I Keep Telling Myself, “William Shakespeare was a Businessman.”

All the Private Sector is a Stage...

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.

Did somebody say product placement?

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.

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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22 Responses to I Keep Telling Myself, “William Shakespeare was a Businessman.”

  1. So true Mahonri. Artists just want to focus on art, but it’s always a mistake. To really make a difference a large volume of people have to be exposed to an art. The only way to do that over an extended period of time is with good business acumen. With this train of thought I have no doubt the ZTC will be viable.

  2. It would be wonderful if you could bring this dream to fruition. I was a part of Scott Card’s “Utah Valley Reperatory Theater Company,” and we did some fine work. But nobody thrived in finances. I would love to see audiences flock to a play by Eric Samuelsen and others you mention, but it happens only if the play is a part of the BYU season, from what I’ve seen.
    I remember a theater professor at BYU saying, “We will take the world by storm–with Moroni behind us!” From his lips to God’s ears.
    When I helped produce one of my own plays, I worked myself to near nausea, because I realized how vital it was to have coverage on television, radio, newspaper, and (now) blogs.
    It is a huge endeavor. How wonderful that you actually ENJOY it!! More power to you!

  3. I love hearing your theory and thoughts. I would live to support your endeavors by attending as many plays as possible. Do you have a Facebook page that people can like and follow to get information on upcoming plays? I hope all your dreams come true.

  4. Katherine Morris says:

    Mahonri–what if you livestreamed some of the performances so that Mormons who don’t live in Mormon-saturated areas could be involved? I hear that at film festivals nowadays they do this (livestream films and the discussions afterward). It does seems like it would be easier to do with film, but I wonder if there’s a way do this with theatre as well. Hmm…

  5. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Margaret,

    I’ve also seen Mormon plays do really well at UVU. A couple of my plays had sell out runs there and James Arrington does his Farley shows there to great audiences, as well as Trail of Dreams. I think part of the reasons for the success of Mormon plays in an academic setting are manifold:

    1) They have a “brand.” Academic institutions are recognizable institutions. Going to BYU or UVU, you know that it’s going to be to at least a certain standard (which, granted, can still be hit and miss– but they usually at least have some sort of decent a budget!).

    2) You know where to go. They’re in one location and that’s not going to change.

    3) There’s always a pool of talent. If one major professor or designer leaves the department, the University will just hire another qualified individual.

    In the private or non-profit sector, none of the above are guarantees, but are vital if a theatre group is going to continue. A group needs to become a “brand name” by becoming known, having consistent quality, and by creating a loyal following of returning audiences (the Hales have this formula down pat– they certainly are the “brand name” for theatre in Utah). A group needs to have a sense of permanence (are they actually going to be consistently there with a show next time I drop by?). Groups like mine will always struggle with this, because we’re caught in a rental nightmare, until we establish our own location and space. Every theatre group needs a permanent THEATER at some point, if they’re going to be an established part of the local scenery and culture. Third, a lot of theater companies struggle because the upper level management keeps changing, creating a lack of cohesiveness, organization, and order. This is what NPP is currently struggling with and pushing through, as most (if not all, I can’t remember if Bianca was a founder) of the founders are not involved with the group anymore and leadership has been transferred to new hands who have to in many ways repeat a lot of the motions the prior group went through.

    These aren’t insurmountable obstacles. They just need grit, business savvy, organization, and commitment to get through them.

  6. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Interesting idea, Katherine. Currently, we’re trying to reach out to non-Utah audiences by creating DVDs of the original plays we have rights to record… on sale at the ZTC website, by the way. ;) But I’ve heard of theaters doing just that. The difficulty is giving people the ability to view it, while still charging them for it, and not having them make their own copies of the performance to show. But I think its a feasible idea, although a complicated one.

  7. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Margaret,
    I think Saturday’s Warrior, despite it having BYU performances as well, shows how well a Mormon show can do as an independent theater venture, as it traveled all over and made heaps of money without any academic attachment whatsoever.

  8. Debra Woods says:

    Mahonri – I am so excited to hear of your plans! WAHOO! Bridging the great divide between artistry and business is the age old issue, for all too often, even almost always, the two just repel each other like a drop of soap on the surface of water sprinkled with pepper – the second the soap hits the surface, the pepper moves as far away as the container will allow. But, I’m thinking you may just be the person suited for the challenge. You LIKE – really really LIKE all that organizational/administrative stuff? Anyway – I have an idea I want to talk to you about that is a new, totally new take on theater, and I keep thinking of you whenever I think of it. Shoot me a line, I’d love to pick your brain.
    Debra

  9. Burbage was the Businessman says:

    I applaud your developing passion for producing!
    But as you are a man of history, I feel you might appreciate a small correction:
    William Shakespeare was not in all likelihood the business brains behind the Globe, or the King’s Men.
    ‘The Theatre’ (which preceded ‘The Globe’, and from which remains ‘The Globe’ was partially constructed) was the business endeavor of James Burbage, a carpenter, businessman, and sometimes actor. Burbage started the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and directed their financial and business activities as manager until his death in 1597.
    After his death, his son Cuthbert took over many of his responsibilities as manager and directed the building of ‘The Globe’ after the lease had expired on the land that ‘The Theatre’ was built upon.
    It was also during this period that King James I ascended to the throne and Lord Chamberlain’s men became the King’s Men.
    Cuthbert’s brother Richard Burbage was also heavily involved in managing the company and is credited as being the Actor Manager of the company.
    Shakespeare was indeed one of eight men who were shareholders in the company, but it appears that his work was mostly concerned with writing and sometimes acting.
    It was the Burbages and other managers like Thomas and Henry Evans that were the business brains behind the management of the company’s assets, investments, and legal status.
    I do believe in a rare sort of artist who is able to excel in both aesthetics and in business, but I also know there there is certainly a place for both artists and saavy managers who can help them in the perpetually difficult endeavor of making money from art.
    William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a genius–but I do wonder where he would have been without the business acumen and talented management of men like James and Cuthbert Burbage who were at it long before Shakespeare appeared on the scene in London.

  10. Burbage was the Businessman says:

    (William Shakespeare was just 12 years old when James Burbage built ‘The Theatre’ in London in 1576)

  11. Thom Duncan says:

    I’m with you my friend, in Spirit and in any other way I can be. Like you, I’ve wanted to start an LDS theare group and have actually been down that road at least three times, the Nauvoo Theatrical Society being the last (and most successful) attempt. I have to rush out now but I’ll be back soon to talk more about this. I would love to share with you more insight that my aborted attempts have given me on how to do this thing right. Soon.

  12. martha says:

    I am glad you can do the trenches of money matters and business. It is so not my cup of tea. Maybe you should get an MBA while you’re in school. It might just be able to round out your artistic side into a feasible model. You must have Dad in you too. And a good combination of Mom and Dad would really be a masterpiece. Yay for you.

  13. “Burbage,”
    Good to know. I knew about James Burbage, but mainly as an actor, not as the company’s manager– still sifting through a lot of material, so I’m glad to know that tid bit! Either way, whether it was Shakespeare or another man, the reality still remains that SOMEBODY had to take care of those details or else everything else unravels. Thanks!

  14. Thom, I would love to hear your thoughts on your experience.

    Martha, probably don’t have time to get a MFA and a MBA! :) But I do hope to learn as much as I can about the ins and outs of running a business as I can. It wasn’t my natural inclination at first, but the more I engage in it, the more fascinating the process becomes to me.

    “Burbage,” I believe I was thinking of James Burbage’s brother, Richard Burbage when I commented on your comment. I looked up James and he sounds fantastic! Thanks for the tidbit, that’s a valuable piece of information! But in one sense Shakespeare definitely was a good businessman, even if he wasn’t the one signing the checks– he knew his audience! His ability to cater to his audience, while still challenge his audience is amazing to me. It’s a quality I certainly am trying to learn!

  15. Charlotte, we do have a Facebook page, but it needs to updated– thanks for reminding me, I need to get on that!

    Debra, long time no see! Are we friends on Facebook yet? Send me a message, I’d love to hear your idea.

  16. Jeffrey Driggs says:

    Mahonri–

    I wish you the best in making your very worthy dream come true. When your plans get to the point of trying to find a venue, perhaps I can be of assistance. I am on the board of directors of the non-profit Off Broadway Theatre, 272 S. Main St. in Salt Lake City, right across from the Gallivan Plaza TRAX station. You may have been thinking Utah Valley, but if you’re interested in checking out a downtown Salt Lake location, our theatre, which we have control of year-round, but in which we are producing our family-friendly shows only about 36 weekends a year, might be an option for you, particularly for short-term (one- to three-week) productions. Most of the members of our board are LDS, and I think they would be open to working out an option for you to use the theatre at a minimum of financial risk for you, at least in terms of facility rental. I don’t check out this blog often, so if you want to contact me directly, my email is jdriggs@aol.com. Also, if anyone else would like to contact me about using our theatre or coming to see our original comedies or improv shows, feel free to email me.

  17. James Goldberg says:

    I really enjoyed my time with New Play Project. It may be that there’s someone to carry the torch after Bianca and Davey are done, or it may be the company closes for a while: I think either is OK. New Play Project’s success was more in the conversation we helped start and the writers we helped develop (not to mention the marriages we helped produce!) than about local permanence. I do think the low-budget, new-work-oriented approach is a good path for future young Orson Scott Cards to take: if you’re young and eager, focus on writing and reaching audiences now. Why worry about a long-term sustainability you’re probably not going to achieve?

    My guess is that a lasting Mormon theatre will develop more like the Purple Rose Theater in Michigan. That theatre exists because Jeff Daniels made money, a network, and experience in film and then came back to support a theatre where he came from. As far as I know, no one has gone the route of gaining experience and contacts in either professional theatre or film first and then trying to launch a Mormon venue.

  18. Jeffrey, thanks for the offer! I’m actually as likely to look at Salt Lake as I am to look at Utah Valley. I’m looking into some theaters while I’m here in Utah for the week and would love to meet with you and at least talk about what you would have in mind. I would also like to look at the space. I’ll contact you.

  19. James,
    I think NPP was very good at starting young writers, as you mentioned, but I also think it could have had a good shot at long term sustainability, especially if it started reaching out more to the larger community outside of the itinerant student population (and its upper management were there for the long haul as well) . You guys had a great organization and vision. Most of the big theatre groups I’ve been reading about started out as small organizations like NPP and with some tenacity just continued to grow until they became a professional group.

  20. Braden Bell says:

    Mahonri,

    I suspect that many young Mormon theatre folks have had this dream. I know I did, but the challenges of education, then family, earning a living, church service and so on all interfered. I earnestly hope (and pray!) you can realize this dream.

  21. Braden,

    Yeah, it seems to be a re-occurring theme… a lot of people seem to feel like this should happen, and they want to see it happen, but there always seems to be a roadblock to see its permanent fruition.

    All of the things you mentioned above have been challenges in the way for me, too. So far, it only makes me more determined to balance it all so that it’s an actuated thing. It may happen in the next couple of years, or many, many years, but I’m pretty determined not to let anything stop me. It will take a certain amount of determination and perserverance, though, which I’ve always known.

  22. Pingback: Building Zion Theatre Company | A Motley Vision

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