This past Friday and Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend the 2014 Association for Mormon Letters conference at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. It was my first time attending the conference. The wonderful experience I had made me regret not attending before now. (Next year, it’s scheduled to be held in Hawaii! Wonder if I can swing that one?)
I will go into more detail about certain aspects of the conference below and in the next post, but I want to mention quickly the presentations that I attended and was most interested in.
Friday evening, we were treated to a panel discussion about New Mormon Theater. Afterward, a group of actors presented a Reader’s Theater: “A Second Birth” by Ariel Mitchell. It was a powerful play about contemporary Afghan society and the practice of poorer families holding out one of their daughters publicly as male so that s/he may get income from a part-time job to help support the family. It wasn’t an overtly Mormon play, but some of the family dynamics (gender roles, inter-generational strife, interpretations of the predominant religion, and acceptance or rejection thereof) certainly could apply to how Mormonism often plays out in daily life.
The next day, I attended panel discussions about teaching Mormon literature and promoting new Mormon fiction, as well as presentations about new Mormon fiction and gay Mormon fiction, respectively. It was all very enlightening and instructive. I soon realized that there is much of Mormon drama and literature that I haven’t read or seen yet, and have to catch up on, but so much happening. It was also an honor to be in the same room with so many of the Mormon writers and playwrights that I had known of and admired from afar. I felt very much at home in a group who knew of and validated many of the “faith-crisis” issues some members in the Church struggle with, and yet have found reasons to stay in.
One of the overall themes of the conference was set up during the panel discussion about New Mormon Theater Friday evening. It’s evident that Mormon theater and Mormon literature both share the same challenges: How do you cultivate an audience, whether Mormon or not, that can appreciate serious Mormon drama and fiction? And, assuming some of that audience already exists somewhere, how do you reach them?
Eric Samuelsen, one of the preeminent Mormon playwrights of the moment, spoke about how not much has changed in Mormon theater since the 1980s. He said that the same opportunities await Mormon playwrights as awaited them thirty years ago. The reason for the situation stagnating like it has is that during the same period a cultural war has been waged within Mormonism over the proper image to be presented to the world. Accordingly, plays (or other works) that make you think, challenge your assumptions, and perhaps make you uncomfortable are avoided by the more “pious” Mormons. Samuelson says that we must somehow cultivate an audience and make them trust us that what we’re presenting is a thoughtful, and in the end, faithful, view of Mormonism.
J. Scott Bronson, an actor and a playwright as well, whose play Stones I must read soon, spoke next of the Church’s proscription against presenting God or Jesus as saying anything other than what’s in the scriptures in film or literature, or on the stage. If you do this, then most Mormons will avoid your play or, if they see it, will not like it. Bronson has had some success with Mormon audiences outside Utah, but along the Mormon corridor, Church members generally take exception to a Jesus who speaks to you. Bronson said that he’s gotten away with it in some circles by explaining that the Divine speaks to you in your language. I totally agree. If you want to engage with the divine speaking the language of the scriptures, then read the scriptures. If you’re portraying someone who has a spiritual experience that includes words in the mouth of divine beings, then those words must be applicable to the scene and the petitioner’s situation. I can’t wait to read his play.
In support of his position on this, I told him afterward that the “Cowboy Jesus” in Levi S. Peterson’s The Backslider changed my life and my view of what Mormon literature can be. The main character, Frank Windham, has a vision of the Cowboy Jesus while relieving himself in a urinal. This Jesus is a cowboy and he smokes, rolls his own cigarettes, in fact. Describing the scene like this, I’m not doing it justice, but the full effect of the scene comes from Frank’s previously feeling that there is no hope for him, no salvation, and then his seeing a Cowboy Jesus who reaches out to him on a truly personal and empathetic level and tells him to just keep trying, that everything will work out, that it’s not all works, there’s some grace in the mix. Anyway, this scene would certainly offend most Mormons, but I was in tears when I finished reading it because that Jesus resonated with me. That Jesus was approachable. That Jesus understood the human.
Jerry Argetsinger, who directed the Hill Cumorah Pageant for a number of years, also spoke about the history of the Pageant. The pageant had its best run between 1987 and 1997. During that time, it was presented as a story with scenery and staging appropriate for the scenes depicted. For example, King Noah’s court was decked out with gaudy riches and dancing girls. Very “worldly.” At its height, the Pageant had nearly 75,000 non-members in the audience. After a change in the approach to the Pageant during the 90s, the number of non-members attending dropped considerably. Instead of a missionary tool, the Pageant had become a Mormon family-oriented tourist attraction. Sad.
Argetsinger also echoed Samuelsen’s frustrations with the average Mormon not wanting to engage with “thoughtful” drama or literature. Doug Thayer, one of the pioneers of serious Mormon fiction in attendance, quoted Eugene England as saying that only one-half of one percent of the membership of the Church would be interested in serious drama and fiction. That equates to roughly 25, 000 people. So the question becomes, then, how do you reach those people?
These questions about the state of Mormon letters and the distribution of its quality works continued into the sessions I attended on Saturday, but this post is already too long, so I will continue the discussion in my next post.
Read, write, execute!
Featured photo credit: Ed Frazier, Flickr