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

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. 

Preaching to the Highetts
UVU's premiere 2003 production
I was in the midst of discovering what would become one of favorite novels, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, on the suggestion of my friend Angelyn Richards. Before my mission, I had been drinking deeply from Dickens, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte. I was starting to get a sense of time and place and dialogue for British period drama, and had been fond of those kinds of stories for years (mainly due to the influence of my sisters, especially my sister Sarah). I was also very self reflective at that time, and pieces of my life and memory up to that point were churning in my mind. I was trying to make sense of it, make meaning out of it. So the first pieces of this play were forming. But at that point it was just shards and fragments. It wasn’t terribly clear where I was going with it yet, just that I was going. Although it had essentially the same set of characters in both versions, those first few rough scenes were very different than they ended up being.[2]

But one element was becoming clear. The then quasi-antagonist, who would ironically become such a dominating character that she soon became the protagonist, was crystallizing very quickly. Georgiana Highett became one of my most memorable, and favorite, characters… even though a father really isn't supposed to have favorites.  Georgiana is fiercely intelligently, outwardly brave, and incisive; but she is also inwardly suffering from a crippling lack of self esteem, and sees herself as painfully, heartbreakingly plain. Georgie was initially based on a few young women I had known, with elements of the influence of my sister Sarah subconsciously thrown in, and (most secretly) based on a good portion of my own insecurities and personality quirks. Yet Georgiana was increasingly breaking out of those initial strictures and pre-cursors. She gained her own distinct voice and personality. A powerful personality at that.

Me and JamesIn the meantime, I began my first semester at UVSC. I was torn between majors, trying to decide between English, political science, and history, although I was looking longingly back at the less than pragmatic Theatre Arts major (not that history and English were particularly pragmatic either).[1] To my delight, I was taking an Introduction to Theatre class from one of Mormon drama’s major contributors, James Arrington.[2] One of our assignments was to write a ten minute play. I had only written a couple of scenes from the play so far (none of those early scenes survived the revision process intact), so I decided to skip ahead to one of the key scenes near the then imagined end of the play and write that scene for class (which scene did survive the revisions, largely intact). 

After the scene was read in front of the class as part of the assignment, James slapped his desk and declared (pretty theatrically, as James is wont to do): “We have a playwright in our midst!” He praised the scene up and down (as I stood by, a little shocked, a little embarrassed, but definitely pleased) and then took me aside after class and said, “That’s supposed to be a full length play, isn’t it?” I told him it was. “Well then,” James said, “if you do turn it into a three act play, we’ll produce it here at UVSC.” 

We went through at least 12 revisions of that script and that experience was probably one of the most refining periods of my creative life. James’ close and consistent feedback taught me more about the process of playwriting than perhaps any other educational experience I had before or since then. James became a valued mentor and one of my best friends, and I owe so much to him and those early feedback sessions of ours. Whatever I have become in my experience as a playwright, whatever little successes I've achieved is all due to James Arrington’s faith in a young, untested, unknown writer that he picked up and dusted off in a Introduction to Theatre class at UVSC. 

Catherine and Darrel
UVU's 2003 Production
I had a beautiful dream about the show during the revision process, before I was certain it was going to be produced. In the dream I was in a group of other young men and women who had come to hear President Hinckley speak. I was on the outskirts of a group who had thronged President Hinckley, pretty ignored. Then President Hickley (who I was beginning to sense reflected more than just President Hickley within the context of the dream) turned towards me, with bright, flashing eyes. He looked straight at me and said:

“Mahonri, how is your play coming?”

I explained that I thought it was going all right, but expressed some doubt, more than a little nervous at the sudden, very focused attention. 

“I will make sure it is produced,” the dream version of President Hinckley reassured me. 
Georgie and Stephen 2
UVU's 2003 Production
He then disengaged from the rest of the group and began to walk with me. As he did so I saw some in the group, one young man in particular, cast negative looks towards me, as if to say, “There’s nothing so special about him. Why is he getting this attention? He’s not even that good of a writer.”
Normally such a disparaging environment would have discouraged me, but I kept walking with (this Person that looked like) President Hickley and his demeanor was much more encouraging. He and I continued to talk, discussing the scriptures and other things as we began to climb a staircase. Soon he and I reached the top of the stairs and I woke up. That dream has given me much comfort since then, as I have indeed encountered many critics, and have had to shore up my confidence in what I’m doing during intense scrutiny. 

 Only the first performance didn’t sell every seat (but even that one got close). The rest of the run sold out entirely (even causing me some problematic situations where a girl I liked and a few of her friends couldn’t get in because they had sold their reserved seats when they didn’t show up in time). We had extremely enthusiastic responses from audiences. The judges from the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival who had come to assess the play were over the moon about the script and the production (and thus so was I!) and then they invited the play to the regional festival in California. It was all very heady and exciting and exhilarating, but underneath it all I felt a sense of calm and peace. That, to me, was much more important. I felt the Lord’s voice whispering to me and encouraging me and helping me during those moments of self doubt and temptation.

The Highetts 2010
Zion Theatre Company's 2010 Production
The performances went very well. The playwriting judge, Gary Garrison[5]called it the “most intelligently written script he had read in decade.” The other judges were similarly complimentary. They held the production over as one of the few possibilities from our region for the National Festival. I couldn’t imagine that it got any better than this! 

Thus there was some disappointment when we got the call that the production wasn’t asked to the national festival. But there was a fortunate catch. The production wasn’t going, but I certainly was. I had received second place for the KCACTF’s National Playwriting Award, as well as a National Selection Team Fellowship Award. They were going to send me to Washington D.C. for the national festival. 

The experiences I had at the national festival would occupy their own post, so I won’t relate them here. But I ran into some BYU students there who took me under their wing and got to meet one of BYU’s acting professors Barta Heiner for the first time (although I had seen many of the plays she acted in and directed). I also had some very personal spiritual experiences during that time. Those are very warm memories.

I came back with more confidence and faith in the Lord’s purpose for me (whatever that was) than I had ever had. I was intent to keep going with my writing, despite what any professional or personal naysayers may (and did) say about me and my work. In the years following I would experience some of the most intense criticism, gossip, and misunderstanding that I had ever experienced. They would lead to a number of very personal heart breaks and betrayals. So I needed that reserve of confidence to keep going, because the next few years after that became some of the most difficult (but fruitful) of my life. Because of my experiences, however, my course was set, my die was cast, and I was looking forward, not glancing nervously backward.

s 10th anniversary cast
ZTC's 10th Anniversary Production
So here I am, ten years later. A little more stubborn and head strong than I used to be, yes. A little more free with my opinion than I used to be, yes. A pain in the neck, yes. And, yes, I still have some of that residual self doubt and self consciousness, despite all of that. But during that vital period of my development as a writer and as a person, I felt the Lord very near me, encouraging me, telling me that this was indeed what he wanted me to do, despite the daunting and impragmatic craziness of it all. The Lord told me he cared about my writing, and by extension, he cared about me.

[1] In relating this, I’m not trying to privilege the play with a spiritual experience. I agree with those who say that such experiences grant no special status or credence to a play, and that they do not obligate any viewer to agree with or enjoy a play. Nevertheless, the fact still remains that this one impression changed my life. I do believe God can influence our art for our own personal betterment and to help others who, equally, are also yearning towards God.
[2] Even the title was different than it ended up being. Previous titles included The Subtle Beauty, The Fortress, Children of the Father, among others.
[3] I eventually did end up going with my heart and graduated with a BS in Theatre Arts from UVU. Me and Adam Slee were UVU’s first graduates in the then new four year theatre arts program. UVU’s program is now considered one of the best in the state, the department having won a number of national awards through the Kennedy Center.
[4] I was pretty thrilled about this. During high school, my friend Alex Parent and I had made it a yearly ritual to take dates to James Arrington’s hilarious one man show The Farley Family Christmas , and I had owned some tapes that included some of his Brigham Young material. I was, distantly, a big fan.
[5] Current president of the Dramatists Guild, former NYU Playwriting Professor, and KCACTF bigwig. Also a super nice guy.

1 comment:

  1. Re your note [1]: Thanks so much, for sharing this. I had a similar experience, but mine took the form of a statement in my patriarchal blessing, probably because God knows I'm a bit hearing-impaired when it comes to the still, small voice. Even so, it took me thirty years to realize that what that sentence meant was, "Write an Irish novel," and I was still flabbergasted, because of my utter ignorance of the subject. But over the next three years, I learned, and I did.