Digital Drama: The Way to Keep Mormon Theatre Relevant?

I believe that keeping the flame of Mormon drama alive is important. Especially at my faith tradition’s still early stage of development as a religion and a culture, we already have a rich heritage of dramatic literature filled with a wide range of excellent plays.

As an effort to preserve and publicize that heritage, Zarahemla Books published Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, which includes theatrical works by some of Mormonism’s best dramatists. Michael Perry has recently been collecting a lot of Mormon plays under the umbrella of his Zion Theatricals, which licenses performance rights for Mormon themed drama to theatre companies and community groups. Angie Staheli has been encouraging production of LDS drama on the stake level at her blog LDS Plays. In the realm of higher education, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University continue to produce works by Mormon student playwrights, while independent theatre companies such as the Echo Theatre, Leilani Productions, and my own Zion Theatre Company continue to include Mormon drama in their seasons. There are many individuals and organizations who are striving to continue to vibrant tradition of creating theatre that is informed by the spirituality and beauty of our faith tradition, even when it isn’t explicit in its religiousness.

Yet despite these exciting developments, it sometimes feels like we lose as much ground as we gain, and that we are more often than not treading water. So I’ve been trying to analyze and figure out ways of making Mormon drama not only relevant, but also exciting and profitable, so that it can continue onward. As I’ve mentioned before,  I believe the relatively new trend of digital theatre seems to be an effective and exciting route for Mormon Drama to take.

A relatively new company in the UK, straight forwardly Digital Theatre, have been producing downloadable videos of some of the most exciting theatre taking place in England (I recently downloaded the production of Much Ado About Nothing starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate to show the playwriting course I’m teaching, since I’m a huge Doctor Who fan). When I encountered Digital Theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder what this could do for Mormon Drama.

Now recorded plays aren’t a new idea. I remember a VHS version Sondheim’s Into the Woods that was widely watched when I was younger (I believe you can still view it on Netflix…excellent production). Even in the tradition of Mormon drama, Elizabeth Hansen’s Eliza and I (technically, I believe Richard Dutcher’s first film credit), and a couple of James Arrington’s one man plays could be purchased as videos. As bad as plays can be when filmed unprofessionally, some early attempts at filmed theatre could actually be quite good. Love it or hate it, for a whole generation of Latter-day Saints’ first exposure to the Mormon cultural icon that is Saturday’s Warrior was not in a theatre or stake center, but rather on VHS. I know that my family wore out their copy with many repeat viewings as I grew up.

My theatre group Zion Theatre Company, tried out selling professionally recorded DVDs of our plays for a while, with some mild success. But the overhead costs and efforts made it a consuming and unwieldy task. Digital theatre, on the other hand, is much more self-sufficient after the initial set up, and doesn’t require the hassle and cost of packaging.

There is one thing that digital theatre offers Mormon drama, however, that is the most precious advantage…audience access. One of the problems that Mormon drama has faced from the beginning is that it has a limited scope in terms of audience. In Mormon hubs like Utah, putting on a Mormon play can have some possibilities in finding a robust audience. Outside the Book or Mormon belt? Well, unless the play is making fun or overtly criticizing the Mormons, it’s going to be a harder sell.

Now theatre is best enjoyed in the intimacy and immediacy of the theatre, where you can see the actor’s sweat and are experiencing a communal event. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had Mormons outside of Utah tell me how they wished they could see my plays. Sometimes I think it’s Mormons outside of Utah, who aren’t supersaturated with LDS culture like those in Happy Valley, who are the most hungry to connect with their religion on a cultural and artistic level. Yet they are also the ones with the least access to it. Online and digital trends, however, are changing all of that and showing us that, even when a Mormon play is performed in an obscure city in Utah, it can be seen by Latter-day Saints the world over.

So I’m going to try my best to lead the charge here and start the experiment. My theatre group Zion Theatre Company has made two of my plays available on Vimeo on Demand and we hope to put out more in the future. If you’re interested in Mormon Drama, no matter where in the world you live, you can now watch at least a sampling of the many Mormon plays that have been produced over the last several decades. We have moved beyond regionalism. A global culture needs a global way of communicating that culture.