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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Old Problems, New Opportunites: Looking Towards the Future of Mormon Drama

We recently completed the last leg work for the editing of Saints on Stage: An Anthology for Mormon Drama, which I've been spearheading for Zarahemla Books. It includes important plays from some of Mormonism's best playwrights... Robert Elliott, Thomas Rogers, James Arrington, Susan Elizabeth Howe,  Thom Duncan, Eric Samuelsen, Tim Slover, Scott Bronson, Melissa Leilani Larson, Margaret Blair Young... and I couln't be more pleased with how this anthology will give these plays wider exposure. The problem with Drama, though. is that it thrives on local performance, which limits its possible audience. Until a play is published, you usually can't access a play unless its performing in your area. So this anthology is going to be a great boon for many of these Mormon playwrights, and the readers who will discover them, and show how much great work has happened in Mormon drama through the decades.

Matthew Greene's #MormonInChief
But as I've reviewed these works, I've given a lot of thought to the future of Mormon drama. This anthology is a great step in the right direction... but what else can be done to expand Mormon Drama's borders? Mormon Drama is still chiefly a local affair, mainly centered in Utah, and even there it struggles. There are occasional productions outside the border of Utah... Matthew Greene's recent #Mormon Chief which played at the New York International Fringe Festival is a notable one, and my play A Rood Overhead recently played in Arizona... but those sort of wider productions are few and far between.

Does Mormon Drama have a future? Does it have to change to adapt itself to an increasingly digital world? What can it do to become more robust?

For my Dramatic Writing MFA Program I have been taking a "Reading Series" course, where my playwriting professor Guillermo Reyes and I meet together and discuss a series of plays I read tied by theme or content. I chose Mormon Drama as my subject matter. Professor Reyes' reaction has been interesting, as he has expressed genuine interest in the plays as I describe them to him. He's also asked me questions about the viability of Mormon Drama, whether I think it could find a wider audience or not. I try to be hopeful in my responses, but not naively so. I know the struggles and obstacles that lie in our path, and it will take work, creativity, talent, courage and grit to remove those obstacles.

Big Love's Henrickson Family
I strive to add in my own contributions to Mormon Drama... thus the anthology and my efforts with my Zion Theatre Company. And there are interesting opportunities that are arising that give us different approaches to the issue.

Angels in America, Big Love, The Book of Mormon Musical and Sister Wives show that the secular world is interested in seeing Mormons in their entertainment... but perhaps only if the portrayal is skewed, satirical, ironic, hostile or at least looks into the sensational lifestyles of polygamist, fringe Mormons. But are they interested in seeing balanced portrayals of Mormons from actual LDS playwrights? Having just passed through the "Mormon Moment" and the increased awareness we received because of it, maybe the real answer to that question would surprise us.
And before we can crack that Zion Curtain, we have to also be able to look at our own community and see whether we LDS folks are even interested in seeing Mormon Drama ourselves? Some Mormons seem to shy away from Mormon literature and art, especially if the material is probing and uncomfortable in nature. There are LOTS of theaters in Utah, with organizations like the Hale Center Theater rightly becoming cultural icons in the Jello-Belt. But none of these major theaters focus on Mormon Drama, and those few who have tried haven't favored well, like the unlucky Nauvoo Theatrical Society which went under around 2003. And when was the last time we saw anything from the New Play Project?

Will Mormon Drama always be relegated to "one run and done" university productions at BYU or UVU, with occasional murmurs from the limited corners of Utah community theater? As some one who is intensely interested and invested in Mormon Drama I dwell on questions like these very often.
A few ideas as to where to start:

A Mormon Shakespeare Needs a Mormon Globe
As Eric Samuelsen said, a Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe. Theater companies like New Play Project, The Nauvoo Theatrical Society, or my own Zion Theatre Company struggle, but it's doubly difficult when we don't have a space to call our own. Renting from other theaters can be expensive, and just covering the costs of an adequate production can prove to be a challenge. But I do believe that for Mormon Drama to take a real hold in the actual Mormon community, a theater with a permanent home is key. This needs to be a goal not only for individual companies longing for stability, but also for Mormon Drama as a whole.

In an age of Hulu, Playstation, Netflix, Facebook, and iTunes, more and more people are opting to stay home instead of going on an expensive night on the town (especially in this economy!). For those rare occasions when people get out and gussy up, it's usually to a movie or a restaurant. That LIVE experience of theater is part of its magic. However, for those who can't (or won't) make it to those performances, I think it's worth trying to reach them in other ways.
I've watched with interest the development of a more digital theater... to see what some professionals are doing go ahead an look at this site for a glimpse of the new market for digital theater.  Now those who have seen poorly recorded plays, unless you have good focus and will power, well, they can be incredibly dull to watch, even if the production was quite good. But if filmed well, it can be nearly as good as being there live. There's a DVD version of Tim Slover's Mormon play Hancock County which I think is a wonderful example of how recorded theater can work really well. And no matter what you think of Saturday's Warrior, it's hard to say that the old recorded version wasn't influential on Mormon culture (it was an often chosen option for a Sunday afternoon at my house when I was a kid).

With ZTC, I'm experimenting with some of this, creating DVDs and posting a few things  on You Tube, like some of my short plays. I'm waiting to see if there's any real interest in them to make the efforts worth it. The results have been mixed, but I think especially if we can get even better recording scenarios and perhaps a system for downloads, it has some intriguing possibilities.
As I mentioned with Zarahemla's upcoming anthology of Mormon Drama, publishing expands awareness of these plays, at least on the literary level. New Play Project's anthology of Mormon Drama Out of the Mount is an excellent collection and Zarahemla Books (bless them!) recently published two of my plays The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun. If support and awareness of these plays come on a literary level, perhaps that will bleed over and create more interest in the production of these plays.

Fortunately, Mormon Drama is far from dead. Why, for those in Utah, there's a chance to support Mormon Drama this month! Melissa Leilani Larson is producing a re-mount of her excellent play Martyr's Crossing at the Echo Theater in Provo, starting November 29. Also UVU is starting to produce new works again every other year now, starting with a play by Mormon playwright Wendy Gourley next year. Mormon Drama has been around since pioneer times. I expect it to yet live a long and hearty existence, adapting and expanding as it goes.

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