I’m reading the Mahonri Stewart-edited collection Saints on Stage, the first play in which is Robert Elliot’s Fires of the Mind (1974). One of the great things about Saints on Stage is Mahonri’s historical descriptions of the impact the plays had during their original productions. In the case of Fires of the Mind, seems like it was something of a doozy when it showed up on BYU campus. A contemporary account from the Daily Universe recounts this story:
Between acts on Saturday, a cast member found two girls crying and asked, “Is the play upsetting you? One of the girls responded, “Isn’t it supposed to?” more →
What made you decide to use Kickstarter specifically for the 2014 season of Zion Theatre Company? And why fund a whole season rather than, say, just an individual play?
I had a definite, focused plan in mind for what I wanted Zion Theatre Company to do in 2014, but the past couple of years we had cut it close on some of our plays–some of our plays did exceptionally well, some barely paid the costs, and some lost money. It all balanced out pretty well, at times it strained our accounts, which was discouraging since it’s been with the last few shows that we’ve seen our most enthusiastic audiences, a plethora of extremely positive reviews, and realistic hope for future success. Melissa Leilani Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and my Farewell to Eden were especially impactful on audiences and critics and I think those shows did an excellent job in setting up expectations and enthusiasm for our future productions by showing exactly what kind of potential we actually have as a company.
So by trying to gain funds that would help us fund the entire season, instead of just going with money from play to play as we have, it takes off the nervous edge that if one show doesn’t do as well as the last one, then it doesn’t threaten to put the kabosh on the rest of our plans for the season. Having that nest egg allows us to focus on the quality of the current show instead of wondering if we spend our money on, you know, a good set, that we may not have enough money for the next show. It was a nervous place to be and we almost closed up shop after a couple of our shows didn’t do as well as some others in our season. So this long game tactic gives us an opportunity to focus on making the best show possible in the present, without worrying about the future. It gives us the security to up our quality.
Tell us about the programming: why those four plays? I’d be especially be interested in hearing just a bit more about the two new ones.
I would love to!
We’re doing two of my new shows, and two from other well known playwrights (one a classic, one a premiere). The two from other Utah-based playwrights are as follows: more →
After a half decade of delays, obstacles, research, and revising, I am so pleased that this behemoth is now ready to release onto an unsuspecting world! The plays it includes (from such Mormon Letters luminaries as Eric Samuelsen, Margaret Blair Young, Melissa Leilani Larson, Thomas F. Rogers, Susan E. Howe, James Arrington, Scott Bronson, Tim Slover, Robert Elliott, and Thom Duncan) have effected my life in profound ways and I hope other people will feel the same. They make up some of the finest accomplishments in the history of Mormon Drama. The volume is huge… nearly 700 pages. It has 11 plays, playwright biographies, and a 30+ page introduction on the history of Mormon drama. We’ve tried to be thorough, we’ve tried to give you something meaningful. I hope you’ll see why this is a project I thought was worth working and waiting for.
Saints on Stage is the most comprehensive and important work on Mormon drama ever published. This volume anthologizes some of Mormonism’s best plays from the last several decades, many of them published here for the first time. Several of these plays have won honors from institutions as varied as the Kennedy Center and the Association for Mormon Letters.
This volume includes historical backgrounds and playwright biographies, as well as an introduction that provides an extensive overview of Mormon drama. The following plays are included:
Noel Miller and Ivy Worsham-Gambier in my play A Roof Overhead
Over the course of the past several months, Noel Miller and I have become good friends. We met at a party last Spring hosted by some mutual friends in the theater department (okay, so I was crashing their cast party for Sorry, We’re Closed…but I was invited by the playwright Cody Goulder!). Noel stood out to me. I felt like the Spirit was trying to tell me something about her, so I kept her on my radar.
Our next involvement with each other was when the above mentioned Cody cast her in staged reading of my play Evening Eucalyptus which was being put on for one of classes for one of my classes for the MFA in Dramatic Writing that I’m currently working on. Not only did she have the best Australian accent, which the play required, but she had an emotional resonance which was powerful in the role. I was impressed with her as an actress and as a person. Once again, I felt the Spirit attempt to tell me something about her.
When I found out that my play A Roof Overhead was accepted at part of the next 2012 season of ASU’s student theater Binary Theatre Company, Noel was one of the first people who came into my mind to invite to be a part of the production. At first it was as a lighting designer, since she had done an excellent job in that capacity in Cody’s play Sorry, We’re Closed, but having seeing her skills as an actress in the staged reading of Evening Eucalyptus, I felt prompted the following Fall to have her audition for an acting role instead …which became a rather providential move.
Noel rocked the audition and landed the lead role of Sam Forrest. In A Roof Overhead, the character of Sam is an atheist who moves into the basement apartment underneath a family of Mormons, the Fieldings. The conflict that ensues because of their clashing cultures and belief systems is the central obstacle in the play, as both sides make major mistakes and move towards understanding, tolerance and love. It turned out that casting Noel as the atheist Sam was a good bit of casting, as Noel was an ardent atheist herself and could very much relate to and convey Sam’s character from a very real, natural place. At one point during rehearsals Noel jokingly yelled at me, “Mahonri, stop writing what’s in my head!” It turns out Sam and Noel were working from very similar places. more →
Earlier this year, Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead received mixed reviews (see here and here) shortly after its April debut at Springville, Utah’s Little Brown Theater. While several people, including me, wrote favorably about the play, others found less to like about it. James Goldberg, for example, sharply criticized the play in a post for Dawning of a Brighter Day, citing its unsympathetic depiction of atheism and the way a certain scene “stretche[d] credulity past the breaking point.” According to James, Mahonri did “a poor job sketching the world” in the play and so “lost his informed audience in the process.”
Shortly after James’ post, Mahonri contacted me about helping him revise the play. After re-reading the script, I sent Mahonri some suggestions, which he reviewed and, in some instances, incorporated into his new draft. In the end, I think Mahonri turned out a better play than the original. The new version was performed by Arizona State University’s Binary Theatre Company in October. After the final performance, Mahonri sent me a link to a YouTube video of the new production. Here are my thoughts on it.
First, I think A Roof Overhead is a solid first attempt at contemporary Mormon drama. Mahonri’s other work is largely based in the nineteenth century or in some sort of mythical alternate reality, so his incursion into the sordid milieu of modernity is new ground for him. Overall, I think the play captures accurately the situation of some Mormons and some atheists. As I have argued since April, A Roof Overhead works best when you think of its characters as representative types rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. What they stand for is what matters. Who they are is what makes the cultural exchanges at the heart of the play work.
Last month Arizona State University’s Binary Theater (which is a student run theater which ASU oversees) produced my play A Roof Overhead, a Mormon drama that explores the private culture war that arises when an atheist Sam Forrest moves into the basement of the Fieldings, a family of Mormons.
I am putting up the recording on You Tube for a limited time. It is a recording of a play, which are infamous for being somewhat awkward things. Yet despite some sound and picture issues that are inherent with that setup, I was so pleased with this production and cast (with whom I bonded with incredibly) that I wanted to share it. It will be up for only a limited time.
A Roof Overhead was produced once before in Utah last April with my Zion Theatre Company at the Little Brown Theatre in Springville, UT. There have been some major changes in the script since the Utah version, including some significant alterations to the ending (and an additional comedic family food “fight”). The Utah cast was chiefly Mormon, but the tables were turned this time with only me, one cast member and the scenic designer being Mormons this time around (and the actress playing the atheist character Sam actually is an atheist, which I was super pleased about). It led to some beautiful experiences which I’m sure I’ll write more about at some point.
One note: Some scenes got cut off because of battery issues with the camera. The vast majority of it is there and it’s easy enough to follow. You may want to enlarge it to full screen and crank up the volume for a fuller viewing experience.
Here’s the recording of the play, for those interested:
Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.
The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.
David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.
Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.
Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.
Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).
Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.
Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.