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.
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!