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



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.