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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

_The Hobbit_ Strikes a Personal Chord-- Again.

My wife and I finally got the chance to see the first part of The Hobbit trilogy the other day (with two young kids, our opportunities become more rare, so having Anne's parents in town really helped in this regard). I was wary at first. I had read a number of negative reviews and, being a lover of Tolkien's work and the previous Lord of the Rings films, I was afraid to see the film version not live up to expectations. Lowered expectations always help when going into a film (part of why I read the critics first), and this proved to be the case here. But, even if I had higher expectations, I still believe I would have been just as moved by the film. 

Sure, the film was a little more humorous/campy and less "epic" than Peter Jackson's previous cinematic treatment of Middle Earth (the original film trilogy will always be beloved to me) but I was expecting that. The Hobbit, as a book, is a very different beast than the subsequent Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit is a much lighter story written with a younger audience in mind, and, if anything, the film could have used some of the book's restraint instead of trying to constantly re-create the successful formula of Lord of the Rings.

However, despite my initial reservations in the filmmakers' decision to create the single volume book into a trilogy (with help from Tolkien's appendices of LOTR and other "history" he wrote about Middle Earth), I was very pleased with what expanding the story did for the characters and themes of the book. Bilbo, Gollum, Gandalf, Thorin, and other Middle Earthlings gain much and lose little in expanding the tale. Tolkien's magical but simple tale becomes richer, more nuanced, and more meaningful with this expanded treatment. As heretical as that may sound to Tolkien purists, and as much as I love the original book, I thought the film had much more emotion and characterization than its source material.

Watching the film, however, reminded me of my experience in first encountering the book and the significant impact it made on my life:
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I was becoming interested in the thrillers for younger readers written by R.L. Stine. Not the Goosebumps series which became popular after I was older (just looking at the covers of those more recent installments makes me shudder...not out of fear, but because of the sheer cheesiness), but his earlier books which were thrillers of a much more realistic nature (at least to my adolescent mind). I remember being in a bookstore, with my mother and some of my sisters, looking through those books and I could tell my mother wasn't quite sure about buying her young son books about teenaged characters escaping murderers, so we were at a bit of an impasse.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

_A Roof Overhead's_ Real Life Sam Forrest: The Baptism of Noel Miller

Noel Miller and Ivy Worsham-Gambier in my play A Roof Overhead
Note: All photos used in this post were taken by Natalie Watson Nelson.

Over the course of the past several months, Noel Miller and I have become good friends. We met at a party last Spring hosted by some mutual friends in the theater department (okay, so I was crashing their cast party for Sorry, We're Closed...but I was invited by the playwright Cody Goulder!). Noel stood out to me. I felt like the Spirit was trying to tell me something about her, so I kept her on my radar. 

Our next involvement with each other was when the above mentioned Cody cast her in staged reading of my play Evening Eucalyptus which was being put on for one of classes for one of my classes for the MFA in Dramatic Writing that I'm currently working on. Not only did she have the best Australian accent, which the play required, but she had an emotional resonance which was powerful in the role. I was impressed with her as an actress and as a person. Once again, I felt the Spirit attempt to tell me something about her.
When I found out that my play A Roof Overhead was accepted at part of the next 2012 season of ASU's student theater Binary Theatre Company, Noel was one of the first people who came into my mind to invite to be a part of the production. At first it was as a lighting designer, since she had done an excellent job in that capacity in Cody's play Sorry, We're Closed, but having seeing her skills as an actress in the staged reading of Evening Eucalyptus, I felt prompted the following Fall to have her audition for an acting role instead ...which became a rather providential move.

Noel rocked the audition and landed the lead role of Sam Forrest. In A Roof Overhead, the character of Sam is an atheist who moves into the basement apartment underneath a family of Mormons, the Fieldings. The conflict that ensues because of their clashing cultures and belief systems is the central obstacle in the play, as both sides make major mistakes and move towards understanding, tolerance and love. It turned out that casting Noel as the atheist Sam was a good bit of casting, as Noel was an ardent atheist herself and could very much relate to and convey Sam's character from a very real, natural place. At one point during rehearsals Noel jokingly yelled at me, "Mahonri, stop writing what's in my head!" It turns out Sam and Noel were working from very similar places.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Needful Opposition: Addressing Conflict and Controversy in Mormon History Plays

BYU's 2001 production of Tim Slover's _Hancock County_.
How to present Mormon History has often been a sensitive thing within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Especially with the understandable impulse to protect the faith and culture of an entire people, it can be tempting to soft pedal it, to not get into the nitty gritty of historical details, or to side step explosive issues when presenting history in a dramatic work. Although there are plenty of white washed Mormon history plays out there, there has also been a tradition of strong, engaging  playwrights involved in Mormon Drama who haven’t been to tackle head on the inherent conflicts, human flaws and controversies that are unavoidable when writing plays based on history.

Mormon History, whether dramatized or not, has been a hot button issue within the Church in the past. Even when written by active, faithful Latter-day Saints who are writing from a place of faith, there have been times in recent Mormon record when there was discouragement from people high in the Church about writing honest history that addressed controversy or contradiction in the history of the Church. There have even been instances where historians have faced Church discipline because of their writing. Fortunately, that day seems to have changed and attitudes within Church leadership have become increasingly progressive regarding its history.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to my Mormon History Plays

In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a director’s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriter’s point of view as well.

Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when I’ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays is…


In her book, Bogart states:
Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).
For me this statement from Bogart has resonance on so many levels. In my work, I’ve focused a great deal on historical drama, especially from my Mormon heritage. My intense interest in Mormon history has bled into a number of my works, reaching back as far as my high school juvenilia.