Producing Mormon Theater Outside Utah

It isn’t often that an LDS author creates an LDS-themed play that is performed outside of the few venues in Utah that are willing to occasionally perform Mormon works. I have the impression that the timeliness of the topic of the play has a lot to do with interest in performing these works, which makes me wonder, shouldn’t more Mormon playwrights confront topical issues? Or are they and I’m not aware enough?

I noticed this tendency towards the topical recently because of news stories about the recent opening in Los Angeles of Carol Lynn Pearson‘s play Facing East, in which an LDS couple struggles with the suicide of their excommunicated gay son. [I’ve read reviews in both the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times.] Other LDS plays I’ve seen produced outside of Utah also kind of fall into this category; for example, Julie Jensen’s play Two Headed was produced here in New York City nearly a decade ago.

While I can’t say that this is a clear trend in any way. There are certainly LDS plays that are topical and yet still only get performed in those same few venues. It also may be that the playwright’s residence outside of Utah is a factor somehow–Pearson lives in California and Jensen in Las Vegas (if I recall correctly).

It is also easy to see why some LDS authors shy away from topical subjects. The most dependable audience for LDS-themed plays has to be in Utah, but it is easy to see why much of that audience might dislike topical works because they often challenge conventional ways of thinking about their subject. On the other hand, without that challenge to convention, it is difficult to attract the interest of theaters outside of Utah, who are faced with tens of thousands of possible scripts to perform.

I’m sure this isn’t the only factor that LDS playwrights face in writing plays. Familiarity with the subject has to be an important factor — for example, Pearson is intimately familiar with the issues of homosexuality in Facing East, since her late husband was gay and died of AIDS, her daughter is divorced from a gay man, and she has friends that have struggled with being gay in the Church, such as her friend and early collaborator, Trevor Southey. Likewise, Jensen’s background is in southern Utah, where Two Headed is set.

Still, with the inherent difficulty of getting LDS plays performed, and the benefit that I, at least, see in getting a non-LDS audience for LDS works, it sure seems like topical subjects may present an easier road to getting works before a national audience. And such plays don’t necessarily turn off LDS audiences, if done right. Gideon Burton, on his blog, recently reviewed Melissa Leilani Larson’s play Little Happy Secrets (produced for the New Play Project), which also deals with homosexuality, suggesting that it “is an unqualified success.” [I understand that Mahonri will cover it here also.]

I hate to suggest what anyone should write about, so I guess I’m just throwing out some food for thought. What do you think?

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14 thoughts on “Producing Mormon Theater Outside Utah”

  1. .

    The novella I’m writing this summer: One of the main characters is an LDS woman in Manhattan who has recently decided to start doing Mormon theater in NYC. Over the course of the book, her theater is preparing for its first Mormon play.

    This comment has no real point, it’s just what came to my mind as I read your post. Your nonquestion made it allowable. And so I said it.

    ps: what’s the deal with posting on short story friday? shame on you! tch tch.

  2. No, no. Friday mornings are up for grabs. Short Story Friday is meant to launch us in to the weekend which is why I started posting it on Fri. afternoons. Something to read and think about and comment on (although mainly Theric is doing that lately) on Sat. or Sun.

    Also: your novella sounds very cool. Keep us (or just me) updated on what you do with it. As you know the Mormon novella has become a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine.

  3. .

    My apologies to Kent then.

    And, Wm, I’ll let you know when I have a shareable draft, if you would like to read it.

  4. From a playwright’s perspective, there’s a couple of things to look at here.

    First, are you talking only about Mormon plays by Mormon playwrights, or also non-Mormon plays by Mormon playwrights (meaning that the characters and themes aren’t particularly Mormon)?

    Because, if the latter, Tim Slover’s has had his plays performed all over, especially his play _Joyful Noise_ abou t Handel, which has played in San Diego, New York, and theaters throughout the US and Canada. Also his two plays about Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton have had non-Utah performances, I believe.

    Slover isn’t particularly a topical writer, but a historical writer (which, IMO, is another interesting way of approaching crossing over beyond the Utah audience).

    There are a number of other Mormon playwrights who have played in New York (Eric Samuelsen and Elizabeth Hansen immediately come to mind).

    Topical plays are dealt with pretty extensively by Eric Samuelsen and, now (as mentioned) Mel Larson. Samuelsen, especially, that’s kind of his forte.

    My own plays _Fading Flower_ and _Friends of God_ could be seen as topical… they both deal pretty extensively with polygamy. But that was not my intent in writing them. I wanted to cover historical periods and characters (the RLDS/ LDS conflict and the
    Martyrdom), so the topical element came in because polygamy was so entrenched in those periods and characters.

    And that’s kind of how I view it: the topic should be second to the characters and events. When I choose a historical person or series of events, or when I write a purely fictional piece, then it’s usually based on a character that I’m drawn to, or an interesting story arc. I’m all about meaning and theme, but the topic usually comes from the well of the character, not the characters coming from the well of the topic. And that’s why _Little Happy Secrets_ works so much better than a play like _Facing East_. _Facing East_’s characters were a little more flat because it seemed so focused on the topic at hand, while the characters is what made _Little Happy Secrets_ so effective and touching.

    So I try to stray away from topics, unless they’re deeply seated in character or, at least, plot. That doesn’t mean I won’t tackle topics. I want to do a Pro-Life play at some point… but I only wanted to do that after I found an interesting character who I think can carry the play. I believe that theme will always most effectively emerge from character.

  5. .

    I agree. I can’t stand Harlan Ellison any more than I can Jack Weyland because they’re both writing Viewpoint and Theme which is never as compelling or lasting as Character. I believe characters come first. And if they’re honest, the play will be honest.

    Even works that a hugely point-driven (1984, Candide….) become lasting when they tell a story based in character that is honest and true.

  6. I think the difficulty in producing Mormon plays in certain venues can lie in exclusivity (I feel this is also a big problem with LDS cinema). i think theatres and theatre companies outside of Utah may be starting to show more of an interest in LDS themes and characters, as long as the theology and culture presented in those plays are not overwhelming; naturally people want to understand what they are seeing and/or reading or they’ll be turned off. The challenge, as I see it, to the writer is to tell a story that is specific without being exclusive. Good times. I say bring it.

  7. Greenfrog (3):

    Were you involved in the same DC-area production of Pearson’s The Order Is Love that I was, about 35 years ago?

    I was. What memories!

    I also remember the ludicrous rumor going around backstage that not just the play, but our production was going on to New York & to Broadway. In retrospect, very silly.

    In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t have to do any actual acting. All we had to do was sing a song and pretend to wear our our pants.

    Did anyone who wasn’t LDS come? Again in retrospect, I rather doubt it.

  8. Mahonri (6) wrote:

    First, are you talking only about Mormon plays by Mormon playwrights, or also non-Mormon plays by Mormon playwrights (meaning that the characters and themes aren’t particularly Mormon)?

    I had in my mind Mormon plays by Mormon playwrights.

    Slover isn’t particularly a topical writer, but a historical writer (which, IMO, is another interesting way of approaching crossing over beyond the Utah audience).

    I agree, but in historical writing, it happens at the expense of Mormon topics. If the subject is Mormon and historical, its much harder to get an audience, verses Mormon and topical, wouldn’t you think?

    BTW, I do think I should say that I’m NOT trying to advise playwrights about what to write about, or how important topic is vs. character.

    What interests me here is what Mormon-themed plays are most likely to attract a non-Mormon audience. When I look back over the canon of Mormon theater, it seems more likely that a theater could get an audience here in New York (likely Off Broadway or of off Broadway) for topical works like Facing East (already done here) or Huebner or perhaps even Gadianton, than it does for Saturday’s Warrior or The Order is Love or even The Mantle of the Prophet.

  9. _Saturday’s Warrior_ is actually VERY topical. It’s main theme is fighting against the intense zero population mentality of the time. It does so within a religious context rather than a secular one, but it’s very focused on its topic.

    I’ve always thought _Gadianton_ had the possibility of doing well outside of Utah. A lot of Eric Samuelsen’s plays would.

    _Huebener_ is perhaps a little dated in its style, but I love that play and that story. An updated version would have a strong possibility for crossover… which is why there is a film version trying to be made of Helmuth Huebener’s story by Matt Whittaker (sp?)and Kaleidoscope Films. It’s not based on the play, but looks good. They have Haley Joel Osment playing Huebener, if they can get the funding in place.

    Although I don’t consider Huebener to be particularly “topical” in the purest sense. It’s got the “authority vs. conscience” theme, but that’s not something that is particularly modern or immediate.

    Facing East has been done in New York already.
    I would love to see Tim Slover’s _Hancock County_ done in New York. It might have a fighting chance. In fact, I would love to see ANY predominantly Mormon play that does not deal with homosexuality or the Mountain Meadows Massacre find its way to a New York mainstage (not that I don’t think those topics are worth addressing, I just want to see Mormonism treated as more than a two trick pony), especially if it actually had positive, or at least compassionate and accurate, portrayals or Mormons.

  10. Hello,

    I was wondering if anyone is considering doing a play that answers the current Book of Mormon Play on Broadway.

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