Exploring Polygamy through the Living Room Drama

Sometimes the best thing to write about is the thing that scares you the most.

Tonight, at 8:00 p.m. MST, I have a new play opening in downtown Salt Lake. It’s a living room drama set in the very near future—2019, to be exact—and it places a faithful LDS couple in a precarious position. Abigail and Jacob Husten, just minutes before the play opens, are called to participate in a Church pilot program restoring polygamy to Church practice. Eventually they accept the calling, and they invite a dear friend of Abigail’s—her favorite grad school student, Heather—to join them in it. Suddenly we have a play, a complex series of human interactions that, I hope, raise questions and conversation among those who come to see it.

Polygamy, as a topic and a practice, has always frightened me somewhat. Which is why I’ve known for some time that I needed to write about it, and also why I’ve kept putting it off. Of course, I can’t help but think about it in dramatic terms: character and plot and obstacle. There’s so much to mine. I can’t imagine those relationships being easy to maintain. Historically, some unions went incredibly well while others simply did not. Such is the way with relationships in general, whether plural or singular.

The living room drama has become a standard of sorts in the American theatre. The U.S. has a rich tradition of bringing drama to the home-front, putting personal crises front and center on stage, at the same time that they are closed off and intimate so that the neighbors can’t hear. All the greats—Miller, O’Neill, Hellman, Williams—demonstrated their finest moments in the front rooms of middle class America. There is something intrinsically voyeuristic about living room plays, and that’s why we love them. We want to be on the inside, in the know. We enjoy being flies on the wall as relationships begin or unravel, as children grow and leave home, as lives begin and end. It’s part of what makes Death of a Salesman so engrossing, and why we’re drawn to the next generation of living room dramas: Clybourne Park and Clean House. Can the setting of a play really make that much of a impact on the drama itself? Yes. We’re reminded of our own homes, our own experiences. We put ourselves in the places of the characters and wonder how a scene might play out at home, or how we might deal with similar circumstances. We share in joys and failures on stage because we’ve experienced such things in our own homes.

I didn’t realize until recently that Pilot Program is, for all intents and purposes, a living room play. Sometimes a drama, sometimes a comedy, all of its action is contained beneath the vaulted ceilings of a five-bedroom craftsman house in suburban Salt Lake City.

While I usually gravitate to historical settings and stories, I needed to explore polygamy in a contemporary setting. With the recent changes to Utah law touching on both gay and plural marriage, I was struck by the plausibility, if not likelihood, that a contemporary setting lends to this story. Plausibility and relatability. It has, at least for me, made the thorny topic much more accessible. I have spent much of the last two years thinking about polygamy in terms of its fundamentals and logistics. I’ve attempted to break down the experience to its simplest elements: Awkward dates. Days on a calendar. A leaking kitchen faucet. It makes sense, at least to me, for this story to unfurl in a living room.

If you’re anywhere near Salt Lake, tickets are still available for Plan-B Theatre Company’s production of Pilot Program on April 16, 18, and 19. Visit planbtheatre.org for more information.

Behold, Ye Are Fallen: The Case for Mormon Tragedy

Moroni Mourns the Death of his Father, Mormon by Walter Rane

Near the end of the Book of Mormon, the narrator, historian, and namesake of one of Mormonism’s most sacred texts, has just witnessed the downfall and near obliteration of his people. As he contemplates the carnage and the waste of potential in the multi-thousands of bodies he sees strewn across the landscape, he laments in a soliloquy worthy of a Shakespearean tragic hero:

O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! O ye fair ones, how could ye have rejected that Jesus, who stood with open arms to receive you! Behold, if ye had not done this, ye would not have fallen. But behold, ye are fallen, and I mourn your loss. O ye fair sons and daughters, ye fathers and mothers, ye husbands and wives, ye fair ones, how is it that ye could have fallen! But behold, ye are gone, and my sorrows cannot bring your return… O that ye had repented before this great destruction had come upon you. But behold, ye are gone, and the Father, yea, the Eternal Father of heaven, knoweth your state; and he doeth with you according to his justice and mercy.[1]

For me, Mormon’s cry of anguish, “O ye fair ones…” is one of the Book of Mormon’s most memorable and haunting passages. Even as a boy, the tragic story of Mormon and the downfall of his people resonated with me on a visceral level. My parents had purchased the Living Scriptures videos produced in the 80s and 90s and the episode “Mormon and Moroni” was, by far, the one I watched the most. When I finally read through the Book of Mormon the whole way through for the first time as a freshman in high school (after lots of start and stop attempts previous to that), again, it was Mormon and Moroni who stood out to me, second in personal impact perhaps only to the first time I read through Christ’s visit to the Americas in 3rd Nephi.

My friend Natalie would often gently tease me in high school about how “sober” I was, which made me think of Ammaron’s comments about Mormon:  “I perceive that thou art a sober child, and art quick to observe.”[2] This gave me another connection to this plaintive and sensitive Mormon and his son Moroni. I felt kinship with tragedians like these.

And yet with one of our core books of scripture being a tragic work about the destruction of an entire civilization of people, we are certainly not known to be a “sober” people. Rather, we are caricatured as sunny, naive optimists with plastic smiles. A far cry from “sober…quick to observe.”  In Mark Oppenheimer’s recent article about Mormon literature in the New York Times[3], the insinuation is made that Mormons have a difficult time creating “literary” work because of this cultural characteristic. As Mormons, should we have more sensitivity and tolerance towards the tragic instead of keeping up the façade of indomitable cheerfulness?  Is there a case for Mormon tragedy? Continue Reading →

Digital Drama: The Way to Keep Mormon Theatre Relevant?

I believe that keeping the flame of Mormon drama alive is important. Especially at our still early stage of development as a religion and a culture, we already have a rich heritage of dramatic literature filled with a wide range of excellent plays.

As an effort to preserve and publicize that heritage, Zarahemla Books published Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, which includes theatrical works by some of Mormonism’s best dramatists. Michael Perry has recently been collecting a lot of Mormon plays under the umbrella of his Zion Theatricals, which licenses performance rights for Mormon themed drama to theatre companies and community groups. Angie Staheli has been encouraging production of LDS drama on the stake level at her blog LDS Plays. In the realm of higher education, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University continue to produce works by Mormon student playwrights, while independent theatre companies such as the Echo Theatre, Leilani Productions, and my own Zion Theatre Company continue to include Mormon drama in their seasons. There are many individuals and organizations who are striving to continue to vibrant tradition of creating theatre that is informed by the spirituality and beauty of our faith tradition, even when it isn’t explicit in its religiousness.

Yet despite these exciting developments, it sometimes feels like we lose as much ground as we gain, and that we are more often than not treading water. So I’ve been trying to analyze and figure out ways of making Mormon drama not only relevant, but also exciting and profitable, so that it can continue onward. As I’ve mentioned before,  I believe the relatively new trend of digital theatre seems to be an effective and exciting route for Mormon Drama to take.
Continue Reading →

Mormon Theatre: Nauvoo, Salt Lake, and Ward Houses Everywhere, by Callie Oppedisano

[Editor’s note: We are honored to welcome theatre scholar Callie Oppedisano, who is beginning a series of posts on Mormon theatre. For more about Callie, see her bio below, and her reviews at the Utah Theater Bloggers Association, such as this recent blog about the Manti Mormon Miracle Pageant.]

Allow me to introduce myself: I was born and raised in Utah and spent my formative years in St. George back when it was small and its population even less diverse than it is today.  I was one of a few Catholics in a sea of Mormons, and when I graduated from high school, I declared that I was leaving Utah and never coming back.  Off I went to a Catholic university near Buffalo, New York, where I double-majored in theatre and English.  This was followed by a year in Ireland where I pursued my love of Samuel Beckett while earning an M.Phil in Irish Theatre and Film.  Next came marriage and a short stint working in a cubicle before I left for Tufts University in Boston to obtain my PhD in Drama.  It was there that I realized how saturated my field really was and how difficult it would be to carve out a niche.  Here I was investing an incredible amount of time and treasure on a PhD program, and it really seemed that the last thing the world needed was another Beckett scholar. Continue Reading →

Justifying the Cut: The Plays of Saints on Stage

SaintsOnStage-Cover.inddWith the publication of Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mormon drama and how it currently stands as it own niche genre. The whole reason I pitched the idea of the anthology to Chris Bigelow at Zarahemla Books was because of the.impact that Mormon drama and its playwrights had made upon me when I was younger. I wanted to honor that powerful influence of a genre I loved and the Mormon playwrights who I owe so much to.

In high school, I attended a number of Mormon themed plays at BYU which inspired me…Eric Samuelsen’s The Seating of Senator Smoot and Gadianton; Elizabeth Hansen’s A String of Pearls; James Arrington’s Farley Family Christmas. My own youthful writing before that had largely been non-religious or, if religious, of a general Christian variety (my interest in C.S. Lewis in high school jump started this kind of writing). But it was Mormon drama that really made me investigate my own specific faith, artistically. Seeing my faith on stage, in the spotlight, drew me even deeper into a desire to more deeply investigate my closely held spiritual beliefs.  

So this month I want to go into why the plays I chose made it into the anthology—what I think they contribute to Mormon drama and what impact they had on me personally: Continue Reading →

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

Saints on Stage Cover copy

This is not the final cover. For one thing, Lavina Fielding Anderson was too modest to want to get the kind of official credit she deserved in helping refine and edit the text.

Christopher Bigelow (publisher), Ben Crowder (layout), and I (chief editor) have been pounding out the last minor details of the upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama being put out by Zarahemla Books. Considering that I pitched this idea to Chris several YEARS ago, I’m very excited that it is finally coming to fruition after numerous obstacles, delays, and hold ups.

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

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

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

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

As a culture, Mormons have a long history with theatre, ranging back to when Brigham Young stepped on a staged with other Mormons in Nauvoo and acted in the play Pizarro. Young would later famously say,

[There are Christians] who are against all amusements because of the evils attendant at public places. Now it is for the saints to neither follow the traditions of the one, nor fall into the errors of the other. . . . Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it. . . . [T]he Lord understands the good and the evil. Why should not we likewise understand them? We should. Why? To know how to choose the good and refuse the evil; which we cannot do unless we understand the evil as well as the good.[1]

I’ve found a great deal of justification in my career and educational choices from statements like this from Young and other Mormon leaders.

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

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

Needful Opposition: Addressing Conflict and Controversy in Mormon History Plays

Stephanie Foster Breinholt and Marvin Payne in BYU’s 2001 production of  Tim Slover’s_Hancock County_.

How to present Mormon History has often been a sensitive thing within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Especially with the understandable impulse to protect the faith and culture of an entire people, it can be tempting to soft pedal it, to not get into the nitty gritty of historical details, or to side step explosive issues when presenting history in a dramatic work. Although there are plenty of white washed Mormon history plays out there, there has also been a tradition of strong, engaging  playwrights involved in Mormon Drama who haven’t been afraid to tackle head on the inherent conflicts, human flaws and controversies that are unavoidable when writing plays based on history.

Mormon History, whether dramatized or not, has been a hot button issue within the Church in the past. Even when written by active, faithful Latter-day Saints who are writing from a place of faith, there have been times in recent Mormon record when there was discouragement from people high in the Church about writing honest history that addressed controversy or contradiction in the history of the Church. There have even been instances where historians have faced Church discipline because of their writing. Fortunately, that day seems to have changed and attitudes within Church leadership have become increasingly progressive regarding its history. Continue Reading →

Old Problems, New Opportunities: Looking Towards the Future of Mormon Drama

We recently completed the last leg work for the editing of Saints on Stage: An Anthology for Mormon Drama, which I’ve been spearheading for Zarahemla Books. It includes important plays from some of Mormonism’s best playwrights… Robert Elliott, Thomas Rogers, James Arrington, Susan Elizabeth Howe,  Thom Duncan, Eric Samuelsen, Tim Slover, Scott Bronson, Melissa Leilani Larson, Margaret Blair Young… and I couln’t be more pleased with how this anthology will give these plays wider exposure. The problem with Drama, though. is that it thrives on local performance, which limits its possible audience. Until a play is published, you usually can’t access a play unless its performing in your area. So this anthology is going to be a great boon for many of these Mormon playwrights, and the readers who will discover them, and show how much great work has happened in Mormon drama through the decades.

Matthew Greene's #MormonInChief

But as I’ve reviewed these works, I’ve given a lot of thought to the future of Mormon drama. This anthology is a great step in the right direction… but what else can be done to expand Mormon Drama’s borders? Mormon Drama is still chiefly a local affair, mainly centered in Utah, and even there it struggles. There are occasional productions outside the border of Utah… Matthew Greene’s recent #Mormon Chief which played at the New York International Fringe Festival is a notable one, and my play A Rood Overhead recently played in Arizona… but those sort of wider productions are few and far between.

Does Mormon Drama have a future? Does it have to change to adapt itself to an increasingly digital world? What can it do to become more robust? Continue Reading →

The Mormon Ibsen: A Tribute to Eric Samuelsen

When I discovered that Eric Samuelsen was retiring from BYU as the playwriting professor, I have to admit a little bit of my heart broke. In many ways it may the best decision. From what I understand, Eric’s battle with polymyositis, a degenerative auto-immune disease, has been tough and painful and has limited his freedom to do what he would like to do. So retiring from BYU may have been inevitable. Yet the good he has done there, the good he has done Mormon Letters, the lives he has impacted along the way–I had hoped that he would still be forging the way for Mormon Drama at BYU for many years to come. He is not only one of Mormon Drama’s best representatives and talented pens, but also a man fierce intelligence, warm hearted kindness, and integrity. It is a great loss for BYU not to have him on their active staff anymore. Continue Reading →

Looking back, looking around, looking forward

The BYU Writers/Dramaturgs/Actors workshop, or WDA, provides an intensive workshop experience for new plays and for new writers. I’ve taught it for years–this year, my friends and colleagues Melissa Larsen and George Nelson are running it. Typically, six plays are workshopped, three for the first half of the semester and three for the second half, culminating in two sets of staged readings. I attended two of the three first half staged readings recently, and was struck by the subject matters of the plays being workshopped.
The first play I attended is by a professional playwright and producer, Erik Orton. His new play is called State of the Union, about Thomas Kane and Brigham Young and Johnston’s army. The second play is by a student, Ariel Mitchell; it’s called A Second Birth, and is set in modern-day Afghanistan. It’s about a strange Afghan custom known as ‘bacha posh,’ in which families with only daughters raise one of them as a boy. It’s a real thing: check out http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/world/asia/21gender.html?pagewanted=all

Continue Reading →