The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two

Out of the Mount

For the actual review of the majority of the short plays in Out of the Mount (a fuller treatment on Little Happy Secrets and “Prodigal Son” will follow) , I was considering doing little mini-reviews for each short play. However, as I got caught up reading the anthology, I noticed two distinct qualities that kept reoccurring that not only expressed the nature of the volume, but the nature of New Play Project itself. So it is with those two major elements in mind that I approach this volume of the work of the remarkable New Play Project, the young and the religious.

THE YOUNG

As one reads the plays in Out of the Mount, one quickly gets the sense of the demographic of authors that these plays have been written by: New Play Project consist of young, college-aged playwrights. With the exception of Eric Samuelsen and perhaps one or two others, the majority of these writers were under 30 when they wrote these plays…most likely under 25. Most of them were single, college aged students when these plays were written and first produced, the vast majority of them hailing from Brigham Young University (with an occassional UVU student). Now this is one of the volume’s greatest strengths and its greatest limitation. A limitation, because it naturally limits the breadth of  experience that informs these works. An immense strength, because the plays are infused with the kinetic energy, the passion, the exploring bravery, and the vibrant openness that comes with being young. It also helps that, though young, these writers are smart. And talented.

It’s almost comical how many of the plays are about a young man and a young woman arguing. In the first play of the volume “Adam and Eve,” Davey Morrison introduces us to an Adam and Eve who aren’t quite full fledged, mature adults, but who don’t have their previous wide-eyed innocence either. They’re young adults who have progressed beyond teenage attitudes, but held onto a lot of that angst, raw emotion, vulnerability, and sarcasm that informs so much of that transition in life. It’s an interesting and insightful portrayal. But the heart of the piece, although it touches upon Adam and Eve’s relationship with God at the end, is more focused on Adam and Eve’s budding relationship to each other.

Arisael Rivera’s “The Look,” Deborah Yarchun’s “On Gonoga Falls” (although this dynamic is given a twist at the end), and Morrison’s “Eleven O’Clock News” all have similar “young-male-female-argument” relationship dynamics to them. Although in “Eleven O’Clock News” the couple is married, it’s obvious that they are a young, married couple, who have never even discussed their attitudes about having children before now (I heartily recommend having that conversation before getting married, by the way). Again, this could be, and sometimes is, a big weakness with these plays. But more often than not, to see a relationship at its inception, to see the world through younger eyes again, to have that wonder and confusion and barely lost innocence all mixed up with still raging hormones and self doubt… it’s a kind of frantic magic.

It’s interesting to see even Eric Samuelsen get into this game. His piece “The Exact Total Opposite” is perhaps the prime example of the young-adult-relationship-drama genre displayed in the volume. Which is kind of ironic since Samuelsen is the most bonafide, long established adult in the mix (in his 40s?). But it makes sense, when you know Eric. He told me once in an interview:

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.

So Samuelsen is a natural match with this group. He may be getting older, but he refuses to act like that matters. I’m certain that he could tell you more about modern music and culture than I ever could (he probably could have done so when I was still in high school…I’m kind of old fashioned that way, have always been an “old soul”). Samuelsen keeps himself fresh, up to date, and contemporary. Being a professor to young college students, I’m sure, helps with that endeavor.

So Samuelsen’s “The Exact Total Opposite” takes that track, being about a young man who practically stalks a young girl (at least from her perspective) after she broke up with him and decides that the best way to try and win her back to is to sell his car and buy her an engagement ring. Hm. Hrm. Now this was one of the most frustrating pieces in the volume for me personally. This is the kind of piece that ruined my life for a little while. The play sets up a very dysfunctional relationship, pairing a verbally abusive, sometimes cruel, cynical young woman with a wishy washy, emotionally intense young man. Their relationship  consists of a lot of really unhealthy dynamics. Then, to my audible aghast, she takes the bait and they’re going to get married.

YAAARGH! This is the kind of story that I ate up in high school and early college (Jane Eyre is still, reluctantly, one of my favorite novels). Having filled my head with this sort of love conquers all melodrama, I ran into a similar situation in early college. A poor, unsuspecting girl broke up with me, and I, being filled with these sort of romantic notions planted in my head by romantic comedies and Jane Austen, didn’t know that when she said, “I still want to be friends,” she really meant, “It’s irretrievably over, utterly destroyed, and I really don’t think we should ever talk again. Like ever.”

I was innocent, naive, really kind of pitiful, and strived to, like the boy in this story, find a way to win her back. It led to some disastrous consequences, which were preceded with notes left at her apartment, “Saturday’s Warrior” daydreams, rambling phone messages, some gifts, and even some instances where she thought I was stalking her because I happened to go to plays where she was in the audience/ cast, or I had play rehearsals in the same building where she had class (there was even this time I was waiting outside David Morgan’s office for rehearsal when she was going to Eric Samuelsen’s playwriting class across the hall.   Yeah, it totally looked like I was stalking her, just waiting outside her class. Groan). I still tend to the scars that were left by the aftermath of the experience.  It was pretty horrendous.

And pretty typical. Especially at that stage of life. I have seen this basic story played over and over again in the lives of young people, and it usually self destructs with, uhm, a dinosaur killing crater in its wake. Which is why I wondered, “Why in the name of all free thinking sanity is Eric writing this?! With a ‘happy’ ending, no less!!!” Samuelsen, you see, was a sort of witness to the aforementioned events in my life and I found it disturbing that he was putting a happy, positive spin on the ending of this kind of story. But then I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s satire.”   That made me feel so much better about it. But then there’s also the thought… “Maybe sometimes that ending happens. Maybe some people find happiness in their relationship, despite the obviously unhealthy elements of their relationship.” That’s the hope which fuels a lot of hard marriages.

I wrote a short play once that is somewhat similar to “The Exact Total Opposite.” It was called “Immortal Hearts,” which I wrote for an Extreme Theatre 24 hour event (and which was recently revived, years later, in a collection of my short plays this last summer). At that point, I  knew the real ending to that story wasn’t going to be happy, so I decided to create a world for my characters where it could exist. Ironically, although she liked other plays in the set, “Immortal Hearts” was pummeled in Bianca Dillard’s review of the set of plays in UTBA. Perhaps it deserved it. I suspect it may have. But young people keep writing stories like this. Some of them even become powerful pieces of literature, ala the Bronte sisters. It’s part of our psyche, part of our human experiences, part of our wrenched, broken hearts.

And especially part of being young. Some of those experiences are painful. Some of those experiences are hilarious. Some of those experiences are bewildering. And some are ecstatically, enthusiastically joyful… skyrocketing with life.

And not all these stories center around angsty, sarcastic romance by the way. Some of them deal with the increasing distance created between young people and their parents, such as Matthew Greene’s beautiful “Foxgloves” and James Goldberg’s powerful “Prodigal Son.” Some of the plays deal with the neurological baggage we start coming to grips with at that point in life, such as Bianca Dillard’s “No One’s Superman” and Yarchun’s “On Gonoga Falls.” And Adam Stallard’s “Irrational Numbers” (still one of my favorite plays ever produced by New Play Project) handily tackles both of those topics. And some even jump into absurdism like Julie Saunders’ “Caution”; Immigration, like Lyvia Martinez’s “Illegal Alien”; or the threat of our own mortality, as in Morrison’s “To Be Continued.” Even Samuelsen’s portrayal of a pre-mortal Lucifer in “Gaia” has a youthful glint to him. Lucifer has the cynical, self assured (yet so fragile) hostility of one who has just begun to doubt, that has just disconnected himself from his parents for the first time, and is drunk on that new found freedom. And he has that flippant, (pardon the term) “devil may care” attitude… except with the attached resentment that not only wants to disconnect himself from his former faith, but also wants to throw a monkey in the works and flip off all his previously treasured beliefs that he now believes weighed him down and oppressed him all these years.

Whatever the topic, however, the playwrights of New Play Project approach their work with the vigor and open searching that comes before we eventually settle into the complacency of the defined social and political labels we decide to semi-permanently adopt into our adult lives. But at this point of youthful awe we are all still keen sighted explorers, seeing how far our horizons truly stretch. That youthful enthusiasm is part of the sparkling beauty behind the work of New Play Project.

It would be interesting, however, to see New Play Project mature even farther than the college aged niche that its created for itself in Utah Valley. One only has to look around at the audiences of New Play Project’s sets of short plays to see who their chief patrons are. The audience is almost always completely filled with BYU and UVU college students. This was who their plays were really written for, and the demographics in the seats reflect at how successfully they achieved that end.

However, something interesting happened when New Play Project produced my plays Swallow the Sun and The Fading Flower. More than once I was told by a number of New Play Project staff members at how surprised they were at how much “gray hair” they saw in the audience. My plays were centering around C.S. Lewis, period dramas, and Mormon History. These were subjects which, although still interesting to a younger crowd, naturally attracted an older demographic. It was a phenomenon New Play Project hadn’t seen with their previous outings. I guess I’m the opposite of Eric Samuelsen that way. Although he’s older than I am, he still feels young at heart. While I was always told that I was serious for my age. A friend in high school used to tease me about how “sober” I was. How old I seemed. But perhaps New Play Project could use a little more “gray hair,” not only  in their audience, but in the ranks of its staff and writers.

For one thing, New Play Project has a retention problem. Once its staff graduates or gets married, they’re often off into other horizons. Its original members and writers are now far flung all across the country. Having more contributers, like Eric Samuelsen, who have a more settled investment in the area would assist in creating a more stable crew for NPP to thrive in. Of course, for any established member of the community to take away time from their career and family is difficult, especially if its not a paid position.

But I personally would at least love to see some more veteran playwrights in the mix of NPP’s plays. Has NPP tried to solicit plays from the likes of Margaret Young, James Arrington, Scott Bronson, Elizabeth Howe, Bob Elliott, Thom Rogers, or Tim Slover? It could create a whole new dynamic for New Play Project, while still retaining the interest of the college crowd.

Making an audience member out of a college student is wonderful (especially within the dating scene, where the audience comes two by two), but they’re a transient crowd. A lot of them you’ll have for only four years, tops. But if you make an audience member out of somebody who is sticking around in the community, they could be a patron for decades. Not to mention that they often have more discretionary income to spend on the arts in the first place. The Hale Centre Theatre in Utah has this formula down to an art. In practical terms, a little bit of gray hair goes a long way.

AND THE RELIGIOUS

More defining than their youthfulness, however, is New Play Project’s spirituality. From the outset, New Play Project has established themselves as a religious organization. And this, frankly, is refreshing. Those of us who interact with the arts know how often it can be an environment that is hostile to faith, especially if you happen to Mormon. In a post Prop 8 world, that is becoming increasingly true, with plays as lauded and as powerful as Angels in America creating a really bitter taste in the mouth of theatrical artists against Mormonism. You don’t even have to get that high brow. You don’t have to look farther than South Park to see the derision and misconstruction that has built up against Mormons in popular culture, even in those rare moments when they do it with a more benign and less hostile touch. So to have New Play Project foster a place where Mormon dramatists and actors can gather and create something that truly represents them is a godsend.

However, New Play Project doesn’t take the easy route in this approach. It’s an organization that is a place of faith, but earned faith. Their plays aren’t trite or didactic. They grapple with hard issues and hard questions. They don’t settle for propaganda or stereotypical narratives. And that is certainly reflected in Out of the Mount.

Some of the plays are pretty straight forward, like the light hearted “On Being a Priest” by Mary and Eric “C” Heaps, which puts a Catholic Priest and a 16 year old Mormon “priest” and starts making the glaring comparison between the two of them. Again, simple and fun stuff. Then, still with a light touch, but a little more searching attitude, we travel with two sister missionaries in Goldberg’s “Book of Mormon Story” into the home of an investigator who believes the Book of Mormon “as far as it is translated correctly” and tells us why he believes King Noah was doing cocaine. Funny play, but then it touches on a real spirituality as we realize that this man really does believe in Book or Mormon, albeit with a non-traditional lens. Then there’s the sweet “Little Boy Mo” by Alexandra Mackenzie, in which God plays with a little child, responds to his questions, and its never entirely clear which side of the veil they’re on.

Melissa Leilani Larson’s “Burning in the Bosom” is especially effective in its set up of a young woman’s train of thought during sacrament meeting, where her thoughts wander from the inconsequential to the secular, but leads to perhaps her first legitimately understood experience with the Holy Ghost.

Things start getting heavier, however, with plays like Matthew Greene’s “Foxgloves” and Katherine Gee’s “Based on Truish Stories” as we start dealing with characters who doubt to counteract those characters who believe. These are still faith promoting plays but, again, faith that is earned. And they’re subtle in their spirituality, letting it come naturally and organically. These two plays, especially, are crafted with true artistry and beauty. I’m particularly fond of “Based on Truish Stories,” whose comparitive religion approach transcends Mormonism and connects to the spirituality that binds all people of faith together, even when our particular stories don’t allow us to bond with each other completely.

These all lead to the grand crescendo that are found in Eric Samuelsen’s “Gaia,” James Goldberg’s “Prodigal Son,” and Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets. Since I’ll be addressing both “Prodigal Son” and Little Happy Secrets more in depth in the last two parts of this series, right now I’ll just focus on “Gaia” and how it relates to what New Play Project is trying to do.

“Gaia,” by the way, is part of a larger set of short plays which are an interesting interplay of the Old Testament stories seen with a feminist lens (which, I believe, had a complete performance at the Covey Center… oh, the great Mormon Drama I miss living out of Utah now). This feminism plays an important part in the stand alone “Gaia” which also played during one of New Play Project’s short play festivals.

I’ve already discussed how Samuelsen portrays Lucifer in the play, so let’s take a look at how deals with Gaia, a name Samuelsen uses for the pre-mortal Eve (the name Gaia is from Greek mythology, by the way, who is Mother Earth, mother of the Titans). This is a transition point for the relationship between these two characters. We get a sense from Gaia that she saw Lucifer not only as an equal, a peer, a friend, but also a possible mate: “It could have been you in the Garden,” Gaia says at one point, “It was between you and Michael.” So the flippant way he dismisses “the plan” which she knows he once agreed to creates a real sense of loss in Gaia.

But Gaia is not a character from Saturday’s Warrior, despite the pre-mortal setting. This is where Samuelsen’s voice comes out clearest, his world view’s broadcast most in focus. Anyone who knows Eric and is familiar with his socially conscious work, knows that he’s politically leftist, culturally humanist. However, if you intermix his Mormonism with those strange bedfellows, that’s when Samuelsen’s work really begins to pop and boil.

“Gaia” puts the pre-mortal Eve as a power player in the pre-existence, as part of the inner circle. Interestingly enough, Samuelsen subtly taps into the tradition of Wisdom, the Hebrew Goddess (later adopted by the Gnostics and which conveniently lends itself to Mormon concepts of a Heavenly Mother), being the one to “brood over the waters” by making Gaia the “chief engineer” of the primordial waters wherein are the origins of life. She’s not a silently domestic nor docile woman back in the kitchen while the pre-mortal men work at creation. She’s a scientist, part of the governing council, a pioneer of the work that is about to come about in mortality, a woman of substance and intelligence, all while being a faithful supporter of Heavenly Parents, Yahweh and the “plan” they advocate.

In this intellectually and spiritually sharp work, Samuelsen brings in designed evolution, pre-Josiah polytheistic Judaism, and strong flavored feminism, all while keeping them in the perfectly orthodox Mormon concepts of the pre-existence, the progressive enlightenment of Eve, the progressive nature of godhood (male and female), and the fall of Satan. For a ten minute play, that’s pretty impressive. And it displays the interesting interplay between faith and scholarship that New Play Project has cultivated, in which a play can be so intellectually fascinating, while always undergirded by sound Mormon faith and concepts.

Many of these plays may not fit the framework of Utah based, cultural Mormonism. Many members still cringe at pretty basic concepts hinted at by Samuelsen, such as evolution and even the most moderate of feminism (although I sincerely doubt that most conservative Mormons would find anything too offensive in this or any NPP show).  Whatever the case, the spirit and faith infused into the plays of New Play Project  is poignant and pervasive, more apt to keep people within the faith (despite any cultural concerns), than drive them out of it. It points up and highlights how faith and theater and literature and scholarship can all serve as sisters rather than rivals. Their mission is to create value based art. Some people think that is an oxymoron, that once you add morality into the mix of art, once you give it a “message,” it transforms the recipe into propaganda. However, I have not seen that unproductive attitude within the ranks of New Play Project. They are not afraid of questions, just as they are not afraid of answers. As the Lord says, “Ask and ye shall receive.” New Play Projects asks, and often they ask the hard questions. But, oh, how they receive!

28 thoughts on “The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two”

  1. …didn’t know that when she said, “I still want to be friends,” she really meant, “It’s irretrievably over, utterly destroyed, and I really don’t think we should ever talk again. Like ever.”

    Yeah, but the girl in the play very pointedly DID NOT say, “I want to be friends” and in fact made a point of saying, “I DON’T want to be friends.”

    I don’t know. I read it as they’d had one of those really bad arguments that leads to the final, eternal reconciliation. I saw it too many times to not see the pattern.

    I saw in it a great deal of wry affection.

  2. I think “wry affection” is a great term for the tone of that piece. I don’t think Eric’s play validates these kind of young and at-least-to-some-degree-pretty-unhealthy romantic relationships at all, I think it simply observes them with a kind of tender-hearted fascination. For me, it’s not really a “happy ending” sort of an ending to that play at all–it’s much, much too easy and uncertain for that.

    NPP is producing the full-length play from which “The Exact Total Opposite” is taken this February (just in time for Valentine’s and/or Singles Awareness Day!). It’s called “He & She Fighting: A Love Story”; I’m going to be directing it, and I’m super excited about it. It’s an incredibly funny play, and there’s a lot of warmth to it, but it’s also one of the most anxiety-ridden plays I’ve ever read. It’s probably the most consistently (and oftentimes uproariously) funny thing I’ve read from Eric, who’s a very funny guy, but it also is constantly twisting your insides up into about a million unresolved knots. And I think it’s meant to do that. Which is what I love so much about it. Also, Eric’s play “The Plan,” from which “Gaia” comes, is being produced at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo this coming March/April (I think I got those months right). I fully expect both plays to rock.

  3. .

    I remember when Davey first sent me the manuscript for Out of the Mount that I was momentarily concerned by how many plays were “young” and, specifically, about young romantics arguing. Because yes, there are a number of those.

    For partly purely practical reasons and partly trusting-Davey reason and partly these-are-all-good-plays reasons I didn’t ask him to reconsider. And I agree with you, Mahonri, that the book’s frantic usefulness is not just part of its charm, but also a necessary component of what NPP is.

  4. Mahonri,

    Thanks for a review that reminds me of why I care about Mormon literature in particular, above and beyond my interest in literature in general.

    Practically speaking, I’m not sure that over the long term, a single organization can serve both the college-age Young Turks and the community-based Gray Hairs. The ideal might be two organizations in a fraternal relationship — ignoring, of course, the fact that it’s a challenge even to support just one such organization, let alone two. I worry, though, that to the extent the creative agenda started to reflect the interest of oldsters such as myself, to that very extent it might lose the interest of late-adolescent college students. In any event, transcience is the name of the game when it comes to student-driven efforts. It’s good that the Out of the Mount was published, if for no other reason than to give a lasting memorial to these first few years of NPP’s output that will continue to exist once its authors have moved on.

  5. While NPP certainly produced a large number of plays about young couples arguing, I think that the selection compounded the problem of repetition rather than productively highlighting NPP’s variety. I would have liked to see, for example, a play like Ben Crowder’s “Candle in the Darkness” including. It’s not the most theatrical piece ever: mostly a mother and adult son talking, but it speaks to Mormon experience in an important way, and the intergenerational dynamic is nice. I also think another Katherine Gee piece would have helped: “The Fall” is a cool, theatrical short that is about young leaves rather than young couples. “Sunny” is another interesting parent-child relationship. “High School Reunion” one of the most movingly awkward pieces of theater I’ve ever seen and its one character-audience dynamic is a refreshing structural difference from the common amateur two people onstage talking format. Any one of those as a second Katherine Gee piece would be preferable to “11 o’clock news” as a third contribution from the editor–a selection move which came across as a bit tacky.
    NPP did better with selection committees who fought over inclusion of plays because the fights often resulted in picks any given individual’s skewed taste preferences would have excessively favored. Since the anthology had a selection committee of one, it’s probably inevitable that the kind of plays he liked best not only dominate the collection, but also become repetitive.

  6. Editing the anthology was certainly a challenge. In addition to reading literally hundreds of plays, there were a lot of potential criteria to think about selecting titles. For me, it came down to a number of different things:

    – Plays audiences liked. I sent out an e-mail asking about audience favorites, and got dozens of e-mails back from NPP members and audiences with their favorites; Bianca and I also talked about plays that people tend to bring up when they talk about NPP, and plays that won audience choice awards. A few titles turned up with unusual frequency–some of which I’d completely expected, and a couple of which surprised me.

    – Plays representative of NPP as an organization. The anthology is intentionally made up of mostly religious plays and romantic relationship plays, simply because those have been the themes of most of NPP’s short play festivals. As a result, most of NPP’s best plays naturally fall under one or both categories. I wanted the anthology to mirror NPP’s thematic and stylistic tendencies so that someone familiar with NPP could hopefully find in it the things they love, and so that someone new to NPP could not only read some great plays, but also get something of an overall introduction to New Play Project as an organization. I tallied the religious plays and relationship plays NPP had produced, and came up with a couple other much smaller categories, and used the overall ratio as a rough guideline for the anthology. Going through all the plays, however, I was struck by how many of the strongest plays NPP has produced have dealt with religion–as a result, I skewed the ratio a little bit in favor of religious plays. I also wanted to include as many of NPP’s major playwrights as possible, and highlight their strongest works. Finding the balance between how much to highlight individual writers and how much to make room for as many as possible was difficult, and at the end it came down to individual plays–which plays out of many great ones best fit the criteria I’d established.

    – Plays representative of NPP’s variety. I wanted the anthology to play to NPP’s strengths and give a roughly accurate picture of the predominant kinds of works NPP has produced, but I thought it was also important that the anthology not be made up entirely of religious and relationship plays. I tried to give equal weight to the quality of the individual works, to works that represented broadly NPP’s recurring themes and styles and subjects and authors, and to diversity of themes and styles and subjects and authors.

    – Readability and produceability. Some plays that worked excellently on stage were less compelling of reads; others that read beautifully are harder to stage effectively. Since the book would probably be read more than it would be enacted, some plays edged out others. At the same time, I hope that some people who come across these plays through this collection will wind up producing them in some form at some point. Given NPP’s overwhelming emphasis on ten-minute and short one-act plays in our production history thus far (and given the lack in both quality and quantity of many ten-minute and one-act play compilations), I think a lot of these pieces would work particularly well for high school and college drama students looking for ten-minute scenes for class or competition.

    – Quality and personal preference. My personal anthology of NPP’s best would certainly be very similar to “Out of the Mount,” but it would also be pretty substantially different (almost exactly 50/50, actually). I think “A Restaurant” is the best Katherine Gee play NPP has produced and I love it dearly, but Katherine’s play that most people remembered and asked for and talked about was undoubtedly “Based on Truish Stories.” The inclusion of “11 O’ Clock News” is actually a perfect example of the difficult balance of different criteria in the decision-making process. Many of my favorite plays and the plays most popular with audiences that were vying for the last couple of slots were relationship plays, and another relationship play would fill out the original ratio I’d come up with. I was very hesitant about including another one of my plays for obvious reasons, but the three that I wound up including were all among the most requested in surveys, and ultimately I felt like it was a better use of page count space (the page count limit was also an inescapable factor in script selection) to include “11 O’ Clock News” rather than some of the others simply because it was significantly shorter than those other plays, and so allowed me to squeeze two additional short plays (three total) into the space that one longer play would have taken up. It does look tacky though, and, although I’m proud of the play and I think it’s a good one, seeing my name so frequently in the Table of Contents makes me wince.

    – Time was the last deciding factor in selection. From the time we came up with the idea of compiling an NPP anthology at the September show to the time I sent in the manuscript, there was a little over a month to go through the entire NPP archives, read almost everything, come up with this set of criteria, whittle all those plays down into a relatively small number of pages, get permission and bios and so forth from all the playwrights, and go through the manuscript several times to edit, format, proofread, and write an introduction. Since NPP script selection committees for individual play festivals often last long into the night, I decided that coming up with a selection committee for the book would unfortunately open a can of worms that would just be logistically unmanageable in the alotted time. I tried to make up for that by asking audiences, making lists of plays that I heard people mention the most (both those associated with New Play Project and audience members), and by talking to Bianca about plays that had been produced before my time and plays that I might or might not have personally included but that I knew were favorites for many.

    As broad and sometimes nebulous as this set of criteria was, there was certainly more than enough room for my preferences to slip in. I tend to gravitate towards character-driven pieces, and the anthology definitely has a lot of those. I also like humor, and I like stories with humor and warmth that emerge naturally from characters and their situations. I tend to resist didacticism. I tend to like naturalism. And so on.

    It’s been really interesting and worthwhile to revisit and reevaluate the criteria as I hear different reactions to the anthology. It’s been very rewarding (not to mention relieving) to hear from a number of NPP audience members that all of their favorite plays were included, but it’s also obvious that there’s more than enough great material to make for a second volume (and probably a third and fourth…), and hopefully we’ll be putting out more scripts more regularly in the coming years, in some form or another.

  7. As a reader with no investment in this project, I’d like to just comment that I love reading Davey’s description of his editorial process. It’s this kind of discussion, I think, that makes a venue like this so fruitful.

  8. .

    Thanks for the measured rundown, Davey. It’s important, above all, to note how little time I gave him. A similar anthology Peculiar Pages is trying to do now has had five times the months for prep, triple the editorial input, and less than a tenth the progress. As I gain more experience, the fact that OotM exists looks more and more like a miracle.

  9. Maybe this anthology is an interesting case study in the trade-offs of a rush job.

    On the up side, rushing meant that the job got done in a month (although I’m not entirely convinced that reading through “literally hundreds of plays” on your own is actually faster than opening the “can of worms” that might come from involving a committee of NPP veterans who already know the plays up front). A related advantage was that the job got done in time for the Best of NPP show, where copies could be sold. Perhaps a final advantage of the rush job is that the editor doesn’t have to get questioned or compromise very much, so in a way it makes the unpaid position more attractive.

    The main disadvantage I see to a rush job in small publishing is the same one I saw in NPP. I noticed there that the strongest predictor of audience size was how confident participants felt about the show two weeks before opening. We could tell people to promote the show all we wanted, but if they were nervous it wouldn’t turn out well, they didn’t muster enthusiasm to tell all their friends. If they thought the show would be great, it didn’t take reminders to generate the buzz.

    My guess is that a small anthology like this will likely sell in direct proportion to the enthusiasm it generates among contributors. If you were to include more people in the process and take more time to come up with a product the writers felt pumped about, you’d have them doing their marketing more actively for you. Word of mouth is the best marketing, and excited writers could make it run.

    How many copies sold at the Best of NPP show to people who were only audience members? My guess is that the relatively weak link of having seen a play motivates significantly fewer purchases than the stronger links of personally knowing a playwright or someone who has strong positive feelings about the anthology.

    I’ll be honest–I haven’t marketed the anthology at all because although there are a lot of great plays in there, the overall execution is embarrassing to me and I can’t get over that feeling enough to be contagiously excited about the work. I don’t think I’m the only one. I know Mel was frustrated that an earlier version of “Burning” was printed than the one she sent Davey and that incorrect editorial changes were made to LHS. Those kinds of rush-related errors make it harder for her to spontaneously gush about the book, even if she’s worked harder than me to promote it. I know Ari was far more excited about the idea of the anthology than the book he got. I haven’t talked in detail to others, but I think it’s fair to say purely theoretically that the rush to get the job done decreased the amount of investment several of us feel in it.

    I do respect the work you two did: I understand how difficult unpaid work is and am a little self-conscious about how much easier it is for me to critique than it was for you to pull off something which, given the constraints, feels borderline miraculous. It’s actually because I respect the work that I’m taking the time to make this comment–you’re going on in small Mormon publishing and likely to do important work, and I honestly believe that switching from a rush model to a marketing model that depends on building confidence among a network of people might help.

  10. I think James makes some valid points. On the other hand, I’m not real interested in AMV being the focal point of what sounds like some differences of opinion among NPPers. What has been said so far has been civil, productive, and interesting. But I’m going put on my owner hat and say let’s think about going forward what needs to be said in public and what can be expressed in private, etc.

    I would also point out that this is a key weakness of the field right now: overworked and overstressed volunteers dashing around pursuing their own visions. I think that that’s a net positive in the aggregate. I wouldn’t trade, for example, Zarahemla Books’ output to date for, well, almost anything. I have great respect for those who gets things done instead of just talking about doing them.

    On the other hand, I also get frustrated that so many efforts happen only within certain circles of influence and without taking advantage of certain areas of expertise and/or without communicating with other folks. For example, I don’t get the timely pitches and interview offers and event notices that I should be getting for posting at AMV. Some of that is my fault — I could do more to pursue things. And because I’m also overstressed and overwork, I don’t always turn around reviews as fast as I should. But more communication and cohesion would be a help, I think.

    Or we could just run everything through me. 😉

    On the other hand, a certain amount of diversity of vision and effort is quite nice too (so long as it’s fairly professionally executed and the effort gets sustained/is sustainable — burn out is an issue in the Mormon arts scene).

  11. …the overall execution is embarrassing to me and I can’t get over that feeling enough to be contagiously excited about the work.

    O.M.G.

    You know, I can pull it if it’s that embarrassing to you.

  12. Sorry! Totally didn’t mean design or anything. And I do think the book is well worth reading, it’s just hard from my imagination of what it could have been to feel as good as I’d like to about it. The real problem is probably that I spent three years of hard work on NPP then wasn’t actively around for the anthology which preserves what we did. So I’m exceptionally sensitive.
    I’m very grateful to William for having called me out for going to far. It’s good to have a good moderator. And I wouldn’t be offended if he were to remove my previous comment…

  13. James, I do not want your previous comment removed. You said it, you should own it.

    HOWEVER. I really can’t blame you for striking back. Speaking as someone who does not know ANY of these people and is so far out of the NPP politics loop as to be on another planet (as a matter of fact, I didn’t even know it existed until it dropped into my inbox), I will say this:

    Mahonri, every word you have written about NPP comes across as petty and vindictive. In a 3,200-word essay you just HAD to bring up the phone number? REALLY? Was it so difficult to keep your personal biases out of your review that you couldn’t help taking cheap shots?

  14. James,

    From a (somewhat) outsider’s perspective, I didn’t see anything “embarrassing” in the Anthology. I thought it represented NPP, Peculiar Pages and everyone involved very well. The majority of the plays are not only good, but excellent. I would recommend the anthology to anyone.

    I can see how, being as close as you are to NPP, you’d want it to be as close to pitch perfect as possible. Sure, it doesn’t reach that perfection, but NPP never did in ANY of its iterations, but that doesn’t make what’s been done any less wonderful.

    Now I think this volume has done a great service in putting excellent plays like your “Prodigal Son” into the hands of people like me (who are now out of Utah) who can no longer attend NPP’s plays, as well as those who just loved seeing the plays in the first place.

    I agree with William… this discussion has been great so far. Let’s not pull a Langston Hughes/ Zora Hurston and let this spiral into interpersonal frustrations and rivalries. While still trying to be objective, my main thrust with this series has been to highlight the tremendous contributions NPP has been able to give to the Mormon Arts world thus far. Legitimate literary criticism is welcome. But let’s not make it too personal, okay?

  15. Moriah,
    I wasn’t trying to be petty. I was actually trying to clear the air with James, but perhaps that would have been better served in a more personal sphere, to let him know how much I loved him and his work, despite weird little moments like that. More than anything I wanted to give MY perspective on NPP (and in this case, James), and I thought personal little details helped with that. In that particular article, if you didn’t catch the jist of what I was trying to do, I was trying to put up James as one of our best writers and personalities… I don’t see anything vindictive about that.

  16. Thanks for making that gesture, Mahonri. I appreciate it.

    I also think Moriah crossed the line and have told her that. At the same time I understand: she felt like something she had a hand in was being cruelly prodded and picked at.

    And I also say again that I like what you are doing here, Mahonri. It’s difficult negotiating literary criticism in our world of Mormon arts and culture, especially since so many of us have ties to each other. So I think personalizing it at points is a good thing.

  17. Thanks, William. I was originally going to take a more academic approach to this series, but it seemed so bloodless, especially since it was something I had such a personal and wonderful reaction to. And I’ve been trying to put more “me” into my work lately anyway, even in things like reviews, trying to be more courageous. Perhaps I took that too far.

    I hope the general tenor of my reaction to the anthology comes across as I really meant it to… hugely positive. This is one of the most important things to come out from Mormon Drama in a long time, including some of the most exciting work of Mormon Drama. My hats off to Davey, Peculiar Pages, Eric Jepson, the writers, the designers (love that cover!), and everyone else involved with the project. I think it’s something to be truly proud of!

    Moriah, I wasn’t even aware that you were involved in the project. I don’t think I know you very well, or in what way you were involved. If I offended you or crossed a line, I am deeply sorry. I think you have misconstrued my reaction to Out of the Mount and NPP in general. I’ve tried to balance my gushing with what I hope are helpful thoughts and reactions to the piece, but I have always meant this to be a celebration of this great volume and NPP. I thought I had made that clear. A person doesn’t write so many words in a lengthy series unless he is very enthusiastic about it. I think this volume and NPP in general is a godsend.

  18. Let me also add that vigorous opinions and debates and even hurt feelings are a natural byproduct of trying to operate in the radical middle. I have been pissed off at people at times. I’m sure I have pissed other people off at times. We shouldn’t expect some kumbaya unity all the time nor is it some natural state of things that we should reach for. That’s neither realistic nor productive when it comes to the making of culture. There’s going to be friction.

    On the other hand, what I don’t like is camp making. I don’t think that that is happening here. But there’s sometimes a tendency to write certain people or projects or venues off, to not expend energy in a certain direction because of the personalities involved.

    So for the record, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I intend to continue to be quite promiscuous in how I spend my energies in the radical middle of Mormon arts and culture. Ya’ll got something going on, I want to be involved if I can. I got something going on — ya’ll are free to hang with me.

  19. Moriah, I wasn’t even aware that you were involved in the project.

    Well, I haven’t been that transparent about who I am because I thought the circle here was so small we’d all just look each other up. At least, that’s what I do.

    My real name is Elizabeth Beeton and I’m the Woman Behind the Curtain at B10 Mediaworx. I designed Out of the Mount. Well, that is to say, I was the Tyrant of the book because, as Davey and Steve can tell you, I screamed about deadlines. A lot.

    I also implemented Theric’s vision for The Fob Bible, which got written up by a book designerhere.

    That said, my focus is ebook formatting. I’m VERY active in the digital book world, to the point that I will be a panelist (x2) at the Writer’s Digest conference in January and I’ve been asked to write a proposal for a presentation at the Tools of Change conference in February.

    B10 Mediaworx makes its money by formatting ebooks, which then gives us the luxury to both publish my books and do stuff Theric (through Peculiar Pages) finds important to the Mormon arts community–things that haven’t been done before, and he has an exquisite eye for really good stuff. I say luxury, but both The Fob Bible and Out of the Mount have technically paid for themselves.

    And also, Theric is my editor.

    My focus, with my work, is to take us, Mormons, as a culture, to the national audience as ourselves, in our own context, and let the readers come to know us through the characters. My book three (Magdalene, an allegory of the Atonement) has an extensive view of our culture from the point of view of the outsider in first person. She’s often skeptical, occasionally sneers, but ultimately comes to some understanding of us as a culture. The goal is to de-exoticize us, which is working one reader at a time.

    My next publication goal is to get some work out there that ranges the spectrum from Mormon romance (I have a manuscript in hand I’ll be issuing a contract on before the end of the year, I hope–Lady Steed liked it as much as I did, I hear) to works involving other faiths. But faith, living in that faith, struggling in that faith, whatever it is, however it’s presented (as long as I like it), is what I’m after.

    However, it is true that at this stage of B10’s development, it’s more known as a digital formatter/design provider than publisher, and I’m content with that while we (Eric and I) build the catalog to something really spectacular.

  20. Yeah, there are certainly imperfections in the anthology, many of which arose from the super-quick turnaround. I think the ideal would have been to let it gestate longer, but a large part of the book’s existence was also for promotional and fundraising–the couple dozen (maybe more?) copies sold at and as a result of the show will very directly allow NPP to continue to exist by helping us more or less break even on the first show of our new season. I particularly would have loved to have spent much more time, thought, and energy in strategizing the promotion of the anthology before its release. Unfortunately, like the days of doing an NPP festival every month in order to be able to pay rent, a rush job was also largely a financial necessity. I’m not at all embarrassed about the result though. Quite the opposite.

  21. Moriah,
    I’m very supportive of your work then! (I had made the erroneous assumption that Theric was the publisher… so sorry!).

    Again, this has all meant to be very supportive of Out of the Mount, not vice versa. I think its a powerful volume, and I’m trying to promote it, albeit with a thoughtful, honest response.

    Davey, I totally think you SHOULD be proud of the result. I don’t necessarily agree with James’ issue about which plays were selected, although I can understand his POV having had invested so much into NPP in the past. I’ve been personally involved with choosing, compiling, and editing (and not by committee) Zarahemla Book’s _Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama_. Believe me, I know it’s tough what you did, and I’ve had the comfort of a number of years putting it together, not trying to rush it in at a quick deadline. I think what you did is very impressive. I think the plays selected were very true to form and representative of what I personally saw NPP produce, and it included many of my favorites.

    And to everyone, I would also like to clarify that in pointing out the “young” and “he and she fighting” aspect of the volume and NPP wasn’t a bad thing. I purposely stated in my review that I thought the youth of NPP brought it a lot of its passion and strength. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially since they are very SMART, TALENTED, young writers. Heck, I’m only 30. I’m not that old myself(or so I keep telling myself now that I’ve switched out the 20s and my high school students keep telling me I’m old). But that’s part of what NPP was about. Me pointing that up was just a truism about the volume and NPP, not any sort of insult. The thing to watch, however, is to see those young writers get older and see how they’ll astound us.

  22. I had made the erroneous assumption that Theric was the publisher

    HE IS!!! I’m sooo sorry. He is. Peculiar Pages the imprint. Seriously, I was just the production line on this project.

  23. Aarrrgghhh. The marketing here (between B10 and Peculiar Pages) is in flux because we have so few titles anyway, and to split them right now would give us less to show the world what we have and can do.

    A lot of online ebook retailers will only allow a publisher in to sell if it has 10 or more titles. Well, part of why we’re a bit intertwined right now is to get to that 10 titles, which would be under B10’s aegis.

    Once we can each stand on our own financially (including staff), we will do so. Right now, yes, it’s confusing. Even to me.

  24. I admit that I got a little tired of the young and “he and she fighting” — but then again, I’m old.

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