Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays

Farewell to Eden_Georgiana and StephenNOTE: This was written for a final paper in my Dramatic Writing MFA Writer’s Workshop class where I was supposed to apply Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares to my own  work. Thus the navel gazing…

In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a director’s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriter’s point of view as well.

Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when I’ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays is…

Memory:

In her book, Bogart states:

Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).

For me this statement from Bogart has resonance on so many levels. In my work, I’ve focused a great deal on historical drama, especially from my Mormon heritage. My intense interest in Mormon history has bled into a number of my works, reaching back as far as my high school juvenilia. Continue reading “Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays”

Kickstarting <i>WWJD</i>

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Theric: Let’s start with the history of WWJD? Where did it come from? How did you find it? How did the New Play Project production do?
Davey: WWJD was written by Anna Lewis as her BYU Creative Writing Master’s Thesis. The idea started as a poem (which will be published later this year in Dialogue), and developed into a play through the BYU Writers-Dramaturgs-Actors workshop, led by Eric Samuelsen and Wade Hollingshaus. My wife, Bianca, was a dramaturg and actress in the workshop at the time, and got to see the script as it developed, offer feedback, and participate in the staged reading when it was finished. She loved the play, and had been wanting to produce it ever since; so, when we started planning New Play Project’s first season with Bianca as Artistic Director, WWJD was one of the first titles that came up. I finally read the script and completely adored it. We decided to do it.
The show ran the last weekend in March and one of the first weekends of April at the Provo Theatre (we skipped a weekend for General Conference–who in Provo wants to see a play about Jesus during General Conference?). Tony Gunn did a wonderful job directing, we had a fantastic cast, and audiences loved it. We were (I think understandably) a little nervous about doing a show in Provo where Jesus skateboards, goes miniature golfing, and plays Halo, and it was tricky to market–the script might seem a bit edgy for the Deseret Book crowd, but it’s also pretty G-rated and really quite reverent. As is usually the case with New Play Project, our most effective advertising was done through word-of-mouth–our first weekend, we had audiences of twenty or thirty people, but by closing night we were playing to a sold-out crowd, including a few people who had come back for a second time and brought friends. Almost everyone who talked to us after the show told us they loved it. One guy told Bianca as he was buying tickets, “I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, I had to come see it again.” It was really an incredibly rewarding experience–the sort of thing you really look forward to in theater and in the arts generally. We had a good time putting it together, and it was a project I think we were all excited to share with our audiences. And we were even able to pay rent on the theater.
Theric: So I hear there’s a new production of WWJD happening in Salt Lake? Tell us about that.
Davey: Actually, I don’t think there is. We’re having a round of auditions for the film in Salt Lake, so that might be where you got that idea–maybe we should look at that and make sure it’s more clear. (Unless there is a new production in SLC, and I just don’t know about it, which would be awesome!)
Theric: In that case, let’s move right into the real point of this interview. Filming WWJD. Whose idea was this?
Davey: Last summer I was starting to really get into low-budget and DIY filmmaking–reading a lot of blogs, watching no-budget movies, and seeing how beautiful and professional a movie can look for just a few thousand dollars. With DSLRs and other recent developments in prosumer HD and with online distribution I think we’re seeing a shift in the economics of filmmaking that’s unlike anything in film history–it’s a bit like the paradigm shifts of Italian neorealism or the French New Wave, but on a much broader scale. So right around the time I was thinking about directing a feature in the not-too-distant future, I read WWJD. The more I read the script, the more I loved it–and the more I started to see it as a film. I thought it was a shame that our stage production would probably only be seen by a few hundred people at the most, and I started getting really excited about the idea of shooting it. I e-mailed Anna Lewis, and she was thrilled about the idea. I got started adapting it and started talking to some potential crew members, and things grew from there.
Theric: I can get why the script inspired you. I somehow came across it online (all BYU masters theses being online these days) and started reading it and couldn’t stop even though I had more important things to do. I look forward to seeing the poem and, I hope, seeing the film. But even a cheap film is expensive. Even with (relatively) inexpensive cameras and options for digital distribution, you still require hours and hours of people’s lives to make it happen. What kind of range (both in terms of hours and dollars) do you anticipate this project taking?
Davey:
Theric: The reason I’m interviewing you about this project now (as opposed to next month or last week) is because of your Kickstarter campaign. So give us your pitch.
Theric: I can get why the script inspired you. I somehow came across it online (all BYU masters theses being online these days) and started reading it and couldn’t stop even though I had more important things to do. I look forward to seeing the poem and, I hope, seeing the film. But even a cheap film is expensive. Even with (relatively) inexpensive cameras and options for digital distribution, you still require hours and hours of people’s lives to make it happen. What kind of range (both in terms of hours and dollars) do you anticipate this project taking?
Davey: We’ll be shooting the first two weeks of August, with typical 12-hour shooting days. Our projected budget is around $10,000, about half of which we hope to raise through Kickstarter. Almost all of our cast and crew will be working for free, with the possibility of deferred pay if the film makes a profit or if we’re able to raise additional funds. I think we’ve been able to assemble such a strong crew primarily by virtue of the script–people are excited about the project, and it’s attracted a very talented group (and hopefully will continue to do so, with auditions for most major roles taking place this Saturday and next). We’re making the movie for (compared to most movies) virtually nothing, but we’ll be using the same kind of camera that was used to shoot movies like Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, Lena Dunham’s SXSW-winning Tiny Furniture, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Rubber, some of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, and House’s sixth season finale. For an example of micro-budget filmmaking, check out this featurette on Gareth Edwards’ terrific Monsters, which came out last year, was shot for $15,000, and features big scary monsters breaking things on location in Central America. It’s an exciting time to be making independent films, and I hope WWJD will show how Christian and Mormon filmmakers can take advantage of new technology to tell great stories that traditionally probably wouldn’t get funded. After we wrap production in August, we’ll be working on editing the film and sending it out to festivals around the country.
Theric: The reason I’m interviewing you about this project now (as opposed to next month or last week) is because of your Kickstarter campaign. So give us your pitch.

As mentioned, we’ve got a great crew, and this really is a phenomenal script–incredibly smart, funny, and entertaining. I really think we’re going to be able to put together a great movie. As you mentioned, the play is available to read online for anyone interested, and I think it speaks for itself. As far as Kickstarter goes, for those who don’t know how it works, it’s an all-or-nothing fundraising platform–which means that if we reach our goal of $5,000 in 60 days, we get to keep all the money that’s been pledged. But, if we don’t make the goal, we don’t get anything, and no one will be charged for any donations they’ve pledged–which means, as a donor, you’ve got nothing to lose. Every dollar counts, and we have rewards available at different donation levels–including seeing your name in the end credits of the film (along with your very own IMDb page!), season tickets to New Play Project (if you’re in the area), and copies of the movie itself (on DVD, Blu-Ray, or digital download–so if you want to see the film, donate to our Kickstarter and consider that your pre-order). We’re putting everything we can into the film, but we need everyone’s help in order to get it made. It’s just the sort of intelligent, thoughtful, well-crafted and engaging story that AMV readers (and fans of the “radical middle”.

everywhere) will love..

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Theric: Let’s start with the history of WWJD? Where did it come from? How did you find it? How did the New Play Project production do?

Davey: WWJD was written by Anna Lewis as her BYU Creative Writing Master’s Thesis. The idea started as a poem (which will be published later this year in Dialogue), and developed into a play through the BYU Writers-Dramaturgs-Actors workshop, led by Eric Samuelsen and Wade Hollingshaus. My wife, Bianca, was a dramaturg and actress in the workshop at the time, and got to see the script as it developed, offer feedback, and participate in the staged reading when it was finished. She loved the play, and had been wanting to produce it ever since; so, when we started planning New Play Project’s first season with Bianca as Artistic Director, WWJD was one of the first titles that came up. I finally read the script and completely adored it. We decided to do it. Continue reading “Kickstarting <i>WWJD</i>”

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.Â

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.

Out of the MountSUPPORT YOUR LOCAL PROJECT

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

POWERHOUSE PLAYWRIGHT

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.”

JAMES GOLDBERG AND THE COMMUNAL NARRATIVE

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.

THE YOUNG

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”