A DIFFERENT SET OF RULES
by Mahonri Stewart
In a sense I’ve been going about the Sunday Lit Crit Sermon series backwards, at least compared to the excerpt in today’s post. I’ve searched for mentions of novels, books, theater and film and sought to understand what these citations implied about how we Mormons view literature. But in today’s excerpt Mormon doctrine and teachings, often the basis for the Mormon view, instead are a justification for an interest in literature. Instead of a reaction to literature, this is a claim that there is a direct line from Mormon belief to a love of literature.
I’ve written before about the once great status of Mormon theatre, and the infrastructure it once enjoyed. So I was pleased to find comments about the beginning of this infrastructure from Horace G. Whitney, longtime Deseret News editor-in-chief and the paper’s drama critic. In my opinion infrastructure, broadly conceived, accounts for much of what has happened in Mormon drama over the past century. Whitney, in the article below, describes a vision of how drama could operate under the MIA and ward amusement committees (which were roughly the equivalent of the recently disbanded ward activities committees, I assume).
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).
For me this statement from Bogart has resonance on so many levels. In my work, I’ve focused a great deal on historical drama, especially from my Mormon heritage. My intense interest in Mormon history has bled into a number of my works, reaching back as far as my high school juvenilia. Continue reading “Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays”
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. . . .
Anyway, the two-volume work covers the gamut from film to football, with surveys on everything from comics to historical sites and closeups on folks from Stephenie Meyer to Glenn Beck. Some of the essays are versions of ones we know like Randy Astle’s work on cinema and some are utterly new. I mean—did you know about Rose Marie Reid? Continue reading “Mormons and Popular Culture: The Global Influence of an American Phenomenon edited by J.Michael Hunter– coming soon to a university (but probably not a personal) library near you”
One 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.
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).
FAVORITE MORMON PLAY: MELISSA LEILANI LARSON’S MARTYRS’ CROSSING
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 for Saints 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.”
FAVORITE MORMON PLAYWRIGHT: MATTHEW GREENE
Although I haven’t seen or read it, just the fact that Matthew Greene was able to get a Mormon themed play up in major a New York fringe festival is nothing to sniff at. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews for #MormonInChief, but I admire Matthew (who was in BYU’s WDA Workshop with me several years ago) for really jumping into the New York theater scene and progressing the cause of Mormon Drama. He’s also got an upcoming play coming soon to Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City called Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Matthew is getting some real traction in his career as a dramatic writer and I believe it’s well deserved. Continue reading “My 2012 Mormon Arts Favorites”
Richard Wilkins, who played Scrooge for 29 years at the Hale Centre Theatre in Utah, and a dedicated member of not only the theatre community in the state, but also a valiant member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has passed away. The details are reported in the Salt Lake Tribune: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/55356433-223/wilkins-family-law-legal.html.csp?page=2
I was friends with Richard Wilkins, as well as most of the members of his family. His daughter Claire and I were especially good friends (we went to Senior Dinner Dance together and she was a great, supportive friend to me). I met his family because Richard and his wife Melany cast me in a play at the Hale Center Theater when I was in Jr. High and I can look back at that moment as a great source continual blessings since then.
I will write a more personal tribute later, but I just wanted to take a moment now to recognize this tremendous figure in the Utah Theatre Community. Richard was a beautiful human being who I loved. My heart and prayers go with his family, who I also love.
Earlier 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.
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: