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.