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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Leaves of Nauvoo: Mormon History Reflections From My Honeymoon

The other day I came across an old mole-skin, black notebook my wife Anne had given me on my birthday when we were dating (including a poem which my friend Nate Drew put music to and which I sang to Anne after I asked her to marry me... a totally different story). Instantly knowing what it was, I reviewed it with fondness.

In its early pages are some overwrought and very loving poems I wrote for Anne. But after several pages nearly all the rest of the notebook is dedicated to things I wrote during mine and Anne's honeymoon in Nauvoo. Those who know my play The Fading Flowing will also see my pre-occupation on David Hyrum Smith at this time, as I was in the midst of revising the play during that time.

After our wedding we went to Salt Lake City for our honeymoon for the weekend and saved up our major trip to Missouri and Illinois Mormon History sites a few months later in the late Spring. As I looked through the poems, quotes, notes, and drawings that I filled the notebook with, a gentle stirring came back to me. It was a beautiful time during mine and Anne's early marriage and I wanted to share some of those pressed flowers of my life. This is a simpler time in my life, but a beautiful one. 

Freedom's Bonds
by Mahonri Stewart

Cramped Cold Creased--
Six men in a prison.
Saints not criminals
A prophet, not a traitor

Like their Ancient Master
Unjust Justice
       afflicts their backs
and cools their lungs.

They're fed afflicted flesh,
but they will not eat.
They wait for their Father's feast
when, lifted from cramped dungeons,
they inherit kingdoms.

--May 3, 2005, Liberty Jail Missouri

The End of Kingdoms
by Mahonri Stewart

A peaceful breeze,
a stretching land,
is all there is to indicate greater things.

These tall trees, empty of inhabitants,
These long, green valleys
These spots for birds,
bugs and butterflies--
shall one day be thronged
with thousands--
tens of thousands--
tens of thousands times
tens of thousands.

This quiet place is a monument of a historic future
When kingdoms end
and Kingdom is born.
--May 4, 2005, Adam-Ondi-Ahman

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.

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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

First Vision: Approaching Joseph Smith's Differing Accounts

There's an issue concerning one of the foundational elements of Mormonism that some find disturbing, but that I've never had issue with. For many Mormons like myself, Joseph Smith's First Vision, where he claims to have seen Jesus Christ and God the Father as a young man, is a powerful part of our history and the event that jump started the "Restoration." However, throughout his life, Joseph Smith gave various details of this event, withholding some until later and leaving off others. In fact, one gets the sense that he was sometimes downright reluctant to relate the story, as it seemed to have more personal meaning to him than Church-wide meaning, at least from his early perspective. 

Yet these differing accounts, because of their varying details, lead some to conclude that Joseph Smith was sort of making it up as he went along, adding and subtracting details as it was convenient and as his theology changed and evolved. I reject this theory outright, for I find nothing odd about how he told the story throughout his history, but rather find it natural and expected.

But first let's put forth the different accounts. This site has the various accounts recorded and I encourage people to look at the accounts in their entirety for themselves and not to take them on my assessment alone. But here's the basic list:

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama

“Angels in America” on Broadway, 1993: Ellen McLaughlin in “Part 2: Perestroika.” As a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and an active member of the theatrical community, the conflict between the LGBTQ community and the Church is an issue that has been impossible to avoid for me. Some people’s reluctance in talking about the issue altogether has not been an option for me. I have a number of friends and loved ones (both with connections to the Church and those without) who identify themselves as somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum.  I mean, let’s be frank, I’m in theatre. In or out of Utah, there are always going to be many of my peers, co-workers, fellow artists and friends who are going to be gay. So it’s something I have had to face, even within my own soul and identity.

Conflict of Cultures
I personally know a number of gay Mormons. Many have left the faith (sometimes hostilely), feeling as if their worldview and practices are simply incompatible with the Mormon culture. Yet some have desperately tried to hang on, groping about for some middle way, whether by trying to make a heterosexual lifestyle work for them, living celibate, or hoping (sometimes beyond hope) that the Church will one day change its stance regarding gay marriage. And then there are those Mormons who feel so attached to the issue, even when they are not personally gay, that it has caused some painful soul searching of their own.

Conversely, I have also experienced some very personal and pointed prejudice directed towards me from members of the theatrical community because I am a card carrying, committed Mormon. I have personally experienced a double standard in this regard, where tolerance was only preached , but not practiced by certain “progressive” individuals when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed their own.

I have no easy answers for any of it, but I have made a study of a number of plays that have dealt with the conflict between Mormonism and homosexual lifestyles and tried to grapple with the conflict between these two cultures in the best way I can. Searching through these plays has been at times uncomfortable, often challenging (in both the positive and negative aspects of that word), and at choice moments even enlightening and inspiring.  However, it’s made me doubly sensitive to how Mormons are represented in such stories, as well as tender hearted towards those who are caught between the monoliths of these cultures, especially those who identify with both.