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

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:

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 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.


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

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 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.