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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Zion Theatre Company: The Agony, the Ecstasy and the Spirituality in Trying to Push Forward a Religious Theatre Company

Nearly three years ago I created Zion Theatre Company. The venture was born out of necessity, as the theatre group I was collaborating with previous to that suddenly dropped a re-mount of my play Farewell to Eden, backing out late into the game. So we scrambled to create a company around this production and, fortunately, that production went off well.
Despite the rushed creation of ZTC, creating a theater company was actually a goal I had in mind since I was a freshman in high school.  Even before I became aware of companies like the now defunct Nauvoo Theatrical Society, I had wanted to create a theater company that was based on a meaningful foundation of faith and the principles of “Zion.” A place where Mormon drama, religious drama, as well as other faith-friendly work could have a place. So ZTC was a passionate dream of mine for years, and hopefully we’ll be able to fully realize that dream by housing it in its own space someday (we currently rent a few various spaces to house our plays).

In the meantime, however, I’ve been trying to oversee the company in Utah from a distance in Arizona while I’m getting my MFA in Dramatic Writing at ASU. This last year was particularly hairy, as we produced 12 productions in just over one year (after we had established our much more modest original season of four shows, I kept getting approached by other theaters who wanted us to use their space. The subsequent insanity has taught me the value of saying no). October 15th marked our last performance of 2012, with our production of Joseph Robinette’s adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe. After such a crazy (although in many ways fruitful) year, ZTC is taking a much needed reprieve and won’t do another play until May 2013. In the meantime, however, I wanted to chronicle the progress and history of ZTC, production by production. You’ll note that the majority of the productions were my own plays (the company’s original intent was to find a place to house my work), but that we have tried to expand to cover other playwrights as well as time went on.


- Farewell to Eden by Mahonri Stewart (January 15-25 at the former Provo Theatre Company space, directed by Kathryn Little): It was appropriate that this was our first production, as Farewell to Eden was the play that first introduced my plays to the world when it originally performed at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University) in 2003, directed by James Arrington. The UVSC production went on to win national awards through the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival and was really the show that launched my current trajectory. I owed a great deal to the characters of this show (and they are still to this day some of my favorite creations, especially Georgiana Highett), and so I was very happy to see them resurrected again at the beginning of this next stage of my personal theatrical history. The show received positive reviews from Sharon Haddock at the Deseret News and from  Nan McCulloch at The Association for Mormon Letters. A DVD of the production was created and is available.

- Immortal Hearts and Other Short Plays by Mahonri Stewart (July 16-19 at the former Provo Theatre Company Space, directed by Rachel Baird, Brian Randall, Alex Barlow and Mahonri Stewart). Immortal Hearts and Other Short Plays was a production that gathered a number of my short works, each directed by a different director. As evidenced from the review from Bianca Dillard at Utah Theater Bloggers, the reaction to each short play was varied, generally getting strong positive comments from audiences/critics for “The Death of Eurydice” (then simply titled “Eurydice”) and “White Mountain”; a generally negative reaction to “Immortal Hearts”; and a divided reaction to “The Prince’s House.” So, artistically speaking, this production was a mixed bag for people, although “The Death of Eurydice” generally received an overwhelmingly positive response from people I talked to (and has subsequently done so on other subsequent productions).

- The Opposing Wheel by Mahonri Stewart (Sept. 2-10 at the Castle Outdoor Amphitheater in Provo, UT, directed by Heather Jones). There was a large gap between ZTC’s last production in 2010 and this one, but The Opposing Wheel marked the beginning of the flurry of almost non-stop production that we produced from late 2011 through late 2012. This fantasy piece mixed Arthurian Legends in a modern setting, with a few strong Mormon elements and had just a dash of Doctor Who characterization. It was generally enjoyed by audiences and we got a good deal of positive feedback (although some more conservative audience members expressed some mild concern about the strong feminist themes and the use of devils as characters, ala Screwtape Letters). Although Russel Warne at the Utah Theater Bloggers had a few pointed criticisms of the production, he generally had some very positive things to say about the show. We also got some glowing audience reviews from Hillary Stirling and Margy Layton. A DVD of the production is also available.

- Legends of Sleepy Hollow by Mahonri Stewart (October 7-15 at the Castle Outdoor Amphitheater, directed by Amy Jo Henderson). Remounting my adaptation of the classic tale of Ichabod Crane and The Headless Horseman during the Halloween season seemed to be a no-brainer. It’s original production directed by Chris Clark at UVSC (now UVU) had been a huge success with sold out audiences and the script won the Ruth and Nathan Hale Comedy Playwriting Award. However, things did not go so smoothly with the ZTC production of the show. Although the fact that the show sold very well by our standards (over 700 tickets, much thanks to a new marketing strategy that included Groupon, and it being a Halloween show) and had some stand out performances, yet the production itself had a number of flaws, which Steve Dunford at the Utah Theater Bloggers wasn’t shy in relating. I had to agree with a number of people who had seen both the UVSC and the ZTC productions of the script, and found the ZTC one sorely lacking. However, the audience sizes helped ease some of that pain, as Sleepy Hollow was exceeded in audience sizes only by our recent production of Persuasion.

- Jinn and Other Myths by Mahonri Stewart (November 18 and 19 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City, directed by Jyllian Petrie, Joel Petrie, and Jason Sullivan): This group of mythologically themed short plays was ZTC’s first foray into the Salt Lake area, having established a deal with the Off Broadway Theater to do a few of our shows for the end of 2011 and during 2012. This show was definitely rushed, having just come off the heels of Sleepy Hollow and only had a matter of weeks to put the show together. However, artistically speaking, it was generally a success, although audiences were scarce due to the lack of time for adequate advertising and the move of cities (as most of the people who regularly follow my work live in Utah County and the drive proved too much for most of them). These short shows were unique for ZTC, in that they employed a heavy multi-media element, an approach we would take even farther with our later production of Rings of the TreeJocelyn Gibbons at the Utah Theater Bloggers gave the show a very positive review.


- Rings of the Tree by Mahonri Stewart (February 3, 2012 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City and the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove, Utah, directed by Jyllian Petrie, with multimedia segments directed by Danor Gerald and Jyllian Petrie): Although Rings of the Tree had originally played at UVU (to good reviews), ZTC’s production was significantly different than its predecessor. I based this production’s script much more on my screenplay version of the story (which won the LDS Film Festival’s screenwriting contest) than the original staged version. I did this because we were taking a multimedia approach with the production, and thus took on a much more cinematic quality than one would expect from a “stage play.” I was particularly pleased with how this production turned out. We had an immensely talented group of people who were working on it, and the multimedia aspects were unlike anything that most of the audience members had seen in a play. Although she pointed out some flaws, Paige Guthrie at the Utah Theater Bloggers had generally positive things to say about the production.   Another awesome thing to come out of the production was a music video made based on the play (using a lot of the show’s footage) with the lyrics/music created by Kristen Jensen and Nathaniel Drew.

- J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit adapted by Markland Taylor (March 16-26 at the Little Brown Theater in Springville, directed by Brian Randall):  On my mission in Australia I had seen a poster for a play that used puppets for a production of the The Hobbit. Obviously, as a Mormon missionary, I wasn’t able to see the production, but over the years I wanted to give my own take to the idea and so several years ago I hired a talented puppeteer named Caitlin Shirts to construct a number of puppets (in a loose version of the style of Japanese Bunraku puppetry) for me for a production of The Hobbit. I had plans to direct it myself, but as time went on we kept on not finding an opportunity to use these puppets in a production. So after I moved to Arizona to pursue my MFA degree, I said enough was enough and approached another director (Brian Randall) to take over the project and implement the concept. It was ZTC’s first production in our series for Springville’s Little Brown Theater. Elise Hanson at the Utah Theater Bloggers gave the production a positive review. And there’s a trailer for the production that gives a general impression of the show. This was also the first show that ZTC that extended beyond my own personal repertoire of plays.

- A Roof Overhead by Mahonri Stewart (April 16-28 at the Little Brown Theater in Springville, directed by Randy King): This play of mine was certainly one of the most divisive plays that ZTC has produced. It’s been praised by Association for Mormon Letters folks like Marilyn Brown, Scott Hales, as well as AML president Margaret Blair Young in her review of the play for Dawning of a Brighter Day . But it was also lambasted by Utah Theater Blogger’s Russel Warne , as well as James Goldberg (I took particular issue with James’ mischaracterization of the play, which I felt was particularly hyperbolic and inaccurate, as you’ll note in the comments box). There were those who thought the play was too pro-Mormon, too anti-Mormon, too anti-atheist, too secular, too feminist, etc., just as there were those who were very moved by the play. The contradictory feedback I was getting was mind boggling, with people saying some pretty opposite things about the play, positively and negatively. In the end, though, I’m grateful for the pushback, because it caused me to give the play another draft, which I feel strengthened the play and made the ending more palpable. It is currently playing in Arizona in a production I directed at ASU’s Binary Theater in Tempe. Ironically, non-Mormon audiences (and my chiefly non-Mormon cast, including an atheist playing the atheist role of Sam, who loves the show) seem to be much more moved and interested in the play than the Mormon audiences were. My playwriting professor Guillermo Reyes called the play “provocative,” in the most positive sense of the word, and our chiefly non-Mormon audiences have had some very warm and emotional responses. Unfortunately, we didn’t get things together quickly enough to get any reviewers to the show. The Arizona production has been one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, having crafted the production with a talented, passionate cast who I now count all as a dear friends.

- C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe adapted by Joseph Robinette (July 6-21 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake; October 5-15 at the Castle Theater in Provo; directed by Rebecca Minson): We produced this play not once, but TWICE, in two different cities, a few months apart, with slightly different casts (Edmund, Peter, and Mr. Tumnus changed between the two productions). If that wasn’t difficult enough, these productions were plagued with a number of obstacles, most of which were pointed directly at the poor director, who was also playing the White Witch (Rebecca almost lost her life to a falling overhang at the Off Broadway Theater and woke up without a voice during the October run, just to mention a couple of things that beleaguered her). Fortunately, despite numerous casting issues, stumbling blocks, and headaches, the show went on decently well. It garnered positive reviews, including Kara Henry’s review for Front Row Reviewers and Hillary Stirling’s review for A Motley Vision. The Deseret News’ review was supportive of ZTC, although critical of the script, an assessment I totally agree with. Dramatic Publishing currently holds the U.S. rights to the theatrical version of the story, and this version they offer is completely watered down and uninspiring. Thankfully, the basic structure of the magical world and characters that C.S. Lewis masterfully created still shines through on its most primal level, so that certainly helped the director and actor work with the material and put on a generally well received production.

- “The Death of Eurydice” and “Jinn” by Mahonri Stewart (Aug. 10-18 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City, directed by Rachel Baird): The slot these two one act plays held were originally supposed to be held by our production of Swallow the Sun, but when that play was two weeks out and the director still hadn’t been able to assemble a full cast (despite both of us looking desperately for actors to fill the roles), I made an executive decision and switched horses with only a couple of weeks until curtain. I pushed Swallow the Sun back to our later slot in October at a different theater in Provo and called upon my talented friend in New York, Rachel Baird, to come to Utah (thankfully, her schedule worked out well that way) and reprise the role of Eurydice she had played so well in the first 2011 production of “The Death of Eurydice” in the Immortal Hearts set (and which she later produced at the FEATS Fringe Festival in Switzerland). I put Rachel in charge of these two plays, and then asked Rebecca Minson (who did three shows for ZTC just this summer!) if she would bear with me one more time and reprise her role that she played so well in the Jinn set of plays. We then also approached the immensely talented Lawrence Fernandez and Michelle Markland to round out the cast, and in two weeks they all put together two one acts. The miracle was that these four talented people were superb and put on a simple, but beautiful production that was probably one of the things I am most proud of that ZTC did this year. Due to the craziness, we weren’t able to put much into publicity, so many of the audiences were tiny, but the reviews were super positive, including Rebecca Gunyan’s review for Front Row Reviewers and Hillary Stirling’s review for A Motley Vision. I was so pleased with the results, that I have put up the videos of the entirety of the production on You Tube: “Jinn” being here, and “The Death of Eurydice” here.

- Swallow the Sun by Mahonri Stewart (Aug. 24-Sept. 8, at the Castle Amphitheater in Provo, UT, directed by Randy King). As I mentioned above, Swallow the Sun from the beginning was hounded with a number of problems, the chief among them getting a full cast together. Additionally, having to pull together a whole other show out of thin air to replace the gaping hole Swallow the Sun left in Salt Lake when we had to switch times and locations, caused my own attention and resources to be diverted in getting “The Death of Eurydice” and “Jinn” up… not to mention Persuasion, which meant that I was essentially producing three very full productions at the same time. In the meantime, I was called on to help fill the gaps in the cast, as the director of STS was having difficulty in getting together enough actors and actresses. Thus, once again with only a couple of weeks to go before production, the cast wasn’t full and the director and actors were doing their best with what little I could give them. However, miracle of miracles, we had a show (barely) to put up when opening night came around (despite the desire from some to cancel the first night and give them another rehearsal). The results were decidedly mixed, though. The original production of Swallow the Sun for New Play Project had been a success, with positive reviews and robust audiences, but the problems that this production dealt with had landed some blows. After watching the recording of the production, I finally somewhat understood Julia Shumway’s insulting and extremely critical review of the show at the Utah Theater Bloggers. The pace for a lot of the show was deadly slow, the blocking and stage movement extremely static, and some of the characters were flat. The intellectual conversations which were meant to be lively and spirited were now dead weight dragging the show down. What had previously been a well tuned show in its previous incarnation, was now pitchy and flat. Thank goodness for a hard working cast and director who pushed through the difficulties to make the show as good as it was (I heard that things especially picked up by closing night). And thank double goodness a number of the actors who breathed life into the show with their segments, especially Chris Bentley as J.R.R. Tolkien, Matt Davis as Hugo Dyson and Sam Schofield as Warnie Lewis (to see Chris Bentley and Matt Davis in action with Ken Foody as C.S. Lewis, there’s a clip here). I think the whole cast were all admirable, considering the difficult circumstances, but those three were certainly stand outs.  Fortunately, those problems didn’t stop a number of positive reviews to come in to counteract UTBA’s extremely negative one, including Jerry Johnston’s at the Deseret NewsJennifer and Caden Mustoe’s at Front Row Reviewers, and an especially beautiful review from Scott Hales at the Low Tech World. Despite the evident flaws in the production, I was happy to see that the personal meaning the show has for me was still getting across to most audience members and that the hard work and sacrifice invested by the cast and crew had paid off.

- Jane Austen’s Persuasion adapted by Melissa Leilani Larson (September 7-21 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake, directed by Sarah Stewart). As a fan of Jane Austen generally (I had seven sisters, I was a goner from the beginning) and as a huge Persuasion fan specifically (it is one of my favorite novels, along with Till We Have Faces. I had wanted to write my own adaptation of the book before Mel beat me to it), not to mention a huge fan of the plays of Mel Larson, I couldn’t resist picking up this show for ZTC. Personally, I was very invested in the choice, but also professionally… Jane Austen in Utah? No-freaking-brainer. Remember, I have seven sisters, I just knew it would be a home run if we were able to pull it off right. Well, we had a hugely capable and talented director, a dazzling cast, a strong script, and beautiful designers. The result was one of the crown jewels of ZTC’s seasons. We had huge audiences, which ended up being being sold out beyond capacity at the end. We had gushing reviews from Amber Peck at the Utah Theater Bloggers and Kara Henry at Front Row Reviewers , and enthusiastic audience responses. You can bet your bottom dollar that ZTC will be doing Jane Austen again (in 2013 it will be an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that I’m working on, with Sarah directing again).

So the ride that ZTC has taken me on (and those gracious people who have toiled and sweat and sacrificed for me) has been a wild one. Full of peaks and valleys, full of obstacles, failures, and triumphs. It’s cost me and my wife much more money and personal investment than I even want to think about. It’s required not only a lot from me, but from those that love me. It’s been a hardship, a pleasure, a poignant pain. But I’m still crazy enough to believe it’s been worth it and I feel compelled to keep going for now. For after so many miracles and signs, it would be simple and deep ingratitude for me not to thank God for the experience.

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