Mormon Artist

Eric Samuelsen

Photo by Lizzy Bean

Tell us how and why you got involved in theatre, specifically playwriting. What was that journey like? In what ways do you think you have matured and changed as a dramatist since your beginning days?

My father is an opera singer so I grew up with theatre in my blood, really. I made my stage debut at a very young age—six or seven, something like that. I played a street urchin in a production of Peter Grimes. I got to wear body makeup, and I remember sitting in the bathtub after each performance and watching all the water turn brown from my makeup. I remember thinking how cool that was.

In junior high I was a total mess—that’s not unusual of course, but I had the horrible experience bad junior high experiences measure themselves against. I remember vividly the day two thugs took me behind the gym and carved a swastika on my arm with a switchblade. I couldn’t tell a teacher or my parents, I thought, because they might think I wanted a swastika on my arm. So when I got home from school, I cut away the rest of the skin, so it wouldn’t look like a swastika anymore.

But when I got to high school, two teachers saved my life. One was an English teacher named Kenneth Mann who thought I had potential as a writer and put me in a creative writing workshop he taught. The other was the typing teacher—yes, high schools used to offer typing and filing as a class—who was an opera buff and knew of my father and got me involved in the school choir. So I got involved with choir, went from there to theatre, wrote a column for the school newspaper, and became editor of the school creative writing magazine. Basically, I found my niche. So when I went to college, playwriting seemed like a natural next step.

After my mission I enrolled in Charles Whitman’s playwriting class. Apparently the department chair, Charles Metten, had an idea for a play and asked Dr. Whitman if he could recommend a writer. So I was called into the principal’s office—that’s how it felt, anyway. I was scared to death, but Dr. Metten said I’d come recommended as the best young writer in the department, and he had this play idea. He’d provide the storyline and I’d fill in the dialogue, then he’d put it on the season and direct it. The result was a play called Letter From a Prophet and was about Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail. I pulled it out a year or so ago and reread it—it was shocking to me how little I remembered of it. I kept thinking, “I wonder what’s going to happen next?”

The play was pretty bad, of course, but that didn’t matter much. I learned so much from the experience. I learned how to build a scene, how to create a character through dialogue and action, how to connect moments to create suspense and interest. I’ve always been grateful to Dr. Whitman and Dr. Metten for a tremendous learning experience.

Anyway, in college I worked with both Dr. Whitman and Max Golightly, who taught playwriting, and then I took an advanced writing seminar from Orson Scott Card. Scott was a tremendous structuralist—he felt that if you got the story right, everything else would fall into place. That’s still how I teach playwriting today. I wrote a play for Scott about college football players called Playing the Game; it got on the BYU season and went on to a Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival regional production and was another great learning experience. Then my composer friend Murray Boren said he wanted to write an opera about Nauvoo in the immediate wake of Joseph Smith’s death, so I wrote the libretto for Emma, which the music department produced and which eventually made its way to a New York production and a rave review in Opera News. So BYU kind of launched me.

I then decided to go to grad school. I went to Indiana and worked towards a Ph.D. in Theatre History and Criticism. It took me nine years to complete, during which time I worked at a pizza restaurant and became a radio guy working for the local PBS station, WFIU, as an announcer. I had a sports show on Saturdays, and I also wrote and hosted an on-air call-in game show called Ether Game. I can well imagine an alternate universe where I went into radio professionally.

I also took all of Sam Smiley’s playwriting classes. Sam wrote the book Playwriting: The Structure of Action, which was then a standard textbook in the field; it took a very Aristotelian approach to playwriting. I liked Sam personally a lot, but I didn’t really connect to his approach for some reason. One of my fellow students, Ron Dye, started a theatre in town called Bloomington Playwrights’ Project, which is still going strong today. I did a few things for them, though mostly as a director, not really as a writer. They did one play of mine, Sex and the New York Yankees. There’s a story there—three of us writing students at BYU had made a pact that we would all write a play with that title on the subject of “things that are overrated.” Turns out we all did it, too. But otherwise, I felt really lost as a writer. I couldn’t find my bearings.

I did love theatre history though, and ended up getting hired at BYU in ’92. I loved my classes, and one day I got an idea for a play about an LDS family trying to decide what to do about an elderly relative. The result was Accommodations. It got produced and won an award from AML and that kind of relaunched me. So I was publishing in theatre history and teaching those classes and meanwhile also writing plays. My wife, Annette, and I had a young family so it was a busy and exciting time. In 1999, Tim Slover, who taught playwriting, moved up to the U of U, and I became a full-time playwriting teacher. Then, around 2003, I discovered Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake, and I’ve written for them quite a bit as well as for LDS audiences in Provo.

Tell us about your personal worldview. In what ways do you feel like you are in sync with your Mormon culture, and in what ways do you feel like you diverge? How is that reflected in your writing?

Well, frankly, I’m kind of a boringly conventional Mormon in most respects. I love the Church. I love the gospel. I love the idea of eternal progression. I love the atonement. I love the possibility for repentance and change the gospel provides.

The thing is, I’m a writer and a theatre guy—an artist. My brother’s a businessman; he’s a very conventional Mormon, but he also sees the world from a business point of view, so his worldview is a mixture of the gospel and business. I’m an artist, so my view is sort of half-LDS and half-artist. Does that make sense?

So for me Art is tremendously important. I tend to think that there’s no such thing as “worldly” art, or art that’s inherently damaging spiritually. Most works of art that some people in the Church might regard as “questionable” I tend to embrace. Often works that my brother might find troubling really speak to me. Art is testimony. Art is one person saying “this is what world looks like from where I stand.” I just can’t see how that could ever be morally damaging.

Now, some art is bad, but usually it’s just badly executed. There are certainly works of art I haven’t responded to positively, but usually it comes down to ineptitude. I’ll often hear people in my ward saying things like, “Hollywood is trying to corrupt our youth,” and I’ll sit there thinking, “Well, first, there’s no such thing as ‘Hollywood,’ and second, what specific film are you talking about? Because I saw Little Fockers too, and at its heart it’s a film about two mismatched families trying to get along. It just wasn’t done very well.

Photo by Lizzy Bean

You’ve invested a lot personally into the Mormon artistic community. You were even president of the Association for Mormon Letters for a while. If you were to give a State of the Union address about Mormon arts, what would be your main talking points?

The state of our Mormon arts is…uncertain.

I presided over AML for two years, and my one accomplishment frankly is that we didn’t go under. That’s it, that’s what I got done—I kept the organization from disbanding. I still believe in it, in creating a space where those of us who care about good writing by and about Mormons can get together and talk about it. But in a time where Mormon Studies is an increasingly valid academic discipline, we fight for any institutional support at all. I went to the Mormon Arts Retreat this summer. Retreat is right—this organization, which is so important and valuable, can’t pay its bills.

But at the same time some terrific Mormon writers are becoming huge players in national markets. I just finished reading Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and it’s amazing, a wonderfully written book about our culture. I’m writing this while listening to a Killers album—Brandon Flowers is great. I loved Neil LaBute’s latest movie. Scott Bronson’s doing a terrific play at the Covey Center while Chris Clark is emerging as the most exciting stage director in the Church.

And how about Mormon drama, specifically? How have we done, how are we doing, what do we need to do for our future? What do you think we need to make a more vibrant and lasting legacy?

What I’ve always felt is that we need a space. I look at Plan B, for example. It’s amazing; a small independent theatre in Salt Lake that’s sold basically every seat for every performance for five years running doing nothing but new plays. They’re not doing plays by and about Mormons, but they have a business model that’s been very successful, and that we should find encouraging.

Good plays don’t matter if they’re not produced, and good plays need to be produced multiple times. It’s not enough to do a play once, what matters is the second production, and the third. The New Play Project is doing great work in Provo—Little Happy Secrets and Prodigal Son won the last two AML awards and are both wonderful plays. They’re in rehearsal with a play of mine right now too, but they’re constantly on the brink of financial extinction. Davey and Bianca Morrison Dillard are great people, but how long can they hang on?

When I talk to the Plan B audience members, they look forward to the new Plan B play with great anticipation. They put it on their calendars wondering, “What will they dazzle me with next? What new insight will they bring, into this state, this culture, this world, this time and space?” The reality, though, is that our audiences don’t always trust us. They don’t know much about drama anyway, and for a lot of Mormons “conflict”—which is a completely essential element of drama—equates with “contention,” which they spend a lot of time trying to avoid in their lives—and with good reason.

When I was in grad school, Annette and I had these good friends and one night we decided to invite them to a production we were going to see. A director I knew was doing a Twelfth Night set in a Club Med. Our friends had never seen anything like that—they’d never been in a 150-seat blackbox, they’d never seen Shakespeare done that way, they worried about the intimacy of the space. They were really leery about the whole thing, but it was great, a very funny, smart production, and they were entranced. A few months later, the same director decided to do a version of Julius Caesar. We mentioned it to our friends and they were excited to go. We went and it wasn’t very good; it just didn’t work as well and our friends would never go see a show with us again. One bad experience can destroy progress made with good productions. We can’t really flop in this business, and that’s tricky because sometimes, with the best of intentions, we do sometimes blow it. As William Goldman said about film, “No one knows anything.” People can see a bad movie without it turning them off movies forever, but, unfortunately, a bad play can turn them off from theatre forever. Of course, bad movies are often sort of fun. Bad theatre is excruciating, so that may be a factor.

A lot of your plays (not all) are Mormon-themed and/or have strong Mormon characters. What drew you to focus on your immediate culture and religion?

Honestly, it’s just what I know. I write about other subjects, of course, but the fact is, I’m a Mormon. I’m in this culture and I’m interested in exploring it. It’s such an interesting culture. Sometimes people outside our culture think it’s this very middle-American white bread culture. That’s so not true.

That being said, you also seem to be branching out into more national issues. Recently, you wrote plays criticizing the meat industry (Miasma) and dissecting historical American identity (Amerigo), among other plays. Your plays for Plan B seem to have a decidedly different audience in mind than your plays at BYU. What brings you to write for/about the wider world? How can Mormon artists intersect with the larger national and global communities effectively? How can we make the world a better place?

Discovering Plan B was a tremendous thing for me because I love the people there and I love the opportunity to write for a different audience than I had been writing for. I’ve enjoyed writing plays with a bit more political edge; it’s really been liberating for me. I haven’t abandoned LDS audiences, not at all. I have three new plays coming out in the next three months and two of them are overtly and directly LDS, so I’ve hardly left my roots behind. And this new audience I’m writing for is, after all, just 40 miles north in Salt Lake City. But Salt Lake is a pretty liberal town, and I feel like I’m among friends up there.

The second part of your question is an intriguing one. How do we connect to larger national and global audiences? Well, by telling great stories, with characters who are honest and real and true. That’s all. Good writing crosses borders.

I just got back from Sundance and one of my favorite films there was a film called Mad Bastards. It’s about a small aboriginal community in Broome, Australia. Very narrow cultural subject, in other words, and one that I knew nothing about going into the theatre. But it was great precisely because it was so immersed in its culture. Most of the actors had never acted before—the leading actor showed up on the set hoping for some work as a grip. They liked him and cast him as the lead and his performance was nakedly honest and real.

We can do that. Just tell our stories with insight and imagination and compassion and truthfulness.

In recent years, which of your plays have felt most personal or important to you? Which ones drove you to finish them and finish them well?

Well, heck, they all feel personal and important while I’m actually writing them. Let me see. Family was really important to me because it was based on my family somewhat, and my family is my life—I’m nothing without Annette and our kids. Borderlands, which opens at Plan B in April, was really difficult for me. It took six years to write because I was so close to the characters it was hard to be ruthless with them, hard to get the perspective I needed to sit back and fix the scenes that didn’t hold together. The Plan, which is in rehearsal now at the Covey Center, is really important to me—my entire testimony is in that play.

So that’s three pretty important ones. But really, it’s like asking which of your children do you love the most? All of them, obviously.

What’s in the pot right now? What projects are you currently working on and why?

I’m in the middle of a play about the worldwide financial crisis and it’s completely kicking my butt. It took me forever to figure out what a credit default swap really is and how you can use triple-B rated mezzanine tranches of subprime mortgage bonds to create a triple-A rated CDO. I mean seriously, how do you package together a pile of crappy mortgages and persuade bond rating agencies that the package is worth more than any element in it? But also, you know, where’s the story, where are the characters? I’ve got an outline and most of a first draft, but it’s slow slogging.

I reread Gadianton the other day and was amazed at how naïve it felt. Fred Whitmore, the play’s villain, wouldn’t lay people off for a living anymore, he’d be a bond trader for Goldman Sachs and he’d walk away at the end with $30 million in his pocket.

Anyway, when that gets too depressing I’m working on a novel and I’m also doing a play about the Book of Mormon. My daughter’s my stage manager for The Plan and she said, “Daddy, this is so good, you should do it some more.” So fair enough.

Some friends have urged me to write about my illness. But so far I haven’t been able to do that. Maybe someday.

You’re also an educator—a professor of playwriting at BYU. From that perspective, what do you see in the rising generation of Mormon playwrights and thespians? In what ways are they different than previous crops of Mormon artists you have seen?

I love the kids I work with—they’re just amazingly unafraid. I was so much more afraid when I was their age, but these kids seem so much more grounded, so much more sure-footed. Every semester in my beginning playwriting class, I just marvel at the level of work they’re doing. And the thing is, they’re not that innocent, they’re not that naïve. They’ve struggled for their testimonies and they’ve come out the other end of the struggle really grounded. I find them inspiring.

The kids keep me young. They keep me grounded. I don’t like to think of what a cranky old curmudgeon I’d be if it weren’t for the kids I work with. And there’s a real possibility that I might have to leave BYU. I was diagnosed two years ago with polymyositis, an incurable muscular-degenerative auto-immune disease, and my illness makes it increasingly difficult for me to get around, to keep my focus for a two-hour class, to just physically get to the classroom. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around so I treasure the time I have with them.

I think they’re going to do great work. I’m optimistic about the future.

How do your faith and your art intersect?

Wow. Basically everywhere. I love the gospel. I write plays that I hope will help people connect with their Heavenly Father and with their brothers and sisters. I owe everything to my Savior.

In an age of Playstation, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, why does theatre matter?

Great final question. Theatre matters because nothing can quite compete with the experience of seeing artists create something live, for you, in that moment—just for you and other audience members. Theatre is the most ephemeral of art forms—it disappears as it’s being created, leaving behind nothing but the lives it’s managed, however briefly, to touch. That’s an experience that nothing else on the planet can match. I love all the electronic media you mention above; I think they’re all valuable and important. But live theatre can compete just fine, because there’s nothing else like it. ❧

Read more interviews or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates.