professor at BYU, where he has cultivated some of the finest next generation Mormon playwrights including Tony and Leslie Gunn, Melissa Larson, Elizabeth Leavitt and Morag Plaice. His own plays have a wide recognition in Mormon literary circles, many of them having played at BYU, including “Accommodations,” “The Seating of Senator Smoot,” “Gadianton,” “The Way We’re Wired,” “A Love Affair With Electrons,” a musical adaptation of “The Christmas Box,” and his most recent success “Family.” His play “Peculiarities” played at the Villa Theater and is now being made into a motion picture and his next play is “Miasma” which will play at Plan B Theater Company this Fall ( http://www.planbtheatrecompany.org/ ). He has won the Association for Mormon Letters award three times (for “Accommodations,” “Gadianton,” and “The Way We’re Wired”). After he won his third AMl award, he was disqualified to win again because he had won it so many dang times. So without further ado, here is the interview:

MAHONRI: You’ve obviously established yourself very much as a Mormon playwright. Some see you as one of the current leaders of the movement. [Most of your plays]– they have strong ties to Mormonism. What draws you to Mormon Theater as a genre? How do your religious beliefs and experiences effect your work?

ERIC: Great question. To be honest, it was sort of an epiphany. When I got home from my mission in 1977, I had a summer job, and one Saturday, I was sitting at home, and the new Ensign had just arrived. It was the July 1977 Ensign, the special edition dedicated to the Arts, and it included President Kimball’s talk ‘A Gospel Vision of the Arts.’
While I was on my mission, I’d thought a bit about what I was going to do with my life–that’s fairly typical, I suppose. And I’d thought that I’d like to be a writer. My father tried to discourage me–he was convinced that it was very difficult to make a living and support a family as an artist. This despite the fact that he was supporting his family by working as an opera singer!
Anyway, I’d been in theatre my whole life, I’d been around opera singers my whole life, and it just made sense, to try to write. And then I read that great talk by President Kimball. This passage just nailed me to the wall:

“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, of whom we sing ‘Oh, what rapture filled his bosom, For he saw the living God’ (Hymns, no. 136); and of the giant colonizer and builder, Brigham Young.”

What I loved about it was the implication that we could and should write about conflicts in our culture, about difficulties and struggles, about ‘apostacies and inner revolutions and counter-revolutions.’ I knew that day that I needed to write about my own culture. And that’s what I’ve been drawn to. Of course, I write about other things as well, but I do seem to have found something of a niche.

MAHONRI: What obstacles does Mormon Theater have before it can establish itself as a healthy movement? Does Mormon Theater even have a future beyond Utah university productions and roadshows?

ERIC: Well, first and foremost we need to write about our own culture with insight and power, rooting our work in story and character so that it can find a larger audience. Neil Labute has done it with Bash; that’s a start. We need to explore the sorts of themes Chaim Potok explores with My Name is Asher Lev and The Chosen. And that probably means writing things that make mainstream Mormons uncomfortable. We just can’t afford to say to ourselves “I can’t write that. It might make The Church look bad.” First of all, it won’t–people don’t read Asher Lev and think ‘Oh, Judaism is a bad religion.’ The public relations people for the Church have their job to do. Our job as artists is to tell real stories about real people, and not worry about ideology.
Beyond that, we need a theater before we can have a theatre. We need a Globe so our Shakespeare will have someplace for his plays to be performed. And it can’t be some place institutionally financed or run by The Church. Church correlation is a necessary program, but it’s death for artists.

MAHONRI: You’ve stated in interviews and such that you feel a certain disconnect from Utah’s culture, in part because of your particular political views and Utah’s predominantly conservative culture. Do you think that because of this that it creates a barrier in trying to establish arapport with certain members of your audience? What other challenges does this create? What benefits have there been about being a playwright stationed in Utah?

ERIC: I do feel something of a disconnect with Utah culture. This is a very conservative state, and I’m not a conservative, politically or culturally. I am very worried about fundamentalism in all its forms, about subjecting any idea to a litmus test for ideological correctness. I worry about religious fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian. I think to some extent, Iraq today represents a clash between two fundamentalist regimes–Al Queda and neo-conservatism. In my view, what Communism was in the thirties, conservatism is today; frighteningly narrow and rigid. It scares me whenever anyone talks about any political proposal as ‘consistent with sound conservative principles. ‘Who cares if it’s something’s a conservative idea or not? What matters is if it will work, if it will accomplish a good end or not.
I’m equally uncomfortable with contemporary cultural conservatism. In Stake Conference, one speaker talked about seeing a movie with her husband, and she said something like ‘we started watching the movie, and heard some bad language, and
immediately we knew we needed to leave the theater, and so we did, and it didn’t even matter if we got our money back–we’d kept our thoughts pure.’ We’ve all heard variations on that talk a thousand times. And I can’t judge–maybe the Spirit was whispering to her, and maybe that movie, for her, would have been spiritually damaging. But just once before I die, I’d like to hear someone say ‘I went to this movie, and I heard some bad language, and my initial impulse was to leave, but I stayed, and I had a life-changing positive experience.’
I hear all this rhetoric about ‘worldly art,’ and I never have any idea what they’re talking about. I don’t think ‘worldly art’ even exists. I don’t think it’s a meaningful distinction, between ‘worldly’ and ‘unworldly’ (or, I don’t know, transcendent). I think art is a testimony, and I think it’s pretty much always morally good. I do think that there’s such a thing as poorly executed art.
At the same time, I do think that I have a certain distance from my own culture which enables me to write about it. I think my alienation from my culture goes hand in hand with my immersion in it. I don’t think I’d be a very good playwright if I lived somewhere other than Utah. In fact, I did live in Indiana for years, and I’m a better playwright living here. I actually love Provo, in part because it’s beautiful, inpart because I have many good friends here, and in part because I’m too lazy to want to travel very far to do my home teaching.

MAHONRI: Plan B Theater Company is producing one of your plays, “Miasma,” in the Fall. From what I’ve been able to gather, it seems to be a departure from your earlier work. Does it focus on Mormon themes and characters or is it more mainstream? Or less mainstream? What sort of reaction do you expect from the piece? What would you like people to consider most before going to see it?

ERIC: Miasma isn’t a Mormon play at all, but it’s very much a Western play. My wife’s family is a rancher family–her grandfather owned a big ranch in Cache valley–and I know a bit about rancher culture. And I love good writing about the West–I love Levi Peterson’s novels and John Harris’ poetry. My brother-in-law is still kind of a rancher. I wanted to write a play about the West, about cowboys and what it means to be a cowboy–what it means to ‘cowboy up’–but also how ‘cattle ranching’ has been transformed into ‘the beef industry,’ and what’s been lost and what’s damaging about that. It’s a very political play, and also a personal one–it’s also about a family disintegrating. I think there’s a direct correlation between family disintegration and the corporatization of America business, especially agri-business. That’s a theme I dealt with in Gadianton, and it’s a theme that still resonates with me.
I’m really a Mormon through and through, you know. I really do think that the biggest problem in America today, the thing that will destroy us, is the loss of family values, the damage that’s been done to families. I just think that corporate values are far more damaging to families than any of the silly things the Right worries about, like gay marriage or whatever.
It’s at Plan B, so to some extent, it’s going to be a play that preaches to the choir. If any of my Mormon audience sees it, I hope they’llthink of the destruction of the family differently than they have previously. I think, for example, that the current debate over immigration (which Miasma also touches on), is essentially a debate over family values, and how those values are under attack from America First ideologues and from agri-businessmen who won’t pay a decent wage and from the barely concealed racism of the Christian Right. Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, are poor families trying to provide for
their children, who risk their lives to come to a place where they can make a better life. That’s also a theme in the play.
It isn’t overtly Mormon at all, and there’s a certain amount of bad language–what we euphemistically call ‘the ‘s’ word.’ (No ‘f’ bombs,not because I’m opposed to the ‘f’ word, but because it didn’t fit in this play.) The play’s about slaughterhouses, and cattle, when they die, loosen their bowels. That’s used metaphorically in the play.

MAHONRI: As a professor at BYU, what have you enjoyed most from being an educator? In working wih the next generation of Mormon playwrights, what do you feel they have to contribute? What do you think are their greatest challenges and shortcomings?

ERIC: Well, I love the next generation of Mormon playwrights, and I’m exceedingly optimistic about the future. I love teaching at BYU. Ibsen once said that he loved being around young people, because they kept his own mind from growing old–I feel the same way. I love it when students go ‘hey, you should listen to Franz Ferdinand, what a great band,’ and I do and they are. The biggest challenge they face is the lack of a venue for their work. But I can’t wait to see what plays Melissa Larson or Mahonri Stewart or Elizabeth Leavitt or Morag Plaice or Leslie Gunn are going to write over the next twenty years. I think we have some brilliant young writers coming up. And the best of them are just not paying much attention to the cultural baggage I had to spend half my life discarding. I spent way too much time worrying about non-issues that I inflated in my head–like ‘can I read David Mamet and not lose my testimony?’ Leslie Gunn is from Nova Scotia; Morag Plaice is from Scotland, Elizabeth Leavitt, okay, she’s from Sacramento, but from the poor side of town. Their experience of Mormonism is from outside Utah, with everything that implies. What I hope and pray is that there’s this completely brilliant Mormon playwright I’ve never heard of doing amazing work in Brazil or Ghana or Korea. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

MAHONRI: You’ve stated before that you believe one of the best ways to establish Mormon plays is to have a Mormon Theater, that a Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe. With the rise and fall (and the possible ressurection) of the Nauvoo Theatrical Society, what do you think went wrong the first time? If they are able to re-establish it again, what do you think needs to happen differently? What advice would you give to those involved in similar endeavors?

ERIC: Well, the NTS was a brilliant idea, and could and should be resurrected. They didn’t have any money, and the space wasn’t in a great location, but they survived a lot longer than people thought they would, and nearly killed poor Scott Bronson while they were at it. More funding, and a better location, and I think it could be the most exciting theatre in the world.

MAHONRI: Of your own work what are your three favorites? Why?

ERIC: I don’t have favorites. My favorite plays are Peculiarities, because we’re shooting the movie right now, and Gadianton, because we’re looking at shooting that movie next fall, and so I’m working on that screenplay right now, and Miasma, because it opens next fall. And my new play, which I won’t tell you about.

MAHORNI: What would you like to see most from young Mormon playwrights?

ERIC: Write from the heart. Write good plays, with a solid structure and interesting characters. Rewrite as many times as you need to to get the play right.

15 thoughts on “An Interview With Eric Samuelsen”

  1. Thanks, Mahonri!

    I don’t know why we haven’t done this already, but I’m glad we waited for a more knowledgeable interviewer to come along.

    I hadn’t heard about the movie projects. I’m very excited because I probably won’t be traveling to Utah any time soon (and haven’t for almost 10 years) so I’ve only read Eric’s plays. Good stuff, but not the same as seeing them staged, obviously. 

    Posted by William Morris

  2. Yes, thanks Mahonri and especially Eric! Are Eric’s plays published? Collected? Not having access to Utah productions, I would still like to read them.

    A question for Eric (if you are following the thread): Mahonri casts questions in terms of “Mormon theatre” and you speak of having a Mormon globe but also of finding a larger audience. From your point of view, what are the risks and benefits of creating Mormon artistic enclaves (whether they be distinct genres or mormon-specifc theatres, etc.)? At what point do such enclaves result in self-ghetto-ization that limits our ability to find a larger audience? Of course, this is an issue for Mormon artists that extends beyond theatre.  

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  3. Mahonri, this is great stuff. Um..shameless plug here, but do you know who’s doing the casting for his movie? I want a chance to audition. Let me know. 

    Posted by cory

  4. Accommodations. Sunstone June 1994.
    Gadiation. Sunstone, July 2001.
    Bar and Kell. Irreantum, Spring 2000.
    Family. Sunstone March 2005, #136.
    Peculiarities: Tahoe. Sunstone Dec 2005, # 140.  

    Posted by Andrew Hall

  5. Thanks for the cites, Andrew. Looks like I can read several for free! (Note to publishers of Mormon lit: I would willingly give you my money (some of it anyway) to read Eric’s plays all collected in a nice volume with an introduction written by Orson Scott Card.) 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  6. Thanks for the interview. I now know I will never read, watch, or contribute to anything he ever does. A person who cannot be offended by small evils can never be saved from grosser evils.

  7. Jetboy:

    I believe we have discussed this before in a variety of other circles.

    But since you bring it up…

    I think you are wrong. I also don’t think that one should dismiss a artist’s work just because one disagrees with that artist’s approach to art, politics, life, the gospel, etc.

    And rather than pop off with a generalized, drive-by statement, why don’t you stick around for a bit so we can discuss what you really mean by that and what your vision for Mormon art is?

    Or barring that, I invite you to read my post on Mormons and media consumption . 

    Posted by William Morris

  8. What I really mean is exactly what I said. When we give in to saying “this isn’t bad because it only has one bad thing” or “this isn’t bad because the rest is good,” or worst of all,”this isn’t bad compared to THAT thing,” then it becomes harder and harder to recognized and stay away from those things that truely are bad. Too many people sensitise themselves by not avoiding the little things in life. Before you know it your faith and morals are lost. Not that you think they are lost, and that is the worst part. You lose sense of right and wrong because nothing is wrong compared to THAT thing – whatever knew “thing” you find worse than the other things.

    I agree with OSC, as was mentioned above, that we must accept that evil or wrong must be portrayed to make a story interesting. What I don’t agree with is that we must engage in evil and wrong in our stories (such as swearing) that can be described or even implied rather than used. 

    Posted by Jettboy

  9. Jettboy,
    I appreciate your comments about the interview.
    I don’t agree with everything Eric says, just as he doesn’t agree with everything I believe. Yet he and I have established a nice rapport and friendship, even when it has had its strains.
    It disheartens me that you have such a knee jerk reaction to Eric’s sentiments, however, so that you will never look into any of his work. I have come out of some of his plays absoulutely edified and overflowing with the Spirit. Some of them, not so much. But I still enjoyed them (for example, “The Way We’re Wired” was not one I was really thrilled by– not because of moral content, it was pretty tame, but because it just didn’t do much for me). But my point is, however, that even though he and I may have different approaches, I have come to appreciate the affirmation of faith, of social goodness, of spirituality and of charity that I have found in his work.
    It’s ironic that you bring up Orson Scott Card to defend your position. In his books I have found swearing, sexuality, violence, vulgarity– he hardly seems the sort to defend the position you have put forth. Yet in Card, as with Eric, I’ve left his work my faith cultivated and my relationship to God strengthened.
    Again, there are things which Eric and I don’t see eye to eye on. For example, his statement saying that all art is moral art– well, I think that is baloney. Playboy could be construed to be “artistic” in some people’s twisted version of the word, but the effect on pornography on the world is a well established negative. But maybe even Eric would not even want us to take that statement to that extreme. Yet whether we agree on everything or not, I appreciate his work and his especially him as a person. So personable, so kind, so warm. You’d like him if you met him, I bet. Just as I’m sure I would like you if I met you.
    Remember motes and beams, my friend. You’ve judged him rather harshly. I hardly believe you would like the same treatment based on a few pages of interview. This is but a glimpse of the man and his work. You’d have to take a closer inspection to get a more accurate view.  

    Posted by Mahonri Stewart

  10. I actually didn’t use OSC to defend my main position. In fact, I stated clearly what I didn’t agree with about him.

  11. Re-reading it, I discovered my misreading of your statement about OSC. Sorry. You’re referring to his essay in “A Storyteller In Zion, yes?”  

    Posted by Mahonri Stewart

  12. Yes, I am. It is a great bit of critical work on writing and religious audience. However, I don’t think OSC ever said (and in fact he has said the opposite) that art was nuetral.Anyone who uses that argument for anything is not on my list of people to support.

    Art is power. Those who hold power must recognize the need for judgement from every angle. Wanting the responsibility or not, artists are fundimentally PR people. If they didn’t want to say something or make some kind of point about themelves or the world – no matter how trivial -they wouldn’t be making art. Those who read Asher might not be judging Judaism (who is E.S. to say they aren’t?), but they are definantly judging the author in relation to Judaism. If you read any interviews or critism of the books, the relationship of Judaism and the author almost always comes up. I would imaging the same would happen with Mormon stories if they ever got known beyond the Wasatch front. It certainly comes up with LaBute.

  13. I agree with much of this. It reminds me of the debate in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s when the African Americans were getting an art movement going, with conflicting views from within the culture from Booker T. Washington to W.E.B. DuBois to Langston Hughes. It’s a debate that often comes up in minority artistic movements. Is the art to represent the movement, to put it in the best possible light, to be “P.R.” for the community, as you’ve said? Or is it an expression of the individual artist, his own persoal soapbox for a more intimate worldview? Or is it to be a watchguard within an artist’s own culture, to be critical of his own culture, trying to point out its flaws to try to make his own culture better and stronger by trying to eradicate its flaws? Or is it simply a story, an expression, focused more on character than on any underlining message? Or is it a mixture of all of them? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this yet.
    I certainly don’t believe that art is neutral– and I have never seen Eric’s art that way, his work has a definite point of view, purpose and message. Some have interpreted it as well crafted leftist propaganda with a Mormon edge. I personally don’t see his work that way– there’s soul in his work, a concern for his fellow human beings. It’s kind of a religious humanism in that way. He has a strong social conciousness, which I don’t think is a negative thing at all. His work consistently has soul in it, wrapped in the cloak of charity.
    Neil LaBute, on the other hand, I have very mixed feelings about. His is certainly a very dark world view– almost unrealistically dark. He is certainly very good, but is he doing more good or damage to the Gospel’s mission? Should that even be a concern for him? I think it should be, at least to an extent. Mormons believe in consecration– that they should dedicate themselves and, from an artist’s point of view, their creative talents to the Lord’s cause on earth. Consecration is a vital principle at the heart of our belief and belief in practice and expression. So I do believe that at the heart of a Mormon’s work there should be that awareness– that we’re having an effect on those around us, that we’re stewards of our talents, and an accounting will be taken of what we’ve done with those talents.
    But I also don’t believe that art is institutional propaganda. It needs a more intimate world view, sometimes a harsh one, sometimes a glorious one, to get the truest, most real messages across. The truth will set us free, and if we sanitize it too much then it’s no longer the truth.
    Personally, I try to shy away from swearing in my plays (the occassional mild swear word will slip, but nothing harsh, and only if the context warrants it). I also try not to be graphic in my represantation of vices. But I do try to portray them, as Brigham Young said we should on the stage. Eric may not be as sensitive as I am in that sort of thing (and usually it’s a bit of a non-issue with him– with perhaps the exception of Peculiarities and a few of his smaller works, I’ve rarely seen him to get overtly graphic), but I would hope that wouldn’t deter too many people from seeing his plays. Sometimes you have to let the wheat and the tares grow up together, before you’re able to distinguish which is good and which is bad. If done so with the Spirit, then you get a rich harvest of truth.  

    Posted by Mahonri Stewart

  14. I also don’t believe art should be an institutional propaganda. That is one of the reasons I think LDS art is still too conventional and boring. However, I do think there are “standards” that are tied to the institution as believers. And, tandentially, that translates into at least tentative institutional propaganda.

    Why I wouldn’t want to contribute to E.S. from his interview is that his views on art conflict too much with mine. As such, I can already tell, including the venue of where his work has been printed (a whole diff discussion), that I would be offended by his work. Even if not offended, at least uncomfortable and not in a thoughtful way.

    I will not judge if he goes too far. Reading and watching his plays would determine that. But, I think there are too many other things I would rather support.

  15. I’m only an occasional lurker here, and I hadn’t been following this controversy until today. I’m certainly grateful for Mahonri’s strong defense of my work, and I return the compliment–I think Mahonri is an enormously gifted young writer, and I look forward to what he has to say in the future.

    To Jettboy, I’m very grateful that you took the time to respond to my views on Mormonism and art. I’m certainly aware that my ideas are outside the Mormon cultural mainstream, and while I’m sorry that you won’t be attending performances of my plays or upcoming film, I certainly respect your point of view. But I would like to clarify a couple of points.

    First of all, as I have said many times, my essentially pro-art stance does not extend to pornography. I think pornography bears the same relationship to art as crack cocaine bears to penicillin. I have consistently opposed the commodification of women that seems to me central to pornographic material. If anything, I find something like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue as offensive as Playboy (at least, I assume I would find Playboy offensive. I do read SI, but have never read Playboy).

    Jettboy suggests that art is essentially public relations–that art exists to preach, and presumably he also thinks most art preaches bad messages. I suppose art does have a didactic function–it’s certainly an attempt to communicate. But that seems to me very much a peripheral function of art.

    I deplore pornography, but I do defend nudity in art, and I defend some depictions of sexual activity in art. The moral impact of any kind of image or language seems to me quite subjective, and it’s likely that the stuff that offends me might not offend you, and vice-versa. I’m not actually offended very often–I really will defend just about any work of art, including the really rotten Disney uplifting family crap, the really overtly commercial garbage, Thomas Kinkaid paintings and their sentimental counterparts in film and TV, all the stuff which seem to me about the worst art I know. I’ll defend it–yes, there’s a personal testimony somewhere in there, I guess; I like windmills too. But anything avant-garde or edgy, hey, I’m there. That’s the stuff that really builds testimony, that really invites the Spirit. For me. Neil Labute essentially defines ‘virtuous, lovely, of good report, praiseworthy.’ For me. Probably not for most Mormons. But then, most Mormons voted for President Bush, which I wouldn’t do if you held a gun to my head.

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