I’ve had a huge desire since high school to open a theater. At times, I feel like its my mission, my life’s focused ambition– or at least a neurotic obsession. Take your pick. And I don’t want to open just any theater… there are plenty of community theaters performing a rotating canon of musicals like Seussical or the comedies of Neil Simon; and there are regional theaters dedicated to the classical catalog of the Bard. Both of which are great focuses, by the way. Love me some Shakespeare and show tunes. But I don’t want to build something that’s already been established. I want to build what can be considered a “Mormon Theater,” or at least a “spiritual theater.” And I’ve made a start… last year I registered my sole proprietor business Zion Theatre Company, which I’ll touch more upon later. But what do I mean by a Mormon theatre company, or a spiritual theater? And what perils are there to building a theatre company, much less a “Mormon” one? And what does this have to do with Shakespeare dressed up in a corporate suit?!
Most of Mormon Drama’s recent history have had its successes come out of the academic sector, from institutions like BYU and UVU. However, there have been attempts at “Mormon” theatre companies before. In the 1970s, before he became a celebrated novelist, Orson Scott Card unsuccessfully tried to start a theatre company which would be open to Mormon works. Unfortunately, that dream was short lived.
In aesthetic, the deservedly successful Hale Centre Theatre certainly caters to its many Mormon patrons by putting on clean (or clean enough) comedies and musicals– the Hales, Swensons, and Dietlines have been in good business for decades and are not showing any sign of losing steam. But they have never really strayed very far into the possibility of considering Mormon work (they don’t even really seem interested in doing their late founder Ruth Hale’s comedies anymore).
In the early 2000′s Scott Bronson, Thom Duncan, and some other associates created the short lived Nauvoo Theatrical Society. Their shows were excellent, despite their low budgets (their first and last season consisted of Scott Bronson’s Stones, Carol Lynn Pearson’s My Turn On Earth, Eric Samuelsen’s The Way We’re Wired, and Tim Slover’s Joyful Noise). They showed great promise, but business issues, getting their name out, and city ordinances eventually bogged them out of existence.
More recently, New Play Project has been a chiefly LDS group of young theatrical artisans who have done some impressive work, especially considering their limited financial means. Because of their focus on new work, Melissa Leilani Larson, Eric Samuelsen, James Goldberg, Anna Lewis, and myself (plus too many other playwrights to name when it comes to their short play festivals) have all had our plays produced there, and they are currently the most vibrant group doing LDS Theatre out there today. Their work has garnered two Association for Mormon Letters Awards (for James Goldberg’s “Prodigal Son” and Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets). The majority of their work was by Mormons, with Mormons characters and/or themes. However, most of its original founding members have moved onto other areas in life, which seemed to threaten its existence for a while. However, thankfully, Davey and Bianca Morrison-Dillard seem intent on keeping NPP going, while also creating a film angle to the non-profit group (their currently trying to raise funds on Kickstarter for a film version of their most recent production Anna Lewis’ WWJD).
But, with the exception of the business savvy Hales who don’t really do LDS work, these theaters are extinct or barely surviving. I’ve had to take a hard look at all of that and ask myself if Mormon Drama is that viable of a business model. That can get to be a discouraging line of thought, so more often I ask myself, how can I make Mormon Drama a viable business model? And my mind at that point, as it often does, drifts to Shakespeare. What would Shakespeare do?
I’ve been doing a lot of a particular kind of reading lately to help me get prepared for what I’m jumping into (all from a distance, by the way, as I start my MFA degree in Dramatic Writing at ASU). I just bought a book I’m enjoying immensely called Building the Successful Theater Company by Lisa Mulcahy, where she interviews the heads of the most successful theater companies in America… it’s a pragmatic and inspirational book, which is a tall order to get those two words to play well together in the same sentence. And I oddly find that kind of reading in strange sync with my other topic of interest lately… yes, again, William Shakespeare.
I keep telling myself, “William Shakespeare was a businessman.” Yes, he was also a brilliant dramatist, and probably a decent actor, but that’s how we remember him, not why we remember him. Why we remember him was that he was a captain of industry who knew how to speak to his audience, market his plays, establish a place within his community, and deliver a quality product that fulfilled a need. That helped his work survive so that his art could be appreciated.
Shakespeare delivered high art in a populist package. He challenged his audience while never alienating them. Spectacle and raucous laughter was coupled with intimate, poetic tragedy. He was a theatrical miracle man, but also a shrewd and pragmatic entrepreneur. The world can be grateful that he went into playwriting and not jumping into advertising, nor joining a private equity firm, for I think his immortal plays are a better trade than his immortal product placements. But there is something to be learned in not only his philosophical monologues and compelling characters– there’s something just as valuable to be learned that he was able to take a group of rag tag actors and then turn them “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men” and then the “King’s Men,” gaining not only King James I patronage, but also the patronage of the diverse cross section of audiences that attended his plays. When Shakespeare died, it wasn’t as a starving artist. By the end, he was living a comfortable, even a wealthy life. He made his art into a living, not just a hobby.
In his essay “Whither Mormon Drama? Look First to a Theater,” Eric Samuelsen analyzes what it will take to create a robust genre of Mormon Drama, with talented Mormon playwrights to provide the plays. His conclusion is that,
What such playwrights need is a theater. The great eras of the worlds dramatic literature have tended to come after the establishment of theaters and theatre companies sufficiently robust to support them… we will never develop a satisfying Mormon Drama until we have established and supported a theater from which such drama might emerge. The Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe.”
The Mormon theater company that has been brewing inside of me for years (for pleasure, I’ll often jot down speculative future seasons, just to show you how obsessive I can get about it) doesn’t necessarily follow the models of the groups I’ve mentioned above. We won’t just do classic Mormon plays, like the Nauvoo Theatrical Society did, although we would at least have one or two shows a year that would fit in that mold. We wouldn’t just do new work either, like the New Play Project, although that would be a strong focus for us (and as playwriting is MY focus, especially so). The Hale Centre Theatre focuses on their bread and butter comedies and musicals, which is good people pleasing business, but my aspirations are of a more spiritual bent in regards to the company, so we’d include mass market work like that, but in moderation. Shows like that are great, but they’re not my chief goal.
The only company who closely fits my vision is the Christian based Lamb’s Players Theatre in San Diego. They mix their seasons of powerful musicals (like Into the Woods) and thoughtful comedies with a more diverse seasoning of moral dramas (shows like A Man For All Seasons and Amadeus); spiritual plays (they, like me, love C.S. Lewis, and have included not only Narnia in their seasons, but also adaptations of his lesser known and superior works Till We Have Faces and The Great Divorce); as well as new works (they have done Mormon playwright Tim Slover’s play about Handel Joyful Noise twice).
Similarly, that’s my eventual goal, to have a robust and professional company that can present some of the more worthy mainstream work, while still digging deeper into the soul with spiritual dramas, and new, Mormon plays. Right now we’re just starting– we produced two of my shows last year, and hope to put on a whole six show season in 2011-2012. While I’m off in Arizona doing graduate school, I have a few excellent producers who have agreed to help with the on the ground work in Utah, while I do what I can from here. But I’ve learned that Theatre, to be successful, can’t only be an art, it also has to be a business. I’ve had to deal with marketing, tax forms, endless calls and e-mails, relationship building, budgets, venue haggling, etc. etc. etc.
And you know what? I enjoy it. I really, really enjoy it. Being a producer you learn that there’s so much you’re capable of that you weren’t aware of, if you just grow a back bone, get organized, and speak up. Sometimes I suspect Shakespeare may have felt the same. The race of it all seems to suit him for some reason in my mind. Whether it was more headache or huzzah for him, I’m beginning to realize that it’s definitely a necessary ingredient for any artistic enterprise. To put on a play, you have to find an audience, and to find an audience you have to get into the trenches (or on the phone) and work.