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



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I Also Blog Other Places, So...


For those who do not know that I blog at the Association for Mormon Letters' Dawning of a Brighter Day and with Nathaniel Givens' rag tag group at Difficult Run, I'm posting this to direct you to some other recent articles I've written...

Difficult Run:



Around the time of the brouhaha of the release of the film version of Ender's Game, I thought both those boycotting the film, as well as Orson Scott Card's offensive political commentary, were a bit over the top. However, the film, and the book it's based on, are worthy of your time. I may disagree with OSC on some points, but I appreciate his artistry and the complexity of his stories and characters. Here are my posts about why I believed it was a misguided boycott and why I believe Card is sometimes a misguided author (who writes awesome books):



So anybody who meets me figures out pretty quick that I'm Mormon... and a playwright/screenwriter... so it's pretty natural that I also belong to the Association for Mormons Letters. Here's a few of my more recent posts:

-- Abandoning the Field or Fighting the Good Fight: Ethics in Business, the Arts, and Hollywood

Friday, July 19, 2013

True Myths: Mythopoiea and the Collective Unconscious

Zion Theatre Company’s production of “Prometheus Unbound.” Photo by Greg Deakins.
As evidenced by the upcoming production of my play Prometheus Unbound, I’m a big lover of mythology. As a child I remember delightedly pouring over a book of myths about Hercules I found in my elementary school’s library. The mythology units in my high school English classes were always some of my favorite. In recent years, I’ve expanded my interests to all sorts of world mythologies, from the Egyptian to the Australian Aboriginal to the Norse to the Native American. All cultures, at their heart, have some splendidly interesting myths, legends, and stories. However, as time went on it became more than an imaginative interest fueled by escapism. Before too long studying mythology became a spiritual journey for me.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of finding patterns. Some may say that it is coincidental, that our mind tries to find meaning in a meaningless world. However, I for one am with psychologist Carl Jung in the opposing belief: “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order” (Jung, “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious”). In addition to Jung’s idea of a collective consciousness, additional scholars like Joseph Campbell (not to mention pop culture icons like George Lucas, who uses such archetypes extensively in his Star Wars films) have argued for just such a patterning that seems to spill out in human myths, fairy tales, and stories. So as I read and find corollaries between Osiris and Christ, Pandora and Eve, Iphigenia and Isaac, Loki and Lucifer, when I look at the universal flood myths, I am always fascinated.

But, historically, there have been many who have found this phenomenon to be more suspicious than faith promoting, finding basis to think that later stories, such as the Johnny-come-lately Christianity, were steeped in mythological plagiarism. This, in part, was C.S. Lewis’s objection to Christianity during his atheist stage before his conversion to Christianity made him one of greatest “defenders of the faith” of the 20th century. But, despite C.S. Lewis’s deep love of mythology (the Norse myth about Balder, a particular favorite of his, caused him deep yearnings when he was younger), the similarities seemed too blatant to Lewis. Christianity may have had many things going for it…originality was not one of them. He called such myths “lies…breathed through silver” (Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, p. 43).


On Saturday September 19th, 1931, C.S. Lewis had two of his friends over. One was Hugo Dyson, a Shakespearean scholar you probably have never heard of. The other, who you almost certainly have heard of, was J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien and Hugo, unlike Lewis, were deeply religious, which was a sore point in an otherwise very fruitful friendship. Lewis was in the middle of his conversion, having already had some spiritual experiences after the death of his father that he had difficulty explaining. But he still resisted against that final leap from theism to Christianity.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Desperate Prayers: Keeping the Faith as Mormon Artists


Kathryn Laycock Little and Amos Omer in New Play Project’s production of “The Fading Flower.” Photo by Greg Deakins.


 "DOUBT NOT, FEAR NOT"

The lure is there. Always. As an artist, writer, scholar, academic, etc. you want to explore, to search, to find uncharted places, and make illuminating insights. Thus the cling of dogma or doctrine can feel like the weight of shackles rather than the truth that will make you free. It’s a rare thing to find an artist, a writer, a scholar, a reader, any human being, really, (whether carpenter, accountant, or freshman college student) who hasn’t had those desperate, so desperate, soulful prayers; who hasn’t felt those doubtful shadows closing in; who hasn’t felt the conflict between the vivid memory of very real spiritual experiences and the world shifting nature of new information, or the fresh conflict of political and social and personal upheavals.

We try to hide it, to show that we’re strong, to show that nothing can shake a faith so monumental as ours, a mind so well informed as ours, a life so supposedly faithful as ours. That in a world of disaffected artists and cynical academics, we are the exception, that we can withstand the pressure that others couldn’t. That we can be that light on a dark hill, to shine as an example that others can draw strength from. But, really, all of that is a bluff, it’s whistling in the dark. When the lights are off and no one is looking, we feel like little children who wake up to realize the threat in last night’s nightmare is, indeed, still very real. That this Thing is targeting us just as expertly and painfully as the next person. That we, too, are vulnerable.

THE DARKEST ABYSS.
Thinking is a dangerous, explosive, beautiful, necessary thing, and it is not something that God just wants us to turn off. Pondering and soul searching is part of the process that leads to sanctification. In his own crucible of affliction and desperate prayers, that hell hole called “Liberty” Jail, the 19th century Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith wrote these words:
The things of God 
are of deep import, and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only 
find them out. Thy mind, O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul 
unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost Heavens, and search into and contemplate the 
lowest considerations of the darkest abyss, and expand upon the broad considerations of eternal 
expanse; he must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, 
than the vain imaginations of the human heart, none but fools will trifle with the souls of 
men (History of the Church, vol. 3, p. 295).

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Help Zion Theatre Company: Kickstarter to Help Fund the 2014 Season

Zion Theatre Company has been a passion project of mine for the past few years (who am I kidding? I've been planning this since I was in early high school) and so I'm very invested in seeing it succeed. ZTC has been able to slowly build up an audience and a group of theatre artists who have made many of our shows very successful. We've received some great reviews, from critics and audience members, and our last show Farewell to Eden especially earned accolades, while another of our shows A Roof Overhead just won the Association for Mormon Letters award for Best Drama of 2012. We're doing great things and making an impact with our spiritually centered shows.

However, real life intrudes. Theatre can be an expensive thing to perpetuate, especially when attempting to do work that is not centered on a commercial component, but rather a spiritual one. Zion Theatre Company has made a lot of progress on the financial front, but there is miles to go before we sleep... or before we can make the next step as a fully fledged professional company. Thus, to help bring ZTC to the next level we are doing a Kickstarter Project to help make our 2014 season extra special. We are hoping to raise a minimum of $6000, but our stretch goal is more towards the $10,000 mark. We want to improve the quality of our productions--from the costumes and sets to our advertising ability--and to do so we are asking for your assistance. Everyone who contributes $10 or more can get one of our several great prizes (theatre tickets, digital downloads of shows, playbooks, etc.), but if you can only donate a few dollars, every but helps!

To help out Zion Theatre Company, go to this site, watch the video and choose a donation amount that will (if we make our goal) qualify you for a prize:  http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1584523393/zion-theatre-companys-2014-season

Friday, April 26, 2013

Arcehtypal Eve: Hillary Stirling's Review of _Farewell to Eden_



 

A friend of mine, Hillary Stirling, and I have this tradition going where she reviews all the plays of mine that she attends and then I like to post them. I love her reviews because she always puts her "literary hat" on and gives a very thought provoking reflection on my texts, often dwelling on symbolism, theme, and archetype. So, although somewhat self serving, I'm posting her review here:   

I need to preface my comments on Farewell to Eden with a personal note. I’m not a fan of British period pieces. When I was forced to read Sense and Sensibility in college, I found myself bored to tears. After more than two hundred pages, I threw down the book in disgust, wishing that one of the characters would pull out a knife and stab someone just so the plot could go somewhere.  It was only my confidence in the playwright that convinced me to see Farewell to Eden, and I’m pleased to report that confidence was well-founded.  (I also add the disclaimer that my background is in literature rather than theater and, while the acting was skillful, my ignorance keeps me from complimenting it beyond that.)

Though a Victorian period piece, Farewell to Eden struck me as surprisingly Shakespearean. The lead character, Georgiana Highett, is a Beatrice without a Benedict, a sharp wit and sharp tongue and both equally untamable. The plot’s twists and turns balance the interpersonal explorations nicely, and not just because a dagger is actually involved this time. No character is allowed to remain flat and everyone, from the Highetts to the hired help to Darrel Fredericks, the requisite rake, sparkle with life on the stage. As simply entertainment, Farewell to Eden is engaging, well-written, and well worth the price of admission.

However, in my view, the mark of a literary masterpiece is that it can be enjoyed on multiple levels. I deal in archetypes, and their unexpected and skillful use in this play was a pleasant surprise.  When attempting to flatter and woo Georgiana, Darrel compares her to a Greek goddess, and she asks which one, prompting “Artemis, goddess of the hunt? Athena, goddess of wisdom?” and he replies, “Aphrodite, goddess of beauty.” I would answer, “None of the above.” If she is a Greek goddess Georgiana is Hera, the implacable queen of her domain who even boldly declares “God is not welcome in this house.”  At one point, she is likened to a queen while clothed in royal blue. There are hints of Persephone in her, though, the cold “mortician’s wife” who thaws to life over the course of the play.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Reviews Are In!


It's been very exciting to see how critics and audiences have been responding to the 10th anniversary production of my play Farewell to Eden. I wanted to send along some of the reviews and press we've been getting.

Blair Howell at the Deseret News-

Full Review:
http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865578633/Theater-review-Farewell-to-Eden-richly-rewarding-character-study.html

Excerpt:
The finely crafted play was first recognized by Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival adjudicators, winning a major national award for playwright Mahonri Stewart...This anniversary production is handsomely staged under the direction of Ronnie Stringfellow by the Zion Theatre Company. The play is further distinguished by having the playwright’s sister play the lead character, one that she helped form during the development process. Played to perfection by Sarah Stewart, Georgiana Highett is a high-bred intellectual of the upper classes in Victorian England....This is not merely a conversion-to-the-truth story, but Farewell to Eden is a uniquely rewarding character study that is so splendidly played as to make it highly recommended.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Soulful Apostle: Jeffrey R. Holland's Greatest Hits

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, LDS Apostle


In the Mormon faith, I'm not sure if we're supposed to have "favorite" apostles... but Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is my favorite. It's very easy to believe in modern apostles when you're hearing Elder Holland speak. His earnest spirituality; his erudite and beautiful use of language; his pops of humor; his emotional depth; his simultaneously dramatic, yet subtle expressiveness; and his educated, intellectual capacity...it is all a balanced, potent combination of spiritual power.

 During my high school years, I especially had an enthusiastic excitement when General Conference came around. I had a unique set of friends in high school... a wholesome, extremely intelligent, kind, spiritually alive group of amazing individuals. I was very lucky, as they nourished me with their faith, their love, their kindness, and were there for me in a very vital period in my development as a human being and a spiritual being.

I started a little bit of a tradition for a while there in high school, where we would make a big breakfast for the Saturday morning session of Latter-day Conference and watch conference together. During those years, I especially remember being touched by Elder Holland. His authentic words always resonated with a very tender, yet growing, part of my spirit. Ever since that early and pivotal part of my life, I have always eagerly anticipated Elder Holland's speeches in General Conference and have never been disappointed with the sincere spirituality, intellectual rigor, and deep compassion that he approaches his messages with.

"LORD, I BELIEVE":

This last Conference, Elder Holland once again pounded that hard to hit ball out of the park with his speech "Lord I Believe." I've been very pleased to see the response this particular talk has received on the Bloggernacle and on Facebook. This talk is unique in how many people it has been able to touch, and how wide a spectrum it was able to travel. Elder Holland achieved a difficult and exquisite balance. He was, first, able to promote the power of faith while, simultaneously, give comfort, empathy, and encouragement to those who have doubts about one part of Church policy/practice or another. These words were potently effective and connected on a deeply satisfying spiritual and intellectual level:

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Literary Darwinism: Melissa Leilani Larson and Adapting Characters to a Dramatic Medium

PersuasionCLIENT_FACEBOOKMelissa Leilani Larson is a literature fiend. Before she was roped into the world of theatre by taking playwriting courses from Elizabeth Hansen and Eric Samuelsen,[1] she was firmly entrenched in BYU's English department. Before the playwriting bug bit her, I’m sure Larson originally had no comprehension that her delightfully bookish tastes would give her a chance to engage with her favorite books on a whole new level by translating them to the stage.  

Yet, now that she has succumbed to the delight and insanity that is drama, it’s been an interesting process to see her dig into the trove of her favorite novels and stories and re-work them into solid and beautiful adaptations for the stage.

A couple of years ago BYU produced Larson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which is one of my favorite novels, too. Mel and I have very similar literary tastes (very BBC), so she has this annoying habit of adapting some of my favorite stories (which I also had long planned to tackle) before I can get to them. I might have resented her for it, if she didn’t do such darn a good job with them.  I may still write some of them someday (especially Persuasion, as well as another of my all time favorite novels that I know she’s working on), once there’s been some distance between her excellent versions. In the meantime, I’ve resigned myself to asking her if I can produce some of them. Thus last summer Zion Theatre Company produced Larson’s Persuasion, which was one of the best selling shows that my company has ever done (the other, no surprise, was my adaptation of Sleepy Hollow).
 
BYU also had great success with their earlier production of Persuasion, so they decided to have Larson come back and adapt some more Austen for them. Larson’s version of Pride and Prejudice is now on deck for BYU’s next theatre season, and I think they were smart to tap back into that successful formula. I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it…right? Mel and I were discussing her adaptations the other day, and I’m very excited about what she has coming up. Between Little Women at the Covey, Pride and Prejudice at BYU, and another one which I'm not sure I'm supposed to name… she’s been a very busy bee.

Now some may question why a writer would even want to focus so much on adaptation. Why not write your own stuff? To be fair, Larson does that as well…her superb original plays, such as Little Happy Secrets and Standing Still Standing, prove that she does that sort of work equally as well.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Farewell to Eden: Reflections, 10 Years Later


Georgiana
Art by Liz Pulido for Zion Theatre Company
Fair Warning: I am going to get self-reflective and autobiographical here. Wistful, even. If that makes you uncomfortable, I totally understand. Feel free to move on. However, if you don't mind a little intimacy, I'm hitting a very pensive time in my life. A time that is more than a little emotionally turbulent, but also full of mystery and meaning and spirit. So it feels appropriate to look back, as this year marks the 10th anniversary of my first fully produced play, Farewell to Eden, which premiered in 2003 at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University). My Zion Theatre Company is marking that anniversary with another production of the play, so the memories of the original production at UVU have been fondly on my mind lately. That production changed my life in ways which are obvious and subtle... so I hope you won't mind if I indulge in a little nostalgia, as I'm wont to do.

I was sitting in the Provo Temple during an endowment session. I had just recently returned from my mission to Australia and was pondering the big "WHAT NEXT?" At that juncture you're feeling kind of vulnerable. On a mission your life had been prescripted and focused and deeply meaningful for a couple of years, but afterwards you are thrown back into a whole gamut of choices and possibilities and terrifying realities that need to be taken care of. I was thrown into that gamut, that whirlpool of possibilities... not all of them reassuring. That’s when the voice came into my mind. It was clear and precise, very calm: “Write a British play.” [1]
That small shard of personal revelation was specific enough, but also open enough, to give me both direction and freedom. I knew I could write a play. I went home comforted and motivated. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Nothing Can Seperate Us from the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, Co-Author of _The God Who Weeps_

Fiona Givens, Co-Author of The God Who Weeps
        I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it's not hyperbole, it's that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona's articulate voice, engaging ideas, and powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:  
         MS:  First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens. 

FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university.  The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself.  The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated.  Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends.  I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind.  Eventually she took me to her “church”--a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building.  What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before--a spiritual warmth that was inviting.  And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more.  That being said,  I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.  

However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful.  I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me.  I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room.  It is still there. The wounds are still palpable.  However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.

Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young.  I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer.  Terryl was seated on the back row.  I was seated on the front.  He was self-effacing.  I was not.  We were married a year later.  He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak.   

We were poverty stricken students.  I helped with the family income of $7000 per annum (Terryl’s scholarship) by adding more babyspeakers to my home and typing papers and dissertations after the children were abed .  I then volunteered for the Virginia Society for Human Life as lobbyist and spokesperson and spent a considerable amount of time travelling the Commonwealth on speaking engagements and participating in media interviews.   The grey matter jogging helped prevent a complete collapse into babyspeak and Terryl assumed the role of single parent during the annual General Assembly session in Richmond where I was completely immersed in promoting the passage of our bills.   My six children were also wonderfully supportive.

They would take turns  traveling with me on my speaking engagements when they were older  and they cheered me on when the going got tough.   A number of years later I graduated with a double major in French and German from the University of Richmond, followed by a Master’s degree in European History from the same university.   Again, my family provided the greatest support and encouragement.  Bless them!  They even soldiered through the four hour graduation ceremony at the end!

  MS: In The God Who Weeps, you and Terryl paint a beautiful vision of Mormon theology. However, there are elements of it—such as your more Universalist and inclusive tendencies when it comes to salvation—that many Latter-day Saints may not relate with the version that has been portrayed to them in some Sunday school classes. I prefer your version over that of many interpretations I’ve heard, but in what way do you think yours and Terryl’s vision differs from those versions? In what ways would you justify your position to those who have read your book, but question this unique emphasis? 

FG: Universalism.  The idea had been swimming in my mind for a number of years.  When the brilliant and insightful David Bokovoy shared with me the same sentiments on an illuminating car ride in Boston, I gathered more resolve and kept pushing.  If all of humanity did indeed comprise God’s children, and if He loved us with all the affection of a tender parent, it followed that if His plan to return us all to Him left even one of His children without the chance to return, then the plan, that entailed the horrendous sacrifice of His Son, would be a colossal failure.  I don’t believe our God is a failure and neither do I believe that His plan is ill considered.  If that is the case, then God must have made provision to ensure that all His children were granted the opportunity to return to Him, not matter how long it takes.  

As many of us have lived and died and will continue to live and die without ever hearing of Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Bearer of the good tidings of everlasting life in the Kingdom of Heaven, the plan would have to extend past this life, as Joseph taught, as well as into the eternities to come.  God is not confined by the limitations of time.  “Endless” is His name, the implication being that God will work patiently with each one of His children, moving at the pace at which they are comfortable to bring them safely home.  The Mormon confinement to kingdoms is of recent construction.  Joseph, Hyrum, Brigham, B.H. Roberts, James Talmage and J. Reuben Clark all espoused the view that progression is eternal—through all the kingdoms—until at last, when we are in sight of our home, our Father rushes out to greet us, to embrace us and to celebrate our homecoming with a feast of the greatest magnificence.  His entire Kingdom rejoices with Him at the return of each one of us, His prodigal children

Friday, April 5, 2013

Zion Theatre Company Celebrates Farewell to Eden’s 10th Anniversary with a Production at the Echo Theatre.


Art by Liz Pulido
PRESS RELEASE: Zion Theatre Company Celebrates Farewell to Eden’s 10th Anniversary with a Production at the Echo Theatre.  

Ten years ago, Farewell to Eden premiered at Utah Valley University. The student written show by Mahonri Stewart was a success, selling out its run, prompting enthusiastic reviews, and going on to win second place in the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival’s national playwriting award, as well as snagging a KCACTF National Selection Team Fellowship Award. The strong showing the play presented at the Festival prompted one of the judges, Gary Garrison, to say that the play was “the most intelligently written play I have read [for the festival] in a decade.” For its ten year anniversary, Zion Theatre Company is remounting a production of the play directed by Ronnie Stringfellow on April 15-27. 
Farewell to Eden takes place in Victorian England, circa 1840, and tells the story of Georgiana Highett and her siblings Thomas and Catherine, who have recently lost their father and are tasked with carrying on his legacy. When two men enter into Georgiana’s life, including a childhood love from her past, life spirals into a web of complications and conflicts that have a dramatic build and a philosophical tension. Georgiana and her family are put in a place where they have to prove their mettle or fall, leading to a number of twists, turns, hilarious comedy, heart tugging romance, and intense drama.

Playwright Stewart has a special place in his heart for this particular play and wanted to do something special to commemorate it. That is one of the reasons his sister Sarah Stewart was enlisted to play the role of Georgiana Highett, “Sarah is the one of the people who got me involved in drama and she had strong influence in the informing the ideas that helped me shape this story. Seeing her in plays when I was younger was one of the life changing elements of my life. So seeing her take on a character that she helped influence is a particularly meaningful moment for me.”

Sarah Stewart who has seen the character played a number of times before, is equally thrilled to be stepping into the role. She has thoroughly enjoyed her brother’s play in the past, “Seeing this play performed several times over the years, I have always found its Jane-Austen-meets-Charles-Dickens style fascinating. Just when you feel you get these characters and their world, new ‘reveals’ twist you 180 degrees, surprising you into a brand new paradigm. And this happens again and again. It's been a joy to sink my teeth into this part as an actress—the blend of humor, conflict and symbolism makes it a deeply satisfying dramatic experience for actors and audience alike.” 

Mahonri Stewart is also thrilled to have Ronnie Stringfellow in the director’s chair. Stewart said, “I was able to attend a rehearsal when I was in town the other day and I was thrilled to see the work that Ronnie was doing with the actors. She was incisive, insightful, with a great energy and humor which the actors fed on. She’s one of the better directors I’ve had the honor to have on one of my shows.”
Stringfellow has dug into the philosophical and personal themes that’s she’s been able to sink her teeth into with the show. She said, "Farewell to Eden forces us to ask ourselves what we would do if our world unraveled. If we were each expelled from our own personal Edens, would we exit in turmoil, or move forward in faith? Everyone is this production has accepted that question as our motivation, and hope that our work will help the audience explore that idea for themselves."

Farewell to Eden
is playing at the Echo Theatre space at 145 North University Drive, Provo, UT. Performances start at 7:30 pm on every night but Sunday during the April 15-27 run. Tickets can be pre-purchased at www.ziontheatrecompany.com or bought at the door.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Faithful Mormon Feminism, Part One: An Introduction



When I use the word "feminist," I get a range of reactions within my Mormon faith community. Some have gathered to the word with me, having felt the strain of living with it in a patriarchal culture themselves. Many people have been struggling with their faith, seeing a disconnect from the principles of the Gospel taught in the scriptures; seeing the progressive example of Jesus in how he interacted with women; reading examples in the scriptures of an expanded women’s role (such as Deborah in the Old Testament, Abish and the Lamanite women in the Book of Mormon, or Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, to name only a few); reading statements from early Mormon leaders such as Joseph Smith’s comments to the early Relief Society, where he said he was “going to make of this Society a  kingdom of priests as in Enoch’s day— as in Pauls day.”[1]

However, some have called me an apostate, one person comparing people like me to the Amlicites who marked themselves as enemies of the people of God in the Book of Mormon (see Alma chapters 2 and 3). By affixing a title like "feminist," does that automatically make a person "marked" for evil? If so, similar markings such as "Republican" or "environmentalist" or "architect" or "doctor" or "professor" or "Trekkie" could be equally as dangerous. But then how will we differentiate our particular views from each other, even among the "faithful" in the Church? And we DO have different views (put a Mormon Libertarian and a Mormon Democrat in the same room together and see the fireworks. Or one who strongly believes in breastfeeding and one who doesn't. Or a Mormon BYU fan and a Mormon Utes fan. Etc.). 

Even Mormon leaders have had different views, such as Pres. Hugh B. Brown's opposition to Elder Ezra Taft Benson's views on politics and race[2]; or President David O. McKay's objections to Elder Bruce R. McConkie's book Mormon Doctrine[3]; or Brigham Young and Orson Pratt’s spat about the Adam-God theory (among other issues)[4]; complete unanimity in the Church, among its members or even among its leadership, has never happened in a modern context. Not on a cultural level, not on a political level, not even on a theological level. There is always going to be distinguishing differences between the Church’s various members. So when people start questioning each other’s faith because of various principles others believe in that are different than their own, I find that alienating and disrespectful.

There have been many “righteous” men and women who have disagreed with each other, the highest level of the leadership of the Church not excepted. If people are not allowed to disagree in the Church, even occasionally on a theological level, then such a stringent line would break apart the Church, including the leadership. No two leaders, not two lay members, no two people have the exact cultural, political, or spiritual worldview. There is no “single” interpretation of the scriptures… rather The Book of Mormon encourages us to “liken the scriptures”[5] unto ourselves, indicating that there is a personal interaction with the scriptures and the Spirit, in addition to the institutional interpretations.    

I have also read the unflattering comparison of feminists to apostates extend to the example of Hiram Page, who was receiving his own false revelations separate from the Church from a seer stone, claiming that it was binding on the Church (see the LDS Doctrine and Covenants section 28). The thing is, though, I don’t think I have ever met a Mormon feminist who thought they were receiving revelation for the Church. The policies and procedures of the Church belong to those leaders of the Church who have been given those keys.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Roof Overhead Won the Association for Mormon Letters Award for Best Drama

I hope people don't mind if I'm self indulgent in relating something exciting that happened to me this weekend. My play A Roof Overhead (which was produced by my Zion Theatre Company as well as Arizona State University's student theater, Binary Theatre Company) won the Association for Mormon Letters Award for Best Drama in 2012. I also received an Honorary Lifetime Membership Award for my work with ZTC and my editorial work for the upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama. For more about the Conference and who won what awards go to: http://blog.mormonletters.org/?p=6111

It was such a lovely weekend at the AML Conference, filled with beautiful people, fantastic presentations, and a pervasive spirituality. Here are the citations from the AML for the awards I received:

AWARD IN DRAMA for 2012: A ROOF OVERHEAD

A Roof Overhead, by Mahonri Stewart, exemplifies what I like most about Mormon theatre: real Mormons, in real situations, who do their best to overcome their weaknesses, who don't always succeed in the time-frame of the play, yet the leave the audience with hope that a resolution will be forthcoming.

Like life.

The Fielding Family is the center of this story, but they are not THE story. The people who come into their lives, who interact with them through the course of the play, are the story. The play is more of an ensemble piece than a play about any single person.

Again, like life.

And the people who interact with the Fieldings? You couldn't find a more diverse (and interesting) set of characters. Sam Forest (a "woman of presence" to quote from the stage directions) is a self-proclaimed atheist seeking to rent a basement apartment from the active Latter-day Saint family, the Fieldings. Her friend, Ashera, is a Wiccan. Tyrell Howard, a young LDS African-American, the boyfriend to Naomi Fielding, in her twenties and contemplating a mission. How each of these interesting characters interacts with the Fieldings, and with each other, makes for a compelling evening of theatre.

As to be expected from a Mahonri Stewart play, the title A Roof Overhead is thematically telling. What happens under the roof of this home full of loving but flawed people is what draws us into their lives. Most, but not all, of the interaction between family members and friends is pleasant and happy, but even when characters steer us into uncomfortable areas that still challenge Church members today (like, for instance, Blacks and the Priesthood), we are presented with multiple sides of those issues in a fair and balanced manner. No one seeing this play would consider it unbalanced. The father Maxwell Fielding is fond of saying throughout the play, "It's about being fair." A Roof Overhead is nothing if not fair.

Stewart's skill at dialogue and characterization, mingled with just the right amount of humor, drama, and pathos, anchors the play--we become more than mere observers. We become members of a diverse set of characters and we, characters and audience alike, share this roof overhead.

What this play says to Mormons is, "We are not alone in the world. We need to learn to get along with others of different, or sometimes, no faith."

Like life.

 And then:

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Different Set of Rules Comic Strip: Late March


So Anne is a little more pragmatic in her approach than I am...


















My friend Adam Slee teaches at an arts high school where they are planning on doing one of my plays. His kids are very smart and definitely love being involved in the creative process:















So my son and I get a little intense in our playtime...

Thank goodness for streaming:




I did a whole Doctor Who series this time...


















More Comic Strips When You Press the Read More Link:

Friday, March 15, 2013

False Constructions Upon a True Church: A Response to a Friend

One of my dear fellow Mormon friends lately has called me out for posting an article by BYU professor, author, and Mormon race relations scholar Margaret Blair Young. The substance of the article by Professor Young (who I very much admire on a personal level and whose scholarship and literary contributions I think are a blessing to the Church) was celebrating the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) have recently updated their scripture headings in the Doctrine and Covenants, a couple of which are very important, including this one about at the top of Official Declaration Two (which was the statement made by the Church in 1978 rescinding its previous policy of denying black people the blessings of the priesthood and the higher ordinances of the temple):

The Book of Mormon teaches that ‘all are alike unto God,’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regards to race that once applied to the priesthood.
I, like Professor Young, think this is a wonderful change for the Church to make in the scripture heading. It's still not a perfect statement (for example, historical records actually do offer up some insights about where the ban came from, which history authors like Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray have written a whole series of books about black Mormon pioneer called Standing on the Promises), but I don't want to quibble too much about that. This is a beautiful thing! This is a wonderful thing! The Church is for the first time officially recognizing some of these complicated aspects of the history behind the former ban (like the fact that Joseph Smith ordained black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis to the priesthood offices of Seventy and Elder and that the ban didn't come into place until the leadership of Brigham Young). The Church is recognizing that the ban was contradictory to scriptures like 2 Nephi 26:33 which the heading quotes, thus putting into question the racist folk myths that sprang up around the policy.

But in the process of celebrating and congratulating the Church, Professor Young said some things which my friend found disturbing, and which he was very bothered that I was endorsing. In giving context of how the Church could go back on their previous policies Professor Young states in the article:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Upon the Stage of a Theatre": Reflecting on Mormon Drama at the Advent of the Saints on Stage Anthology

Saints on Stage Cover copy
This is not the final cover. For one thing, Lavina Fielding Anderson was too modest to want to get the kind of official credit she deserved in helping refine and edit the text.
Christopher Bigelow (publisher), Ben Crowder (layout), and I (chief editor) have been pounding out the last minor details of the upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama being put out by Zarahemla Books. Considering that I pitched this idea to Chris several YEARS ago, I'm very excited that it is finally coming to fruition after numerous obstacles, delays, and hold ups.

As we've been going through the last motions, I've become reflective about Mormon Drama. It's an idea and a genre that I've personally invested a lot into during my experience as a playwright. When I was a young writer in middle school and early high school, I wasn't as eager to declare my Mormon faith through my writing, although it was tinged with my early spirituality. When I encountered C.S. Lewis on a major level, however, my writing took a turn towards the overtly religious. But even then, Tennessee Williams was more the tradition I was going for, not John Milton.

That all changed when I attended a lot of BYU's theatre department's productions and I encountered the work of playwrights like Eric Samuelsen, Elizabeth Hansen, and James Arrington during the 1990s. Especially Samuelsen's work had a huge impact on me, and I found myself with a deep desire implanted into me infuse more of a my faith into my writing. It may sound arrogant to say that I feel like I received a spiritual calling as a Mormon Dramatist, but I don't exactly know how else to say it. I felt compelled to invest in Mormon Drama and I'm grateful that I did.

Now not all of my work is overtly Mormon, or even religious. I've written some of my pieces with a more broad tapestry in mind, especially recently as my grad school experience has taken me out of Utah and in the midst of a different kind of audience. I aim to try and make attempts as a professional writer in the wider, secular world, and so I know Mormon stories can't be all I write about. But at the core of even my most universal of work, my Mormon spirituality can be found. It's a deep part of my world view and it shows up in my work, either subtly or very overtly.

But a part of me never wants to be divorced from my relationship with Mormon Drama, no matter what else I may do in my life or work. I am proud of my Mormon heritage, and I believe in the Church's origins. To me the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's visions, etc. ... those are all very real things. I don't consider myself a "cultural Mormon," or even a New Order Mormon. I haven't distanced myself from the Church's faith claims. Those experiences of Mormon pioneers, as well as my devout belief in Christianity and the Gospels, are infused into my personality and belief system. In one of her reviews of my plays, Mormon theatre critic Nan McCulloch once jokingly referred to me as "thoroughly Mormon Mahonri." She's not off base with that comment.

As a culture, Mormons have a long history with theatre, ranging back to when Brigham Young stepped on a staged with other Mormons in Nauvoo and acted in the play Pizarro. Young would later famously say,
[There are Christians] who are against all amusements because of the evils attendant at public places. Now it is for the saints to neither follow the traditions of the one, nor fall into the errors of the other. . . . Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it. . . . [T]he Lord understands the good and the evil. Why should not we likewise understand them? We should. Why? To know how to choose the good and refuse the evil; which we cannot do unless we understand the evil as well as the good.[1]
I've found a great deal of justification in my career and educational choices from statements like this from Young and other Mormon leaders.

But more than an institutional approval of the arts from Mormon leaders, it hits a more personal, spiritual chord within me. I don't know what my future holds as a writer... I would love to break into national television or screenwriting. Something, you know, that will really pay the bills. But wherever my left foot is, I always hope that I also have another foot planted squarely in the field of Mormon Drama.

[1] Ila Fisher Maughan, Pioneer Theatre in the Desert (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 84; and Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 289.