This is the first part of a series I’m writing on New Play Project, the most interesting and promising Mormon theater group to arrive on the scene for many years. Following installments will include:
Part Two: Little Happy Secrets: A Milestone in Mormon Drama
This piece will discuss on the significance of Melissa Leilani Larson’s groundbreaking play, which artistically put New Play Project on the map unlike anything else they had done previously.
Part Three: Prodigal Son: The Association of Mormon Letters Honors New Play Project
This piece will discuss James Goldberg’s short play “Prodigal Son” and the significance of it winning the AML’s 2008 Award for best play.
Part Four: Swallow the Sun and The Fading Flower: A personal perspective
In this piece I will discuss my own collaboration with New Play Project in producing my full length works.
Part Five: New Play Project: Here To Stay?
In the conclusion of the series, I’ll take a look at what I think it will take for New Play Project to survive.
Now onto Part One:
I’ll be honest, the first time I saw a show put on by New Play Project, I wasn’t particularly impressed. They were performing a set of short plays in a back room of the Provo library. Some of the writing was true quality, while other pieces were lackluster. The acting and directing were uneven as well. And they were performing on wooden planks placed upon cinder blocks with little or no budget. There were real nuggets of promise in the set of plays I saw, but it was all still very unrefined.
However, even back then they had two things that have shaped them into the robust organization they are today: passion and organization. Those involved in the Project were a group of volunteers who were doing it for no other apparent reason than that they loved both theater and the Gospel and were intent on building “values driven theater.” This passion was evident from their earnestness, their valiant effort and their intent to improve. As I became more acquainted with the group, I started to realize that these were people with a mission, ready to overcome the obstacles, discouragement and reckless criticism that comes against the birthing of any such group. Many of its leaders, such as the eloquent James Goldberg, the energetic Arisael Rivera and the sophisticated Bianca Dillard were ensuring the survival of the group through sheer belief, will power and work ethic.
The organizational aspect of their group was no less important than their passion. They were organized properly as a non-profit group, had specified leadership positions and had a very strong, consistent approach to every aspect of their organization. For a grass roots, volunteer organization, they were remarkably put together. They also made sure that the organization didn’t die when its founders oft times went onto other things. A training was in place, as one wave of people replaced the last.
And the workshops. Oh, the workshops! Inconsistently I started attending some of their playwriting workshops where they would discuss, criticize and refine each other’s work. These organized sessions, led by NPP’s incisive and astute dramaturg Bianca Dillard, were exceptional. Rarely have I seen such good feedback (which my own plays would eventually benefit from). With specific goals and approaches to their critiques, I noticed as time went on the plays were becoming more and more quality as these workshops did their work. Each set of new plays performed became better than the last until the last several sets of short play festivals have all boasted high quality writing. And with that quality writing has also come improved acting and directing, as the organization’s improved reputation attracted better actors, writers and directors, as well as the faithful stalwarts from previous shows having improved in their craft through their involvement with NPP. And it wasn’t just actors and writers, either. People like Adam Stallard and Ben Crowder not only brought their writing pens and acting voices to the scene, but became instrumental in the inner core of the group, bringing fresh ideas, organizational insight and new blood. It is a good sign as NPP keeps bringing on new people to contribute to the organization, strengthening where they were once weak, fastening where they were once loose.
Also vital to NPP was moving out of the Provo Library and spare rooms on BYU campus and moving into a space they could in essence call their own. Renting Provo Theater Company’s intimate and beautiful space on 100 North and 105 East in Provo was a perfect fit for both NPP and the theater’s owners who had made little use of the space since PTC’s apparent demise a few years ago. Having a consistent and quality space brought just that much more credibility to the group and set them on the road to be taken seriously as they realized ambiance is almost as important as performance.
Another important step that NPP has taken recently is a stronger commitment to full length works. I know there was a philosophy floating around in the group for a while that if a play couldn’t be condensed into 10 to 30 minutes, it wasn’t worth telling. I’m glad that they dispensed with this MTV, short attention span philosophy and are now diverting some efforts from their short play festivals to also include full lengths in their seasons. The works of Melissa Larson, Arisael Rivera, Katherine Gee, and myself have been successful and have brought in a more varied audience than the nearly strictly BYU students that the short plays draw in. I think the short play festivals are extremely important in developing the young, budding talent of its student writers, but I’m glad that NPP has now shown commitment to work that can take its time to unfold.
From its little acorn, NPP is slowly growing into a great oak. If it can protect its beautiful organization, and survive the many forces that try to tear apart the success of the Arts, then I believe they have the ability to have a lasting influence on the Mormon Drama and the larger Mormon Arts.
Check out New Play Project’s website: www.newplayproject.org
Also, for those who are in the Utah Valley area, New Play Project is still running my play The Fading Flower, with its final performances being tonight, June at 7:30pm, with additional extensions for Saturday, June 13, at 7:30 pm and Monday, tJune 15, at 7:30 pm. For additional information about the show, go to http://newplayproject.org/season/2009/fading-flower/ . For those not in the area, a DVD 2 pack selling recordings of both The Fading Flower and last year’s Swallow The Sun will be coming soon. The two pack will sell for $15.