PART ONE: PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
I’ve had an interesting and fruitful relationship with New Play Project over the past several years. They have helped me produce three of my plays (including two of my favorite pieces, The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun), and were excellent collaborators, critics, visionaries, and artisans. However, although I count many of their members as dear friends, I was never in the center of the organization, but rather an occasional partner, flirting with the group on the outskirts… an outsider who occasionally came in from the cold. This put me in an odd position, where I was able to watch their inner workings, while never really being a part of them. This allowed me to be both a cheerleader and a critic. A confidante and a stranger. A partner and a rival. We had similar visions, but different paths.
A good example of this divergence of paths can be gleaned from the beautiful anthology of New Play Project’s best plays which this series of posts is going to review and reflect on… Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project. I was originally asked to contribute one of my full length plays produced with NPP, either The Fading Flower or Swallow the Sun as part of this volume. However, I chose to opt out, as I have been in talks with a publisher to possibly publish a selection of my plays. In deference to this possible volume of my plays, I decided against being included. My individual project took precedence for me over this superb collective collection. Which is an interesting illustration of how NPP and I have found ourselves on different trajectories the last few years (hold on, I promise, this is not simply self conscious navel gazing, there’s a reason I’m inserting myself into this narrative).
NPP is a wonderful group effort, adapting and morphing as people enter in and out of the organization. That’s their strength and their weakness…it’s the vision, the movement that is the emphasis, not the individual artists. It’s very Zion-like that way. Its roster of leaders and foot soldiers have been in constant flux since their inception, while their vision of “values driven theatre” informed by a varied range, but ultimately collective, set of Mormon beliefs. Meanwhile, my work has been centered on, well, frankly, my own vision of Mormon beliefs and values. It’s been very artist-centric, for better or worse.
Which brings up an interesting correlation. In this volume, one of NPP’s founders, as well as one of Mormonism’s best playwrights, James Goldberg writes about the Harlem Renaissance in his essay, “Towards a Mormon Renaissance.” I’ll touch even more on this more later, as the Harlem Renaissance has been a subject that has been dear to my heart for many years, ever since I took a class on it in my early college days. But a similar division, between the movement and the individual artist, arose in the Harlem Renaissance. Some of the African-American artists were intent on being part of this larger artistic movement that was occurring in Harlem at the time, while others saw the movement as stifling their individual voices and visions. Pioneers like W.E.B. DuBois were trying to make the African-American artistic community a cohesive unit while other artisans chaffed at what they thought was a group who were more interested in their common heritage, rather than their individual voices.
This played out in a dramatic way when two of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, decided to come together in this spirit of collaboration to create a play called Mule Bone. The results were rather disastrous, as the two strong minded artists eventually came to their inevitable differences. As the project neared its completion, issues involving who to credit (including the typist Lousie Thompson, whom they dictated the play to); their relationship with a patron (Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, with whom Hughes was severing his relationship, while Hurston wanted to remain in her good graces); plus an eventual theft of intellectual property (when applying for the copyright, Hurston had the gall to list herself as the sole author); all led to an explosion of their once strong friendship. The play was not produced until 1991, over 60 years after they first began on the project, and long after both Hughes and Hurston were dead. After the production, most critics agreed… for all that fuss, the play wasn’t actually all that good.
Ironically, NPP helped me understand this conflict between the individual and the group after they had planned on helping me produce the revival of my play Farewell to Eden, but then dropped out after NPP’s board decided it wasn’t worth their involvement after all. The individual had been ushered out by the group. A good deal of money, time, manpower, and rehearsal had already been invested into Farewell to Eden by that point, so my producing partner Jacob Figueira and I had to make a quick decision. We had the funds, but not the organization. So I quickly and somewhat haphazardly created my sole proprietorship organization Zion Theatre Company, and that’s the banner my work has gone under since then. I had intended to travel with New Play Project a little longer, but was forced from the nest on this occasion. I’ve been trying to keep in the air since then, and it’s gone relatively well.
After all, I started out independent of NPP, having had a number of my plays associated with Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University), the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival, and other organizations. With the help of some wonderful mentors, I had already carved out my identity as a Mormon playwright long before I came across NPP. I was an independent agent then, I was when I worked with NPP, and I continue to be one. I’m set in a very specific, very individual course, which I feel the Lord outlined to me many years ago.
However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the utmost respect and fondness for New Play Project, its mission, and its members. I have bright, beautiful memories collaborating with them, which is a far cry from the kind of tension that grew up between artists like Hughes and Hurston. NPP are doing something utterly magnificent with the barest of resources… they’re running on the fumes of the Spirit and the calls of prophets like Spencer W. Kimball and Orson F. Whitney, who have long called for the kind of work that they are delivering. Having been a producer, director, writer, actor, assistant stage manager, assistant props master, costume designer, stage crew, house manager, “fill in the blank here” for many productions, I know how difficult what they do is, and how miraculous their outcome has been.
This volume of NPP’s plays, Out of the Mount, is yet another outgrowth of their miraculous movement. I received my copy of it in the mail last night (for my upcoming birthday), and I have plowed through a good portion of it already. It has brought back many wonderful memories, including my first experience with NPP, seeing a collection of their early plays at the Provo Library, when they were performing on planks and cinder blocks. It was a pretty rough operation back then, a strange and potent mixture of the painfully amateur and the sublime. And I believe it was also on that occasion when I was thrilled to hear James Goldberg address one of my favorite subjects in the pre-show essay… the Harlem Renaissance. And he even tied it to Mormon Literature and Drama, a correlation I had often thought of myself when I took my Harlem Renaissance class at UVSC. In this instance, Goldberg had found a ready and enthusiastic audience member for his sermon. This clear outlining of vision was powerful and dynamic, and at that moment James Goldberg became the W.E.B. DuBois of Mormon Drama.
Since then NPP has gone through quite the metamorphoses. Gone are the boards and cinder blocks, gone are the amateurish scripts. The vast majority of their work, despite their still limited resources, are polished and powerful, especially the quality of NPP’s writers. Their semi-permanent home (at least for the past few years) at the Provo Theatre is a lovely space. They have established a loyal audience and corps of now experienced volunteers. Their productions of “Prodigal Son” and Little Happy Secrets have won back to back Association for Mormon Letters Awards for Best Drama. New Play Project is a respected and vibrant force within the Mormon theatrical community. Vision is becoming reality, a prophetic fulfillment. If they can keep their momentum, New Play Project could still be a power player in the Mormon Arts scene for years to come.
With James Goldberg, Adam Stallard, Melissa Leilani Larson, Arisael Rivera, Eric Heaps, and many of the old guard bowing out, or having long bowed out, for other projects and life focuses, leadership of the group has been passed down to the very able hands of Davey Morrison, Bianca Dillard-Morrison (who has been with the group from the beginning), and Steve and Teresa Gashler. All of them are very talented, able, and intelligent individuals. New Play Project still has a very promising future.
So… are we really in a Mormon Renaissance? Or have we been in one for quite a while? After all, we’ve had powerful writers, dramatists, visual artists, and musicians before now. Our literary heritage links all the way back to Parley P. Pratt. One could even argue that its linked back to Joseph Smith. We had our own “lost generation” of writers in the 1920s. BYU has been a huge force in Mormon Arts, Music, and Letters for decades. We’ve had our Orson Scott Cards, our Levi Petersons, our James Christensens, our Minerva Teicherts, our Eric Samuelsens, our Thomas Rogers, our Osmonds, our Gladys Knights and, yes, our Stephanie Meyers. It’s not an impossible feat to hear of any number of famous Mormon artists, musicians, and writers.
But a movement. A renaissance. That’s actually different, quite different, in fact, than a handful of successful artists with a common heritage. One could argue that the Mormon Renaissance began with the advent of Richard Dutcher and the LDS film movement he created. Perhaps even earlier with the school of thoughts within the BYU Theatre Department under the opposing tutelage of Charles Whitman and Max Golightly. Or perhaps it can be connected to the pioneering of people like Eugene England, Margaret Young, Douglas Thayer, Susan E. Howe, and Levi Peterson. Or perhaps the creation of the literary arm of Deseret Book. Or the establishment of the Association for Mormon Letters and other like groups.
Whatever the case, groups like New Play Project, Zarahemla Books, and, yes, even modern blogs like A Motley Vision have been rising up, all with defined visions and strong, artistic ambitions. They strive to connect their art to their religious heritage in a very purposeful, vibrant way. Whether the larger world takes notice or not, I believe we may very well be in the midst of a Mormon Renaissance now, or at least the beginning of one. And we’re starting to realize it. With projects like Out of the Mount, their short play festivals, and their productions of longer works, New Play Project has gained a well earned, prominent place among this supposed movement.
But, for just a moment, let’s take a look at Shakespeare. Yes, Shakespeare. Isn’t that what Orson F. Whitney called for “Miltons and Shakespeares of our own?” Shakespeare was not of an age “but for all time,” as Ben Johnson put it. Which was a very prescient and unselfish comment coming from a contemporary playwright and rival of Shakespeare. It’s a very true and prophetic statement. Shakespeare lived in a competitive time, artistically. His plays had to go up against playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Phillip Massinger, Thomas Kyd, and, as before stated, Ben Johnson. Talented men, all. Some of them were even attached to groups and movements, as Marlowe was. But he is not often directly associated with them, he is not part of their elite group. Robert Greene even went so far as to purposely snub and distance Shakespeare from the artistic groups of the age by calling Shakespeare an “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.” An Elizabethan and Jacobean playwight as Shakespeare was, and as part of the original Renaissance as he was, the Bard created his own identity that rose above all those labels. He had his very own adjective created for him… “Shakespearean.”
The reason I bring that up is that I think that New Play Project, perhaps accidentally, but I suspect purposefully, is fulfilling the vital role of helping its writers rise above its movement. Both Melissa Leilani Larson and James Goldberg have been making independent names for themselves, before and after their involvement with NPP, and are known as writers within their own right. And I think that is a good thing.
Art can be associated with a movement but, in the end, it has to be much more personal and soulful than that for it to have any sort of resonance within the human heart. Artists within the Harlem Renaissance found Shakespeare’s maxim in King Lear, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” very difficult to fulfill when they were asked to have their art continually correlated and directed towards the propaganda of the African-American movement.
This a very real, and very important tension which has been noted by nearly all artists associated with a community throughout the ages. And I think that the tension created is vital. Whether you’re Chaim Potok, Zora Neale Hurston, or Orson Scott Card, the reigns of a moral culture and the freedom of the individual heart are both valuable tools, if used correctly. Renaissances are powerful things, creating a focused change, a powerful thrust forward for entire communities. However, Humanism, the power of the individual, was at the heart of the original Renaissance. And the individual civil rights of all humankind, was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. These were necessarily balanced by the needs of a community that transcended the selfishness that would be so easy to give into.
If we are indeed emerging into a Mormon Renaissance, I hope that groups like New Play Project continue to use their organizations as a stepping ladder for its individual artists (as I believe they currently do) and realize that the organization is not the end, in and of itself. Rather, that they are providing an invaluable (and changing) service that may one day truly create “Shakespeares of our own.” Mormonism itself provides a model for that. It is a religion that both focuses on creating a society, a communal Zion, while still making room for individual exaltation, where each of us can literally become gods and goddesses. This is the perfect marriage, a Bride and Bridegroom that give and take, serve and be served, exalt and debase themselves for the good of the community and the individual. I have seen for myself New Play Project do just this with their art, for the good of all involved.
The further installments of this series on my reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 Plays from New Project will focus more specifically on the content of the anthology, the plays themselves. I will also do longer, more in depth reviews on the plays of James Goldberg and Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets.