Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Live Coal

This is a speech I delivered for a Mormon Literature Class at BYU on October 17, 2016. 

            The house was filled with smoke. The Lord was upon a throne, high, lifted up. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah beheld seraphim, heavenly beings with six wings. Two of the wings were being used to block the glory of the seraphim’s faces (perhaps to protect Isaiah from their fiery countenance), two were being used to cover the seraphim’s feet (perhaps to protect the earth from splitting into two at their touch), and two with which to fly.
            One of the seraphim spoke…what does a seraph sound like? Does the process of sanctification change beings, their very sound, their very voice, their very vocal nature? What does an immortal, glorified being like a seraph sound like? Isaiah reported that its voice moved the very door posts and its reverberating, sanctified utterance was reported saying thus: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
In the presence of the Lord and these Seraphim, Isaiah could easily see the immense difference between his fallen state and these higher natures and he despaired at the difference: “Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
Then a seraphim flew to the smoking altar with tongs, and lifted out of it something hot, red, and burning—a live coal. The seraph flew to Isaiah and placed its singeing surface on Isaiah’s mouth and declared: “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” Isaiah then volunteered to use his new, cleansed voice to declare impending dooms; humankind’s deaf, blind, and forsaking nature; and the sanctifying salvation that had so transformed his own words, and would transform others into the holy seeds that would grow and replace such a discarding desolation. [1]
            That image of a burning coal touching Isaiah’s tongue has often transfixed me. The horrific nature of the morbid visualization of such a scorching, scarring, and searing experience passes when you realize that the coal is not meant to torture, but rather to purify. Are the fires of hell not a punishment after all, but rather an opportunity to be redeemed and cleansed—to walk away from the experience as a transformed being?
            As a Mormon playwright, I have often felt like I live a world of competing contraries: Zion vs. Babylon, the Church vs. the World, Humanity vs. Depravity, the Individual vs. the Community, Conscience vs. Dogma, Conformity vs. Eccentricity, Art vs. Assembly Line… through such banal and broad categorizations, often we are led to believe that we live in a polarized world of oil and water that cannot mix. I have encountered attitudes on both sides that seem to have placed the world of literature, performance, and art solidly on one side, and religious devotion on another, especially of the orthodox variety. Some secular humanists often see churches in a long line of manipulative, coercive, and oppressive institutions that are intent on sinister purposes to collect power; while some religionists believe that those involved in art and literature generally are licentious, godless bohemians who are part of a vast left-wing conspiracy eroding the fabric of society.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pioneer Day

This is a Pioneer Day talk/speech I delivered today in my LDS ward (congregation) on July 24, 2016 in Orem, Utah.

            With wagons yearning West, they had been driven from a country that feared and mistrusted them. They were exiles and refugees who saw an extermination order placed upon them from the Governor of one state, urged by mobs and the populace; and had the Governor of another state betray them and orchestrate the circumstances that murdered their Prophet and once again forced them out, again with the support of the citizenry. The leader of these unfortunates, a man named Brigham Young, had seen his predecessor shot down in cold blood, and had lived in that same fear ever since, hiding and disguising himself from assassins before yet another Exodus; striving to protect his people, but also being protected by them.
The Exodus this time was not from one state to another, but into the wilderness, away from American civilization, abandoning their unsold houses; far away from General Stores, or streets, or theaters, or any convenience offered by mid-19th century society. It was a prospect daunting enough that not everyone in their religion came with them. Emma Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lucy Mack Smith, William Marks, William Smith—once luminary names in their faith but, for one reason or another, did not follow their brothers and sisters into the West. So some were left behind to walk their own difficult, tragic, and often beautiful paths, while this “nation of heroes,” as the New York Times called them,[1] heard a voice calling them West, further West into the desert, into the wilderness, into the mountains. A Voice, the Voice of God, the Voice of their Redeemer beckoned. How could they deny it when they had heard it so clearly in their hearts?
These were a people who had already endured hardship; had seen their friends, neighbors, and families massacred, raped, pillaged, and maimed for their faith. Their skin was more sun burnt, their hands rougher, their hearts heavier than when they had begun this journey of faith. Some of them bore scars they did not have before; some of them suffered from post-traumatic stress; some of them were divided from their families, whether through alienation caused by joining such a new and foreign faith, or through death; some of them were now wary of their former countrymen and government that had forced them out; some of them suffered from disillusionment, even doubt. But that Voice continued to call nonetheless, call them by name, and those who know that Voice, know their Shepherd, and are known by Him.
We call these people Pioneers. Here among the Mormons in Utah, we celebrate them on this day, the 24th of July, the day Brigham Young’s Vanguard Company rolled into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and beheld their new home. From their temporary stopping place in Omaha, Nebraska (what we now call Winter Quarters and where they suffered great privations after being exiled from Nauvoo, Illinois), to their final stopping place in the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon Trail is 1,300 miles long. It had taken the Vanguard Company from April 5 to July 24 to make the distance. That’s over three and a half months. That’s more than a mere camping trip, that’s more than a long walk—that’s a whole season. That’s a quarter of a year in the elements, in the wilderness, among danger, heat, wildlife, storms, wind, dust, and death.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

My Year of Shakespeare Over at _I'll Drown My Book_

On my other blog about literature, art, humanities, etc., I've published an Introduction to a series of posts I'm writing about my past "Year of Shakespeare." For those Bardophiles out there, enjoy!

Here's the link:

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shame, Support, and a Mormon Playwright

Note: On Thursday, November 5, 2015, I was invited to Skype in and speak to Kylie Nielson Turley’s Mormon Literature class about Mormon Drama. As they had already read my historical overview in Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, I decided to go more personal. This is what I came up with, followed by a wonderful Q&A session…what a sharp class! This was NOT meant to be a commentary on recent events in the Church, on either side. Correlations between the relationship between the LDS and LGBT communities addressed in the essay are purely coincidental, in regards to the current controversy, and were not intended to be construed as any public statement regarding it.

Farewell to Eden Cast
Me and the 2004 cast of Farewell to Eden

I was at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in April of 2004 for the national festival for the American College Theatre Festival. It was a time of personal celebration and accomplishment for me, I was so happy to be there, feeling so lucky and blessed—it was the last place I was expecting a figurative gut punch.

Due to the support and mentorship of my playwriting professor James Arrington, my play Farewell to Eden had received its premiere at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University) that previous November, and then had been invited to KCACTF’s regional festival in California. The play really excited a lot of the judges and audiences there, despite being a relatively religious play performing before chiefly secular audiences. Although the production itself didn’t advance to the national festival, I was invited to attend to receive a couple of awards for the writing of the play.

At the National Festival, I attended a workshop with Oskar Eustis, a renowned director, dramaturg, and theatre artist. He was the Artistic Director who commissioned and directed Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America in its premier in San Francisco at the Mark Taper Forum. As the subject of his workshop, he discussed the process of developing Angels in America and working with Tony Kushner, which was all very fascinating. I found his thoughts on the interaction between politics and theatre particularly interesting, and was enjoying his dynamic and personable style of speaking. It was also very fun hearing how the development of such a dynamic, famous, and powerful play came about. Eustis’s personal anecdotes about working with Tony Kushner were really insightful into the creative process, not to mention quite funny. Like I said, I was happy to be there. Grateful, even. I felt like I was among like-minded people celebrating an art form I loved, and listening at the feet of those who had accomplished great things within that art form. I was laughing, I was listening, I was enjoying myself.

Then came that gut punch. Obviously, since Eustis was talking about Angels in America, it was a distinct possibility that Mormonism was going to come up. Anyone with any cursory awareness of the two plays knows that it heavily features Mormon characters in conflict with LGBT characters, and draws heavily upon Mormon iconography with much of its symbolism and thematic material. However, despite its often aggressive stance against Mormons, Kushner also allows for some sympathetic treatment of Mormon characters with the character of Hannah, a tough and insightful LDS matriarch within the play. So, as a Mormon playwright myself, I thought that if my faith community came up, it would probably come up in a balanced way, stating some of our general flaws as a community, but also recognizing that not all Mormons are uniform in their beliefs, and that Mormons should be treated with the nuance and respect that any population grouping deserves.

Mormonism did come up, but not with nuance, and not with an eye towards sympathetic characterization.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

True Myths and Spiritual Words: Part Two


Note: This is the second part of an essay I have to write to accompany my thesis play for my MFA program in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University.  The essay is meant to focus on my journey as a playwright, the development of my work at ASU, as well as the ideas and authors that have influenced my work (so pardon the navel gazing. It was part of the assignment...honest!). Part One can be found at:
Part Two, written more than a year ago before my graduation, is as follows:

At Arizona State University I have created a number of pieces that are now part of my repertoire:
1.     Evening Eucalyptus: A mythical Australian period drama set in the early 20th century, which explores the tortured return of Arthur Stevenson to his homeland of Australia after a traumatic experience in England. 
2 .      The Emperor Wolf:  This post-apocalyptic fairy tale unfolds on a future Earth torn apart by division and war, where mythical creatures have become the new ruling class. In this new world of sphinxes, griffins, fairies and goddesses, none of these are more fearsome than the Emperor Wolf. When Madeline and her blind mother, Ebony, meet the orphaned Shasta, they are pulled into a hero’s journey in which they confront this frightening new order and the Dark Being that has claimed the world. 
3.      Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood: A biographical screenplay (I also adapted it into a stage version) about the actor Jimmy Stewart and his rise in (and personal conflict with) the Golden Age of Hollywood. 
4.      Myths: Four episodes of a spec TV series that explores a modern world being infiltrated by ancient mythology.  It creates a modern world of mystery, whimsy, secrets and intrigue which is both magical and increasingly dangerous, underlined by conspiracy laden politics, action and intrigue.
 5.      A Roof Overhead: A play about the conflict between a Mormon family, the Fieldings, and their atheistic tenant, Sam Forrest, who lives in their basement. 
  6.     Servers: A musical about the life struggles of a group of servers in a Mexican restaurant. 
  7.   Sense and Sensibility: An adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel. 
  8.   Rings of the Tree (screenplay version): Diana Applesong has locked herself into her Victorian mansion, guarding herself from all loss and pain, allowing only the mysterious Colin and Echo to visit her and a small family of servants to assist her. Yet when a group of curious explorers stumble upon her cloistered existence, Diana finds herself struggling to maintain the false world she has created for herself.      
    9. Manifest: A play that adapts several world myths and weaves them together to show the universal life of humankind (most of the leg work on this play was done before my time at ASU).
  10.  Yeshua: A play that follows and expands on the story of Jesus Christ, especially influenced by the Gospel of John. Although ultimately a faith affirming and spiritual version of the Christian story, it also takes some untraditional approaches to the text (including a feminist lens and an unorthodox Mormon worldview).
  11.  A Nest of Women: A comedic play about the relationships between men and women. Three very different, Victorian bachelors—a Byronesque libertine, a gynophobic man who is studying to become a priest, and a scholar—invite a group of feminists to hold their meetings in their home, from which chaos, conflict, and love ensues. Not yet completed.
  12.  Cyrano, From Nowhere: A fantastical, lyrical, and philosophical take on the story of Cyrano that incorporates science fiction, satire, whimsy, unorthodox spirituality, and the old fashioned love of language.
The time and assistance I had at ASU was vital not only in the development of these works, but also in the development in my voice as a Dramatic Writer. It would be unlikely that a number of these plays, teleplays, and screenplays would even exist in any form if it hadn’t been for the experiences and mentorship that I have received here. There were moments of conflict with elements within department in the development of some of these works, but in general I felt that I have had a transformative experience that has sharpened my skills as a writer, challenged my thinking, expanded my horizons, and, ultimately, expanded my soul through a cathartic and enlarging three years as I’ve worked towards my MFA degree.
    Right before I came to ASU, I was a high school drama and creative writing teacher who had already been writing plays for several years. I received my bachelor degree in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University in 2007. UVU had produced two of my plays on their mainstage (Farewell to Eden and Legends of Sleepy Hollow), as well as my senior capstone project (Rings of the Tree). Before I came to ASU, I wrote over a dozen plays, most of them produced by local groups in Utah like the New Play Project, Art City Playhouse, and the BYU Experimental Theatre Company.  I had also dabbled in screenwriting, adapting some of my plays into screenplay format.
UVU’s production of my first fully produced play Farewell to Eden had been invited to the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival Region VIII competition, and then I was invited to the national festival in Washington D.C. to receive their National Playwriting Award (Second Place) and a National Selection Team Fellowship. 
I also received awards from the Hale Centre Theatre and UVU, as well as having staged readings of some of my work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Brigham Young University.  I was also on track to having some of my work published by Zarahemla Books (a respected, but small Mormon publisher), including an anthology of important Mormon plays from various playwrights, for which I served as the compiler and editor.
Although through all of this I felt I had made a lot of progress as a playwright and received some recognition for my work, I was getting to the point where everything seemed to have plateaued. I was married with two kids, teaching at a charter school in Mesa, AZ, on a salary that we were struggling to subsist on. It was true that I had steadily been producing plays in Utah, from a distance in Arizona, but nothing that wasn’t on a level that I had already accomplished, and certainly nothing that was going to put food on our table for an extended period of time. My wife and Anne and were looking for a new direction in our lives, hopefully something that would expand our horizons and give us new opportunities to actually make a comfortable living.
Our life in Mesa had some positive elements because of my naturally meaningful (but emotionally taxing) job as a high school teacher of troubled youth. We lived in an apartment that was too small for our current family condition (having just had our second child) in a tough, impoverished neighborhood. My charter school teacher’s salary (in a state that devalues and underpays educators) was becoming increasingly inadequate, especially considering the difficult circumstances, troubled student body, and lack of resources that was the norm for that particular school. Also, my son, who has sensory processing disorder, had special needs that needed to be addressed, which brought in another level of stress, despite our overwhelming love for him. And the particular Mormon ward (congregation) we lived in had stringent, myopic, and unfriendly leadership that was beginning to affect the happiness of our spiritual life, as we felt our more open and accepting spirituality had little place there.
Life was tense and stagnant. A sense of unease, even desperation, was encroaching upon us. So Anne and I felt like there needed to be a change in our lives, something that opened new doors and new opportunities, so that we wouldn’t be caught in the same stagnant pool all of our lives. We needed progress. We needed hope.
One of the things that came up in our discussions about options was grad school. Although there are no guarantees of getting an academic, university job with an MFA degree, it at least opened up that possibility. It would also lend some credibility to me as a serious writer. If nothing else, it would up my pay grade if I decided to go back to teaching high school. As we pondered and prayed about grad school, it gave us that hope we were looking for.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

RISEN FROM THE DUST: "Freetown" Breathes New Life Into Mormon Cinema

Some time ago there were prognosticators who were crying that Mormon Cinema was dead. After an initially successful run with films like God's Army, The Other Side of Heaven, The Work and the Glory series (especially the second), Brigham City, Saints and Soldiers, The Best Two Years, and Single's Ward, the Mormon audience eventually began to turn away from their initial interest in Mormon filmmakers who were telling Mormon stories. There were many theories as to why this was. Perhaps the novelty wore off. Perhaps the genre got over saturated. Perhaps Mormonism had only so many stories to tell.

I believe another theory is more likely: Mormon audiences are not as stupid as certain filmmakers first assumed.

I once attended a lecture by Richard Dutcher, before he left the Mormon Cinema movement he founded, and the LDS Church he had once championed. Dutcher said something which I found both distressing and illuminating. Dutcher mentioned that he was once talking to another Mormon filmmaker who spoke derogatorily about the Mormon audience. "We could $#!* on a plate and they would eat it," the other filmmaker bragged. Dutcher, rightfully, was disgusted by this declaration, as he was aiming to make high art with his Mormon subject matter, and had a much higher opinion of Church members' discernment at the time. As we saw with Dutcher's films, he was one of Mormon Cinema's best auteurs at the time, and his approach was vastly different than some of his contemporaries in Mormon Cinema.

I kept that comment in mind as I saw Mormon Cinema spiral downward into a crass series of opportunistic movies that seemed to make fun of the culture and religion rather than thoughtfully exploring it; or, on the other hand, earnestly and unabashedly celebrating Mormonism, but without the talent and production value to do such an approach justice. After the first intriguing wave of legitimately good Mormon films, we had this run of pale imitators and cynical money grabbers that ran the once smoothly running vehicle into a wall. This, to me, was the real reason Mormon audiences stopped supporting the fledgling movement of faith based films: they knew when they were being made fun of, they knew when they were being used, they knew when their intelligence was being insulted, they knew when they weren't being taken seriously.

Monday, January 26, 2015


Note: Many thanks to my wife Anne Stewart, whose wide research on this subject bolstered my own efforts. Her assistance with this article was essential and invaluable. It is her beautiful, informed and spiritual example that has been an inspiration to me in seeking Wisdom. This post was originally published 11/15/2013. 

“The [Relief] Society should move according to the ancient Priesthood, hence there should be a select Society separate from all the evils of the world, choice, virtuous and holy— Said he was going to make of this Society a kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Paul’s day.”[1]

 The context of this remarkable statement was Joseph Smith speaking at the third meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female organization Relief Society on March 30, 1842 (although in those days the Relief Society was an autonomous organization that was yet still connected to the Church in its purpose). Joseph Smith was a guest speaker nine times to the Relief Society before it was disbanded right before his death (and reinstated a decade later when Eliza R. Snow urged Brigham Young to give the organization a second chance). The Minutes were recorded in the official Relief Society Minutes Book in Secretary Eliza R. Snow’s own hand,[2] which are now available online from the LDS Church’s official Joseph Smith papers.

The above statement by Joseph Smith is one of the many pieces of evidence that have made me side with faithful Mormon feminists in the recent brouhaha over the issue of women’s ordination in the LDS Church. To me, this shows that Joseph Smith was considering an expanded priesthood role for women, specifically through the mechanism of an autonomous Relief Society. Unfortunately, conflicts with Joseph’s wife Emma and other women over polygamy, his martyrdom in Carthage Jail, and Brigham Young’s retrenchment tendencies when he felt his authority was being challenged, derailed this possibility of female priesthood being enforced in its fullness (although the Mormon temple endowment, especially the Second Anointing, was indeed a partial fulfillment, which I will briefly and respectfully discuss later). 

Women’s roles in the Church are not an issue of “doubt” for me, although there have been times in my life where doubts have certainly raised their unsettling concerns, as they have for most honest inquirers. In the end, however, investigating an expanded role for women in the Church has rather had the opposite effect. I am filled with faith and the Spirit when I’ve prayerfully studied the issue and realize that statements from Joseph Smith (like the one above) and LDS scriptures show that gender issues are not so cut and dry as many Mormons would have us believe, and that revelation still has to come line upon line, precept upon precept to the Latter-day Saints. We are not an “unchanging” Church, but rather an eternally progressing Church that is still striving to live up to its potential of building Zion upon the Earth.   

Rather, doubts have come when I’ve considered the confusing “separate but equal” rhetoric issued to defend the lack of priesthood authority given to women. I feel nothing but alienation, confusion, and darkness when I prayerfully consider such justifications of gender inequalities. Trying to adopt such attitudes in the past have NEVER brought me peace, but rather a repressed unease. I feel farther from our Heavenly Parents when I consider such a constricted view of my mother, my sisters, my friends, my nieces, my in-laws, my aunts, my wife, my daughter, my Heavenly Mother. I not only feel farther from my Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, but nearly as tragically, I also feel more distant from those beautiful women in my life. Whether I throw women on a pedestal or in a pit, we are not, at that point, on equal footing. That distance is created. 

And I don’t want distance—I long for closeness, friendship, kinship, and fellowship with the women in my life. I have had a long, personal history with women. I have seven sisters. The majority of my friends in Jr. High and High School were female. My mother was a vitally important influence in my life. Many of my historical and literary heroes are women, from Joan of Arc, to Emma Smith, to Charlotte Bronte, to Lorraine Hansberry. My wife is my best friend, and I long for a beautiful, empowering future for my 3 year old daughter. As a general rule, I tend to feel closer and more connection to women than I do with men. Some may not think that I have much “skin in the game,” because I am a privileged, white male in an equal rights struggle. Yet this issue is quite personal to me, and it is spiritually urgent.