NOTE: This was written for a final paper in my Dramatic Writing MFA Writer’s Workshop class where I was supposed to apply Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares to my own work. Thus the navel gazing…
In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a director’s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriter’s point of view as well.
Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when I’ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays is”¦
In her book, Bogart states:
Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).
On December 12, I received my copy of the two-volume Mormons and Popular Culture in the mail. know it’s not out until the 31st, but Praeger‘s the sort of classy joint that hooks the contributor up before the general population. I think this is the first time in my career I’ve received a copy of my work before the general public. . . .
So this is not some snazzy, official list with criteria, rubrics, or voting committees. This is just my personal, gut-feeling-favorite Mormon Arts contributions that I have experienced this year. This also doesn’t mean that it was even published or produced in 2012… these are works/artists that I have personally encountered this year (or so). So keep that in mind as I submit “Mahonri Stewart’s Personal Mormon Arts Favorites of 2012!” (Which may or may not become an annual tradition, depending on how lazy I am next year).
So, beyond what I’ve seen my Zion Theatre Company produce this year, I haven’t had a chance to see much Mormon Drama in 2012 since I live in Arizona (kind of pathetic since I’m supposed to be the Mormon Drama expert around here). I can’t visit Utah on a whim to see the rare Mormon themed play that comes around (or, this year, New York with #MormonInChief!), but what I have done this year is read a bunch of older Mormon plays to finish my editing forSaints on Stage. Since one of those plays was produced again this year, I am choosing Martyrs’ Crossing, which has been getting great reviews at the Echo Theatre in Provo. I saw BYU’s production of the show years ago and read it again this year, and it’s as beautiful and vibrant as I remember it. Melissa is one of Mormonism’s best playwrights and, although I would call Little Happy Secrets her best work so far, Martyrs’ Crossing is a personal favorite, much due to Mel’s beautiful writing and to my love for Jean d’Arc… who I may tackle a play about some day as well, although it would be pretty different than Mel’s take. Mel keeps beating me to the punch on stories that I love, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and her upcoming adaptation of my all time favorite novel, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Despite that personal frustration, I can’t but help look at these works and say, “Well, at least Mel wrote it, because it’s beautiful.”
Earlier this week I gladly inherited a copy of The Best American Short Stories: 2008 from some some friends. As I scanned the table of contents, I noticed that Salman Rushdie, the year’s editor, had included a story called “Missionaries” by Bradford Tice. I wasn’t familiar with Tice, but the story sounded potentially Mormon, or at least religious, so I skipped ahead to investigate. Sure enough, the story was about two Mormon missionaries, Elder Case and Elder Joseph. Case and Joseph, by the way, are their first names. For some reason, they don’t use last names in this story.[1. But that’s a minor detail. Surely we can’t expect writers who are largely unfamiliar with Mormonism to catch a detail like that. Especially when they do us they favor of writing Mormon stories.]
The story is your average missionary story based on assumption and Wikipedia research. Case and Joseph are missionaries in Knoxville, and, as with so many missionary stories, one of them is disobedient (Case) while the other is not (Joseph). So, you can kind of guess where the story goes. They teach three people in the story–an old stoner (Claude), a senile black woman (Ida), and a young goth woman (Margo)–and during each visit Case uses his charm and salesmanship skill to rack up his baptism tally. Meanwhile, Joseph sits back and watches disapprovingly as Case smokes (first weed, then tobacco), lies, and has sex with the goth.
As I’ve tried to study the history of Mormon literature, I’ve realized that we are currently are in a oddly mixed situation. By and large what Mormon literature has been produced through the past 175+ years is easily available to anyone with a good Internet connection, a basic computer and the ability to read and understand English. But when we move to criticism and compilation of this literature, the wonderful new archives of material might as well not exist. Is anyone working with these old texts?
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:
Since reading Added Upon and writing about it in my dissertation, I’ve wanted to compile a list of works of nineteenth-century Mormon utopian literature, or works that describe or yearn for an ideal society or which advocate for action that would lead to such. I realize, though, that compiling such a list is almost a fool’s errand since so much of early Mormon literature–and I consider hymns literature–has to do with building Zion and the Millennium, the ultimate utopian dreams.
Even so, a few months ago, I spent an afternoon and came up with this list. It is incomplete, of course, and will likely remain so until I get serious about it. What I’d like to do in the meantime, though, is open it up to you who know nineteenth-century Mormon literature better than I do (my interest in it is about two years old) and ask if I’m missing anything crucial. Specifically, I’m looking for works of fiction or “proto-fiction” (allegories, fables, parables, etc.) that could be reasonably labeled “utopian” or even “millennialist.” I’m interested in poetry too if its utopian expression is out of the ordinary.
My thought, however, is that what I have below is fairly representative of what’s out there. Am I right?