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.