Mahonri Stewart on the Zion Theatre Company Kickstarter

An interview with Mahonri Stewart on the Kickstarter to fund Zion Theatre Company’s 2014 season.

Prometheus Unbound promotional posterZion Theatre Company is running a Kickstarter to fund its 2014 season. Mahonri Stewart agreed to do a Q&A with me about it and what’s going on with ZTC.

What made you decide to use Kickstarter specifically for the 2014 season of Zion Theatre Company? And why fund a whole season rather than, say, just an individual play?

I had a definite, focused plan in mind for what I wanted Zion Theatre Company to do in 2014, but the past couple of years we had cut it close on some of our plays–some of our plays did exceptionally well, some barely paid the costs, and some lost money. It all balanced out pretty well, at times it strained our accounts, which was discouraging since it’s been with the last few shows that we’ve seen our most enthusiastic audiences, a plethora of extremely positive reviews, and realistic hope for future success. Melissa Leilani Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and my Farewell to Eden were especially impactful on audiences and critics and I think those shows did an excellent job in setting up expectations and enthusiasm for our future productions by showing exactly what kind of potential we actually have as a company.

So by trying to gain funds that would help us fund the entire season, instead of just going with money from play to play as we have, it takes off the nervous edge that if one show doesn’t do as well as the last one, then it doesn’t threaten to put the kabosh on the rest of our plans for the season. Having that nest egg allows us to focus on the quality of the current show instead of wondering if we spend our money on, you know, a good set, that we may not have enough money for the next show.  It was a nervous place to be and we almost closed up shop after a couple of our shows didn’t do as well as some others in our season. So this long game tactic gives us an opportunity to focus on making the best show possible in the present, without worrying about the future. It gives us the security to up our quality.

Tell us about the programming: why those four plays? I’d be especially be interested in hearing just a bit more about the two new ones.

I would love to!

We’re doing two of my new shows, and two from other well known playwrights (one a classic, one a premiere). The two from other Utah-based playwrights are as follows:

Huebener by Thomas F. Rogers: This is a show that we’ve been trying to do for a few years now, but kept being cut off because of changes we had to make for pragmatic reasons, venue changes, and money issues. So I made sure to make it a priority for this season. Huebener‘s one of the classics of Mormon Drama. It premiered in 1976 at BYU to a sold out run and huge success and has since then remained one of the most remembered and written about Mormon plays in our theatrical canon. When I put together Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, it was one of the plays that was just a no-brainer to include, and its a play I’ve really wanted ZTC to produce because of its significance in our culture, and because of its personal meaning to me.

Huebener tells the true story of Helmuth Huebener, a Mormon teenager in Nazi Germany, who became increasingly aware of what was happening behind the scenes in Germany and just how much they were not being told. So he and a couple of his friends started a small resistance group which published and secretly distributed anti-Nazi flyers, which obviously led them to dangerous places and even had consequences upon his little LDS branch in Germany.

It’s a significant story about the tension between conscience vs. unrighteous dominion, of the security of the community vs. the ethics of the individual. Then BYU president, and current LDS apostle, Dallin H. Oaks said the show, “dealt with a subject that tugs at our hearts and reminds us of the complexities of the life we live” (Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, Zarahemla Books, p. 59).

– Identity Crisis by James Arrington. James was my mentor at UVU (I pretty much owe him everything when it comes to whatever progress I’ve made as a playwright, because he gave me that first break), and is a supremely gifted playwright and humorist, so I’ve wanted to do one of his shows for some time.  I thought it would be one of his famous one-man shows, but he’s been developing this delightful comedy about a woman with multiple personalities (based loosely on a woman he actually knew) that I think is charming and hilarious, so he’s been gracious enough to let us premiere it. We haven’t done a lot of straight up comedies with ZTC yet, so it will be a nice change of pace for us.

And then we’ll also be doing two of my plays Manifest and Servers.

Manifest is a piece I’ve had finished for years, and have had a number of people really push me to produce it (I’ve had a few people tell me its their favorite play of mine), but I have kept delaying producing it because I’ve, perhaps unwisely, been waiting for the perfect storm (it’s a multimedia play with a lot of technical requirements). Yet now I’m afraid that if I keep delaying it, it may never be done, so I put it in front of the queue. It’s a play about world mythology that takes all of these short myths from all over the world and strings them together into a single narrative about the impact of storytelling and monomyth.

A couple of sections of the show have played before in Provo, Salt Lake, and the FEATS Fringe Festival in Switzerland (ZTC played a bare bones, but very ably acted piece of it for a night of one acts we had last year, which can be seen here: The multimedia approach that the show takes is similar to what we used inRings of the Tree in 2012 (a Daily Herald  feature video on that show gives a glimpse as to what kind of approach we’ll take).

Then Servers is a new musical about servers at a Mexican restaurant that my very talented composer friend Nathaniel Drew and I have been working on. Nate is the founder of the Salt Lake Pops Orchestra, which has had some very nice success so far with their You Tube videos and concerts, and Nate has done a lot of independent work on commercials, plays, etc. He is one of the most talented composers I’ve ever come across. So I’m thrilled that he puts up with me in the difficult process in creating a musical. We’re very pleased with the result from the many years it’s taken to get this thing on its feet. Its still a very human story, yet Servers has a lighter touch than a lot of my other more sober work, so I think it’s a fun addition to the season.

If the season funds, it looks like at least one of venues will be Echo Theater. For those of us who don’t know the venue, tell us a little bit about it. And are there any other venues you are looking at?

If the season funds, it looks like at least one of venues will be Echo Theater. For those of us who don’t know the venue, tell us a little bit about it. And are there any other venues you are looking at?
The Echo is the venue we’ve used for our 2013 season and we’ve established a really good relationship with Juliana and Jeffrey Blake who run it. It’s a black box venue in downtown Provo, on University Avenue, so it’s a great location right in the thick of things. It’s been a very positive experience working with them, so we’ll probably have a couple of the shows there. But they have limited time which they can rent it to us, since they run their own season, so we’ll also be looking at other spaces as well.

I’ve looked at the rewards and think it’s cool that you have options for those who can attend productions (digital downloads, a print copy of two of your plays). But I’m most intrigued by your high-end tiers (which are out of my reach, but hopefully not out of everybody’s). To me writing a play on a patron-chosen theme sounds both interesting and a bit daunting. Why include it as an option?

I wanted the rewards on the Kickstarter to reflect our gratitude for how much a person was willing to commit in helping us, and once you get into those thousand dollar figures, frankly, a person has gone far beyond the call of duty. So, if we have people wanting to donate on that level, then they’ve earned a right to have some influence in the company for at least on a project or two. If a person wants to put down $1000 to commission me to write a one act around a theme of their choosing, am I willing to do that? Heck yeah! If an aspiring playwright wants their work produced; are willing to put down $3000 to see our next season succeed; and their work fits within our company’s guidelines, am I willing to put on that person’s play in a future season? Double-Heck yeah!

Let’s say your Kickstarter takes off and you hit $8,000 or $10,000. What would that allow ZTC to do?

If we make those kind of “stretch” goals, then that could be a real game changer for us. We could be much less “boot strap” and minimalistic about things like sets, and really dig into a new horizons in designing our shows. We could pay more people. Right now mainly its just been the directors and certain designers who have been paid, and royalties for the playwrights who aren’t me (I haven’t been paying myself yet), but eventually we would like to pay our actors, and others who have donated their creative and technical time and talents. If we can get to that level, I would be thrilled.

I don’t want to overlook your 2013 season. What’s on tap for ZTC this year?

Evening EucalyptusTo help with the costs of royalties, we just focused on my plays in 2013, which I’m always a little shy to admit. ZTC was never meant to be a vanity project for only my own work, I’ve always wanted to see it as a place that draws from many sorts of playwrights, nationally recognized playwrights creating work of a spiritual, intellectual, and moral caliber, but most especially plays from playwrights who are local to Utah and/or Mormon/religious playwrights.

So we just finished my national award winning play Farewell to Eden a couple of months ago, which I thought was a huge success, artistically. It may be the best reviewed show ZTC has had yet, winning over even previously hostile reviewers, and garnering lots of praise from both audiences and critics alike.

Then we have my play Prometheus Unbound coming up soon in July, which is a play of mine that uses Greek mythology as a jumping off point to explore spiritual themes. It originally wasn’t part of our season, but the director Sarah-lucy Hill had seen the original production of Prometheus Unbound when the BYU Experimental Theatre Company produced it, and she really wanted to helm it. It’s a piece that had really spoken to her, and I couldn’t say no to that kind of passion and commitment. So we added another show to what was supposed to be a very spare 2013 season.

Our final show will be Evening Eucalyptus, which is an Australian period piece set at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a very character driven piece that also employs Aboriginal mythology (if you couldn’t tell, I really like mythology) in its plot and message. I’m very pleased with that particular script. I went to Australia on my mission, which was a hugely positive experience for me, so it’s really my love story to Oz.

Thanks, Mahonri!

You can support the Kickstarter by clicking here.

The artwork for the two promotional posters is by Liz Pulido. She does fantastic work. See more of it at her website.

2 thoughts on “Mahonri Stewart on the Zion Theatre Company Kickstarter”

  1. THANK YOU to those who have donated! We are now at 81%! If there is anyone who can help us to get over that last hill, we would appreciate the help. With Kickstarter, we don’t get any of the money until we have reached our goal, so it is imperative we reach that goal by July 7th.

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