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Saturday, August 22, 2015

True Myths and Spiritual Words: Part Two



PART TWO: THE DEVELOPMENT OF MY DRAMATIC WRITING AT ASU


Note: This is the second part of an essay I have to write to accompany my thesis play for my MFA program in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University.  The essay is meant to focus on my journey as a playwright, the development of my work at ASU, as well as the ideas and authors that have influenced my work (so pardon the navel gazing. It was part of the assignment...honest!). Part One can be found at:http://mahonristewart.blogspot.com/2014/04/true-myths-and-spiritual-words.html
Part Two, written more than a year ago before my graduation, is as follows:


At Arizona State University I have created a number of pieces that are now part of my repertoire:
1.     Evening Eucalyptus: A mythical Australian period drama set in the early 20th century, which explores the tortured return of Arthur Stevenson to his homeland of Australia after a traumatic experience in England. 
2 .      The Emperor Wolf:  This post-apocalyptic fairy tale unfolds on a future Earth torn apart by division and war, where mythical creatures have become the new ruling class. In this new world of sphinxes, griffins, fairies and goddesses, none of these are more fearsome than the Emperor Wolf. When Madeline and her blind mother, Ebony, meet the orphaned Shasta, they are pulled into a hero’s journey in which they confront this frightening new order and the Dark Being that has claimed the world. 
3.      Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood: A biographical screenplay (I also adapted it into a stage version) about the actor Jimmy Stewart and his rise in (and personal conflict with) the Golden Age of Hollywood. 
4.      Myths: Four episodes of a spec TV series that explores a modern world being infiltrated by ancient mythology.  It creates a modern world of mystery, whimsy, secrets and intrigue which is both magical and increasingly dangerous, underlined by conspiracy laden politics, action and intrigue.
 5.      A Roof Overhead: A play about the conflict between a Mormon family, the Fieldings, and their atheistic tenant, Sam Forrest, who lives in their basement. 
  6.     Servers: A musical about the life struggles of a group of servers in a Mexican restaurant. 
  7.   Sense and Sensibility: An adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel. 
  8.   Rings of the Tree (screenplay version): Diana Applesong has locked herself into her Victorian mansion, guarding herself from all loss and pain, allowing only the mysterious Colin and Echo to visit her and a small family of servants to assist her. Yet when a group of curious explorers stumble upon her cloistered existence, Diana finds herself struggling to maintain the false world she has created for herself.      
    9. Manifest: A play that adapts several world myths and weaves them together to show the universal life of humankind (most of the leg work on this play was done before my time at ASU).
  10.  Yeshua: A play that follows and expands on the story of Jesus Christ, especially influenced by the Gospel of John. Although ultimately a faith affirming and spiritual version of the Christian story, it also takes some untraditional approaches to the text (including a feminist lens and an unorthodox Mormon worldview).
  11.  A Nest of Women: A comedic play about the relationships between men and women. Three very different, Victorian bachelors—a Byronesque libertine, a gynophobic man who is studying to become a priest, and a scholar—invite a group of feminists to hold their meetings in their home, from which chaos, conflict, and love ensues. Not yet completed.
  12.  Cyrano, From Nowhere: A fantastical, lyrical, and philosophical take on the story of Cyrano that incorporates science fiction, satire, whimsy, unorthodox spirituality, and the old fashioned love of language.
The time and assistance I had at ASU was vital not only in the development of these works, but also in the development in my voice as a Dramatic Writer. It would be unlikely that a number of these plays, teleplays, and screenplays would even exist in any form if it hadn’t been for the experiences and mentorship that I have received here. There were moments of conflict with elements within department in the development of some of these works, but in general I felt that I have had a transformative experience that has sharpened my skills as a writer, challenged my thinking, expanded my horizons, and, ultimately, expanded my soul through a cathartic and enlarging three years as I’ve worked towards my MFA degree.
    Right before I came to ASU, I was a high school drama and creative writing teacher who had already been writing plays for several years. I received my bachelor degree in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University in 2007. UVU had produced two of my plays on their mainstage (Farewell to Eden and Legends of Sleepy Hollow), as well as my senior capstone project (Rings of the Tree). Before I came to ASU, I wrote over a dozen plays, most of them produced by local groups in Utah like the New Play Project, Art City Playhouse, and the BYU Experimental Theatre Company.  I had also dabbled in screenwriting, adapting some of my plays into screenplay format.
UVU’s production of my first fully produced play Farewell to Eden had been invited to the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival Region VIII competition, and then I was invited to the national festival in Washington D.C. to receive their National Playwriting Award (Second Place) and a National Selection Team Fellowship. 
I also received awards from the Hale Centre Theatre and UVU, as well as having staged readings of some of my work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Brigham Young University.  I was also on track to having some of my work published by Zarahemla Books (a respected, but small Mormon publisher), including an anthology of important Mormon plays from various playwrights, for which I served as the compiler and editor.
Although through all of this I felt I had made a lot of progress as a playwright and received some recognition for my work, I was getting to the point where everything seemed to have plateaued. I was married with two kids, teaching at a charter school in Mesa, AZ, on a salary that we were struggling to subsist on. It was true that I had steadily been producing plays in Utah, from a distance in Arizona, but nothing that wasn’t on a level that I had already accomplished, and certainly nothing that was going to put food on our table for an extended period of time. My wife and Anne and were looking for a new direction in our lives, hopefully something that would expand our horizons and give us new opportunities to actually make a comfortable living.
Our life in Mesa had some positive elements because of my naturally meaningful (but emotionally taxing) job as a high school teacher of troubled youth. We lived in an apartment that was too small for our current family condition (having just had our second child) in a tough, impoverished neighborhood. My charter school teacher’s salary (in a state that devalues and underpays educators) was becoming increasingly inadequate, especially considering the difficult circumstances, troubled student body, and lack of resources that was the norm for that particular school. Also, my son, who has sensory processing disorder, had special needs that needed to be addressed, which brought in another level of stress, despite our overwhelming love for him. And the particular Mormon ward (congregation) we lived in had stringent, myopic, and unfriendly leadership that was beginning to affect the happiness of our spiritual life, as we felt our more open and accepting spirituality had little place there.
Life was tense and stagnant. A sense of unease, even desperation, was encroaching upon us. So Anne and I felt like there needed to be a change in our lives, something that opened new doors and new opportunities, so that we wouldn’t be caught in the same stagnant pool all of our lives. We needed progress. We needed hope.
One of the things that came up in our discussions about options was grad school. Although there are no guarantees of getting an academic, university job with an MFA degree, it at least opened up that possibility. It would also lend some credibility to me as a serious writer. If nothing else, it would up my pay grade if I decided to go back to teaching high school. As we pondered and prayed about grad school, it gave us that hope we were looking for.

Since we already lived in Arizona, I applied to the Dramatic Writing MFA program at ASU. If I got accepted there, we wouldn’t even have to move out of the state. Since I had taught there for a couple of years, I wouldn’t have to pay out of state prices on tuition. There were a lot of pros to ASU particularly.
 I started corresponding with Guillermo Reyes through e-mail, sending him my work, and he was increasingly encouraging. The theatre department then invited me to interview with their committee. It was at that initial interaction that I met for the first time many of the people who would become instrumental to my creative work through the next three years—Guillermo, Philip Taylor, Pam Sterling, William Partlan. I have vivid memories of this first meeting (for which I was late because I got lost!), as I showed them my portfolio, answered their questions, and tried my darndest to not look intimidated.
To my delight, as I was still driving on my way home from the interview, Guillermo called me and told me that I had been accepted into the program.  I accepted it without hesitation. I had thought I may apply to other MFA programs, but I felt a tangible draw to ASU that made me feel very strongly that it was the place for me, despite any hardships that may have be on the way. I never ended up applying to any programs besides ASU that year, feeling quite happy about my acceptance to ASU, and the convenience that would provide for my family.   
We would need to sacrifice to make it work—we moved to Tempe, and then to Avondale after our house was burglarized in Tempe; Anne has worked as a middle school English teacher for all three years so that we could have some sort of financial stability as a family; Anne and I have had a strenuous time balancing our lives as parents, as active members of our faith community, as teachers, as a graduate student, and, well, just trying to keep the house clean when we are so distracted by more pressing matters. The clean house was usually the first thing sacrificed.
We would also go through many emotional, financial, spiritual, relational, and personal crises through the three years that it took us to get me through grad school.
My first year at ASU was strenuous in all the best senses. Most of my highly academic classes occurred in that first year—theatre history, dramaturgy, dramatic theory. Some of the classes were tough. It was especially difficult taking two highly academic classes from Gitta Honneger in the same semester. Yet I found the process richly rewarding as it expanded and challenged how I thought about my work. I would resist at times, rather liking my traditional models, but I felt it was very important step for me to think about my work in new ways and to add new tools to my toolbox. Gitta was an especially challenging and rewarding figure in this regard. There were times I was exasperated by the workload, but I came out the better writer and scholar because of it.
Another excellent resource was my fellow grad students. The first grouping consisted of me and Alice Stanley as the first years, with Cody Goulder, Ryan Noble, and José Zarate being our seniors. José and I never really became all that close, although we liked each other. Cody and I became good friends, and I always found him to be a friendly, buoyant influence. Ryan and I had a special connection because of our mutual Mormon history (even though he had left the Church, there is always a cultural heritage there that makes a common bond).
Alice and I have often mentioned that we feel particularly close to each other because we entered the program together and have shared these three years together. Alice’s work is particularly fresh and incisive, having one of the most natural wits and sense for humor that I have come across. Humor is like a natural reflex in her writing, at times cutting and biting when it takes a satiric route, but always balanced with a healthy dose of her organic sunshine that makes it go down easier. He play Tru, examining the conflicts in the religion of Christian Science, also resonated deeply with my own deeply spiritual experiences and disturbing conflicts as a Mormon.  
Additions to the program in subsequent years included Kirt Shineman, Shelly Sarver, and John Perovich, all of whom I came to value highly. Kirt  has an incisive and unflagging mind, and a tremendous output. He is experienced, enormously informed, and rather brilliant. Kirt can sometimes ruffle feathers with an acerbic sensibility, but is really quite a sensitive and beautiful soul that has a wealth of life experience.
Shelly has now left the program, due to her financial situation, the difficulties in raising her daughters alone, and some conflicts she perceived with the faculty. I felt losing her this year was a great loss to the program. Her unassuming, even self defeating manner hid a brilliant mind that came out best on paper. Her humorous pieces were some of the most hilarious that I’ve seen in the program, and I would dare call her particularly gifted and ingenious in the realm of comedy, although you may not assume that upon first meeting her. Despite the loss it caused to our little writer’s community, Shelly seems happy to pursue her decision to become a theatre teacher for high school.
John is someone I have come to admire not only as a writer (his insightful work is at turns psychological, hilarious, and moving), but as a person. He is one of the most gentle, kind souls I have ever met, and is an example to me of listening and digesting before acting or speaking. Where I will at times shoot from the hip and can be passionately reactive when pressured, John is always a mellowing force which exudes patience and wisdom.
Having this little, but very supportive community of writers around me at ASU was something new and important to me. At UVU I was really the only theatre student who made playwriting his focus. There were others who dabbled in it, and took the classes, but sometimes I felt like a lone wolf in my field. Most everyone else seemed more interested in acting, directing, design, or technical theatre.
In Utah I did get to know a few of the neighboring playwrights from Brigham Young University, some of whom I became friends with, like Melissa Leilani Larson, as well as some of the older playwrights in Utah who had been writing plays for decades.
I was also involved with a group called the New Play Project, which was dedicated to producing new work in Utah. They produced two successful productions of my plays—Swallow the Sun and The Fading Flower—and I got to know many of their members quite well. Ironically, those who I felt closest to in the group weren’t usually the key writers, but rather those who occasionally wrote but were usually focused on being actors or directors. Yet I never felt like I was ever really allowed into the inner circle of their group. I even sensed that there was some rivalry, even antagonism, directed against me from a couple of the key members of the group, who may have seen me as some kind of threat. Therefore, despite their initial support and their excellent productions of my work, I never felt the same inclusive nature of a community of writers among New Play Project that I would feel at ASU.
I can’t iterate how worthwhile having that community of supportive writers has been and how much having that environment of supportive, yet honest, feedback has improved my work and refined my voice. There certainly have been times where we have had major disagreements regarding style or approach, or where our intimate knowledge of each other has caused minor flare ups. Yet, even though the group has changed each year with old members leaving and new members coming in, the supportive nature of the group has remained constant. We haven’t been rivals. We are friends. That made a huge difference for me and made me trust the feedback those within the group, even when we had occasional disagreements.           
Although it was what I call my “academic year,” those first couple semesters of the program also yielded rich creative dividends. Dramatic Writer’s Workshop, which I’ve taken for all but one semester, has always been a productive class for me, as we get to focus on our creative work rather than academic assignments. The first semester (and many thereafter) was taught by the main playwriting professor Guillermo Reyes, who has always been a thoughtful, gentle, yet incisive teacher. His meditated, careful, specific analysis always provoked me to look at my work in subtle ways that may not be obvious on the outset. He has been a very helpful and constructive professor that has consistently and gently progressed the program and been a particularly valuable resource to me personally.
That first semester in Dramatic Writer’s Workshop with Guillermo, I further developed a play that I had previously been working on a period, character drama called Evening Eucalyptus.  That play is one that I have returned to again this final semester. It’s gestated a long time, and changed in some significant ways, but it remains, as it has always been, one of my personal favorites of my plays. It’s a favorite, in part, because it reflects upon the time I spent in Australia for two years and much of my life since then, albeit in a metaphorical sense. By creating the play in that setting, it was placed in a very personal landscape that allowed me to explore a mystical and personal side of my writing. I plan on producing Evening Eucalyptus independently next Fall, with directing duties currently attached to Miranda Giles (a fellow Mormon in the Theatre for Youth program who also went on her mission to Australia). Note: That production did not end up happening, but the play was produced by my theatre group Zion Theatre Company in Utah in November 2014.
In addition to having Guillermo three times for Dramatic Writer’s Workshop, I also took his Border Plays class (about Latino plays that dealt with border issues) and his Comedy Writing class, both of which were particular favorites of mine. For an assignment in Border Plays, I wrote a short play about border issues titled “Recall,” which I hope to expand on soon. For Comedy Writing I went back to my playwriting roots, and wrote a number of comedic assignments, my favorite of which were scenes for a Victorian full length comedy called Gentlemen and Birds.
For my second semester we had Philip Taylor on board to teach Dramatic Writers Workshop. That was a particularly productive semester, as I brought in three different works to refine: Rings of the Tree (screenplay version), A Roof Overhead, and the pilot for a TV series I was writing called Myths.  Philip was a particularly groundbreaking mentor for me, as he expanded my ideas about what form my work could take and particularly opened me up to the idea of writing not only for film, which I had only dabbled in, but also for television, which has become one of my favorite forms to write in.
In addition to Dramatic Writing, I was Philip’s TA in Screenwriting, which was a particular delight. Having had such positive experiences developing my work in Dramatic Writing with Philip, and being under his expert leadership as one of his TA’s, I particularly sought out classes from Philip in my second year at ASU. I subsequently took his beginning and advanced TV writing courses, which were offered to both undergrads and grad students, as well as his advanced Screenwriting course. These were the most important and personally influential classes that I have taken at ASU, and that second year was perhaps one of the most creatively productive of my life.
In those classes I helped develop a TV Bible with other students; wrote about half of what became my screenplay for Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood (which I finished and further developed with Guillermo in Dramatic Writer’s Workshop). I also adapted Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood into a stageplay, which recently performed at the Covey Center for the Arts in Utah.  
I also wrote four episodes for a spec urban fantasy series called Myths, which was some of the most fun that I’ve had writing anything, and was very well received by Philip and the other students. I continue to be passionate about that project and hope to continue writing episodes, and to create a presentation of it that I can pitch to various television studios.   
Additionally, I have since then written two spec scripts to send out to networks, TV writing employment programs, etc. I wrote spec episodes for ABC’s Once Upon a Time and Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…I will soon be writing other spec scripts to send out as well.
As I said, I dabbled a little bit in screenwriting before this, but it was never a focus, and I wasn’t very knowledgeable about it yet. Most of my education and experience centered around playwriting. That was my comfort zone. It had never even occurred to me that I might have what it takes to work in television. Ironically, my wife Anne often had brought the possibility up, but I never seriously entertained the idea, as I felt very passionate about playwriting.   
But interacting with Philip, and hearing his stories about writing for some rather famous shows, ignited a desire in me. Taking his classes cemented that desire into a passion, and I developed a true love for the long form storytelling television allows and the ability to stretch these characters into a longer, more detailed life. Whether or not I actually ever break into film or television, Philip’s classes were a paradigm shift in my life and taught me to not limit myself nor my work. He taught me to open to bigger opportunities.
One thing these experiences with Philip also gave me was hope for a stable way to support my family on my writing, which was one of the reasons I took the risk to go to grad school. As much as I adore the medium and art of theatre, and I hope that will be a large part of my life until they put me in the grave, yet I will only realistically be able to make a living off theatre if I get an academic job. TV, on the other hand, is an entire industry that values and compensates its writers. And the medium seems to be hitting a golden age, where complex and engaging writing is becoming more and more the norm. It’s difficult to get a foot in the door in that industry, but if I can get into TV or film…well, then that gives me at least some hope, which was a rare commodity before my time at ASU. 
Also in my second year I wrote my musical Servers in Dramatic Writer’s workshop, which seemed to get people excited after they read it. The first half of the musical people seemed to find particularly buoyant and fun. My talented composer friend Nathaniel Drew and I have been trying to put together a completed musical for years now, and it seems that Servers may have a chance to get some traction and excitement around it. Musical theatre is something I find to be very fun and engaging, even emotionally moving, so I was glad to finally get down a script and lyrics that I was comfortable with. Now I just need to get Nate to find the time to write the music…
A significant event in my second year was the production of my play A Roof Overhead by ASU’s student theater, Binary Theatre Company. A Roof Overhead is part of the grouping of my “Mormon plays” which, for better or worse, have defined a large part of my identity and repertoire as a writer. Although the Arizona production went off with minimal controversy, it was ironically the production in Utah that became a lightning rod for both positive and negative attention.     
The play was meant to address the tensions between secular and religious cultures, and show that there is a better way than conflict and mutual prejudice. It is a play about an atheist who rents a basement apartment from a family of Mormons. Conflict ratchets up throughout the play, as both the religious and secular sides of the verbal fight get their hands dirty and show their own fair share of prejudice. It is not until an explosive tragedy occurs, and (SPOILER WARNING) one of the Mormon daughters dies as an indirect consequence of something that the atheist character Sam publishes, that both sides are sobered and realize that love, mutual tolerance, and forgiveness needs to occur.
However, even with this inclusive message, I was surprised to find that people looked right past that and still sought to find the controversy. One critic in Utah, who bristled at the use of so much Mormon theology on stage, called the play “Mormon apologetics.”[1] Another particularly aggressive review, this time from a Mormon critic, said the show was a “flagrant foul,” a “blood libel” against atheists, and that it was a “moral obligation” to oppose the play.[2] One audience member asked a cast member why the playwright “hates Mormons so much.” [3] Members of both sides of the conflict found occasion to be offended. Some Mormon audience members, as well as those defensive on behalf of the atheist character, assumed that the conflicts displayed between the characters were my actual feelings, and somehow missed the rather explicit reconciliation and call for mutual tolerance during the emotionally wrought ending of the show.
Fortunately, for the most part, cooler heads prevailed, and the majority of audiences understood the message. One more positive reviewer said, “Stewart’s characters are all strong, all opinionated, and all delightfully quirky in ways that help the audience suspend disbelief. An audience member could come out to the play over several performances and glean new insights to his various themes of diversity, family bonds and the dimensions of maternal influence.” [4]
The play even won the Association for Mormon Letters award for Best Drama for 2012. In the citation for the award, the  judge showed an adept understanding of the message of the play:
You couldn’t find a more diverse (and interesting) set of characters….A Roof Overheard is nothing if not fair.
Stewart’s skill at dialogue and characterization, mingled with just the right amount of humor, drama, and pathos, anchors us to the play–we become more than mere observers. We become members of the diverse set of characters and we, characters and audience alike, share this roof overheard. 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.”[5]
 To my consternation, A Roof Overhead would not be my only play during my time at ASU that would stretch the tolerance of its audience to a near breaking point. With my thesis play, The Emperor Wolf, the controversy around the religiosity that I included in my work would be an issue that kept haunting me. 
The genesis for The Emperor Wolf came about because a friend from my undergraduate days, Adam Slee, called me up asking me to write a play that he and his high school students could perform at Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival, to which they had been specifically invited. As a response to Adam’s request, it was one of two plays (the other being my adaptation of Sense and Sensibility) that I developed in a one on one workshop course with Jeff McMahon.
I had a lovely time developing the initial one hour version of The Emperor Wolf with Jeff (I also developed my adaptation of Sense and Sensibility in that class). The Emperor Wolf was a play that I wanted to write for my children, as my wife and I had been in the habit of reading to my oldest son Hyrum. My imaginative time with him reading The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and many other classics of children’s literature was something I wanted to pay tribute to with this play. It was a very personal play that I was writing for my children. It would be become my own Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. Jeff was an excellent mentor with this piece and Sense and Sensibility, being an encouraging, insightful, and supportive figure in championing and refining the play. He stood by Emperor Wolf, even when it became controversial in later circumstances.
When the problem came up in the season selection committee (of which I was a part) that there was still a slot for a Theatre for Youth play, and they felt as if they didn’t currently have any candidates they considered appropriate for the season, I asked if they would consider The Emperor Wolf.
Evening Eucalyptus had already been dismissed as a possibility, due mainly to the fact that it had an Aboriginal character which they felt like couldn’t be accurately represented by the ASU student body. Ironically, (and, yes, perhaps I am a little bitter and biased on this point) the play that eventually took that slot, Nation, had dozens of Polynesian characters that ASU couldn’t accurately be represented by ASU’s theatre students. But I thought that The Emperor Wolf may have a better chance, since they were in need of a Theatre for Youth play.  
Since the committee felt at a loss as to what to put in that slot, the majority of the committee gave me the encouragement to submit the play. So I wrote at a break neck speed and finished the first draft of the play within a couple of weeks.
But the day before we were to meet and vote on the play, the vote was canceled and an executive decision to reject The Emperor Wolf was made in favor for Nation.
I was also told from a number of sources that some of the “Mormon” content in the play was part of the deciding factor in rejecting it. That shocked me, as I had purposely tried to make the spiritual subject matter metaphorical rather than explicit. The spiritual themes in the show were of a very general, universal nature, purposely not attached to any one creed or culture (which is one of the reasons I used a variety of world mythologies to populate the world and characters of the play).    
The one Mormon character in the play, Shasta, was never directly referred to as a Mormon—you only knew he was if you read between the lines and had background about the covert cultural references. The word “Mormon” doesn’t appear once in the play. I purposely had the one religious book he carried around in his collection of otherwise non-controversial literature be the Doctrine and Covenants, because it would be a little less recognizable than the Book of Mormon as an LDS text. Even many of the cast and crew had to have me explain to them what the book actually was.
One of the other committee members, Brian Foley (the MFA directing student who would eventually direct the Phase 2 production of The Emperor Wolf), told me that he had confronted the person who had made the decision about the reasons he had rejected The Emperor Wolf. That person admitted that, although it may be that he had “some weird kind of prejudice,” yet it was the Mormon subtext of the play that made him reject it from the season (despite the other excuses he would throw my way). Brian argued with him, saying that I was a Mormon…of course my beliefs would bleed into my work! What was so wrong with that?
It was Brian’s passionate defense on my behalf that eventually caused the committee to ask Brian if he wanted to direct the Phase 2 workshop production they decided to put The Emperor Wolf into, instead of the main season slot it was originally considered for. Brian had been a supporter of the play from the beginning, finding intriguing directorial possibilities in the post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape I had created. So he accepted, which was a great boon to the play, as he is one of the most talented directors that I have had the chance to work with.
Brian and I had a very productive and warm working relationship as we workshopped The Emperor Wolf, but even he (who had so courageously defended me) had to resist the impulse to censor the spirituality out of the script. There were two moments in the play that he tried to urge me to cut. One was a moment where Shasta expresses his belief in a “soul” (a pretty general spiritual belief that is certainly not unique to Mormonism), and the other was the one scriptural reference that was read, a passage from the Doctrine and Covenants, which is quoted as a recognition of personal adversity, not as a proselyting text.
Brian said that it was “divisive” to keep those kind of passages in the play, especially as it was geared towards families and young audiences. It was a tense moment in an otherwise very smooth working relationship and friendship that Brian and I had developed. Eventually, we compromised. I took out Shasta’s reference to a soul, but I would not bend about the passage from the Doctrine and Covenants. We moved where it was located in the script, but the scripture stayed, as it was personally important to me to keep it in there.
Brian and I worked through our very few rough patches, and I felt that he came to respond and respect my worldview during the process, even when he didn’t share those beliefs, as I appreciate and love his passionate humanism. He was one of the best directors I have ever worked with. His skill with movement and spectacle, as well as his deep understanding of character and human nature, were invaluable to the production.  
We were also blessed with an uncommonly receptive, talented, and supportive cast that has been a joy to work, and with whom I feel a close friendship. Many people have commented on what a particularly amiable and talented group we had. The designers for the workshop production were also excellent, especially with the limitations of budget and time they had.  Fortunately, though, the department allowed us a little more leeway than usual with the restrictions that they normally put on Phase 2 workshop productions, which although it may have seemed to be a small victory for us, ended up being a boon for the play, as it looked beautiful.
The development process for The Emperor Wolf was very dynamic. The rehearsals were also bolstered by William Partlan’s Directing the New Play course, which gave us more time to work on the play, plus the  benefitof Bill’s guidance.
Bill had us do a number of really helpful things with the play. On the first day of class, he had me read the entirety of my play by myself, to better understand the author’s intent. This is a method apparently that they used during his time at the O’Neill Center when they developed new plays.  It played out almost as a kind of one man show, or storytelling scenario, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Brian also said that it helped him understand where I was coming from.
Keeping with this focus on author’s intent (which, I won’t lie, was quite refreshing, especially contrasted with some of the anti-playwright attitudes I have encountered among some at ASU), Brian asked me to write a document that explained some of the imagery, literary references, characters, and metaphor in the play.  Bill really had set a tone of respecting the playwright, perhaps knowing some of the resistance traditional playwriting had historically received at ASU. For the most part, Brian followed Bill’s suit on this point, which led to the mutual respect he and I have for each other.
And, in return Brian brought so much to the text which I just adored. His focus on movement and imagery complimented my focus on language, and I thought it made quite the beautiful fusion in the production.
The text itself went through some major transformations. As I mentioned earlier, it was meant to be a one hour TFY piece that could easily tour. Period. I had purposely tried to make it slim and elegant. Especially since I have a reputation for being a long winded playwright, I wanted to constrain myself with this one. The version I sent to Adam initially was probably even less than an hour, maybe around 45 minutes.
However, even though Adam wanted a short version, he did ask for some additions when I went up to visit him and his students in Utah during their rehearsal process. They particularly wanted to see more development with Shasta and Madeline’s relationship (which would become a recurring theme through the development of the play). I expanded that element of the play for them with an additional scene between Shasta and Madeline, which they were very pleased with. Thus they traveled to the Edinburgh festival with a version that ran around an hour.
But as Brian and I began to further develop the play before the rehearsal process, he, too, asked for more material that extended the running time of the play. Before long, it not only effected the running time, but the production requirements, as fairies and other complicating elements were added. Before long, a script that was once less than 60 pages, is now over 100 pages, not at my insistence, but by those who were helping me develop it.
Of course, for me, I was totally fine with this! As I’ve mentioned, I enjoy long form storytelling, and usually relish the freedom to run “overtime,” if I feel a story requires it (thus even this essay has run longer than the requisite 20 pages). So I just found it highly ironic that in trying to respond to people’s criticism about the length of my work, I tried to keep this particular play short and sweet—only to have people turn around and tell me that they wanted more material! I actually felt cheerfully vindicated with their requests and was happy to oblige.
I have been asked to delve into the themes and meaning of Emperor Wolf. There is obviously some coming of age/Hero’s Journey elements to the text. I purposely use various, different world mythologies and religions to inform the world of the play. There are allusions to early (and abandoned) pre-Josiah, Jewish polytheism and goddess worship with the inclusion of the Wandering Woman (my name for her…she is historically called by a number of names, including Ashera and Wisdom). This Hebrew goddess is referred to in the apocryphal text, The Book of Enoch 42:1-3:
Wisdom found no place where she might dwell;
Then a dwelling-place was assigned her in the heavens.
Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men,
And found no dwelling-place:
Wisdom returned to her place,
And took her seat among the angels.
And unrighteousness went forth from her chambers:
Whom she sought not she found,
And dwelt with them,
As rain in a desert
And dew on a thirsty land.
            Meanwhile, in the play the Emperor Wolf is identified as Fenris, a figure from Norse mythology who figures in their apocalyptic tale of Ragnarök, about the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. We also have the Egyptian Sphinx, the Greek griffin, European fairies, Shasta’s Mormonism, etc. The purpose behind the mixtures of all these religions and mythologies is to create an inclusive world of various spiritualities that bleed together to create the “true myth” that I have mentioned in the first part of the essay.
            In the play’s prologue, the Wandering Woman mentions what the cause of the fall of human society was:
It would have been simpler if there had been someone to blame in the beginning, as easy as it was to have someone to blame in the end. But the fault was widespread, like an infection, like a pandemic. There were really two wars happening at that time. There was the war between countries... but there was also the war between peoples. My children started again caring more about their differences than their similarities. There were no more presidents, or queens, or parliaments, or that sort of person anymore. They were all just broken up into smaller and smaller governments, until there were just governments of ten or five or two or one. Until the Dread Awakening, that is. A new ruling class, a whole new society of creatures arose. The things my children had only heard about in myths and fairy tales, but who I knew only too intimately. Sphinxes. Griffins. Elves and fairies and spirits and goddesses that had long been forgotten, or rejected, or relegated to books, were now warring with each other for possession of this newly created world.[6]
            Disintegration—the division of governments, of families, of worldviews—people caring more about their differences than their similarities, is at the core of the conflict. The problem is not individual identity or belief—all sides should be welcome to that—but the intolerance of individual identity and belief. That is what the Emperor Wolf himself symbolizes. He is the force that capitalizes on that hatred, pettiness, and intolerance, dividing humanity so that he can then devour them so that he can be the last one standing.
That is why I made the two protagonists—Madeline and Shasta—of such different philosophical and spiritual worldviews. They have to come and accept their differences—and in many cases celebrate their differences—before they can be unified enough to take on the Emperor Wolf.
            In a new scene from the most recent draft, I explore the theme more explicitly and have Shasta and Madeline come to grips with their differences:
SHASTA. (Looking at the stars) Why do you think they are there?
MADELINE. The stars?
SHASTA. Yeah.
All three of them, including the Griffin who curiously mimics them, look up at the stars.
MADELINE. Well, my mother says they are balls of fire in space.
SHASTA. (beat) I had a friend who had a book that said there were billions of stars out there that had no planets with life on them. They weren’t giving light to anyone. He said that those stars were pointless, which proved that we were pointless.  
MADELINE. I thought everyone you traveled with was part of your... tribe? Caravan? What were you exactly?
SHASTA. (dodging the question) My friend—Peter—we picked him up along the way. We sort of adopted him... like you and your Mom adopted me.
MADELINE. Even though he didn’t believe what you believed?
SHASTA. What does that matter in the end? I mean, really, don’t we all believe different things, even those who say they belong to the same groups? Even the same families...  
MADELINE. And that’s okay? For you?
SHASTA. (beat) Is it okay for you?
MADELINE. (pointing up in the sky) Look at that one! A falling star!
Shasta grabs her pointing hand, moving it with the star. They don’t let go at first, but the Griffin separates their hands with its beak.  
SHASTA. See how it doesn’t go away? It’s not a shooting star.
MADELINE. What is it?
SHASTA. A satellite.
MADELINE. What’s a satellite?
SHASTA. Some people on earth made it and shot it into the sky to send them information.
MADELINE. But no one can hear that message anymore?
SHASTA. Yeah. I suppose. It’s just floating out there sending messages nobody is listening to.
Pause.
MADELINE. Something’s bothering you. 
SHASTA. (beat) Peter... not everyone in my group treated him well. Because he didn’t believe what we believed. But some of the things he said made sense. 
MADELINE. I... you know, sometimes the the things you've told me... they make sense, too. (beat) Not that I'm saying you're right! 
 SHASTA. My father would say that the satellites weren’t as important because they were made by humans.  
MADELINE. From here they look the same to me as the stars.              
SHASTA. That’s sort of what I said. I said God made us, we made the satellite. If it’s beautiful, then it’s beautiful, it doesn’t really matter where it came from.[7]
            Although Shasta and Madeline do end up having shared experiences that unite at least some of their beliefs by the end of the play, they needed to come to a common ground of tolerance—even love—before they could handle the mutual challenges that they needed to face together.
            The play also deals with themes about gender, about the cycle of death and re-birth, about literacy, among other themes, but I feel as if there is not enough space to elaborate completely within this essay. The themes of an inclusive spirituality and the idea that tolerance/love are the building blocks of a healthy society are, for me at least, the heart of the play.
The question about protagonist has been raised about this story at times. Was this Shasta or Madeline’s story? The play starts out with Shasta, only to switch focus midway through the story and have Madeline be the power player in the end. Whether effective or not, this was a purposeful move, as the male is often seen as the key player in many stories. So I wanted the audience to assume that expectation, only to show that it was the female in this story who would have the surprising strength to carry the day. However, through the talk backs, etc. after the production, the issue came up enough where I felt like I should look into revising it.
One of the most interesting and unique parts of this experience is that we are still working on developing the show in class, even after the performances have been over for over a month. The opportunity to actually take the feedback from after the performances, incorporate it, and test it out with the same director and actors has been really fascinating and helpful.
So far we have created two new scenes that weren’t in the workshop production. I have written another scene between Shasta and Madeline that develops their relationship even further, since that was a common note we received in the talk backs. We also did a number of improvisations with the actors based on situations I gave them, which we then further used to craft a new scene for the beginning of the play that better establishes both Madeline and Shasta as the co-protagonists of the story. As they were developed and shaped in space with the help of the company, I am quite pleased with both of these new developments in the story that were created post-performance.
As we have developed the work, I feel that Emperor Wolf does reflect my spiritual aesthetic and stated purpose as a writer very well. It ties into my love of mythology and storytelling; seeks for tolerance and love, even between those who have firmly different worldviews; ties into the explorations of gender common to my work; and recognizes the spirituality that is inherent in my worldview.
However, I have been asked if it weren’t for the unfortunate judgment that is at times against Mormonism, and the stigma it often carries, whether I would make this play more overtly Mormon, instead of purposely placing Shasta’s specific faith tradition in covert references.  
This is a difficult question for me to tackle, because I really do love it when I can be “out” as a Mormon playwright, and openly celebrate my spirituality without negative stigmas being attached to my work. However, as I delve deeper into my beliefs, the parts that I love the most about Mormonism (or at least my own interpretation of it) is the aspect of it that accepts new light, new revelation, new knowledge, and isn’t afraid of other different groups, but rather embraces that difference with love.  I like the second LDS president Brigham Young’s definition of Mormonism:
“Mormonism,” so-called, embraces every principle pertaining to life and salvation, for time and eternity. No matter who has it. If the infidel has got truth it belongs to “Mormonism.” The truth and sound doctrine possessed by the sectarian world, and they have a great deal, all belong to this Church. As for their morality, many of them are, morally, just as good as we are. All that is good, lovely, and praiseworthy belongs to this Church and Kingdom. “Mormonism” includes all truth. There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel. It is life, eternal life; it is bliss; it is the fullness of all things in the gods and in the eternities of the gods.[8]
Young seems to have inherited this attitude from the Mormon prophet and Church founder Joseph Smith, who said “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” He also said, “We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.” [9] Thus I like to tap into this more inclusive version of Mormonism, and look for commonality with others before I look for differences. I like to find truth in all systems of religions, mythologies, worldviews, sciences, arts, and cultures, “let it come from whence it may.”   
I strive to let that attitude about the universality of truth to seep into my work as well. Yes, I want to bring my cultural background and personal spirituality into my work, and show that’s it can be a very beautiful experience to be Mormon, and can be useful to even those who don’t literally believe it. Yet, at the same time, I am striving to be universal in the specific, to be able to have people from various backgrounds and worldviews connect to my characters, whether they happen to be Mormon or not.     
Yet there is a personal sting when I try to be open and inclusive with my views and attitudes, only to have suspicion and intolerance crop up their heads when I do choose to include Mormon elements. It’s been revealed a number of times that my choices to explore Mormonism in my work did work negatively against me, not only with what I’ve related about my experiences at ASU, but also with other outside opportunities that were denied me because of my faith. I strive not to have a persecution complex about these instances—for there certainly are many other factors that play into such scenarios. And I certainly know that I am not alone in facing prejudice—various groups have been experiencing it since the dawn of history, and certainly in my more tragic and painful ways than I have. Yet there have been times, unfortunately, where the evidence of pre-disposed distrust and prejudice against my more spiritual work was undeniable to me, even when I had purposely cloaked my work with metaphor and universality. 
Although Emperor Wolf was not the play I initially wanted for my applied project—I really did prefer Evening Eucalyptus for that opportunity—yet I feel as if Emperor Wolf was an unqualified success, at least on a personal level. After the controversy and seeming prejudice that surrounded the selection process for the mainstage, I do feel as if the department made a concentrated effort to make up for that and make this a positive and rewarding experience for me. It certainly was, and Emperor Wolf benefited because of it. Despite the initial perimeters I was trying to give myself for that play, I am very glad that my collaborators pushed me to expand it into the richer world and more complex characters that the play really wanted to exist within. Writing towards the needs of the story and its characters became a much more fruitful approach than trying to write towards a limited page count.
There are still a couple more notes from the feedback I received in Professor Partlan’s Directing the New Play class that I would like to incorporate, but beyond that I feel that Emperor Wolf has received an excellent development process. After this last round of revisions, I am very content to let it live in the state it’s in, semi-permanently. I have accomplished with the play what I set out to do.
My last year at ASU has proven to much more stressful than the ones that preceded it, as a series of personal crises and the interference of other elements in my life have targeted me. I have felt like a juggler trying to keep the balls in the air, but when I accidentally drop one of them, it causes the fall of all the rest. However, I also have made a lot of breakthroughs this semester and, of course, Emperor Wolf was a bright ribbon in the tapestry of this year (despite also being the cause of much of the busy-ness).
I had a particularly positive experience teaching my Introduction to Playwriting course last semester, as teaching rather than academics seemed to be the focus of my first semester in my third year. I had a particularly bright and talented group of young writers who I felt particularly close to and who had indicated they had benefited a good deal from the course. Teaching the class was easily a highlight of my year.       
In Dramatic Writer’s Workshop the first semester of this school year, it was particularly exciting as we had a number of grad students from both the Acting program, as well as the Theatre for Youth program, take the class and try their hand at playwriting. It was a dynamic group and the plays and screenplays that were produced out of that class were quite exciting.
In the second semester of this school year’s Dramatic Writing Workshop, we have been working with Pam. I had met Pam a number of times before this class, but I have been very grateful to get to know her better this semester and understand what she has to offer. She’s been an insightful and deeply supportive instructor who I feel close to. I’ve returned to two plays this semester in that class, Evening Eucalyptus, as I want to develop it for a possible production this Fall; as well as Manifest, which I’ve been developing on and off since 2009, though I have still have not gotten the play onto its feet for a production, despite the fact that is one of the plays of mine that I most love.
All of the MFA playwrights (plus TFY grad student Miranda Giles, who we have adopted into our playwriting circle) are also taking Gitta Honneger’s Literary Management class. This has been a dynamic class which we have all vocally expressed our love for. Gitta has allowed us all great freedom in developing some sort of adaptation, research piece, or devised theatre/installation concept. She has encouraged us not to worry about a finished “product” but to use the time to make sure we are exploring the process to its full extent. It has manifested in very creative and dynamic results that have worried less about structure, deadlines, and form, but rather has focused on what will be most helpful to us in creating the piece.
I chose the adaptation route and have been creating a new version of the Cyrano de Bergerac story called Cyrano, From Nowhere. Due to Gitta’s encouragement to look beyond the traditional, and giving us the “freedom to fail,” I've taken a radical departure from the original story, and have shed it of any particular place and time, but rather put it in a whimsical world where Cyrano has a mystical playwright’s control over the reality and environment of the world of the play—which has allowed for everything from a transforming set, to space aliens, to magically changing costumes. It’s been a liberating (not to mention fun!) project that I’m incredibly excited about.
Gitta has also been of great help to me on a personal level. During a time of crisis after crisis in my life, she has been a listening ear, an encouraging friend, and a soulful mentor. She has gone far beyond the call of duty as a teacher and has become something more…she has become a healer.
I have been reflecting a lot lately about my time in the program—there have been moments of great tension, where I felt prejudice for my Mormonism, or felt that the playwrights were being purposely excluded from many opportunities in the larger theatre graduate program. However, even those concerns have been falling away lately. I have found myself in numerous dialogues with people discussing the place that spirituality does or doesn’t have in theatre, which have led to breakthroughs of understandings for everyone involved. It has created greater acceptance and understanding about these issues, and I am very happy to have participated in those discussions. And the playwrights in the program have made a great breakthrough for next year’s season, as the committees have listened to our requests and suggestions, having dropped the "Phase" program (which created a kind of "second class" citizenry of production), created a black box mainstage season, and accepted Kirt and John’s plays into that season. I felt these were great breakthroughs for the playwriting program, and gave great hope for the future of playwriting at ASU.
But even during the tensest moments that I have experienced the past year or so, all of that paled in comparison to the great good that ASU’s program has done me for my development as a Dramatic Writer. I felt as if I have not only transformed as an artist, but also as a person, becoming a broader and more understanding human being.  A lot of that positive change required pressure, heat, and even personal pain, but I have come out of that crucible more refined. I am unsure at this point what the future holds—but I feel better equipped to face it because of what I have gained in the Dramatic Writing program at ASU.



[1] Russel Warne, “A Roof Overhead Needs Remodeling,” Utah Theatre Bloggers, April 23, 2012, http://utahtheatrebloggers.com/10840/a_roof_overhead_needs_room_improvement (accessed March 23, 2014).
[2] James Goldberg, “In Defense of Grumpiness: A Review of ‘Brothers,’ ‘Quietly,’ and A Roof Overhead,” Dawning of a Brighter Day, August 9, 2012. Accessed March 23, 2014. http://blog.mormonletters.org?p=4912 .
[3] Mahonri Stewart, editor, Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama (Provo: Zarahemla Books, 2013), 458, footnote 37.
[4] Maragaret Blair Young, “Mahonri Stewart’s A Roof Overhead (review),” Dawning of a Brighter Day, April 26, 2012. Accessed March 23, 2014. http://blog.mormonletters.org/?p=4392
[5] Margaret Blair Young, “Report on AML Conference 2013 and List of Awards,” Dawning of a Brighter Day, March 31, 2013. Accessed March 23, 2014. http://blog.mormonletters.org/?p=6111
[6] Emperor Wolf, p. 2
[7] Emperor Wolf, p. 73-75.
[8] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 14–20. https://www.lds.org/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-2?lang=eng Accessed April 21, 2014.
[9] Jared Mooney, “Or We Shall Not Come Out True Mormons,” Rational Faiths. http://rationalfaiths.com/or-we-shall-not-come-out-true-mormons/ Accessed April 21, 2014.

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