Mormon Artist

Kymberly Mellen

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes

What was the motivation for dedicating your life to acting?

It was something I knew I was good at and that I felt great doing! Joseph Campbell talks about finding and following your “bliss”—the thing that makes you excited to wake up in the morning and engage in the day. It is an activity that provides a cyclical energy by refueling you physically and emotionally while you serve and work so very hard. That’s what acting, directing, and teaching does for me. I continue to receive as much from these activities as I give. I love the amazing, generous people I have the opportunity to interact with in rehearsals. I think actors and artists are amazingly charitable, empathetic, astute, and knowledgeable people.

You recently appeared in the Joseph Smith movie. What was that experience like?

It was an amazing experience. The director/writer, Gary Cook, wrote the part for me. Although most of the other characters in the film are readily identifiable from Church history, he wanted at least one storyline that wasn’t instantly recognizable or predictable—a story that included moments of doubt and conflict in relationship to the Church. He combined several journal and Church history stories that are not attached to specific names and crammed them into one family’s storyline. I play the unnamed blacksmith’s wife who receives a Book of Mormon from Joseph Smith. I marry a widower with small children, many of whom are burned to death by the mob. Our last child falls ill as my husband is faltering in his faith and Joseph Smith’s blessing restores the child to health.

It was filmed over the course of a year, trying to match the seasons with the actual locations as much as possible. We filmed in Nauvoo and Springfield, Illinois, and in several lots in the back of the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo, as well as Upper Canada Village, Canada—a fully functioning frontier town. It was a unique experience in that the script was under the supervision of many individuals, all of whom had power to cut dialogue, so we often didn’t have dialogue until the morning of the shoot and much of it was also improvised. We started and ended each day with a prayer on set. Every actor with a speaking role was required to be LDS and temple-worthy. The spirit of cooperation and mutual respect was overwhelming. Multiple miracles occurred every day as weather cleared, sicknesses abated, accidents were averted, and all of our talents were magnified beyond our natural abilities.

I developed a strong kinship with the pioneers as individual, struggling people. The last day of filming we were on the bank of the Nauvoo River in the heat of summer with mosquitoes galore, reenacting the cholera epidemic. We had over a hundred extras all donating their time and energy so willingly in those trying circumstances; you can see them in the wide shots. We all felt some idea of what the pioneers were actually going through—although we were only on that location for twelve hours and the pioneers camped there for weeks in the mud with meager supplies and illness all around. Our mud was makeup, the sweat trickling down our faces and staining our clothing was glycerin, but it’s the closest I’ve come to viscerally relating to their challenges physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It was wonderful to be surrounded by so many actors whose work I admire and who are professional and spiritual mentors to me: Gary Cook, T.C. Christensen, Tayva Patch, Rick Macy, Nathan Mitchell, and Katherine Nelson.

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes

You are not only an actor but a director as well. You directed The Turn of the Screw at the Covey Center two years ago and Shakespeare’s As You Like It last year at BYU’s Pardoe Theatre. How does your approach to acting change as a director?

I try to direct others the way I want to be directed. I expect the actors to do thorough research and bring a specificity of thought and clarity of events through the eyes of their character to the table. I strongly rely on a sense of ensemble and group input. I consider myself the lead collaborator and final decision maker, not the originator of all brilliant ideas. I try to approach the performances as an extension of the rehearsal process—we should all still be trying to clarify and experiment and affect our partners more deeply as the run progresses instead of recreating an exact performance night after night.

I had just performed in the two-person Jeffrey Hatcher version of The Turn of the Screw for a six-month run the previous year, so it was very fresh in my mind. I had a $200 production budget to transform a cement room into a theatre, build a set, find props and costumes, etc. With my husband as my co-designer and director, we decided to build a set that reflected contemporary fears and included the sights and sounds of modern psychological horror movies. We paid homage to shower curtains, body bags, grimy windows, masks, bare light bulbs, and rotting wood floors in our production. As a director, I think the cardinal rule is not to bore your audience. I don’t want them to “sit back and enjoy the show,” I want them to “lean forward and engage.” So we tried to layer in as many subliminal sound effects and startling surprises of sound and performer proximity as we could. My actors were fantastic and I think we confused and scared the average audience member. Mission accomplished!

With As You Like It, again my central mission was to make the play accessible and applicable to a younger contemporary audience. We set it in modern times, began with an on-stage coup as the framing story and added in cover songs from current bands, all performed on stage with acoustic guitars and live singing. It was definitely not what you would find on the stage of the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s Adams Theatre, but a fun, valid interpretation nonetheless. My goal was to demystify Shakespeare’s words and relationships so that the student actors always knew what they were saying and what they wanted and the audience could identify with the struggles of people like themselves.

What is your preferred type of role?

I want to be challenged; I want to do something that scares me to death. I want a role that I don’t understand with a scene partner or ensemble that I feel completely inferior to. If I feel fully prepared and fully confident, I won’t be learning. I always want to be advancing in my craft and knowledge, not sitting back on my laurels.

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes

Your family is an artistically centered one; you are an actor, your husband an artist. How are you bringing your children into that artistic circle?

We consciously try to make them aware of the beauty and complexity and contradictions of the world around them. We talk about feelings. We take opportunities for discussions in inopportune moments. For example, when my daughter helps me run lines, I love the dialogue we have about strange vocabulary and character choices. We bring them to rehearsals. We read lots of books and create songs, mini plays and performances on a daily basis. We take them to plays and performance art, galleries, art exhibits, concerts, libraries, and museums. My husband sets them up with their own art materials and projects while he paints. We try to purchase learning-based and imaginative gifts that demand creative and problem-solving thinking. We share with them the joys and challenges that making art brings to our lives.

This past summer I was lucky enough to have my children acting on the stage with me at the Utah Shakespearean Festival. My nine-year-old daughter Ellie was a MacDuff child in Macbeth as I played Lady Macbeth and my two younger children, Brookie (six) and Vance (four), were dancing village children in Much Ado About Nothing. I really enjoyed spending rehearsal and backstage time with them. Their dressing rooms were right next to mine; it provided some nice one-on-one time. I think they understand me better as a mother when they see me in my element. They also learn the sacrifices required for this job; when we got home, they were just as tired as I was.

This past year, my entire family was involved in my production of As You Like It at BYU. I directed and my husband and all four children were in the ensemble. I loved that process. I remember saying at one of the rehearsals, “Everything I love is in this room: my family, eager students itching to learn, and the words of the master playwright William Shakespeare.” I wish all facets of my life could overlap and infuse each other in that way. At first I thought that having the children on stage would be difficult, but it created an immediate community of believable relationships. It necessitated “being in the moment” and spontaneity on behalf of the adult performers because you never knew what the kids would do.

After the stage production closed we took the same cast out into the forests surrounding Provo and shot the entire production in HD. We are in the process of editing that footage to create a full-length, low-budget film version of As You Like It to be used as part of an educational software package for high school theatre teachers.

Balance is so important and it is sometimes difficult when we lead active lives. How do you maintain a spiritual balance with your work, your time away from home, your husband, and your children? What links you to home?

“Theatre is about life, life is not about theatre.” That’s one of my favorite creeds, though it is difficult to apply to everyday life since this is such a time-demanding profession. To be honest, sometimes that balance is completely lacking in my life. There’s a saying within the acting community, “I can’t, I have rehearsals,” and that’s what it often feels like. I miss out on a lot of family time and events. Each day I try to realign my priorities, organize my schedule, and simplify. My patriarchal blessing promises me that if I make time for my husband and children and express my love often and freely there will be great joy in my home. My husband is constantly reminding me to do just this: to leave my business at the office and when I am home in person to be present and engaged with the children. I have never missed attending sacrament meeting more than two Sundays in a row, no matter the inconvenience or rehearsal and performance schedule. I specifically ask for callings so that I will develop service relationships in my ward and feel needed.

How do you see acting influencing the lives of others?

I was reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens lately and I am always struck by Jacob Marley’s anguished outburst, “Mankind was my business!” Mankind is my business too; it is my job to understand people and their actions at a deeper psychological level. I need to feel and empathize deeply and have the courage to portray those lives with truth, accuracy, and insight. Leo Tolstoy said that theatre has the opportunity to be more effective than any pulpit. There is a captive audience, with an open mind, ready to be entertained, and unaware that they might actually be inspired by the end of the performance. The chance we have as performers to hold the mirror up to life and help audiences become more aware of their interactions with others, the direction their choices are leading, the consequences of self-destructive and unkind actions, and their current relationship with God—these are amazing opportunities.

Photo courtesy Karl Hugh. © Utah Shakespearean Festival 2010

What do you feel is the importance of art (performance, visual, and literary) in the lives of members?

Other than the audience that reads this sort of magazine, I don’t feel there is much importance for art in the perception of members and that saddens me. I think they believe it is a cultural exposure that their children would benefit from; that participating in performing teaches self-discipline, social skills, and increases self-esteem; and that art is useful as entertainment. However, I’m not sure that art, as a career, is respected or encouraged because it is not a stable profession nor financially lucrative. I think we’re such busy people that we don’t make or take time for the arts. We promise as part of our temple covenants to feed our spirits as often as our physical bodies and to me, participating in the arts is an excellent way to feed our spirits—to reconnect with our emotional life and learn from others’ lives.

How does theatre and acting enhance the experience of the gospel?

Doing the research, suspending personal judgment, really trying to understand the why behind a character’s actions is the closest I come to Christ-like empathy for another human being. I might not condone the behavior of the characters I play, but I understand why they do the things they do. We rarely give any other human being that kind of benefit of the doubt.

As members of the Church, we are familiar with vicarious work for the dead. I feel like acting is doing vicarious work for the living. I am vicariously living another’s life, real or imagined. I am helping my audience to vicariously view the world through another lens or prism, to experience the blessings and trials that come from making certain choices, to see others in an empathetic light.

How do you see your work helping build the kingdom?

It depends on the trajectory of my future professional life. Thus far, I feel I am building the kingdom in two distinct ways.

First, I am unashamedly a working Mormon actor, willing to discuss anything with anyone in the industry. I have many, many spiritual discussions with others not of my faith. I am a strong promoter of marriage and the family and having children. I love seeing my non-member friends have the courage to commit to one another and start a family, despite the prevailing trends. I hope my example has something to do with their decisions. I hope my friendship and good humor and transparency in discussing all things I hold dear makes me a non-confrontational ambassador of my faith.

Secondly, specifically while teaching at BYU, I have the opportunity to train future performers, not only in their craft, but also in their approach to the profession and ways to incorporate their faith into all they do. My influence on these young adults will have a ripple effect in the performing community as they go on to both worldly success and raising their own families. I’m helping to train a performing workforce that will represent BYU and the Church as compassionate, non-judgmental, inquisitive, and generous people.

An actor’s life is heavily dependent on their appearance. What do you do to keep yourself fit for your work?

Invest in a teeth-whitening system. As a mother of small children with a full-time job I’m not as regimented in this area as I should be. If I have to choose between sleep and exercise, sleep always wins out! Then, at least I will be healthy and sane, if not skinny. Being in a show with upcoming publicity pictures or a gorgeous costume that I want to look good in are great incentives. I memorize lines while I work out on the elliptical. When your blood is flowing, your brain is working! My husband and I try to go to yoga twice a week and I love Zumba!

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes

Tell us about your current projects and what you hope to achieve for yourself and for the broader community.

This past December I filmed an independent film, Boy with Blue, directed by David Thorpe and written by Matthew Greene—two recent BYU graduates. It’s about a couple dealing with the recent death of their teenage son in a drunk driving accident. I think it’s a terrific plug for film festivals because the 108-page script was filmed in a two-day period of two full takes. There were lots of long shots and tricky shots traveling back and forth between the present time and past memories with real-time choreographed camera moves and quick set dressing. We rehearsed it similarly to a theatre piece with continuous action. It deals with the unpredictable and complicated process of grief and forgiveness. Two of my current BYU students are also in it—Heidi Smith and Benny Isaacs. Being married to a low-budget filmmaker, I love to support other fledgling filmmakers whenever possible.

I just finished recording some voices for a BYU Radio version of A Christmas Carol. I will be directing a conservatory play winter semester at BYU, which means that tickets will not be sold. It is primarily for the actors to concentrate on the craft of character development without the distractions of major technical elements. I have chosen Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés. It was written in the 1970s but is set in the 1930s and is a strongly feminist piece with elements of realism and absurdism.

I will be performing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this coming summer, but they haven’t made any casting decisions as of now. As I mentioned I had an amazing past summer playing Lady Macbeth and Beatrice with three of my children also in the cast.

I am writing a one-woman show dealing with the sinking of the Titanic and Irene Colbert, the only known Mormon to die aboard. She was an LDS midwife from Provo who defied her husband and ecclesiastical leaders to go attend midwifery school in London. I hope to perform the show sometime next year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. It deals with the conflicts between motherhood and career, social consciousness, and the support we can offer one another during the transitions of birth and death.

I also have until April left on my BYU contract. I teach beginning and intermediate acting, auditions, voice, and speech and ethics.

In a perfect world, with no monetary or time limits, what would you be doing?

If I had more money, I would finance my husband’s films and artwork. He is the most creative, talented individual that I have ever met; all he needs is some serious financial backing to really get off the ground.

I would love to run my own theatre and hire the amazing actors, directors, playwrights, and designers I have worked with over the years. I would star myself in a few independent films.

If time were not limited, I would study to become and serve as a midwife. I find as much pleasure in teaching childbirth classes and attending births as a doula as I do performing, but the two careers both require so much time away from the family. I would also spend far, far more time with my children.

How do you want to be remembered?

In the long run I want to be remembered as a loving wife, mother, daughter, and sister who did her best to serve others and improve herself in this life by following Christ’s example. I realize that what I do for a living is of lesser importance than how I raise my family.

However, I have the added blessing and responsibility of touching many people’s lives through my teaching and performing.

I hope I can help audiences re-examine their choices and relationships and do what is necessary to come closer to those they love. I hope I can help them identify and personally avoid some of the tragic choices the great characters in literature have made. I hope I can bring not only entertainment, but also perspective, inspiration, and healing to their lives. ❧

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