For those of you who are not familiar with Eric Samuelsen, in my opinion, he’s one of the finest playwrights Mormonism has produced so far. He is a playwriting Professor at BYU, where he has cultivated some of the finest next generation Mormon playwrights including Tony and Leslie Gunn, Melissa Larson, Elizabeth Leavitt and Morag Plaice. His own plays have a wide recognition in Mormon literary circles, many of them having played at BYU, including “Accommodations,” “The Seating of Senator Smoot,” “Gadianton,” “The Way We’re Wired,” “A Love Affair With Electrons,” a musical adaptation of “The Christmas Box,” and his most recent success “Family.” Continue reading “An Interview With Eric Samuelsen”
(Technical note: it is appropraite to italicize or underline the titles of plays, but for some reason my computer does not allow this, so I’m using quotation marks).
I was a Freshman in high school. My familiarity with Mormon Theater was pretty much limited to particpating in BYU’s summer theater camp for youth (EFY for drama geeks) and watching the VHS versions of “Saturday’s Warrior” and “My Turn On Earth” (which, like many Mormons of my generation, my family had grown up with). C.S. Lewis had recently ignited my imagination towards religious literature through a book of his poetry which I had stumbled upon at the library– thus I was exploring religious themes through my poetry and early playwriting. Yet it was a general Christian religiousness, with very little of strong flavored Mormonism. Then one of those seemingly everyday occurences happened in my life that changed everything: my parents took me to a play at BYU.
Samuelsen’s “The Seating of Senator Smoot” was certainly not the “Saturday’s Warrior” I had grown up with. Here was something more challenging, more bold, more intelligent– and it created more of a change on my inner, spiritual geography.
Then the next year I took a good friend on a date to see Eric Samuelsen’s next play at BYU, “Gadianton.” Even more so than “Senator Smoot,” this play struck very deep chords within me. I didn’t then, nor do I consider myself now, a liberal (I rather buck at political labels, actually. I think they’re too confining). Yet this play was able to present to me the plight of the “laborer in Zion” under the whims of the business elite in such an intelligent, persuasive and spiritually personal way, that what natural barriers and prejudices I had built up in myself melted against the sheer humanity and vision of Samuelsen’s work.
As George MacDonald “baptized” the imagination of a young, atheistic C.S. Lewis, Eric Samuelsen baptized my imagination into a new life of Mormon Theater. Suddenly I didn’t want to veil the Mormonism in my writing, but, instead, celebrate it. Suddenly I wasn’t an artist who happened to be a Latter-day Saint, but, instead, a Latter-day Saint artist.
Since then I’ve thought a great deal about this shift. Most (not all) of my plays now revolve around Mormon characters and Mormon themes. My specific religious background and inground permeate my work.
Yet the question arises: is this really a good thing? Does this peculiar focus on our religion limit not only limit the Mormon playwrights’ audiences, but also the playwrights themselves? And is this the case with all fields of LDS art?
Theater is an especially interesting case study with this particular question of LDS art. Theater is riddled with obstacles as it is. James Arrington, in a radio interview which he and I particpated in promoting one of my plays, called theater the “fabulous invalid.” Doomsayers thought that radio would kill it, that film would kill it, that T.V. would kill it, that VHS then DVD would kill it. But theater has survived. But only barely. Yet throw Mormonism into it, and can it still stand on its own two feet?
Unlike, say, something like the LDS visual arts or even LDS Cinema, who, despite their own struggles, at least have the ability to provide a wider distrubition for their products to members of the Church across the globe through items like prints, books and DVDs– Mormon Theater does not have that luxury. Mormon Theater has to struggle with a limited geography. There are a few cases that a show has a touring company (as with “Saturday’s Warrior”) or that it’s innate nature allows the artist to pick up and go (like Arrington’s one man “Farley Family” shows or his “Here’s Brother Brigham”), but for the most part Mormon Theater hasn’t any mobility. It has the far flung hope that “if you build it, they will come.”
Then let’s take into account other factors. A play will usually only be successful if it can play in New York or some other prominent city and then attract a major publisher like Samuel French or Dramatic Publishing to pick up the rights and then advertise it in its catalogues and sell it to regional theaters, community theaters, universities and schools. And even a great deal of those are rarely performed again. Most Mormon plays have not been picked up by such publishers and even those few who are (such as Tim Slover’s “Joyful Noise” or LeAnne Adams’ “Archipelago”) generally do not have Mormon characters or overtly Mormon themes. There is a local publisher, Encore!, who has picked up Mormon plays such as Slover’s “Hancock County” and James Arrington, Marvin Payne and Steve Perry’s “A Trail of Dreams.” But looking on Encore’s website (which posts where else the plays have been performed), I could only ascertain that “A Trail of Dreams” has been performed in a handful of places (usually by LDS Church groups) and “Hancock County” hasn’t seemed to have gone anywhere beyond its excellent performances at Brigham Young University (although there was an excellent DVD that was made by the BYU cast).
Then there is the culture of the national theater market. Those plays which have been able to incorporate Mormon characters and themes usually at least have a veiled antagonism towards the Church or its policies. Tony Kushner’s pulitzer prize winning play “Angels In America” has done this famously (although it, fortunately, contains sympathetic Mormon characters, it certainly is attacking the Church on it policies towards practicing homosexuality). Then there was the one man show by Steven Fales (an excommunicated member), “Confessions of a Mormon Boy”– again taking issues with the Church’s stance against homosexuality. Even one of Mormonism’s most famous and skilled playwrights, Neil Labute, cast his Mormon characters in “Bash: Latter-day Plays” as homophobic folks who are willing to kill a homosexual passerby (by the way, are we seeing a trend here in regard to the role that the world wants us to play in their art?).
Admittedly, the Church’s core culture is chiefly conservative, especially on moral issues like homosexuality and abortion, while the national theater’s core culture is chiefly liberal. This puts those involved in both cultures in quite the pickle– stuck in between a rock and a hard place. The tensions that result usually play out into one of two scenarios. First, the tug of war leads the LDS Theater artist to abandon his craft and turn to law or financial planning or some other such practical occupation, dabbling only in theater as a hobby– perhaps acting in a Hale Center Theater play every once in a while or writing a road show when called upon. The other scenario is that the LDS Theater Artist will be so enraptured by the lure of theater that he will leave the Church, often after dabbling in immoral or alternative lifestyles. Yet there are a few who stay– but they usually teach at a high school or a university to pay the bills. There are a very elect few who actually make it big time in a Broadway show or through regional theaters (and even those usually end up in film and television).
So for those of us who have a passion for Mormon Theater, why do we even try? Why not just relent, leave it as a hobby and take the good advice all of our family and friends give us and take a nice desk job?
Well, the best answer I can find for that question is that Mormons believe in prophecy.
Spencer W. Kimball has said, “In our world, there have risen brilliant stars in drama, music, literature, sculpture, painting, science and all the graces. For long years I have a vision of members of the Church greatly increasing their already strong positions of excellence till all they eyes of the world will be upon us….For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the reestablishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter revolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counter-reactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of the miracle man, Joseph Smith…”
John Taylor has said, “You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as are today in religious matters. God expects Zion to become the praise of the whole earth, so that kings hearing of her fame will come and gaze upon her glory…”
Boyd K. Packer has said, “The reason we have not yet produced a greater heritage in art and literature and drama is not, I am very certain, because we have not had talented people. For over the years we have had not only good ones but great ones. Some have reached great heights in their chosen fields. But few have captured the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of it in music, in art, in literature. They have not, therefore, even though they were gifted, made a lasting contribution to the onrolling of the Church and Kingdom of God… They have therfore missed doing what they might have done, and they have missed being what they might have become.”
Orson F. Whitney has said, “We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are reserved for the latter times.”
David O. Mackay has said, “Away back in the days of Nauvoo we find drama introduced by the Prophet Joseph. We find acting in that drama men who later became prominent leaders in the Church. Among them was the man who succeeded the Prophet Joseph, Brigham Young. He, imbued with the necessity of influencing people in their amusements and of using their recreation as a means of instilling virtue, integrity, and honesty, brought to these valleys that spirit.”
Brigham Young has said, “If placed upon a cannibal island with the charge of civilizing the inhabitants, I would construct a theater.”
Those are wonderful words of comfort, but will words, even words of prophets, be able to get us through the strains and realities of life? Personally, I feel my situation very keenly right now. I am just barely through my first year of marriage, not yet finished with school (a little behind, actually), living in my parents basement apartment, stuck in a dead end job, and having our first son coming in about a week. What RIGHT do I have do dabble in the arts, when my beautiful wife Anne and soon-to-be-born son Hyrum, will be depending on me to make a living? What RIGHT do I have to not only put my feet onto such an unsure path, but also the feet of those I love?
These are not questions easily answered questions to be batted away with a, “Oh, you don’t understand the fate of a tortured artist.”
But the best answer I can give, again, is that I believe in prophecy.
Most of those who remain faithful in the Church AND faithful in their art do so because they feel that have been called to do so. With them, I can only answer such queries into my life with, “The only RIGHT I have to do this, is the right God gave me.” I, like many Latter-day Saint artists, have had many spiritual experiences that have confirmed my path. I won’t go into the details, because they are sacred, but let’s just say that such experiences can not be easily discarded or explained away.
I take comfort in the example of Joseph Smith. God gave him a mission– what did that mission give back? He went into one failed business enterprise after another (sometimes, like the Red Brick Store, they failed because he was too giving and honest). His family (and the Church) drifted from one community to another. Hatred, persecution and misunderstanding poured down upon their heads, their ideal of Zion failing time and time again. He held his dead son in his arms because he continued to follow the impractical commands of God. He was shoved into a dark, cramped, unsanitary, oppressing jail while his wife and children wandered homeless in the snow. His wife showed a degree of displeasure with him at the end of his life, threatening to divorce him (who can blame her, coming up against polygamy?). Eventually he would die, a sacrifice for a community and a Church he was trying to save. Emma would eventually leave the Church he founded, taking his children with her (which, if we can trust Mosiah Hancock’s account, Joseph knew about and prophesied about). The only one of his sons that would come even close to accepting the harder doctrines he taught in the Nauvoo period was David Hyrum Smith, and, because of his involvement in spiritualism (at least that’s my interpretation), he went insane and died in a mental hospital. There was no security for the Smith family. At least not in this life. The Church gained by his life and sacrifice, but when it came to the “profit” of Mammon, I’m sure many a financial planner would consider him a failure.
What RIGHT did Joseph Smith have to throw his family into such uncertainty? Only the right that God gave him.
So is that the fate of the LDS artist? Insecurity and a history of hardship? Perhaps, but then we’ll be ushered into the Kingdom of God, if we are faithful. If that’s the case, I’m okay with that. However, is there no way to make this a successful venture instead of a noble, lost cause?
Eric Samuelsen has suggested something very interesting in an essay which was published in BYU Studies, titled, “Whence Mormon Drama? Look To a Theater. He wrote, “What playwrights need is a theater. The great eras of the world’s dramatic literature have tended to come after the establishment of theater and theater companies sufficiently robust to support them… In short, we will never develop a satisfying Mormon drama until we have established and supported a theater from which such drama might emerge. The Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe.”
Ironically, I had just such an idea of supporting myself in theater by owning a theater, about the same time in my life that I saw Samuelsen’s “The Seating of Senator Smoot” and “Gadianton.” I hope that someday it comes to pass. But there have been others. The ill fated “Nauvoo Theatrical Society” founded by Scott Bronson and Thom Duncan, opened with a splash, but (as far as I can tell) faltered from a lack of publicity and word of mouth. It was a shame, for they put on some very fine productions of some of the best playwrights Mormonism has to offer. There are rumors, however, that (much like the Nauvoo Temple) they will rise out of the ashes soon, a phoenix, brighter and more glorious than before. Let us hope that this happens.
If such establishments cannot become solidly rooted soon, then we will press forward with faith, like Arrington’s “fabulous invalid.” Often pushed down, but never defeated. Often discouraged, but never despairing. If the Lord can clothe the lilies of the field, then he can clothe his chosen artists, writers and their families.
Mahonri Stewart is a Mormon playwright who resides in Provo with his wife Anne and upcoming son Hyrum. Mahonri’s debut play, Farewell To Eden, a British period drama that premiered at Utah Valley State College and then went on to be entered in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. There it won second place for the National Playwriting Award and a National Selection Team Fellowship Award (for Region VIII).
The next year UVSC premiered another of Mahonri’s plays, Legends of Sleepy Hollow, loosely based on Washington Irving’s classic story and other spooky tales of New England. Legends of Sleepy Hollow won the Ruth and Nathan Hale Comedy Playwriting Award (while Farewell To Eden won second place for that same year).
Mahonri’s play, Friends of God (about Joseph Smith’s martyrdom), also premiered recently and he has several other projects in various stages of development.
Mahonri also loves superheroes, his wife’s Calzones and consider himself an amateur Church Historian.