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Behind the Mormon curtain Essay

At TheatreWorks West in Salt Lake City, an original play, The Ballad of the Mountain Meadows, is in rehearsal. Playwright Raymond Hoskins, who is also acting in the show, is at odds with artistic director Fran Pruyn. Hoskins is defending what for him is an artistic imperative: honest representation. Pruyn is mediating on behalf of what for her audience is a cultural imperative: idealistic representation. The audience will be largely Mormon, and the historical event she and her company are dramatizing is a massacre of more than 120 non-Mormon immigrants in 1857, perpetrated by some of the ancestors of that very audience.

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Unlike other regions which may be dominated by a particular group, Utah, which is 70 percent Mormon, seems to be characterized by a collectivist mentality which by definition reduces individual perspective to personal threat. A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS, Don LeFevre, has defined the Church’s wary position by stating that ecclesiastical discipline toward those who question authority is partly designed to “safeguard the purity, integrity and good name of the church.”

While the LDS history of pragmatic support for the arts continues to this day, a people once on the literal and ideological fringe of America have become what one scholar has termed “super-Americans.” American or not, Mormon art – then and now – has emerged out of a uniquely un-American collectivism. An LDS artist who challenges or defies church positions faces more than social censure; church membership may be at stake. If he or she is employed in one of the organization’s vast holdings – such as Salt Lake’s CBS radio and TV affiliate, Beneficial Life, Bonneville Communications and Brigham Young University, the largest church-owned university in the nation – job security may also be jeopardized.

Often billed as the showplace of the LDS Church, Brigham Young – situated south of Salt Lake City in Provo – sets the standard for free-expression in the rest of Mormondom. Ariel Ballif, resident set designer at Pioneer Theatre Company and co-owner of Theatre 138 (once the only Salt Lake theatre outside the University of Utah), attended BYU as a youth and remembers Noel Coward comedies produced without cocktails and cigarettes, and Coca-Cola’s being the initiating lubricant for the hallucinations in Harvey.

Things appear to have loosened up considerably since Ballif’s days at BYU. Last season, Heubener, a play by Russian professor Tom Rogers, was restaged after a 15-year moratorium; initially banned from production at Ballif’s Theatre 138 or elsewhere by church and/or university officials (Rogers will not say which), the play tells the true story of Heubener, a 17-year-old Mormon in Nazi Germany who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets copied on a church mimeograph machine. After the boy and three friends were caught by the SS, Heubener was excommunicated by the church leader in his German district before he was executed by the Nazis. Heubener’s church membership was restored posthumously.

Is a BYU production of Heubener a sign of more liberal statewide artistic standards, or does is it simply mean that there’s finally enough critical and historical distance from the issue to make it “safe”? BYU anthropologist David Knowlton asserts in a recent Associated Press article that “there is an organized inquisition in process at BYU,” under the guise of a proposed “academic freedom” policy. If this is the case, sensitive issues like feminism, sexuality and artistic expression are not likely to fare well. Says Knowlton, “I make the point that an ecclesiastical approach to academic freedom and theology is not workable.” He has been threatened with excommunication from the church if he continues speaking to the press about non-church-sponsored gatherings such as the annual Sunstone Symposium, a broad-based, extra-ecclesiastical gathering to discuss Mormon ideology as it relates to current social and cultural issues.

In what the Denver Post has called the “Church State,” it’s arguable that there are consequences for any artist who challenges church positions; after all, art in Utah must by definition appeal to an audience with a history of obedience to church policy. The strength of this public obedience becomes evident in state politics. In 1981 when the military announced that Utah’s west desert was the preferred site of the MX missile system, Spencer Kimball, then LDS church president and prophet, issued a statement to an overwhelmingly pro-MX constituency condemning the selection of the site. Virtually overnight, the Mormon population capitulated. According to polls taken after the church statement had been issued, 80 percent of Utahns opposed the plan.

Though to a certain extent all artists must play to their social terrain, in Utah the social terrain is holy ground. When artists deal with, for example, the redefinition of women’s roles or the homosexual lifestyle, they are taking issue with divine edict. Mormons revere a prophet who, like Moses, literally speaks for God through revelation; church policy has an uncanny way of becoming public personality.

When Carol Lynn Pearson, a Mormon writer and actress best known for her book, Goodbye, I Love You, a stirring account of her ex-husband’s AIDS-related death, suggested in her one-woman show, Mother Wove the Morning, that women need to explore the female side of deity, Mormon leaders indirectly took her to task. Six days before the show opened for a repeat run in Utah last year, Gordon B. Hinckley of the LDS First Presidency publicly denounced any discussion of the generally accepted but largely tabled Mormon notion of “Mother in Heaven.” That Pearson includes in her show the testimony of Mormon first lady Emma Smith undoubtedly reinforced the concern of the church hierarchy. If her local bishop takes disciplinary action against Pearson on ecclesiastical grounds, her church membership may be in jeopardy.

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The generally staid TheatreWorks West, one of about a half-dozen professional or semi-professional theatres in the state’s capital city, has recently made artistic decisions based on what they fear will be a bona fide Mormon backlash. Though the company has staged two other works by local playwright Rick Gould, his latest play, Every Tongue Confess, was turned down for production by the theatre’s board because it features sacred (and secret) Mormon temple rituals. Gould, who was raised Mormon, says the board was concerned about violent retribution by an enraged Mormon minority. The play is based on the true story of a Mormon couple who received a personal revelation that they were to sacrifice their infant son, and did so. “It is Mormon theology that drives their members and, in part, drove this man to sacrifice his son,” Gould believes.

As anchor to the Utah theatre community, Pioneer Theatre Company, the state’s only Equity house and the closest thing to a state theatre, appears to have the most amenable relationship with the church establishment. Though he admits that Mormon sensibilities are a constant consideration in planning seasons, artistic director Charles Morey insists that it’s an “enormous mistake” to assume that Utah is vastly different from the rest of the nation. “I know of no other major church in the country that regularly gives money to the arts,” says Morey of the Mormon church. But are there strings attached? “I’ve never felt them,” the Seattle native says.

Morey is right about LDS’s record of supporting the arts. Even before the famous temple was built in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Mormon prophet and colonizer Brigham Young built a theatre. Mormons not only held dances but were encouraged to act, direct and produce stage shows. Visual artists were sponsored by the church to study in the East and on the Continent. A vigorous frontier bias for the arts eventually led not only to the first state arts council but an enduring ballet, symphony and opera. Today the theatre community includes one of the nation’s most prosperous Shakespeare festivals – and, until this summer, Robert Redford’s Sundance playwriting lab – sequestered in a mountain and desert state of fewer than two million people.

Few theatre sites could be more remote than Cedar City, home of the Utah Shakespearean Festival, four hours by car from Salt Lake City and three hours from Las Vegas. In an industry in which half of the nation’s nonprofit theatres lost money last year, USF’s ticket sales have been steadily increasing by more than 10 percent each year. The festival’s mostly canonical repertoire is enormously popular, in no small part due to the vast Mormon network. “Word of mouth in Utah is an amazing thing,” says festival public relations director Roger Bean, who concedes that the LDS influence is “always felt.”

Chicago native Edward Gryska, artistic director of Salt Lake Acting Company, has also benefited from what seems to be an unprecedented church-supported arts scene, but not in the same way as his colleagues at Pioneer and USF have. At the Acting Company’s 150-seat theatre, housed in a turn-of-the-century, retro-fitted chapel, Gryska and company have capitalized on the built-in interest for the performing arts and on the growing oppositional and minority community of non-Mormons in Salt Lake City. Over the past 26 seasons SLAC has, buoyed by ongoing support from The Shubert Foundation, produced work ranging from serious Broadway-spawned plays such as M. Butterfly and The Heidi Chronicles to sophisticated smaller works such as The Lisbon Traviata and Beirut. Last season the company premiered local playwright Aden Ross’s K-Mille, a riveting, quasi-memory play about the ill-fated French artist, Camille Claudel.

Changing demographics, spurred on by recreational opportunities and a better-than-average employment rate, have cleft Utah’s unique political, social and artistic dynamic into Mormon and lapsed/non-Mormon camps. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nancy Borgenicht and Allen Nevins’s hokey, sometimes biting satire of life in Utah, Saturday’s Voyeur, now in its 14th year. The show originated at SLAC as a take-off on the wildly popular Mormon roadshow, which was for decades the primary dramatic outlet for the rank and file of Utah audiences. Updated yearly to include the doings of local celebrities and politicians, Voyeur was SLAC’s biggest moneymaker before Borgenicht left the company and formed her own production company this year.

Voyeur takes its name and format from the most successful Mormon musical ever, Saturday’s Warrior, a 1970s extravaganza that is still occasionally revived. But for all its energy and popularity, the show has some of the same limitations as the provincial Mormon theatre it lampoons: It is cartoonish, even frivolous, in its treatment of personalities and issues – and it can’t really play outside of Utah. So if Gryska has not felt the censor’s pen, then he is at least aware of the censor’s warning look; despite all its therapeutic and fund-raising capacities, Voyeur has done little artistically to further original theatre in Utah.

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The spectrum of local theatre that does travel outside Utah rarely includes a portrayal of the dominant regional figure – the Mormon character. There are few exceptions. Wendy Hammond’s Ghostman, a tale of child sexual abuse in a small Utah community, creates tragic characters who are incidentally Mormon. Emmett Foster’s autobiographical solo show, Emmett, A One-Mormon Show, which played at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s, is part-nostalgic and part-derisive about growing up gay and Mormon. It is those playwrights of Mormon heritage focusing on more universal themes who seem to enjoy greater success in exporting plays that reflect the region. James Arrington’s one-man show Farley Family Reunion is farcical folk theatre not unlike National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion. Las Vegas, which culturalist Jean Baudrillard called “the great whore across the desert,” is the setting for Aden Ross’s comedy Ladies’ Room, which takes place in the lounge of Caesar’s Palace, and for David Kranes’s related pieces, 1101 and 1102. Kranes has also explored the thin line between the real and surreal as suggested by the west desert terrain in his Cantrell.

The strongest depiction of Mormon themes and characters in recent American drama can be found in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, currently running at the National Theatre in London and due this season in Los Angeles and New York. Kushner presents what may be the two most resonant, non-historical Mormon figures ever seen on stage – and that such characterization has issued from a non-Mormon playwright says as much about the failure of LDS dramatists to transcend the self-consciousness of their social and cultural boundaries as it does about Kushner’s ample talent. Kushner teases out of Mormonism its most fascinating (and unfortunately diminishing) theological trope: the conviction that humanity is “on the threshold of revelation.”

Whether Kushner’s model of Mormon drama will inspire other Utah playwrights to explicate the Mormon faith and culture honestly remains to be seen. Kranes, who is also an English professor at the University of Utah, generally sees his LDS students producing work that is pegged at one of two poles: apostate and angry, or in service of the faith. “There are forces that confuse, complicate and put pressures on those who would be Mormon artists,” says Kranes. “Mormonism is not used in the same way that, for instance, Judaism is used by novelist Chaim Potok; that is, to wrestle with the angels of his belief. There is no space for Mormons to question their tradition within the tradition.” Nancy Melich, theatre critic at the Salt Lake Tribune for more than 20 years, agrees. “For the Mormon artist,” she says, “the emphasis is always on the church. The Mormon label makes a statement to the public that ultimately isolates the artist and the community from the rest of society.”

Strictures from within, however, are not the only constraints on Mormon writers. Tom Rogers, who has written several plays at BYU dealing with Mormonism, has taken a post-office box outside of Utah hoping to market his plays more successfully. Rick Gould, too, has been frustrated in his efforts to get further training as a playwright. Though his best work deals comically and dramatically with Mormonism, there has been pressure from the academic program to which he has applied to eschew the subject and draw instead upon his half-Japanese heritage to accommodate the fashions of multiculturalism.

Meanwhile, in the wake of favorable reviews for The Ballad of the Mountain Meadows, ticket sales at TheatreWorks West are escalating. Earlier, to everyone’s surprise, actor and company board member B.K. Henrie, a direct descendant of a Mormon leader of the massacre detailed in the play, became unnerved by the material and walked out of rehearsal. Individuals with the same names as some of the Mormon characters are reserving seats for the controversial show.

Raymond Hoskins’s script is lyrical, his own acting arresting. Fran Pruyn moves her cast through a series of living tableaux which hold in awesome tension the dreams and expectations of the ill-fated Arkansas and Missouri settlers en route to California. Hoskins’s indictment of Brigham Young (Richard Scharine) as indirectly responsible for the massacre is evident as the character mounts a raised pedestal engraved with the famous Sunstone, which adorned the cornerstone of the violently destroyed LDS Nauvoo Temple, to deliver speeches lifted directly from the public record.

This drama has been staged with the influence of the early Mormon hierarchy ever-present; Utah theatre in general seems to play in the apse of the LDS church. The weight of history and religious influence generates a tension which fuels both Mormon and non-Mormon artistic enterprise in this unique crucible of American culture.

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Behind the Mormon curtain Essay
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At TheatreWorks West in Salt Lake City, an original play, The Ballad of the Mountain Meadows, is in rehearsal. Playwright Raymond Hoskins, who is also acting in the show, is at odds with artistic director Fran Pruyn. Hoskins is defending what for him is an artistic imperative: honest representation. Pruyn is mediating on behalf of what for her audience is a cultural imperative: idealistic representation. The audience will be largely Mormon, and the historical even
2017-10-26 14:32:44
Behind the Mormon curtain Essay
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