Monday, July 21, 2014

The Process of Theatre Writing

By Guest Blogger: C. Michael Perry
     What can I say about playwriting that can take you from the ideas, to the words, to the page, to the stage? Not a lot in one sitting.

I have written the scripts for a dozen or so musicals and written the music and lyrics for more than 30 more. I was commissioned at the age of 18 to write my first musical. At age 19 I finished it, with some of my closest friends and the commissioners actually produced it and it was quite successful. That was in 1973. I have won awards, been produced across the world, and have spent more hours inside a theatre in rehearsal, than some people have been alive, and have quite enjoyed the process of writing.  I spent years as a professional actor, then a director/choreographer, then a teacher in the public schools. It has all brought me great joy, but writing is my passion.
It must be yours to be good at it.
There is nothing more satisfying than to hear a laugh (in the proper places) at something you have written that was supposed to be funny. There is nothing more awesome than being able to evoke an emotion from an audience, even a tear or a gasp, when they see something that you have created and it touches them in those places that only the Spirit can reach.
Writing is a process. For the Theatre writing is THE process. It begins with a concept, an idea, a story. It is added to, refined, reworked. The writing is not done once it is on the page, because a script is not a novel. Living actors must be able to inhabit the characters you write for them. The process is not complete without rehearsal. In rehearsal you learn what does and doesn’t work the moment your actors start speaking your words. LISTEN to them. If you keep saying, “They’re not getting it,” maybe you should consider that it is you who didn’t get it. A written script is not even a road map without the actors. It is only a guide book. If you think your script is perfect before the actors get a hold of it, stop writing because you will not be successful.
An open mind is a terrible thing to waste. It is also a major hurdle to have a mind so full that you know everything there is to know. Even Shakespeare did not always get it right.
The process of theatre writing is re-writing. It is listening to what is happening on the stage. It is sometimes more important to listen to what is NOT happening on the stage. Then make sure that what needs to happen is what does happen. The theatre is not made up of words alone, but words that embody action. Nobody wants to go to a play or musical and hear words that lead nowhere. Hyperbole? No!
Active, progressive stories and characters that take us on a journey; that is what you have to create. Every word must contribute to the overall arc of the play. Every character must fit into that arc. Each word moves us forward into some action that is inevitable. This means that you must choose each word very carefully. One word out of place and the story is broken, delayed, unfulfilled. Not shattered, but ineffective.
Characters have wants and needs. Sometimes the plot is as simple as the character going after what he or she thinks they want rather than what the audience comes to understand that they really need. The needs and wants of the characters work on several levels. Each scene has a want and/or a need. Each conversation can be broken down into wants and needs -- these are things that are immediate. Then there are the long term goals, the over-arching wants and needs.
Where does your character want to be at the end of the play? What do they want to achieve? Each character must want something or someone, or has a need to do something or be someone. These must interrelate; must either contribute to or take away from the main character’s ability to obtain what he or she wants. Each character is either a help or a hindrance. They are colleagues or enemies, and all the shades that go with that. Sometimes they can be both friend and foe at different times. Ambivalence in a character is acceptable. Ambivalence in an author is not.
At the end of the play does your central character achieve his or her Objective? Then you have a comedy or a serio-comedy, usually. Do they not get what they want? Then you might have a tragedy, or at least fine drama.
Every bit of dialog is an interaction with a chain of reactions to what is said and/or done. It all must work together for the viewer. The audience members are the reason we are all there in the first place.
Most times we find ourselves as a playwright or a composer locked away in a room. That’s what it sometimes takes to create the kernel or the nut of the concept or idea. But it is only through collaboration that the true writing process of the theatre expands your piece into something stageworthy. Sometimes this collaboration works with yourself if you have a really open mind and a propensity that leads you away from schizophrenia. This collaboration can also be in the form of working with actors and directors and designers who all bring something to the table for you to sample. You, as the playwright, must decide on what ingredients work best in your play. It is yours, after all.
I love collaboration, with the actors, but also with another writer. Some of my best work has been sitting in a room with one of my collaborators (or even lately Skyping with them -- not quite as good but it still works) and bouncing ideas off each other and becoming inspired by the comments and contributions of your fellow writers. (This is how TV writers work together in a group.) One word or thought can lead to a new lyric or a better constructed scene. Put lots of words together and the play starts becoming a better constructed play overall.
After all is said and done, you must serve the play. What is best for the play is what you must write. Sometimes you have an idea or a concept that becomes unworkable. You have to be willing, as a writer, to let go of what does not work. Jettison the refuse. Start over if you have to. After attending the recent premere of a friend’s new play, she told me that a show I was in many years ago (which she had written) was being conceptualized and a first draft written while she was Assistant Directing another original show (not written by her) that I was performing in. She got a script together. Then read through it. She was so disgusted that as she walked by a trash can she just let the pages fall from her fingers and started over again. She didn’t like a word she had written. She told me it was ‘awful’. You have to set your ego aside for the betterment of the child you are trying to give birth to. You want a healthy, walking, talking, laughing, crying child. Aunts and Uncles, Grandparents, Church leaders, teachers -- all contribute the raising of a child. The same process works in the theatre except that these ‘relations’ are replaced by your colleagues; the people you work with.
That is also an important concept: Working with. They don’t work for you. The Director is not your boss. The theatre is nothing more than a collaborative process with each person doing his or her part to contribute to the whole. It is like a built-in society operating under the Law of Consecration: everyone with their strengths and talents contributing equally in their own realm; having an equal chance to be heard. Actors don’t direct. Writers don’t act. Actors contribute through their characterizations and insights as do others on the production team. Directors and writers work together to make the script/show is as solid as it can be. But it is, inevitably, the writer(s) who make(s) all the final decisions. The play or musical is, after all, in the long run, the sole property of the authors.
If you want to write, sit down and write. Do it longhand, use a typewriter, use a computer -- speak your notes into your phone! Whatever. Just start the process. Gather your friends around and read it together often! Feedback on what works and what doesn’t work, will come from the strangest and most unexpected of places. Have an open mind. Be willing to accept that you don’t do everything correctly.
Remember this, that the title of the show we know as Oklahoma! was Away We Go! as it entered Boston on it’s tryout tour in 1943. The title song had not even been written yet and it was only two weeks before the New York opening! Remember also that the song Bali H’ai from South Pacific was hurriedly scribbled on the back of a restaurant napkin during lunch between the morning and afternoon rehearsals of ‘preview week’. Richard Rodgers left the afternoon rehearsal and by dinner time had the song written and arranged and in the show.
Seek inspiration. Then listen to it. Don’t always pretend you know better. You don’t. There is a guide out there. Call him God, call her Muse, that doesn’t matter. Just listen.
Seek information. Don’t be afraid to research. Ask questions. Solicit opinions. Change your mind.
Use words that lead to actions. Illicit actions and thoughts from your performers. Watch them. And listen.
Use thoughts that express desires, wants needs. Listen.

It is all part of the writing process for the theatre. 

About the Guest Blogger
C. Michael Perry was born in Colorado and raised in Chicago. He found the theatre in High School and has made a living in Theatre, Film and Television since then. He has worked on over 25 major network television shows and some 300 commercials along with two feature films. He has performed in front of over 2000 live audiences from Utah to Italy in various plays and musicals. He has received acting awards for his many leading and supporting roles. He has directed over 40 shows on the Community, Educational and Professional level. He has choreographed over 50 productions. He has won awards for lighting and scenic designs in community theatre and continues to design shows at the high school level. He is a graduate of Brigham Young University with a BA in Theatre. He is the composer of over thirty musicals including “CINDERABBIT” for PBS, which won an Emmy Award and a “Best Of The West” Public Television award.  He is also a playwright and lyricist for over 20 plays and award winning  musicals that have been produced across the nation, many of which are  published. Other works composed include, ENTERTAINING MARK TWAIN, FAUNTLEROY!, KEWPIE! THE APPLE KINGDOM, OF BABYLON, TURN THE GAS BACK ON!, CURSES, FOILED AGAIN!, TOM SAWYER, ONSTAGE!, A CHRISTMAS MEMORY and THE MIRACLE OF MIRADOR, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL and ANNE with an ‘e’ - THE GREEN GABLES MUSICAL.  His newest musical projects are: ENCHANTED APRIL a musical, THE TYMES IN ALL ETERNITY, and THE BALLAD OF PARLEY P!, along with the 14 novel series DANIEL LIGHT AND THE CHILDREN OF THE ORB and the trilogy series WEMBLEY TEWKES ON THE EDGES OF TIME. He is also working on other four other stand alone fiction novels: ANGEL, SINS OF THE SONS, NIGHT SHIFT and SWEETWATER SALVATION.
He has been a member of The Educational Theatre Association, The International Thespian Society, Christians In Theatre Arts, The Texas Educational Theatre Association, The Utah Theatre Association, Ohio Community Theatre Association, The American Alliance for Theatre In Education and The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). He has served as the President of the Theatre Guild Of Utah Valley in central Utah. He is President of Michael Perry Productions and its subsidiaries: Leicester Bay Books, Zion BookWorks, Leicester Bay Theatricals, Zion Theatricals and Shining Sharon Music. He makes his home in Salt Lake City, Utah with his wife Sharon, and son Jon-Christopher. His daughters, Jessica, Janalynn and Joelle are out on their own.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Costuming a Stake Play for Beginners

y Guest Blogger: Cassidy Olsen
       My experience as a Costumer for our stake play was wonderful and exciting and nerve-wracking all at the same time.  I had no prior experience in costuming. I liked to dress myself, but I had never been in charge of dressing others.  I liked going to the theatre, but I had never personally been a part of a play or production in any way, shape or form.  I didn't even know what stage left and stage right were!  Most of what was asked of me was like a foreign language.  This was good and bad, as I made the process my own, but didn’t really know if I was doing it right! I learned as I went and tried to think ahead to make things easier for me in the end.
       This is the definition I used when I started to analyze my responsibilities as a costumer for our stake play:
A costumer is the person who dresses the actors in a play.  This may include designing, creating, collecting, assembling, fitting, sewing, etc. 
        I didn’t have the first idea on how to do it, but I knew I had to clothe all of the actors in our play.  I knew the following were my responsibilities, and I asked myself a lot of questions along the way:
        FIRST, I needed to read the script and get to know each character to decide how they would dress.  I needed to understand the age and personality of the characters, and design the wardrobes accordingly. It was my responsibility to design the costumes and then costuming volunteers would help me to implement those designs and work with the actors. When planning costume designs, I knew that I needed to provide period-appropriate clothing that matched what our director and I had in mind for each character.  As this was a personal story for our director, it was very important for me to have her approval and insight in designing how the character looked.
        We were doing a play called In Search of the One about reaching out to each other and helping inactive members to come back to the church. It is set in the 1990's. As I read and reread the script, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. I took notes while I read. I'll post some of the questions and notes below so that you can get a feel for my thought process. Of course, all of my questions can be applied to the script for your play.
How did people dress in the early 90’s?  How can we make clothing we already have in our closets reflect that time period?
Do we have a budget? 
Will I be able to find assistance?  How should I utilize willing volunteers?
How can the costumes reflect the characters being portrayed? What hints can we give the audience about each character based on the costumes they are wearing?
How would a grumpy old man dress? What kind of clothing would be available to a rough woman who was battling alcoholism and on the brink of homelessness?
How many dresses would Tracy need?  How many ties should Andy wear throughout the course of the play?  How could the actors do quick clothing changes in between scenes?
How should Rachel’s hair be done to show her uptight personality in the beginning?  How can it be changed to show her change of heart towards the end of the play?  
How would our actors have easy access to their costumes?  How would they have privacy in making costume changes?  
-I need to outline character wardrobes and quick costume changes.  
-I need to find, collect, and fit costumes to the cast. 
-I need to work with the prop team and hair and makeup team to complete the character looks.
-I need to figure out storage and organization of the costumes during the production.   
        As I worked on completing these tasks, and answering these questions, I read the script over and over again.  I met with our director and production team to bounce ideas around.  I assembled volunteers and delegated responsibilities.  I asked a lot of questions.  I prayed a lot, and in the end it turned out great.  It’s hard to go step by step on how I did it, because each production is different, but I’ll tell you about my process and maybe you’ll find it helpful in your own experience. 

In the beginning…
        My first step was to read the script.  I read it many times through, and the first time I read it just to read it. I tried not to think too much of technical things, I just wanted to get a feel for the story.  Then I read it again- well, I guess the word to use is studied the script.  This time I took notes.  I wrote down everything that popped into my head as I read.  What I thought these people looked like, what I thought they would wear, how old they were, the colors they might look nice in.  I knew it would be difficult to dress characters that I knew nothing about, so I tried to see them in my head, and I tried to hear their voices.  As I made the effort to understand them, and as I prayed for help and guidance, I could see each character take shape. I also wrote when I noticed technical issues like quick changes or questions about the time of day and season. I then met with our director to discuss my thoughts, and to clarify her vision.  At that time I had a list of all the characters and details of their “look.”
        Next, I started creating documents to help me visualize each character and their costume needs.  Here is an example of one of those documents:
Jane: Woman in her late 40’s, Josh’s mom.  She’s living a hard life, her clothing will show it.
Items needed: Outfit, shoes, jacket.  New, nice dress for epilogue.
Details:  Her clothing should be worn, old fashioned, dingy.  She is shown 3 times in her old clothing, maybe add a jacket to change it up a little, but I would like to have her outfit be nearly the same in all scenes. The epilogue scene will show Jane cleaned up and looking nice.
ACT I scene 5, ACT I scene 9, ACT II scene 6, Epilogue
This is how Jane turned out:
        In the document above, I described the character, identified needed items, clarified how many outfits and changes were needed, and listed the scenes they appeared in.  This document helped in many ways, but it really aided in figuring out how I was going to change outfits to make them look like they were seen at different times or different days.  I knew we most likely didn’t have the resources to have, say, 5 different outfits for each main character.  But, I knew we could add small items to change the look a little bit.  I thought a lot about jackets, sweaters, scarves, vests, belts, hats, etc.  All of those items helped to change a look without having to really change it.  I would add and take away to create the subtle differences I needed. 
      In another document I went through the script and wrote down details of every scene.  This document went scene by scene, describing the characters involved, and what they would be wearing in each scene.  This helped me pinpoint costume changes and variations.  I could see when a character was shown on a different day, therefore I could note that they should be wearing a different outfit.  I could then more accurately communicate with the actors what they needed to wear and when. 
ACT II scene 2
Characters: Andy Nimmo, Josh Anderson, Humphrey Knickerbocker, Susan Wright, Rachel Fielding, Jake Fielding
Andy Nimmo- suit and tie- different tie from before (tie #5)
Josh Anderson- suit and tie- different tie from before (tie #4)
Humphrey Knickerbocker- classic old man outfit, variation from before (variation #4)
Susan Wright- dress- different from before (variation #5)
Rachel Fielding- dress- different from before, warm her up even more(variation #4)
Jake- Sunday best

ACT II scene 3
Characters: Susan Wright, Eva Ashby
Susan Wright- dress- same as scene before
Eva- similar outfit from before
        Our stake had a very minimal budget for costuming.  I realized quickly that I wouldn’t be able to buy much for the production-$40.00 won’t get you far, even at the thrift store.  So, I started brainstorming ways to collect the items we needed.  Luckily, the time period we were working with was the early 1990’s.  I knew that many people had appropriate clothing in their closets or in the closets of someone they knew. After a lot of thought, I decided to have each cast member responsible for collecting their costume items. To help them understand what they needed, I created a visual document that described each character, and had pictures of the type of clothing they would be wearing.  This was helpful because they had specific direction from me, and it reduced the amount of questions and concerns regarding what they should be looking for.  I encouraged them to search through closets, to ask on facebook and other social media, and to borrow from friends and family to find necessary articles.
Humphrey Knickerbocker: Grumpy man in his 70’s. Browns and greens.  Cardigans, plaids, suspenders, bow ties…
Items needed: Khaki or corduroy pants, plaid shirts, bowties, cardigans, pajamas or bathrobe. 
Details: He is in need of 4 variations of his regular outfit.  We can switch up the bowtie and or shirt, take away the cardigan and add suspenders.
ACT I scene 6, ACT I scene 7, ACT I scene 8, ACT I scene 9, ACT II scene 2, ACT II scene 4, ACT III scene 2

Costume suggestions for Humphrey:

Here is how Humphrey Knickerbocker turned out:
        Because our budget was so small, I also thought of having a clothing drive in our stake to collect needed items.  My thought was to have people donate old items of clothing, and we would be able to utilize those contributions that would work with the production.  The rest of the items would then be donated to local thrift stores.
        After letting each cast member know what items they would need to collect, I utilized willing volunteers to help me follow up with them. These people notified our director of their interest in helping in certain areas of the play.  She gave me their information, and I reached out to them.  I assigned each of my volunteers (costuming assistants) to be in charge of a few members of the cast.  Their responsibilities were to communicate with those actors, assist them in finding clothing items if necessary, and give pre-approval of costume items.  They were to make sure they had the items they needed by a specific rehearsal date.  On this rehearsal day, all cast members brought all of their costume items to be officially approved and amended if needed.  We spoke to them about when they would be wearing specific items, we worked out kinks in quick changes, and we made changes in their wardrobe as needed.  My assistants were also in charge of assisting their assigned cast members with quick changes during the production if needed.  For example, they would be standing just off stage with the clothing items needed for the next scene.  This helped the actor immensely. 
       After all costume items were approved, I kept tabs on everything until dress rehearsals.  We located rooms where costumes could be stored, and I found a few clothing racks and hangers to help organize costume items.  Our cast members were so well prepared and responsible, I didn’t have to worry too much about whether or not they were capable of bringing their costumes and changing into correct clothing for rehearsals and performances.  A few reminders and advice was all that was needed, and they figured out a system that worked for them.
        Final adjustments were made during dress rehearsals.  I watched them practice, consulted with the actors and our director, and made a few minor changes.  These changes were made to flatter the actor better on stage, or to adjust colors that didn’t look right with the lighting.  Final discussions occurred to ensure all were comfortable and confident in their wardrobe, and that we all agreed on details regarding costumes. 
        The play ended up being a success!  I saw many people touched by the message of this production- those performing, planning, organizing, and attending were all uplifted by the Spirit.  It was amazing to me to see the work of so many people come together in such a wonderful way.  We all have talents and abilities, and when we work together and invite the help of the Lord, great things can happen!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My Vision: A New Little Theatre Movement

In 1912, a curious movement was underway across the United States. The introduction of film began to replace and threaten theatre. Theatre professionals and theatre-lovers recognized the need to preserve the theatre and to make it more accessible to audiences on a local level. This began a push toward creating "little theatres" all over the country. It was a national phenomenon. An eclectic group of professionals, amateurs, artists, students and community members from across the country united to promote what now is now referred to as The Little Theatre Movement. As a result, audience members no longer needed to go to Broadway to see a play, they could travel to their local theatre.  Plays were performed in a non-commercial environment and often in unconventional spaces. The movement encouraged new playwrights to write and provided a place for their works to be produced. Those inclined towards the arts, now had a place to gain experience, train and develop their craft. Community theatres began dotting the map and universities and high schools began incorporating theatre into their curriculum and degree programs.

Just in case this little history lesson of American theatre bores you, I will mention something that should pique your interest. Take a guess at who some scholars consider to be the 'father' of The Little Theatre Movement. As if his grand vision for the settlement of Utah wasn't enough, he also had an advanced vision for the arts, particularly theatre. Yes, I am referring to Brigham Young. President Brigham Young helped to start The Little Theatre Movement in America.
Before the Saints came to Utah, they put on plays and elaborate pageants in Nauvoo, Illinios in the early 1840's. Brigham Young played a lead role in Pizarro, a well-known play of their time.
"As soon as the Mormons felt comfortably settled in Salt Lake City, they again turned to drama for entertainment. In the fall of 1850 the Deseret Musical and Dramatic Association was formed. Performances were held at the Bowery on the temple block.  
"In 1852 the Musical and Dramatic Association reorganized as the Deseret Dramatic Association, with Brigham Young as an honorary member. The Social Hall was erected and served as a principal place of amusement from 1852 to 1857. Built of adobe with a shingle roof, the Social Hall has been called the first Little Theatre in America...The Social Hall's stage measured twenty by forty feet, tallow candles served as footlights, and there were dressing rooms off and under the stage. A bust of Shakespeare was placed above the stage. Smaller towns soon began to emulate the activities of the Social Hall" (Helen Garrity, "The Theatre in Utah" in Utah:A Centennial History, 1949).

Then in 1862, Brigham Young supervised the building of the prestigious Salt Lake Theatre. During the dedicatory service of the Salt Lake Theatre, President Young said, "On the stage of a theatre can be represented in character evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weaknesses and follies of man and the magnanimity of the virtuous life."

Brigham Young also said, ""If I were placed on a cannibal island and given a task of civilizing its people, I should straightway build a theatre." And that is exactly what he did.

I can't help but learn a few lessons from this. Lesson 1: Theatre played an important cultural role in the early days of the Church following the Restoration. Lesson 2: The early Saints were "pioneers" in many ways - including pioneering the organization of little theatres. Lesson 3: Theatre is of value to members of the Church. Lesson 4: The Saints worked with what they had and who they had. The first plays performed in Salt Lake City were held at the Bowery. A bowery is a temporary shelter made from placing tree boughs on a frame structure. They didn't have a fancy theatre to perform in, nor did they have accomplished actors and directors to produce the plays. They worked with what they had and the Lord made it beautiful. Lesson 5: Money, time, space and supplies were used to produce theatre by the early Saints, which further emphasizes the value they placed on it. 

The history of theatre in our church is significant! From its humble start in Nauvoo and at the Bowery in Salt Lake City, to its growth into the Social Hall and later the Salt Lake Theatre. Now we have theatres all over Utah and the country.

The early Saints taught us that theatre still plays an important role in the LDS Church. It can be a teaching tool, a testimony-builder, a unifying form of entertainment and a means of self-expression. They taught us that we don't need fancy performance spaces or professionals, we just need to do the best we can with what we have. 

If the early Saints were to see our "Cultural" Halls in each stake center, I am sure they would know exactly what to do with them (and I doubt it would have much to do with basketball). Each stake center in this country has a space to perform theatre and music. We are so lucky! We have a FREE place to perform. We have an audience. We have wonderful people who want to share their talents in writing, acting, directing, etc. And we have the Holy Ghost, which can help compensate for our inadequacies. 

(Now, this is the part where I bring out my apple cart, stand on top of it and preach.)

With all of our history, with all of our talents, with all of our resources, we are in the perfect position to lead the world once again. We have all we need to start a new little theatre movement. 

We have 3,005 stake centers in this world! Imagine each stage in each cultural hall as being a 'little theatre', with the ability to perform high-quality plays and musicals that are entertaining, uplifting, thought-provoking and inspiring. What if they made you laugh and made you cry? What if stake members with various talents could come together, learn together and create something beautiful?

What if...
-Seamstresses and Fashion Gurus could become Costumers.
-Graphic Designers could become Publicity Specialists.
-Obsessive Organizers could become Stage Managers.
-Carpenters could become Set Construction Crews.
-Weight Lifters could become Stage Crew Members.
-The Technically Inclined could become Technical Directors and Lighting & Sound Operators.
-Teachers and History Buffs could become Dramaturgs.
-Collectors and the Thrift Store Savvy could become Prop Masters.
-Artists could become Set Painters and Designers.
-Beauticians could become Hair and Makeup Experts.
-ActorsDirectorsSingers and Musicians could have a place to use their talents without having to compromise their values.
-Writers could become Playwrights
-Stake Members could become Audiences.
-A Cultural Hall could become a Little Theatre.
-Little Theatres in each stake of the Church throughout the world could mark the beginning of a whole new type of Little Theatre Movement

By recognizing that a potential "little theatre" exists in each stake center, within the 3,005 stakes all over the world, we could look at LDS theatre with a much greater vision. It would motivate people to write worthy plays, which could be shared and produced world-wide. Few playwrights have ever had their scripts performed across the map! Stories could be told in ways that could strengthen members in wards and stakes. Members of the Church could have a clean, uplifting form of entertainment. Sharing the gospel could be hugely impacted - it's much easier to invite a friend to a play, than to invite a friend to church. Directors and Designers could share their ideas online. Artists would have a place to share and multiply their talents.

Nothing like this has ever existed in the history of the world! Little theatres all over the map, producing plays that teach the same truths, with the same Spirit, in a million different ways. The Church is the only organization that I know of that could pull something like this off. No other group is so organized and standardized. It would be a world-wide phenomenon. It would be a new movement.

As members of the Church, it's easy to feel like the minority. It's easy to feel like our work doesn't mean anything unless the world accepts it. I know of many LDS playwrights who measure their success by whether their play is performed in NYC. I know of many LDS artists who feel like they aren't good enough until Hollywood or Broadway tell them so. I don't believe that true success is measured by worldly standards. Instead of looking to the world for approval, let's do something "peculiar" and let the world look toward us

My vision for LDS theatre is to move past the occasional roadshow and skit, and expand our perspective toward producing high-quality theatre throughout the world that entertains, has meaning, has value and has the capacity to change lives.

Pass it on.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

STEP TWO: How to Propose A Play To Your Stake Presidency

You've chosen a script that you would like to direct. get the Stake Presidency's approval. 

If your Stake Presidency has asked you to direct something...then all you need to do is submit a one-page document like the one at the bottom of this post. I'll discuss it more later.

But what if your Stake Presidency hasn't asked you to direct anything, but you would like to direct a play for your stake? Here's what you do: After choosing the play you'd like to propose, find out who the Cultural Arts Chair person is in your stake. Also find out who the High Councilman is who is assigned to Cultural Arts. Send them an email (or call them) and tell them that you would love to direct a stake play and that you have a script you'd like to propose. Tell them that if they'd consider having you direct a play, you will send them a one-page document with your proposal, as well as a copy of the script for them to read. 

I wrote the Stake Play Proposal below in 2007 for my stake in Texas. You can do it any way you'd like, but I strongly recommend including the following:
-Make it 1 page. Do not make it any longer than 1 page. As you know, Stake Presidencies are busy and they don't have time to read through a lot of details. 
-Write the name of the play you are proposing and a very brief description of it.
-Give basic information about auditions, rehearsals and performances.
-Describe what the stake production is intended to other words, what is the purpose of it? What will it do for your stake?
-Discuss what help will you need from stake members.
-Give an estimated budget for the production. I recommend rounding up, just in case. Consider lighting and sound costs, set costs, costumes, props, etc. (I will discuss more about how to determine costs in another post.)
-Proofread it. 
-Leave your contact information on the proposal. 

Austin Texas Stake Cultural Arts  •  September 2007
Proposal for Stake Theatre & Music Production: 
Joseph Smith – Lover of the Cause of Christ
I propose holding a production based on the life and influence of the prophet Joseph Smith. The script is based on historical accounts written by those who associated with the prophet and also from people who gained a testimony after his death. 
Auditions, Rehearsals & Performances
All Stake members are invited to audition and contribute. Auditions will be advertised throughout the stake and held on Wednesday, October 17, 2007. Rehearsals will begin immediately after the piece is cast and be held on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings /or afternoons. Performance venue of choice is the Rutherford Stake Center gym & stage. Sound & technical equipment will be used from the stake or rented. 
Performances will be held Thursday, Friday & Saturday:
1st Choice of dates:   January 17-19, 2008 (Thurs – Sat)
2nd Choice of dates:  January 24-26, 2008 (Thurs – Sat)
This Stake Production is intended to:
Focus on the 3-fold mission of the church: 
1.) Proclaim the Gospel: Members will be invited to bring friends who are not of our faith. Missionaries can bring investigators. We could also coordinate with ward missionary units.
2.) Perfect the Saints: Bring our stake closer to Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father through studying the lives and teachings of the prophet of the Restoration. Theatre can offer another place where the Spirit can be felt, testimonies can grow and seeds can be planted. 
3.) Redeem the Dead: This production will help the audience to appreciate the temple and all of the sacrifices made by the early Saints in an effort to have a temple.
·Provide an opportunity for writers, musicians, actors, artists, directors, technical crew members, etc. to have a worthy, clean, creative outlet for their talents.
·Unite our stake.
·Help younger audience members & others learn to recognize the Spirit.
Support needed for the production:
Director: Angie Staheli, Cedar Park ward (already called as Stake Drama Specialist)
Additional collaborators, by way of Stake assignment could include:
Technical Director- Procures needed sound & lighting equipment, sets-up and runs equipment during tech rehearsals and performances; instructs and oversees tech crew and set building. Enlists help as needed.
Assistant Director- Assists Director during rehearsals (notes, writes blocking, etc.)
Costumer- Designs appropriate costumes as designated by Director. Enlists help as needed.
Set Designer- Designs set as designated by Director; procures materials and reconstructs as needed
Stage Manager- “Calls the show” through all performances, assists in rehearsals, coordinates stage crew
We will ask for additional volunteers from the stake once these roles are filled.
The following assistance & support is needed from each Ward or Branch:
·Recommend additional names of members who could fulfill the above assignments
·Announce this Cultural Arts opportunity—ensure all members hear the message and have the opportunity to participate as they desire
·Announce and attend the Stake Production; invite friends and neighbors 
Anticipated budget for production: $1,000 (set, props, costumes, misc. tech equipment rental as needed)

Email your proposal document to your stake's Cultural Arts Chairperson and the High Councilman over Cultural Arts. They will likely send it to your Stake Presidency if they think it is a worthwhile pursuit. After you've sent it, wait for their response. If they don't respond, call them after a few weeks and ask if they received your email. 

Once you receive the A-okay, you will need to agree upon audition and performance dates. Then you've got a LOT of work ahead of you. 

Good Luck!

STEP ONE: How to Choose a Play to Direct

Surprisingly, this step is a difficult one. Why?

Challenge #1: Finding Material
Clean, church-appropriate plays are really hard to find. And once you find a title that looks interesting, it's difficult to locate the script(s). I have spent hours in the past searching online for LDS plays and have not had much success (which is why I started writing my own). Thankfully, there are a few places where you can find them; I'll discuss this more later in the post.

Challenge #2: Getting Approval
The other challenge people have is finding a play that their Stake President will approve. I have heard of several situations where stake presidents have not approved the play that was proposed. I've even heard of directors purchasing the royalties to a play before their stake presidency even had a chance to read the script. (Royalties are the rights to perform a play and they typically cost money.) Once the script was reviewed, the stake presidency did not find it appropriate for stake members and did not give their approval. The member who proposed to direct it was then out a chunk of money and there were hard feelings.

What Type of Play to Look For
If you would like to produce a play in a stake setting, I have a few suggestions on what type of script to look for:

1. Make sure the script you're purposing is in line with the 13th Article of Faith.
"We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul-We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."
Although it is necessary to show a certain amount of evil, in order to show the good, there needs to be a delicate balance - especially when presenting it to an audience of church members. One of the tests I give a script is: Is evil being glorified? If it is, then it's not suitable for a stake production. And of course: Will the Holy Ghost be present throughout the play?

I also make sure that the script I choose is free of any profanity, violence, false doctrine, irreverence, making light of spiritual things, sensuality and anything else that will not be conducive to the Holy Ghost.

When I was at BYU-Idaho, the school's president (and now apostle) walked out of a performance of 1776 because of a scene with sexual innuendo. Many people would consider 1776 a family-friendly play, but it wasn't clean enough for a church college, or a church audience.

In other words, there are higher standards for church audiences. (I personally feel like I should hold myself to that high standard, no matter what kind of audience there is.) When choosing a script to direct, we need to read it with that higher standard in mind. 

I'm sure we've all told someone about a movie we've seen by saying, "It was amazing...except for that one part that didn't need to be in the movie." "That one part" may be the difference between getting the play approved or denied. "That one part" can also create a very uncomfortable environment in the audience, take away from the message of the play, cause the Spirit to depart and turn what could of been a spiritual, faith-promoting experience into something that missed the mark. 

There are countless ways to depict evil and opposition without making it inappropriate. Sometimes less is more. Bruises on a woman's face are an obvious indication that she's been beaten - you don't necessarily need to show her getting abused onstage. A verbal argument is sometimes even more effective if the tension is suppressed instead of people screaming at each other. Subtle clues in dress and behavior can reveal a lot about a character without having  to "show" everything. Just make sure that the script will allow you to tastefully direct it without having to change the dialogue.

If you do need to change dialogue in a script in order to make it appropriate, you will need to contact the publisher to request permission. This might take a lot of time and trouble. I recommend just starting with appropriate material in the first place.

2. Make sure the play has a purpose.
You have a captive audience of hundreds of people in your stake. What  message do you want to share? Companies pay big bucks to place ads and commercials before movies, during TV shows, on the freeway...why? Because they have an audience! You will have an audience. What questions do you want your play to raise? What message do you want to pass on? You have an hour and a half to 2 hours to say something...make it count.

In my opinion, it is important to avoid plays that would be done at your local public schools. There's no reason to replicate a production or do something just for the sake of doing something. You have an audience of people who either share your values or are interested in learning more about them. Why do a play like Aladdin or The Music Man in a stake setting? Leave that to school or community theater. 

Many stakes want to get the youth involved, which is why they choose well-known musicals. In my opinion, the youth will come regardless; just advertise it in a way that will interest them. Youth (although they may not realize it at first) are hungry for something that really means something. Give them something with substance and they will feast on it and share it enthusiastically. By doing a meaningful play, you can help facilitate a life-changing, testimony-building experience for the youth (and adults!). 

That said, a "meaningful play" does not constitute a boring play. It does not mean that the play has to be serious and preachy. It can be a comedy, a drama (or both!),  a musical, etc.  It can still be fun and entertaining. Finding a play that is spiritually significant and applicable to the audience (and participants) will allow your production to do much more than just can bring people to Christ.  (See my post: And They Shall Be Filled).

A play with a purpose will also interest your Stake President. Using the building, stake funds and time from the members involved will be easy to justify if there's a purpose behind it and if the play can increase testimonies. 

Finding A Play
So, let's say you want to direct a play that's appropriate for church audiences, meaningful and spiritually significant. Where on earth do you find it? This is actually a big challenge. 

As I mentioned, I've spent a lot of time searching for good plays to direct in an LDS setting. Luckily, I have found a wonderful link with the most complete listing I've ever seen of LDS Plays. 

A Producer/Publisher/Playwright/Director/Actor named C. Michael Perry has done a fantastic job researching and collecting plays by LDS playwrights /or plays for an LDS audience (he will be Guest Blogging on this site in the future). He also started Zion Theatricals, an LDS Play Publisher:  If any of the links don't work, just contact C. Michael Perry directly (see the contact page on the link).

Another resource is the New Play Project. Here is the mission statement, taken from their website: 
"New Play Project is a non-profit theatre company based in Provo Utah, committed to producing values-driven works for the Mormon audience and to helping aspiring playwrights, actors and directors launch careers in theatre." 
They have an inexpensive anthology of plays called Out of the Mount that you can purchase in their store (I recommend the cheaper eBook). See . Be aware that some of the plays may not be meant for a stake audience, but some of them could be. You will have to read them and determine for yourself. 

Zion Theatre Company is committed to producing meaningful plays. Many of them have been written by Mahonri Stewart. Some of them are available at the store on the website:, but his other works are available by following the links on C. Michael Perry's website above. 

With Mine Own Hand is a great LDS Musical about the Book of Mormon. I saw it in Washington state and then again in Utah at BYU Education Week. You can request a copy of the script on the website. 

I have written three plays that are meant for church audiences. They are all free. The first is Joseph Smith - Lover of the Cause of Christ. It has been performed in Austin, Texas, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, South Jordan, Utah and it will be performed at the General Conference Center Theater in May of 2013. You can get a free copy by emailing me at For more information about this play, go to:
In Search of the One is a fairly new play based on 5 true reactivation stories. It has been performed in Utah and will be performed in Mississippi in the summer of 2013. If you'd like a free copy, email me at 

Witnesses of His Love is a music and theatre program written especially for Young Women. The extremely talented Doug and Sherry Walker wrote the Music and Lyrics to the songs and I wrote the script. The title of the program is taken from the song of the same name on Doug Walker's CD, What Heaven Sees In You (which includes the favorite 3 White Dresses song). It is meant to be used as a Fireside or a ward/stake Young Women Activity. Their website has more information: The script provides opportunities for Young Women to share their personal experiences with each of the Young Women Values (Faith, Virtue, etc.). 

Savior of the World is performed annually at the General Conference Center in Salt Lake. Here is a link to the script(s): The website also has information and guides for Set Design, Costuming, etc. 

Thankfully, The Cultural Arts Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is planning to post free scripts written by members of the church onto their website. I have a friend who works in the Music and Cultural Arts Department and she sent me this email:
"I work for the Church Music and Cultural Arts department.  We are trying very hard to get a website that will have the productions the Church has done or that have been winning entries in the submission program over the years that people can download free.  In the meantime, if you want to use anything the Church has, you are welcome to do so.  You would need to call or email the Department to ask if we have something about a particular subject or find out what is available.  The person who is over Cultural Arts is Jannette Lusk-Unterborn. The main phone number for MCA is 801-240-6492.  The email is"  
Thanks to my friend for this wonderful information. I love that you can pick a topic, call them and see if they have a play written on the subject. Their future website could prove to be an excellent resource in the future. 

Do you know of another script that is not listed here? 
If you have additional play suggestions that are appropriate for church audiences, please leave a comment below. 

Good luck choosing a script to direct! 

Monday, April 15, 2013

And They Shall Be Filled: Using Your Talents To Share the Gospel Through the Arts

As children of the most creative being in existence, we have been endowed with the power to create. Our Father created our spirits. Our brother, Jesus Christ created the entire earth and each of our physical bodies. It is little wonder why we have such a desire to create – it is part of us. It is also little wonder why Satan, the great counterfeiter, has such a hold on creative arts. Lucifer has never created anything. He never received a body and does not hold the Priesthood, nor does he receive the blessings of the Priesthood. Satan would like to manipulate our gifts and persuade us to use them for his purposes. He would have us believe that if we use our creativity for money, power or popularity, we will be fulfilled and experience joy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When Jesus Christ created the world under the direction of our Father in Heaven, it was not a self-indulgent act. He created the world to glorify His Father, not Himself. All of His creative work was in an effort to further our Heavenly Father’s Plan. Even during the Council in Heaven, the Savior said, “Thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.”

The prophet Isaiah tells the story of a dreaming man who is hungry and eats, but when he wakes up, his soul is empty. He then describes a man who is thirsty, who dreams that he is drinking, but wakes up and is left thirsty still.

In some respects we can consider this world a “dream-like” state. The things we suppose will give us nourishment and quench our thirst, most often leave us empty and unsatisfied. The world offers its glitzy and glamorous form of fulfillment, as if it will quench all of our desires. But when we have partaken of the world’s praise, we will consistently find that it’s not enough. It leaves us empty and leaves us hungry for more.

As artists, we rely on the reactions of others to determine if what we’ve created is worthwhile. We find ourselves seeking approval from the world so that we can gauge if our talents are sufficient or our contributions are important. We hope that the world will tell us that we are brilliant, gifted and are set apart from the rest. But once the world offers its voice – no matter if it praises us or criticizes us - we will always be left one of two ways: empty or thirsty for more.

But this is not the Lord’s way. In Matthew chapter 5, the Savior tells us how our souls can truly be filled: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” If we hunger and thirst for the praise of the world, we will always be left wanting more. But if we hunger and thirst after righteousness, we will be filled.

How can we direct our creative appetites toward righteous pursuits? How can we use our talents in the arts toward righteous purposes? How can we experience this feeling of being “filled?”

Consecrate our Talents
As the Savior stated in Matthew, it is only through seeking righteousness that we can be filled. Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave an unforgettable talk about the good, better and best ways to use our time. I believe this can be equally applied to the way we use our talents. We can use our talents for the world for the sole purpose of making money and it can still be considered good. We can use our talents to uplift and entertain others which may be a better use of those talents. Or we can use our talents to lead others to Christ and to His gospel – which I would consider to be the best use of our talents.

The world has enough artists, actors, writers, dancers, filmmakers, musicians and creative thinkers. President Boyd K. Packer said, “It is sad but true that, almost as a rule, our most gifted members are drawn to the world. They who are most capable to preserve our cultural heritage and to extend it, because of the enticements of the world, seek rather to replace it…Unfortunately many of them will live to learn that indeed, 'Many men struggle to climb to reach the top of the ladder, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.'"

Is our ladder leaning against the right wall? Is it leaning against the “best” wall? Are we seeking the praise of the world or are we seeking to do what many of us have covenanted to do – consecrate our talents? Will consecrating our talents toward righteous purposes fill us?

Benefit #1:  True Joy
I have been experimenting on both sides over the years and have found that when I use my talents in an effort to bring people to Christ, it brings true joy and fulfillment. Whereas, when I use my talents in an effort to indulge myself or “be the best,” it leaves me thirsty still.

I have experienced the excitement of a standing ovation, but an hour later I always feel as if I need to prove myself one more time. It is never enough. 

On the other hand, I have put my heart and soul into sharing the message of the restored gospel through theatre and have been overwhelmed by the impact it has on the lives of others and in my own life. A man attended one of the performances and approached me afterwards. He gave me a hug and wept for a long period of time. When he was finally able to speak, he said, “I haven’t felt that feeling in a LONG time.” I will never forget that moment. It meant more to me than any positive theatre critic review, any theatre award or achievement. I was able to see the Holy Ghost working to change the hearts of those involved, myself included.

Benefit #2:  No Need to Compromise Standards
I am certain that I am not the first member of the Church who has felt pressure to compromise my standards as I’ve performed or directed. It is very difficult to find clean material to work with, that still has the capacity to impact people. Oftentimes, it’s either “fluff” or it’s inappropriate.

As members of the church, we have the opportunity to create works of art that are meaningful and moral. Choices and their consequences can still be shown, without spoiling the material or offending the Spirit.

We just need to pick up our ladders and move them to a new wall. The wall may seem unoccupied at first – many people may be frequenting the other walls, but that can change. We have the opportunity, with the Lord’s help, to shape this wall, to create new genres, to try something different and impactful, so that others will want to put their ladders against it as well.

Band Together
For those involved in collaborative arts like theatre, dance and music, this may sound all well and good, but may still seem impractical simply because in order to consecrate our talents, we need to find others who are doing the same. We need to band together. We need to network with others who are like-minded and who share the same vision for the arts and the gospel.

Institute programs, wards and stakes are great starting points. I have been consistently amazed at how much talent there is in a stake of the Church. Somehow, within each stake, there are dozens of people who have worked to develop their talents in various art forms. It’s just a matter of finding them and connecting with them.

Give Stakes a Chance
Each of us has access to a FREE place to rehearse and perform! The only catch is that the material needs to be clean and uplifting, we need stake permission first and the performances must be held before our stake audiences. Every stake center in this country is equipped with a stage! That is amazing. Dance concerts, music concerts, theatre productions, art shows, etc. could all take place on the stages within our stake boundaries. It’s local, it’s free, it’s easy, it involves the people around us and has the capacity to change lives.

Unfortunately, stake events often get a bad reputation for being cheesy or of poor quality. All of that can change. We can work toward producing quality material for stake audiences. We can collaborate with other talented people who desire to share their talents in a Church setting. We just need to move our ladders and start climbing.

Go To
There are stories untold, plays unperformed, songs unsung, paintings unpainted and films unproduced. Perhaps they are waiting for us to create them. Through the influence of the Holy Ghost, we can work together to create works of art that will glorify our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ. It’s time to get started.

President Boyd K. Packer summed it up best: “Go to, then, you who are gifted; cultivate your gift. Develop it in any of the arts and in every worthy example of them. If you have the ability and the desire, seek a career or employ your talent as an avocation or cultivate it as a hobby. But in all ways bless others with it. Set a standard of excellence. Never express your gift unworthily. Increase our spiritual heritage in music, in art, in literature, in dance, in drama.”

“When we have done it, our activities will be a standard to the world. And our worship and devotion will remain as unique from the world as the Church is different from the world. Let the use of your gift be an expression of your devotion to Him who has given it to you.”