Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Clean Dramatic Amusements

josephf1One of the notable aspects of early Mormon statements about entertainment and media is the focus on discouraging the reading of novels and “light” literature, while other forms of entertainment, notably theatre, were encouraged. Brigham Young acted in Nauvoo, encouraged the early performances in Salt Lake City as early as 1853, and even promoted plays and attended the theatre himself.  He announced the construction of the Salt Lake Theatre and vigorously pursued its construction until its completion in 1861.

However, by the turn of the century, Church leaders were also warning members about the theatre, as well as the nascent film industry.

Continue reading “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Clean Dramatic Amusements”

My Final Verdict on “A Roof Overhead”

aroEarlier this year, Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead received mixed reviews (see here and here)  shortly after its April debut at Springville, Utah’s Little Brown Theater. While several people, including me, wrote favorably about the play, others found less to like about it. James Goldberg, for example, sharply criticized the play in a post for Dawning of a Brighter Day, citing its unsympathetic depiction of atheism and the way a certain scene “stretche[d] credulity past the breaking point.” According to James, Mahonri did “a poor job sketching the world” in the play and so “lost his informed audience in the process.”

Shortly after James’ post, Mahonri contacted me about helping him revise the play. After re-reading the script, I sent Mahonri some suggestions, which he reviewed and, in some instances, incorporated into his new draft. In the end, I think Mahonri turned out a better play than the original. The new version was performed by Arizona State University’s Binary Theatre Company in October. After the final performance, Mahonri sent me a link to a YouTube video of the new production. Here are my thoughts on it.

First, I think A Roof Overhead is a solid first attempt at contemporary Mormon drama. Mahonri’s other work is largely based in the nineteenth century or in some sort of mythical alternate reality, so his incursion into the sordid milieu of modernity is new ground for him. Overall, I think the play captures accurately the situation of some Mormons and some atheists. As I have argued since April, A Roof Overhead works best when you think of its characters as representative types rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. What they stand for is what matters. Who they are is what makes the cultural exchanges at the heart of the play work.

Continue reading “My Final Verdict on “A Roof Overhead””

Binary Theatre Company’s Production of _A Roof Overhead_

Last month Arizona State University’s Binary Theater (which is a student run theater which ASU oversees) produced my play A Roof Overhead, a Mormon drama that explores the private culture war that arises when an atheist Sam Forrest moves into the basement of the Fieldings, a family of Mormons.

I am putting up the recording on You Tube for a limited time. It is a recording of a play, which are infamous for being somewhat awkward things. Yet despite some sound and picture issues that are inherent with that setup, I was so pleased with this production and cast (with whom I bonded with incredibly) that I wanted to share it. It will be up for only a limited time.

A Roof Overhead was produced once before in Utah last April with my Zion Theatre Company at the Little Brown Theatre in Springville, UT. There have been some major changes in the script since the Utah version, including some significant alterations to the ending (and an additional comedic family food “fight”). The Utah cast was chiefly Mormon, but the tables were turned this time with only me, one cast member and the scenic designer being Mormons this time around (and the actress playing the atheist character Sam actually is an atheist, which I was super pleased about). It led to some beautiful experiences which I’m sure I’ll write more about at some point.

One note: Some scenes got cut off because of battery issues with the camera. The vast majority of it is there and it’s easy enough to follow. You may want to enlarge it to full screen and crank up the volume for a fuller viewing experience.

Here’s the recording of the play, for those interested:

Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama

Conflict of Cultures

As a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and an active member of the theatrical community, the conflict between the LGBT community and the Church is an issue that has been impossible to avoid for me. Some people’s reluctance in talking about the issue altogether has not been an option for me. I have a number of friends and loved ones (both with connections to the Church and those without) who identify themselves as somewhere on the LGBT spectrum.  I mean, let’s be frank, I’m in theatre. In or out of Utah, there are always going to be many of my peers, co-workers, fellow artists and friends who are going to be gay. So it’s something I have had to face, even within my own soul and identity.

I personally know a number of gay Mormons. Many have left the faith (sometimes hostilely), feeling as if their worldview and practices are simply incompatible with the Mormon culture. Yet some have desperately tried to hang on, groping about for some middle way, whether by trying to make a heterosexual lifestyle work for them, living celibate, or hoping (sometimes beyond hope) that the Church will one day change its stance regarding gay marriage. And then there are those Mormons who feel so attached to the issue, even when they are not personally gay, that it has caused some painful soul searching of their own.

Conversely, I have also experienced some very personal and pointed prejudice directed towards me from members of the theatrical community because I am a card carrying, committed Mormon. I have personally experienced a double standard in this regard, where tolerance was only preached , but not practiced by certain “progressive” individuals when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed their own.

I have no easy answers for any of it, but I have made a study of a number of plays that have dealt with the conflict between Mormonism and homosexual lifestyles and tried to grapple with the conflict between these two cultures in the best way I can. Searching through these plays has been at times uncomfortable, often challenging (in both the positive and negative aspects of that word), and at choice moments even enlightening and inspiring.  However, it’s made me doubly sensitive to how Mormons are represented in such stories, as well as tender hearted towards those who are caught between the monoliths of these cultures, especially those who identify with both. Continue reading “Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama”

Interview with playwright Matthew Greene, author of #MormoninChief

Mormon playwright Matthew Greene discusses his play #MormoninChief and life as a NYC-based writer.

Matthew Greene is a BYU-trained, New York City-based playwright whose play #MormoninChief will premiere at this year’s NYC Fringe Festival. He pitched me on a blog post, and I decided what would be most interesting is an interview. Here it is:

Let’s start with the thing that led to this Q&A: the fact that your play #MormoninChief will be premiering at Fringe NYC in August. What is the play about?

#MormonInChief tells the story of Connor Jorgenson, an unassuming guy who goes to church with Mormon presidential candidate, Mack Benson. After he Tweets some comments allegedly made by Benson in a testimony meeting, he find himself at the center of a media frenzy as republicans and democrats alike clamor to hear more from this newfound inside source. The play centers around Connor’s struggle to deal with this newfound notoriety and the difficult issues that come up when religion and politics intersect. Continue reading “Interview with playwright Matthew Greene, author of #MormoninChief”

Bizarre and Beautiful Stories: a review of Mahonri Stewart’s new book of plays

Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.

The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.

David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.

Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.

Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.

Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).

Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.

Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.

Mahonri Stewart will be at the Springville city Library in Springville, Utah on Thursday June 21st from 7:00-8:00 pm to discuss the life and work of C.S. Lewis as part of the “So You Want to Read!” series. For more from Mahonri be sure to check out his blog, And My Soul Hungered, and his posts over at the AML blog Dawning of a Brighter Day. For more on his theater company go to www.ziontheatrecompany.com

p.s. Dear FCC, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Zarahemla Books. And, also, Mahonri is a contributor here at AMV. Take all that to mean whatever you think it should.

_Rings of the Tree: A Multimedia Play_ Premieres in February

Rings of the Tree Still Photo #1Zion Theater Company and Imminent Catharsis Media are presenting national award winning playwright Mahonri Stewart’s play Rings of the Tree on Friday, Feb. 3 and Saturday, February 4 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City; as well as Thursday, February 9, Friday the 10th, and Monday the 13th, at the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove. Continue reading “_Rings of the Tree: A Multimedia Play_ Premieres in February”

Another Early Mormon Drama

As I’ve looked at 19th century newspapers and other documents, I’ve come across literary works or references to literary works that I didn’t know about, and that, apparently, are unknown among those of us interested in Mormon literature. Yesterday, I discovered another.

Continue reading “Another Early Mormon Drama”

Building Zion Theatre Company

Zion Theatre Company Logo Zion Theatre Company. It’s been a singular focus for me lately, a near obsession. I’ve been working exceptionally hard to get this theatre company I started last January into full throttle. My summer hours are being poured to get the foundation layed, so that things will run smoothly once my time becomes more limited in the Fall. Why do I do this?

Obtaining theatre spaces to perform on, creating posters and ads, looking into liability insurance, organizing the on the ground producers in Utah, obtaining rights to scripts, looking for affordable ad space, sending personal (and probably annoying) fund raising letters to close friends and family, soliciting directors and designers and cast members, trying to sell videos to gain more capital, working the Facebook groups, attaching links… and that’s just on my end. I have producers, directors, playwrights, videographers, web designers and others who have been clocking in a lot of hours to get this group on its feet.Why do I do this?

The timing is pretty awful. I’m going to grad school  this Fall at Arizona State University. I live in Arizona while the shows I’ll be producing are in Utah.  I have a 9 month year old daughter, a 5 year old son with sensory processing disorder who’s starting kindergarten, and a very patient, supportive wife whose patience and support are being taxed, I’m sure. Why do I do this?

“>Farewell to Eden Trailer on You Tube

Why do I do this? Because it has been my dream to open a religiously and morally focused theatre company since early high school. Because, to paraphrase Eric Samuelsen, every Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe. Because I love it. And because I believe not only is it what I want to do, but what I’m supposed to do. Because, if we do it right, I believe with all my heart it can be successful.  And  because we’ve had some wonderful doors opening for us lately which have seemed more than a little providential. Continue reading “Building Zion Theatre Company”