One of the notable aspects of early Mormon statements about entertainment and media is the focus on discouraging the reading of novels and “light” literature, while other forms of entertainment, notably theatre, were encouraged. Brigham Young acted in Nauvoo, encouraged the early performances in Salt Lake City as early as 1853, and even promoted plays and attended the theatre himself. He announced the construction of the Salt Lake Theatre and vigorously pursued its construction until its completion in 1861.
However, by the turn of the century, Church leaders were also warning members about the theatre, as well as the nascent film industry.
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.
Classic literature and theater lovers can have something to look forward to this month as Zion Theatre Company is performing Jane Austen’s Persuasion, adapted by award winning playwright Melissa Leilani Larson. The show performs in Salt Lake City at the Off Broadway Theater on Sept. 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, and 22 at 7:30 pm.
Jane Austen has had enduring popularity and resonance, despite the couple of centuries that have passed since her debut as a novelist. The director of Persuasion, Sarah Stewart, is one of the many who have been passionate fans of Austen, so she brings a personal investment to the production, “ My introduction to Jane Austen happened at the ripe old age of nine when I stumbled across the 1940’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice on late night television. I was completely captivated and never forgot it. I didn’t realize it was a book until I received it three years later as a Christmas present. Once again, I had the peculiar delight of being swept into Jane’s world, and thus began my life-long passion for all things Jane Austen. I consider her a dear friend—just one I haven’t actually met.” more
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. more
I must be honest. This quotation, although delivered in the tabernacle, isn’t so much literary criticism as drawing a lesson from contemporary literature. But the work involved is available, and the idea that Brigham Young both saw the play and commented on it. Perhaps more surprisingly, his comment fits well with the theme of the play itself.
The comments below were made in early February, 1853, just months (and perhaps just weeks) after the Social Hall, the first entertainment venue in the Salt Lake Valley, had been completed. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, drama has traditionally been an important part of Mormon culture, and support for drama can trace its history to Nauvoo, where even Brigham Young played at being an actor. In Salt Lake, his support led to not only the construction of the Social Hall, but to the Salt Lake Theater, the principal home for drama in Utah for 40 years.
So we have Peculiar Pages, which is Theric Jepson’s imprint. We have MoJo’s B10 Mediaworx, an indie publisher known for creating e-books that look great. And we have New Play Project, which has put together an impressive track record of productions over its (relatively) short history. Put that all together and you get Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, edited by Dave Morrison. And for only $3.99, you get a set of plays that are well-written, thought-provoking, fun to read and together form a significant contribution to Mormon letters. A trade paperback is also available and a Kindle edition is forthcoming (although the mobi file you get in the e-book download should be readable on your Kindle or via the Kindle app).
And in the interest of full disclosure, Peculiar Pages is not only the imprint that will be publishing Monsters & Mormons, but it also asked me to provide a blurb for the anthology. Which I was initially nervous about, but happily did after reading the manuscript. Here it is:
With these 19 plays, the New Play Project ably makes its claim as one of the most ambitious and vibrant going concerns in the world of LDS culture to all of us mission-field Mormons who have only heard rumors and testimonies. Out of the Mount delivers comedy and tragedy and social commentary, allegory, politics and healthy doses of armchair philosophy and theology in plays that mainly focus on (as most good plays do) relationships that unfold via crackling dialogue. Whether it’s Clark Kent and Lois Lane applying for a marriage license or Adam and Eve feeling their way towards some sort of post-fall rapprochement or young couples falling in and out of love, these playwrights are writing for these latter-days, even when there’s nothing particularly LDS about their characters and settings. That said, what I love most about this anthology is that we get—especially with the fantastic concluding trio of “Gaia,” “Prodigal Son” and “Little Happy Secrets”—works that artfully and poignantly explore key aspects of the grand drama that is the Mormon experience.
You can buy Out of the Mount here; but you should also check out Theric’s series of posts on the anthology (including excerpts from some of the plays) over at the Peculiar Pages blog.
Dave Mortensen is hoping to raise funds for a production of Melissa Leilani Larson’s AML-award winning play “Little Happy Secrets” early next year in Salt Lake City. In order to do so, he is using the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Intrigued by the notion, I asked him to answer a few questions about the project.
Why did you decide to raise funds for a staging of “Little Happy Secrets”?
I attended the 2009 production in Provo not quite sure how I would feel about the show. I had heard the premise, but really I attended because I knew the director and playwright. The script really impacted me. I felt immediately that this is one of the great pieces of Mormon drama and I knew I wanted to be involved in bringing it to a larger audience. Fast forward one year and I’m now based in Davis County shopping around for a script to produce in Salt Lake City and I remember “Little Happy Secrets.” It’s perfect: a script I believe in, a playwright I’d like to support, and a small enough cast that I think we can manage a quality production at a premiere SLC venue.
Funding then became the next big question. I produce part-time while working during the day in a completely different industry. As a recent graduate the majority of my income goes towards paying debts and saving for car repairs. It’s just not feasible for me to lay down $4,500 for 6 months and risk not being able to make that money back. Theatre is a pretty risky investment and while I’m more than happy to invest my time and resources, I just can’t live in my car in the mean time. more
In the spirit of egalitarianism and celebration and self-promotion and just plain awesomeness, I bring you my personal favorite posts from each AMV contributor as of right now but subject to change based on the whims and vagaries native to the benevolent dictator that I am and in alphabetical order by first name because I can’t be bothered to remember who joined when or maybe it’s so I can have the final word although really when do I not have the final word, and also there’s no reason to read too much in to my selections because see the use of the words whims and vagaries earlier in this sentence so if I were to do the same thing next week it could look totally different, and you never know — maybe I will:
- Admin: Bradly Baird on the artifacts of LDS memory
- Anneke Majors: Minerva Red
- Eric Russell: In Defense of the Critics
- Eric Thompson: Half Faked
- Harlow Clark: Gadianton The Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon, Introduction to Textual Variants Part IV
- Jonathan Langford: The Writing Rookie #3: Off Balance
- Katherine Morris: “Bread of Affliction” and Cultural Self-Consciousness
- Kent Larsen: Why we need Mormon Culture
- Laura Craner: Beware Brother Brigham (a review of the book by D. Michael Martindale)
- Mahonri Stewart: Of Prophets and Artists: A Household of Faith Or A House Divided?
- Patricia Karamesines: The Rhetoric of Stealing God
- S.P. Bailey: The Things We Bring Home
- Theric Jepson: The Hero’s Journey of the Mormon Arts
- Tyler Chadwick: The Tragic Tell of Mormon Morality, Part IV
- William Morris: Damn you Norman Manea!
Feel free to get all nostalgic and hagiographic in the comments. To peruse our archives by date or category, click on the drop down menus over there on the left. Or to see what each contributor has written, click on Contributors and the “posts” link next to his or her name.