The New Play Project is a new non-profit theater group dedicated to performing original work, with an emphasis on Mormon Theater. Founded in April of 2006, since then they have had three ten minute play festivals, each revolving around a specific theme. In August 2006 they premiered with “Love Songs and Negotiations;” in October 2006 they performed “Palms,” plays revolving around religious themes; and in December 2006 they performed a series of plays called “In Progress.”
I have interviewed James Goldberg, one of the four co-founders of the NPP (other co-founders are Arisael Rivera, Julie Saunders and Jennefer Franklin). Goldberg was a student at Otterbine College in Ohio before transferring to BYU to finish the last leg of his Bachelors Degree, which he just recently completed. A dedicated theater artist, the NPP has been a central focus for him the past several months. So without further ado, the interview:
Mahonri: How did the NPP come about?
Goldberg: Four of us were hanging out after our playwriting class which we took from Eric Samuelsen talking about our ten minute plays and we said, “Let’s produce them.” We thought we were half joking, but we took it seriously enough to actually follow through. But we didn’t just want some generic ten minute play festival. We asked ourselves, “How can we have a ten minute play festival, while still having a coherent meaning?”
Mahonri: It seems that “meaning” is important to your group. Why is that?
Goldberg: We never want to do just a random ten minute play festival. We wanted to take a theme for each set. Yes, we’re entertaining [our audience], but we want to be thought provoking. We want a dialogue with the community. Along with creating meaning, our audiences have to be comfortable with us, and we can’t have a dialogue with the community if they’re not comfortable.
Mahonri: You seem to be growing.
Goldberg: We started with four people running the show, and now have 15 people with permanent responsibilities. 40 students were involved with the last production and have had over 100 people express interest in participating in the productions. We’ve had hundreds of people attend our shows.
Mahonri: You recently became incorporated?
Goldberg: Yes, we’re now a non-profit corporation. One of the reasons for that is to make us distinct from BYU. It’s just not a university club. We wanted it to be more than that. We don’t care where you’re from. We’re not stuck to one university. [Although we’ve become incorporated] we’re not going to charge for shows. So that we can do that, we keep costs low and accept tax deductible donations. If you do feel the entertainment was worth your times, we ask that for an hour’s entertainment you do donate what you would make in an hour. We have a pay as you leave policy.
Mahonri: Are your shows religious in nature?
Goldberg: [One night of ten minute plays] were religious in nature.
Mahonri: Do you have a focus on Mormon Theater?
Goldberg: Yes. There have been a lot of attempts to create Mormon Theater as a genre, but I don’t think it has taken off like a lot of people wanted it to. If you want new Mormon plays, playwrights have to have some hope that they’ll be produced. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Mahonri: Can playwrights hope to be paid for their work?
Goldberg: We do have to keep costs of production low, but our hope is to funnel as much money to the playwrights– we’ll see how much money we have, but that’s our goal. There’s a market for 10 minute plays. Right now we have a group in Texas interested in our plays. We want to work to the point where nearly 100% of the royalties will go the playwright.
Mahonri: Why do you value meaningful theater and theater specifically targeted towards a Mormon audience?
Goldberg: If you’re Mormon and male, you’re expected to provide for your family. If that’s the case, why would somebody be a playwright? If you’re going into playwriting, you better have a reason, a cause, because the money ain’t going to do it. Nearly every General Conference, the general authorities emphasize that we need appropriate entertainment. There is ideal, this need to articulate our culture. Our work isn’t always explicite, but Mormon values underwrite it.
Mahonri: What is the ultimate goal? Ideally where do you want this to go?
Goldberg: To create choices for theater groups around the nation by creating bodies of plays that are thought provoking and family friendly. Many are one or the other, but there’s a need for plays that are both.
Our second goal is to meaningfully contribute to Mormon Theater. We want to be in the middle ground where it’s neither Sunstone nor BYU Bookstore. There some groups designed to be open with no limits, and some groups that are saccharine. We want to work within limits, to be fundamentally faith promoting, where audiences can be comfortable– but at the same time we want to be thought provoking, fresh and life changing.
Mahonri: What’s next on the plate?
Goldberg: We have approved our calendar for the next year. We have ten themed sets of short plays (to see the upcoming season go to https://www.newplayproject.org/Season_Schedule.php ). We also have a play workshop program.
Mahonri: Are you going to have any full length works?
Goldberg: Yes. We will do 3 full length plays this year, one which has already been chosen.
Mahonri: Can playwrights send you scripts?
Goldberg: Yes. All sumissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or through our website
Mahonri: Are there any limitations to what is submitted?
Goldberg: Pretty much, except that you must remember that we have pretty low production costs. We’ve done amazing things without spending more than $50 on a show. There are content restrictions. We have had some real thought provoking theater, but we didn’t have to have somebody naked to do it. But in regards to style we’ve had a good diversity. We’ve had an absurdist piece. We even want to do foreign language drama, like Spanish speaking plays. Within Mormonism there is a global community and so we just don’t want to be Utah-centric.
Mahonri: What about the NPP have you been most proud of thus far?
Goldberg: It keeps working. We’ve done three nights of shows and it’s incredible. The consistent quality of scripts and production. And I’m always impressed by the audience reaction and talkbacks.
Mahonri: Why Mormon Theater? Why should we care?
Goldberg: There’s two ways that question can be asked. Given that you’re in theater, why Mormon Theater? Given that you’re Mormon, why theater and not something else? As for the first question, in theater, you’re there for the audience. What does your audience leave with? Life is hard and we want you to leave our plays tougher, with some more insight about life, with a greater resolve to live it well, live the good life. How this relates: I’m 23, I don’t have great wisdom. To really serve my audience I have to go back to God. I need to draw on the values Mormonism has taught me: of charity, of hope, of faith, of fight.
As to the second prong of the question, if I’m a Mormon who wants to provide, why am I doing theater? Well, as a Mormon you also want to do something positive, something meaningful with your life and career. I want to do something more than keeping people alive. I want to more than accumulating more stuff. America is good at keeping people alive, at getting more stuff. But America is lacking in emotional, spiritual and moral insight… I believe that theater can fill that need, that it has the power to do that.
The other reason to do theater specifically if you’re Mormon is [the concept pf] community. One of the biggest theological differences between us and mainstream Protestant doctrine is that we’re theologically more communal oriented. Given the emphasis on community, theater is the one art form that always has to be a community experience. A novel you read alone; eve movies people increasingly watch at home; with modern technology music is often used to separate us from each other, as evidenced with i-pods. In an age when technology has allowed us to isolate ourselves, theater forces us to come together.
For more information on the new play project, go to https://www.newplayproject.org/