Mormon Literature’s Once and Future King?

3.31.11 | | 29 comments

If you look at Mormon Literature in terms of how many church members interacted with it—i.e., how many members were involved either in its production or its consumption—one literary form was likely the King of Mormon Literature from the 1930s through perhaps 1970: Drama.

Last August I wrote a little about this drama renaissance and what we have lost since then—most importantly, the culture and infrastructure that supported the production of so much theater. Where once wards and branches throughout the Church mounted theatrical productions annually, now less than a dozen Mormon-themed productions are mounted each year, and those productions are usually in Utah. Where once a book of plays suitable for production by local congregations was published each year, now we are lucky if more than one play is published (last year is an exception). Where for many years a significant portion of Mormons might have seen a Mormon play in a given year, today we are lucky if members of the Church can even name a Mormon play (except for, perhaps, Saturday’s Warrior), let alone actually see a production.

This decline is certainly remarkable, especially given the attention paid to Mormons in dramatic works in recent decades. Instead of our own works, we are the subject (or target, if you prefer) of dramatic works at the highest level of the theater world.

While the reasons for this decline are perhaps complex, rooted in both societal changes in the U.S. and changes in focus from Church leadership, I’m not willing to say that drama shouldn’t and will not have a significant role in the future. Instead, I wonder what can or should happen to give theater a greater role in LDS culture, even if it never reaches the kingly role it once held.

Looking at the current status of Mormon theater, many of the structural elements needed are already there. We still have Mormon plays being written by a corpus of playwrights. In fact, the current crop is, I believe, as good as or perhaps better than Mormon theater ever had.

With the increase in the size of the Church, the educating capacity of BYU and other Church schools, and the rise of the current wave of LDS films, it seems likely that the corpus of actors and directors is also very strong, although mostly oriented towards non-LDS works and production.

Venues are a little bit trickier to assess. While we have many times the LDS chapels with stages that we had when MIAs were mounting productions, without Church support they may not be very useful—you can’t charge admission to a production in an LDS meetinghouse, which forces productions to seek donations to cover expenses if they wish to perform there. On the other hand, there are likely many, many more venues than there were in Mormon theater’s heyday, and a significant portion of these venues can be rented in order to mount a production—making the funds required an investment instead of a donation. The bottom line is that finding a venue is more difficult than it once was, but far from impossible.

It seems to me the larger hurdles, especially those that weren’t there before, involve more organization and financing than physical and human resources. Unlike during the MIA period, would-be directors and producers aren’t as likely to know what Mormon plays are available or how to obtain rights to those plays. Nor do they have any easy way of finding local Mormon actors, if they believe Mormon actors are necessary for a production. Financing the play can also be problematic, since there isn’t any easy way of identifying and contacting the obvious source of financing—wealthy local LDS Church members. And, should they overcome these hurdles, they likely face the most difficult hurdle of all: how to let the natural audience for Mormon theatre, LDS Church members, know about their production and encourage them to come see it.

Can these hurdles be overcome? Yes. It happens all the time with both LDS and non-LDS theatre. Producers and directors find actors and mount productions on shoestring budgets at times, and many times somehow find an audience. But there are also things that could be done to help, given the hurdles mentioned. A directory of Mormon plays, including descriptions, resources required and how to obtain rights would be nice. Perhaps a directory of LDS actors interested in local Mormon productions would help. And, in my experience, there are often well-connected local Church members who know sources of financing, and how to promote to other Church members.

Unfortunately, these hurdles seem overwhelming, and the solutions to them are not necessarily obvious. So I wonder if some kind of Mormon dramatic organization might be able to help—a group that could support efforts to produce local Mormon drama, providing local producers with information about how to find Mormon drama, locate suitable actors and venues, get financing and promote local productions to a Mormon audience, at least passing on what information is known and help that is available. Do you think that would work?

Perhaps this is just my vague daydream about what might be done. At a minimum, I hope that it defines the hurdles ahead of Mormon drama, and encourages someone to see if they might mount a production in their area. At least couldn’t cities with significant LDS populations and strong theatre industries—such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington D.C., New York and London—find enough talent and resources to put together productions or even set up acting companies? As I look around at the producing and acting capabilities that I see among LDS Church members here in New York, I have to think that it is possible.

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29 comments: “Mormon Literature’s Once and Future King?

  1. Bradly Baird

    I have to agree with what you say, Kent. I believe that it is entirely possible for the LDS community to put together dramatic productions in many places around the world, and to find the financial and structural support necessary.

    One of the things that occurred to me while reading your article is that, with the rise of the digital broadcasing capacities of dramatic and cinematic theaters around the world, an even broader audience for such productions could be found. An LDS theatrical production could be broadcast digitally and witnessed live to theaters around the world.

    A perfect example of this is the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts that are sent live into cinemas all over the world numerous times a season. I have attended several and I have to say that this technological capability is quite amazing, and doesn’t diminish the emotional or theatrical impact. In many ways, it heightens the impact because the broadcasts are such that it feels as though one is sitting in the front row (and, at times, on the stage itself).

    In fact, it would be entirely possible to make live drama broadcasts from anywhere – not necessarily only a theatrical setting. You could produce drama in a wild variety of settings (studios, stadiums, site-specific environments) and broadcast those productions into dramatic and cinematic theaters around the world.

    What we need is the rise of an organization to test and prove a model like this.

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Absolutely, Bradly.

    What’s preventing such an organization from being formed? Is it just a lack of motivation?

  3. Jettboy

    Kent, I believe its a lack of funds and theater institutions that will support the effort. The LDS Church, for instance, has had its own productions and venues, but how come the longest running Mormon musical hasn’t inspired other similar ones going beyond Palmyra NY? I don’t think it is so much a lack of motivation, but a lack of faith in its possibility for survival. Even you at the end states, “Perhaps this is just my vague daydream about what might be done,” mixed with a half-hearted declaration of what could be shows a profound skepticism.

  4. Kent Larsen Post author

    Jettboy (3):

    I don’t think it is so much a lack of motivation, but a lack of faith in its possibility for survival. Even you at the end states, “Perhaps this is just my vague daydream about what might be done,” mixed with a half-hearted declaration of what could be shows a profound skepticism.

    For the record, its not a lack of faith on my part exactly. Its more a recognition that I’m not really in the theater, don’t know all the ins and outs of theater, and realize that I could be very wrong about my conclusions because of this.

    If someone who does know the theater stands up and says that they want to make something happen to get LDS drama out to audiences, I’m ready to stand up and help.

    And that is despite the fact that I already have my own large projects for promoting and improving Mormon cultural expressions.

  5. Mahonri Stewart

    As Eric Samuelsen said in “Whither Mormon Drama, Look First to a Theatre” (http://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/35.1Samuelsen%2070c62e15-d545-4067-9b0f-3df2e3fd06f6.pdf) , “A Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe.” Even LDS themed theatre groups like New Play Project, my own Zion Theatre Company, or Mel Larson’s organization struggle because they have to rent out spaces and haven’t their own theatre that they can control and shell out even additional cash just to perform in Provo Theatre Company’s space. I agree with Samuelsen, that it needs to center around a theater who regularly performs Mormon work. That is my own chief goal to own a theatre someday, and Mormon work would be a major part of it. Of course, with three years of graduate school ahead of me now and who know how long after that, it may be a bit before I reach that goal.

  6. Bradly Baird

    Someone exactly like Mahonri will make it work. The challenge will be in building a theater company that can financially support itself, and it might require a balance of Mormon theater and mainstream theater.

    I know the executive director of Pioneer Memorial in Salt Lake City faily well and have heard him speak about the issue of balancing the serious dramatic works against the “blockbuster musicals” that he know everyone wants to see.

    The blockbusters are usually what really pulls in the large audiences and make the money, which in turn makes it possible for them to produce shakespeare and more serious dramatic pieces that derserve a staging, but will find a much smaller audience.

    Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that the Mormon work wouldn’t make money for a theater company. I just mean to suggest that you would have to find a financial model that supports the production of work that should have a larger audience, until it finds an audience and can support itself.

    Make sense?

  7. Jettboy

    Fair enough Kent. Its just an attitude I have heard from even those in the theater business who are Mormon. Not to mention my own skepticism that its possible without the money. If it does start, I think it will come from BYU theater students who form some kind of group of determined individuals. However, I also know from experience that the theater group at BYU is the least likely among the student body to want to get involved with Mormonism once they graduate. The irony is perhaps too much to make any kind of difference.

  8. Cody

    As an actor, I would be interested in seeing more Mormon-centric drama. However, in my experience, most Mormon-themed drama I’ve seen (at least that which is made by active Mormons) is bland and often amateur-ish. I’d love to see work written by authors who offer thought-provoking material dealing with Mormonism and acted and directed by people who really know what they are doing. Of course, there’s definitely a place for less professional community theatre, but it would be nice to see some interesting professional quality material.

  9. Kent Larsen Post author

    Cody, I suspect you simply haven’t been exposed to the good stuff.

    What have you seen?

    Anything by Tom Rodgers, Clinton Larsen, Tim Slover, or Eric Samuelsen? How about any of Mahonri’s plays?

    I realize that productions of these playwrights don’t happen very often (I don’t think Rodgers or Larsen get produced at all any more). FWIW, I learned a few days ago that Samuelsen’s Borderlands is being mounted by Plan-B in Salt Lake.

    Cody, your experience is, I think, one of the reasons why the problem is more than just getting a theater. Access to and familiarity with the plays is also important.

  10. Terrance V. Mc Arthur

    What is needed is the LDS equivalent to Samuel French, Pioneer Play Service, or Baker’s Plays, a major publisher geared toward the Mormon market, publishing the plays and collecting the royalties. With two or three firms concentrating the product into sites that offer many plays and forms (musicals, dramas, comedies), producing groups (wards, stakes, independent theatres) would know where to look for material. In the MIA-Book-of-Plays era, a variety of options was gathered into one annual volume. Access to the best scripts is the key to developing a stronger LDS theatre.

  11. David Z

    So, I’m Mormon and have been working professionaly in the DC theatre scene for nearly a year and a half. I’ve yet to meet any active members in the industry. If any of you could point out DC Mormon theatre folk, I’d love to get going…As it stands now, the only other active member in the field that I knew left DC and I’m a loner.

  12. David Z

    And by, “get going,” I meant, “get some Mormon-centric stuff going.”

  13. Theric Jepson

    .

    A few thoughts:

    Katya’s biggest personal focus with the Mormon Arts Wiki was listing plays and as you can see she found quite a bit. (Incidentally, although active work on the wiki has stopped while Katya explores better hosting options, it is still a living website).

    David Z’s experience is, I think, pretty normal. New York has Mormon Artists Group and as far as I know, that’s the only equivalent organization anywhere. We’re not well connected. Step one: get more people reading AMV.

    I can imagine filling the role of a Samuel French. It is risky though as to be useful you would need a critical mass of plays to start with which pretty much guarantees never making a profit. Even using POD publication-done-right is expensive. That said, books like Out of the Mount prove you can start now. And lots of Eric Samuelson’s plays have been in Sunstone. If you look, you can find great stuff. Or terrible stuff.

    My ward is putting on Pirates of Penzance this year.

  14. Wm Morris

    The closest thing to this;

    “. If it does start, I think it will come from BYU theater students who form some kind of group of determined individuals.”

    although not exactly it

    is http://newplayproject.org/

  15. Rich Alger

    We have purchased Liken the Scriptures, Veggie Tales, Living Scriptures. My mother in law was in charge of a Book of Mormon play in her stake several years ago. We attend the Hale Theatre in Mesa. I once was a part of a road show. It is among the earliest memories I have at church.

    Stage productions are a big part of my life.

  16. Jonathan Langford

    Mahonri, are you still on track for putting out that drama anthology with Zarahemla? While a single anthology isn’t enough to meet the need for a body of available high-quality dramatic work by Mormons, it would provide a place to start. (Not to mention that I’m champing at the bit to buy a copy once it comes out…)

  17. Th.

    .

    Allow me to (again) point out that Out of the Mount is “a body of available high-quality dramatic work by Mormons” and is available now.

  18. Mojo

    Oh! Right. Also? Out of the Mount is being used in English 362 at BYU this semester.

    Yeah. It’s got body. And legs…

  19. Jonathan Langford

    Indeed. I didn’t mean to imply that Out of the Mount isn’t also another good place to start. I don’t see the two as really being in competition with each other, since the focus of the two collections is (as I understand it) quite different. Both are needed.

    One of my great bugaboos re: Mormon literature is the way that good work is published, sells a few copies, then vanishes into history. The great attraction (for me) of Mahonri’s collection is that it collects many of the classics of serious Mormon drama in one place — including some I’ve been hearing about for years but never read or seen performed. In contrast, the great attraction of Out of the Mount is that it reflects the energy of a contemporary creative community. Between them, they’d be a great way to start a shelf of published Mormon drama.

  20. Mahonri Stewart

    Yes, Jonathan, the anthology is still a go, although it was stalled for a little while for various reasons. But its been through a couple of drafts, and Chris Bigelow has hired an editor to give it another comb over and we should be in business! Chris says he definitely wants it published this year.

  21. Kent Larsen Post author

    Terrance (11):

    We did have a company that sort-of filled the “Samuel French” role, Encore, but they essentially stopped operating five to ten years ago and were sold (see Mormon Play Publisher Purchased, Mormon Plays for Sale). While Encore might have done a better job, I suspect that they had a hard time finding customers for their Mormon plays. It takes a lot more than just a publisher, IMO.

  22. Kent Larsen Post author

    Theric (14):

    FWIW, New York’s Mormon Artist Group hasn’t done anything with theater to date. It is more oriented to the visual arts, with a bit of music thrown in.

    I’m sad to hear David Z’s (12) comment that there aren’t other theater actors in DC. But I have to wonder if it could be just where he lives. DC has more stakes (around 10-15) within a reasonable commute than New York has. Or perhaps its that the actors there have left the profession and are doing other things, making it much harder to identify them?

  23. Kent Larsen Post author

    Rich (16), FWIW, “Veggie Tales” is NOT Mormon. Its produced by an Evangelical company, as I undertand it.

  24. Th.

    .

    Kent (24):

    I know they haven’t done theater, but they are an LDScentric community of artists which was all I meant to imply. A group of Mormon artists of any type is relatively rare, esp. outside Utah. Making that critical mass is tough. I think most metro areas could sustain a group if it had someone like Glen Nelson willing to keep it alive and managed to get a series of successes. Nothing attracts success like success.

    Incidentally, Ben Abbot of all those posts last week is more or less available to take his one-man show anywhere next year. Anyone who wants to put on a relatively inexpensive LDS-themed production should get in contact with him. I can hook you up.

  25. Mike Perry

    I would like to start one up! ZION THEATRICALS is right now in the infant stages of startup. Partners are being gathered. Website is being organized. I am quite excited about it. Please, let me know if you think that it is a good idea!

    This would be a virtual publishing house. No inventory. Everything — scripts, scores and such — would be available as a paid download online in PDF form. Nothing to print.

    We could also give the Authors associated with us their own webpage on the site: ie: http://www.LDSAUTHOR.com. We would charge them whatever it costs us to register the domain name.(usually between $5 and $20 per year) The hosting of the ONE PAGE site, listing their titles and bios and other pertinent information, would be free to them. It’s a way to get a lot of people dotcom’d which increases search engine submission and the like. What do you think?

  26. Dennis Agle

    Thought provoking. Thanks for writing this, Kent. Tough challenge, but it seems like there may be a million reasons why a certain worthwhile thing “can’t happen,” until one day we are pleased to realize that somehow it has anyway. The right elements (probably because at least one of which had some means) came together at the right time and the right place and made magic.

    All the elements may have been around for some time chugging along separately in their various spheres, but they just needed some spark to bring them all together and make fire. Would be cool if your article, Kent, turned out to be such a spark.

    One thing that exists now that might make such magic more feasible than before is this nifty collaborative tool called the internet. Maybe all the various elements don’t need to be in the same geographic market to contribute to the effort.

    In any case, I hope you don’t mind if I feature this tomorrow in our fledgling MormonDaddyBlogs.com. I’d love to help shed more light, small as it may be, on this topic that is near and dear to my heart as well.

    And once you get it worked out for the stage, perhaps next up could be film, please?

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