Matthew Greene is a BYU-trained, New York City-based playwright whose play #MormoninChief will premiere at this year’s NYC Fringe Festival. He pitched me on a blog post, and I decided what would be most interesting is an interview. Here it is:
Let’s start with the thing that led to this Q&A: the fact that your play #MormoninChief will be premiering at Fringe NYC in August. What is the play about?
#MormonInChief tells the story of Connor Jorgenson, an unassuming guy who goes to church with Mormon presidential candidate, Mack Benson. After he Tweets some comments allegedly made by Benson in a testimony meeting, he find himself at the center of a media frenzy as republicans and democrats alike clamor to hear more from this newfound inside source. The play centers around Connor’s struggle to deal with this newfound notoriety and the difficult issues that come up when religion and politics intersect.
What led to you deciding to write #MormoninChief?
I’ve been fascinated by the attention the LDS church has been getting lately, much of it due to Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. That intersection of religion and politics is such touchy and explosive terrain and looked to me like a dramatic gold mine. I knew in January that I wanted to submit a show for consideration for the Fringe Festival and wanted it to be topical and current. This seemed like an obvious choice for subject matter. On top of that, anything I write seems to grow out of questions I’m grappling with myself at the time. The themes of self worth, of honest communication, and of faith that are dealt with in #MormonInChief came from a personal place.
Tell us a little about the process of getting it into the Fringe Festival and actually mounting a production. What does that all entail?
The original submission in February consisted of the script and a list of my collaborators. I didn’t have any collaborators at the time so the application was basically my script. The festival, though, doesn’t produce the plays; that’s up to us. In effect, I was submitting a script andy saying, “If you pick this for your festival I will make a production happen.” Well, when I found out the play had been accepted into Fringe, I realized I had no idea how to make said production happen. So I reached out to Michael Holt, who is now producing the show. He’s really been the man behind the curtain for this whole thing from hiring a creative team to booking rehearsal space to raising the money we need to put the show up. Obviously money is a huge consideration and we continue to be fortunate in finding backers who believe in the project and want to contribute to make it happen.
Have you had any reactions to the play yet? If so, what have they been? And have they been different from LDS vs. non-LDS?
I’ve actually gotten a lot of feedback on the script and I’ve been surprised by how similar the reactions seem to be from LDS and non-LDS readers. I think more than anything it’s a story about some young people trying to figure out the world and where they fit into the grand scheme of things. And I think everyone can relate to that. I was worried that Connor might not come across as a sympathetic character to some; he’s hyper-conservative and relatively closed-minded at the outset of the play. But I think people see his vulnerability and his growth throughout the story and end up rooting for him.
Tell us a bit about the director Austin Regan and the producer Michael Holt. How did you meet each of them and how did you convince them to sign on to the production?
I knew Michael through some mutual friends and actually had him read the script before I submitted it to the festival. He’s very good at all the things I am bad at (budgets, scheduling, grown-up stuff) and I knew he was someone I wanted on my team. As soon as I found out the show was in the festival I called him up and he basically said, “Leave it to me.” Which I was happy to do and am increasingly happy to have done. Michael set out to find a director and Austin came highly recommended. The first time I sat down with Austin to talk about the script I knew not only that he was passionate about the project and really “got it,” but that he could challenge and push me to get the script where we needed it to be. And that’s exactly what he’s done.
How long have you been in NYC? What has it been like for a Mormon playwright? I assume that many things are the same as any struggling creative type — what has, perhaps, been different than the classic “trying-to-make-it-in-the-big-city narrative”? And where have you found common ground with both other Mormon artists and non-Mormon artists?
I’ve been in the city for about a year and a half. Of course, the struggle to “make it” knows no religious or cultural bounds. It’s a struggle just to be noticed, not to mention the difficulty inherent in creating something that’s worthy of being noticed in the first place. But being Mormon has been an asset, if anything. With “Book of Mormon” running on Broadway, I seem to be an interesting specimen to a lot of the people I meet. Mormons are also so “trendy” right now that, in “writing what I know,” I’m pretty well-equipped to deal with subject matter that seems to be interesting to a lot of people. And, of course, trying to “live the dream” in New York City would seem much more daunting without my faith. That’s actually a theme in the play and something I’ve found in common with other artists I’ve met: the simple act of believing in something is instinctual and enabling, no matter what that something is.
You’re a grad of BYU’s Theatre Arts department. That department has produced some really great actors and playwrights. What did it equip you with to succeed in the business? What could it have done better at?
The greatest asset I found in that program was the supportive faculty. I could name names but the list would be too long. Suffice it to say, Eric Samuelsen and company at BYU had such faith in me I felt like I’d be stupid not to believe in myself too. Because of this supportive environment, I was afforded production opportunities rarely given to undergraduate playwrights at any university. Nothing is more valuable to me as a playwright than watching an audience experience a play. My resume is overflowing with BYU credits because it became a veritable playground for me to experiment, learn, and grow as an artist. There is an ongoing, dynamic conversation within the theatre department about the arts and their value in light of LDS theology. Unfortunately, this conversation seems too often to stop in the classrooms or rehearsal studios where it’s being had. The BYU (and, by extension, Mormon) community at large seems to be wary of the arts, theatre in particular, and unwilling to submit themselves to the challenging, engaging experiences that I have found so fulfilling and essential to my own spirituality. It was (and still is) frustrating to see this disconnect and I think it needs to be addressed within the BYU community/administration and beyond.
Finally, what else is on the horizon for you as a writer? What other productions are in process and what are you currently writing?
#MormonInChief opens at the Fringe Festival on August 11. My play “Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea” is receiving its world premier at Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake City this coming January. It’s a story of two best friends trying to salvage their relationship when they’re torn apart by the gay marriage debate in California. I’m currently working on a piece about America’s foreign policy in the age of genocide, among some other projects in the works. If I’ve learned anything so far it’s that I have to keep myself working. It’s really the only thing in my control.