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.