Scripting Mormon Drama: Series Introduction

Salt Lake Theater Interior 1890

Not living in Utah anymore has its advantages and its drawbacks… for me one of the things I REALLY miss is the Utah Theatre scene. Seeing original Mormon plays from New Play Project, or the the really interesting theatrical projects that happening these days at UVU and BYU, or seeing familiar names on the program at the myriad of quality plays performed in both Salt Lake and Utah County… it’s something I really miss. Fortunately, I keep my ear close to the ground (and glued to the events posted on Facebook and the Utah Theatre Bloggers Association website) to keep updated on what’s happening with Mormon Drama in the good ol’ State of Deseret. For, with all its quirks and foibles, Utah is still the center of the Mormon Arts, although it would be great to see a truly global Mormonism represented through Mormon Drama and other Mormon Arts (and for proof of such progress, one only has to look at the relatively recent international issue of Mormon Artist ). But, as it is, those of us out of the hive miss on some great artistic projects about our faith.

Fortunately, I have been asked by certain omnipotent powers that be here at AMV (okay, Jonathan Langford) to stay even more in touch with this side of my natural interests and start a monthly column about Mormon Drama. I will not always be the column’s writer, as I will often ask other guest Mormon dramatists and thespians to take over for a month and give us their two cents on the State of Mormon Drama. But I hope to consistently oversee the spot, to keep it running smoothly so that it can give some consistent information about my most beloved branch of the Mormon Arts. As far as I’m aware, others at AMV will be running similar columns about their own individual disciplines. Continue reading “Scripting Mormon Drama: Series Introduction”

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One

File:Hero 1000 faces book 2008.jpg For the past several years I have had a connection that has been floating around in my brain which I’ve been itching to iterate. In studying things as far flung as psychology, C.S. Lewis, Mormon theology and history, literary/mythical archetypes, world religions, and diverse world histories, these disparate parts have led me to form a pattern to the experiences of C.S. Lewis, the life of Joseph Smith, but also to the Mormon concept of the Plan of Salvation.

I have been teaching about Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” in my high school creative writing class and so it has set me back on this track of thinking which has been boring its way into my everyday unconscious for a long time now. For those unaware of what exactly “The Hero’s Journey” is, it chiefly comes from a book Joseph Campbell wrote called The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Written in 1949, it was a very important book that set forth the idea that there are patterns and archetypes found in all sorts of disparate mythology, fairy tales, religious narratives, and folk lore. That all these stories from unconnected and far flung cultures follow one basic story. It is also a trend that can be found in epic literature and film, which is uncannily and unconsciously present in everything from Homer’s The Odyssey to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And many writers now purposely craft their tales to follow this pattern, George Lucas’s Star Wars being one of the most famous examples.

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BYU Experimental Theatre Company's production of _Prometheus Unbound_

I also purposely followed this pattern with my play Prometheus Unbound several years ago (and have addressed it less directly in other plays such as Swallow the Sun and my new work Manifest), much because the idea has fascinated me ever since I was taught it in my high school sophmore honors English class. Ms. Drummond mentioned Carl Jung’s revolutionary studies in the early and mid 20th century about archetypes (a simpler overview here) and the collective unconscious. In my terms, archetypes are repeating patterns that happen in mythology and other stories, in psychology, in dreams, and even (at least from what I’ve been able to observe) in many points in recorded, literal history (try applying this pattern to Joan of Arc, for example). Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One”

Writing the Hard History

Kathryn Little and Amos Omer in New Play Project's Production of _The Fading Flower_. Photo by Naoma Wilkinson.

I have written two LDS History plays, one called Friends of God (about the events leading up to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom) the other called The Fading Flower (about the conflict surrounding the LDS/ RLDS schism about polygamy, especially as it related to Joseph and Emma Smith’s family). I was criticized by some people for writing the plays (one family member even told me after seeing the play, that he thought I was going to go apostate). Some people thought that the plays brought up too many uncomfortable facts in Church history. They thought that presenting a less than ideal image of Church figures would be damaging to people’s faith. And, truth told, there are some people I know who struggled with both plays.
The irony, of course, is that I wrote the plays to build up faith rather than tear it down… I consider the plays to tell the faith of people who struggled, but were ultimately redeemed by those struggles, either in this life or the next. The plays clearly state God’s reality and love and show the Church’s leaders as inspired, although not perfect. I addressed hard questions, but I also believe I presented answers to those questions, if people were willing to put aside their prejudices and preconceptions. And that, more often than not, proved to be the case.
Continue reading “Writing the Hard History”

Final Thoughts: Reactions to “Out of the Mount, 19 from New Play Project,” Part Five

This series was about New Play Project and its new anthology was really meant to be a single article originally. Then the more I thought about New Play Project, the more I realized I had to say. Thus the mini-epic. Now that I’ve thrown out my major ideas and reactions (and inadvertently stirred a few hornets nests in the process), I’m starting to run out of steam. It took a lot of time and thought to put these out and I feel good about it. I did what I set out to do.  But before I close the case, I have a few brief… well, briefer… closing statements.


Whether you live near enough to see New Play Project’s shows, or a similar theatre or arts groups group with vision in your own area, by all means support them (whether through attending their shows, buying their volumes, or volunteering)! Especially in tough economic times like these, keeping an arts organization or company afloat is very tricky. It was the Great Depression that killed the Harlem Renaissance, and the same could easily happen with the budding efforts of a lot Mormon Artists. We all need to tighten our belts, obviously, especially those at the helm of these groups. Creative saving is the name of the game, all while making less look like more. However, in doing so, let’s not forget how valuable these efforts are, even when they’re imperfect. There has been some exciting things happening in the Mormon Arts world the last few years, ranging from Zarahemla Books to New Play Project to the Whitney Awards. I would hate to see any of those derailed because of the recession. Out of the Mount is an especially worthy volume, which I think is a great boon to any Mormon literature lover’s library. Continue reading “Final Thoughts: Reactions to “Out of the Mount, 19 from New Play Project,” Part Five”

The Clear Voiced Individual: Melissa Leilani Larson and “Little Happy Secrets”: Reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, Part Four

Mel Larson 2
Photo by Alisia Packard


Throw in 3/4 a cube of Jane Austen. Add in equal amounts of Joss Whedon. A pinch of Aaron Sorkin. Oh, and don’t forget two cups of Joseph Smith. Stir evenly. Layer that on top of Merchant Ivory films, historical biopics, and BBC period pieces. Maybe, if you’re in the mood, fold in a little romantic comedy, but only the good stuff. Then mix and let stand. After that, throw in a lot of witty banter, contemporary flair, unflinching bravery, impressive style, moving spirituality, and really strong intelligence.  Toss it in the oven until it’s “shiny.” Take it out, let it cool, top it off with some genuine originality, sparkling dialogue, realistic plots, heart rending vulnerability, and achingly honest characters. Then let it cool and (voila!) you have the plays of Melissa Leilani Larson.

Before I ever met the witty and wonderful Melissa Leilani Larson, I was introduced to her through her plays Wake Me When Its Over (now Standing Still Standing) and Angels Unaware (now Martyrs’ Crossing). The work itself created some powerful responses in me and I have very fond memories of attending those shows. Angels Unaware, especially, re-sparked my spiritual love affair with Joan of Arc (Jean d’Arc), which originally started with my first reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Both Shaw’s and Larson’s plays have led to independent inquiry and research on my part, which I hope leads to another Joan of Arc play (or two) someday from my end, although they will be very different than either Larson’s or Shaw’s… and definitely Shakespeare’s!… take on the Maid.

From the beginning Larson has engaged my mind, softened my heart, and spurred me into action. She has made me re-think certain worldviews, and review my own, not always pure intentions. She has made me see my fellow human beings more clearly and compassionately, as well as drawing me nearer to the heart of God. I don’t know how I can give higher praise to a writer, but Larson deserves every word of it. And in her most ground-breaking play (earth shattering, more like it!) Little Happy Secrets, all of Larson’s strengths are on display. Continue reading “The Clear Voiced Individual: Melissa Leilani Larson and “Little Happy Secrets”: Reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, Part Four”

James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three

Photo bt Vilo Elisabeth Westwood
Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood

Unlike many, I do not believe a text can truly be divorced from its author. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but the more I find out about an author, the more I am fascinated and enlightened by the text. So it’s difficult for me to address a work, when I have met the author, not to bring my experiences with, or knowledge of, the author to the text. So, first, I’ll talk about the author James Goldberg, as well as his relation to New Play Project. Then I’ll address his beautiful, award-winning play, “Prodigal Son.”


Now I wouldn’t call James Goldberg my best friend, although we are friends, and I certainly would love to be even friendlier. Yet there seems to have even been awkward tension during a few moments. We’ve seriously disagreed a couple of occasions. And I could tell that I annoyed him on at least a dozen occurrences..

However, I do think the world of him. And I think he is one of the best and unique writers Mormonism has. We should value him and the wealth of multiculturalism he brings to his Mormon faith and writing.  It’s interesting, the more and more I find truth in other religions, the more and more I believe in Mormonism. Comparing religions and cultures highlights the Gospel tinged truths whispered into the ears of every culture. And I get the sense from James that he believes the same thing.

James Goldberg comes from Jewish and Sikh heritages, while also happening to be a card carrying Mormon. When you talk to him, he isn’t shy about his diverse background and proudly celebrates his cultural past and freely intermingles it with his cultural present, not really distinguishing them. Because he shouldn’t distinguish them. Because Mormonism embraces all truth.  That is, if we should trust Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to be adequate spokesmen for Mormonism.

This idea of intermingling one’s diverse cultural and even religious identities is wonderfully evident in a good deal of Goldberg’s work, perhaps no where I have it seen so clearly so as in his fascinating and moving “Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenburgh.” In Mormon Artist’s first Contest Issue Goldberg mentions in an interview about the story , something that struck me:

Because the stories I was writing were so short, I didn’t have time to explain all the culture in them: the Jewish holidays that were thematically connected, the immigrant groups in each story. I figured in the age of Google, smart people could look up the stuff they didn’t get and discover the extra layers in the story, like mining for gems. Understandably, many of my class members didn’t take the time to look stuff up. What surprised me, though, was that the same people who hadn’t invested their time in the story were telling me to simplify it, to explain it more in terms they could understand. Some said they felt like I wasn’t including them because I wasn’t writing in their culture and explaining anything that came from anywhere else. And I thought, these stories wouldn’t be as beautiful if I explained them. And the best readers would get less out of them.

I also thought, I have unique stories to tell because of my own life heritage. Why should I only tell stories you can already fully understand? Isn’t one purpose of fiction to expand the reader? Continue reading “James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three”

The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two

Out of the Mount

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.

Continue reading “The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two”