Utah Dispatch: Mormon Playwrights Defend Their Art

News   Utah Dispatch: Mormon Playwrights Defend Their Art
Playbill On-Line's reporter David Lefkowitz is traveling in Utah the week of July 13-20, visiting the Sundance Theatre Lab, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and other theatre sites. This is the third of several dispatches.

Playbill On-Line's reporter David Lefkowitz is traveling in Utah the week of July 13-20, visiting the Sundance Theatre Lab, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and other theatre sites. This is the third of several dispatches.

Mormon playwrights.

No, that's not a misprint; Utah has Mormon playwrights, and they're a diverse, thoughtful and committed group of artists. The perception that Mormon theatre consists simply of pageants and religious re-enactments was quickly dispelled at a conference held July 17, 11 AM, at the Hunter Conference Center on the Southern Utah University campus.

Chaired by Salt Lake City critic Claudia Harris, the panel included dramatists Eric Samuelson, Tim Slover, Susan Elizabeth Howe and Tom Rogers.

Samuelson is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University. His plays include Accommodations, 1995's The Seating Of Senator Smoot, and 1996's Gadianton, about "down winders" -- that is, those affected by nuclear testing in California, when tests only took place if the winds were blowing toward Utah. The drama also looked at modern business ethics, specifically the selling of WordPerfect Corporation to Novell. Slover is a screenwriter and playwright (Cassidy, The Dream Builder, Joyful Noise). Rogers is a Yale Drama School grad and BYU professor of Russian literature. His plays include Heubener, about the Mormon Church's inability to remain apolitical in WWII Germany. Rogers also served as a Mormon missionary in St. Petersburg, Russia. His play, God's Fools, was produced there.

Howe is the author of Burdens Of Earth about Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, and A Dream For Cady. She's currently writing a play about Flannery O'Connor.

Panel chair Harris also mentioned the names of other noted local writers, including Jerry Crawford, George Judy, who heads the New Playwrights program at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, Doug Cook, producer at USF, and budding dramatist (and theatre critic) David Pace, who also spoke briefly.

Here are excerpts from the panel discussion:

Harris: The interpretation of Mormonism changes, and I believe artists are out there showing the way. Perhaps no one understands the range of Mormon theatre. It is as varied as opinions about Mormonism.
For this panel, I chose Tom because he started writing at the time of the flowering and encouragement of theatre here. Eric and Tim are writing at a time when people are perhaps more nervous about that. All of these folks are my colleagues at Brigham Young University.

Slover: I don't really know a philosophy of being a Mormon playwright, not having ever been a non-Mormon playwright. I'm a particular fan of Sam Shepard, Alan Ayckbourn and David Hare. As I've listened to them talk, it occurs to me that anyone with an underlying drive to write about a subject is similar. I try to take a step back and look at my plays and find they are informed by a belief in God, even though God doesn't come up much.

In the final end, life isn't a tragedy, even if parts of life are tragic. Ultimately, a Christian believes, by the end of time we'll have glorious happiness, so there's a strain of optimism that runs through that. For example, in the 1787 convention they came up with a U.S. Constitution; an end was achieved, even if it was flawed. So I seem drawn to the possibility of optimism, even if I admire works by playwrights who go the other way.

Samuelson: There was tremendous controversy about Gadianton around the firings at the WordPerfect Corporation. There was a point where my job was threatened from it. If there's one thing unique about Mormon playwrights, we feel beleaguered. At the same time, there's less competition than in other cultures, and we support each other very strongly. My work tends to be darker and edgier than Tim's, but it is from the same source.

I know what it means to be a Mormon, and a little about what it means to be a playwright, but how do we take the specific cultural background and explore it? My favorite playwright would be Brecht or Tony Kushner. I think Kushner [in Angels In America] did all of us a service by writing a play with a Mormon character who felt real.

Audiences like real people, real characters. They're rooted in a specific culture, and my culture is what I know. Though it's not the only subject I deal with. For the most part I'm drawn to difficult issues within our culture. Because Mormonism tends to be quite supportive of business, and because I wrote a play critical of business, eyebrows were raised. But nothing happened. Nobody pulled funding; the play went ahead.

Rogers: I tend to treat loyalty vs. conscience, like Antigone, though I didn't perceive that at first. I've written about two people excommunicated from the Church (such as Heubener), then T.E. Lawrence (after his Arabia days), and a man assassinated -- probably -- by the KGB.

Conflicts with father figures are also strong in my plays. Plus the search for the father figure. My own father was insane, and I didn't get to know him as a human being.

I think there have been three generations of Mormon playwrights. The first, "Aeschylean," were most science-fiction dramas and stories from the Book of Mormon. The second generation was more Sophoclean, including Fires Of The Mind. They had a more poetic and subtle rhetoric than those of us primitives. I would consider Eric and Tim, the younger generation, to be Euripidean. The work is more presentational yet deals with intense psychological issues.

Howe: I consider myself more of a poet than a playwright, but I've written two plays and hope to write more. Generally, I write for a Mormon audience. This is the Sesquicentennial [150th year] of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley (July 22). So we don't have a very old culture. None of us up here want to move out of our culture in terms of our world view. At its best, it's a wonderful view of the cosmos, with a purpose in life. At the same time, we're an adolescent culture; we can't stand to see or hear ourselves criticized. But that's what playwrights write about. You look at issues and how people's lives are affected by claims a culture makes. To see human bodies on stage enacting your questions tends to bring criticism down upon you. But at its best, the Mormon story is so expansive...

Human beings are on earth because we have potential to grow to be God-like. Things we experience in this life, including making choices, teach us what good and evil are. It's an eternal journey to become God-like -- a wonderful story. But within that story, within certain emphases of the Church, the story can be narrow.

The story of women in the Church right now doesn't fit women's experience. Mormon women in the 19th century were phenomenal. They helped bring women's suffrage to Utah in 1870 -- a full 50 years before the vote was given to all women. Women in Utah started hospitals and healthcare, and they were in charge of grain storage for the community. But now in the 20th Century, there's an emphasis put on the home and the family -- justifiable due to what's happening in today's society. So women playwrights are left to ask, can you have a career, as well as a family, if you're a Mormon woman? That's why in Cady I have a 14 year-old girl as the lead, because at that age you can ask questions. Her question is what can Mormon women do with their lives in the 21st Century, and she learns some answers by studying Mormon women of the 19th Century. They give her permission to be whole, to be faithful, to use her talents to be mother and wife and contribute to the work of the world as well.

Howe: If you're writing for a Mormon audience, you make a lot of assumptions. There's a shorthand about a lot of cultural things. And yet, look at Flannery O'Connor's pervasive Catholicism. Her question is, how do I convey that to an audience that generally believes God is dead? She used grotesque characters for her work, rather than everyday Catholics. As such, I often don't use Mormon characters for my concerns.

Rogers: I increasingly despair about having an audience for our plays. I wish it weren't that way. Theatre in general has been sick in our society for a long time. Of course, the media are one reason for this. I think the corpus of plays produced [in Utah] would be very engaging to an outside audience if they could take us seriously as a subculture. Far worse than controversy is apathy. Cultural halls here have stages but they don't do plays anymore.

Howe: In addition to institutional pressures, there are pressures from the community. For example, at BYU we wanted to do Tina Howe's Painting Churches, but the play uses the name of the deity, which isn't allowed for us. Tina couldn't believe an audience would really object to that. Yet we knew, offended audience members wouldn't talk to the playwright or the director; they'd go straight to the church leaders, and that would filter back down through the lower levels. Tina didn't agree to the cuts, and we didn't get to do Painting Churches.

[Note: Tina Howe and Susan Elizabeth Howe are not related.]

Slover: To suggest that Mormons don't go out and see every Steven Sagal movie is wrong. They go to a cineplex and hear "Oh God" and don't get offended, but then they go to an institutional theatre and are offended by the same thing. This is very strange to deal with as a writer. And it's difficult to suggest to audiences here that negative emotion, including being offended, is an integral part of art. As a writer I want to be able to put horrific things on stage if I have to.

Pace: I think a real problem is the fusion between the culture and the Mormon Church. I don't think great Mormon theatre will come out of this culture so long as BYU and the instititutional church continue in the direction they're going.

[Note: Pace is no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ And The Latter Day Saints and has returned his Brigham Young University diploma.]

Samuelson: Open forums for discussion are okay, but those aren't the people who cause trouble. It's those who go behind the scenes. And it's usually the language issue. There's a scene in Gadianton of a woman lecturing teenage girls about chastity. The whole point of the scene is that she gives an inappropriate, offensive talk. In pre-production we ended up with these long meetings -- straight out of Ionesco -- about what words you could and couldn't use to refer to female body parts. Can we use t--s? bazooms? What about bazongas?

Slover: There's a certain amount of angst here. I feel both supported and rejected by my culture. People then say, "Well, get out; go somewhere where you don't feel that way." But I also value my religion and culture. I also have a need to be accepted by it. When I'm whining about it being an oppressive culture, I also know it's a glorious culture as well.

Samuelson: We also have a sense of humor and can laugh about it. It helps that it's not all gloom.

-- By David Lefkowitz

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