Curtain Up on Excellence

    “Curtain Up on Excellence,” Ensign, Aug. 1985, 58

    Curtain Up on Excellence

    With a commitment to quality, the Cypress California Stake has built a balanced cultural arts program.

    For long years I have had a vision of members of the Church greatly increasing their already strong positions of excellence till the eyes of all the world will be upon us. … We need people who can dream of things that never were, and ask, “WHY NOT?”—President Spencer W. Kimball (“The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” Ensign, July 1977, pp. 3–4.)

    Why not make a movie?

    It might have seemed only a dream to some, but Donna Dick, cultural arts specialist on the Cypress California Stake activities committee, knew stake members could do it. She had a plot based on a short story with appeal to youth and adults alike. She had the most important backing, that of priesthood leadership, beginning at the top with stake president Boyd A. Lake. And she had skilled specialists in the stake who could handle such a project.

    Making a film might seem a logical step in the progression of a stake that has, over nearly a decade, provided outlets for the work of its artists, spawned an instrumental performing group, staged some impressive dramatic productions, and started a series of Christmas concerts anticipated by people throughout the area.

    Still, a movie was an ambitious project—one that required stake members to stretch and grow as no other they had undertaken. But when it was finished, those involved agreed it was worth the effort.

    At its premiere in the stake center cultural hall January 6, “The Award” delighted and impressed those who saw it. Its impact quickly spread beyond the stake. It has now been shown on fifteen community cable television systems in the area and has served as a basis for numerous youth firesides and classes in Southern California. A non-LDS city councilman who saw the movie determined to have it shown as widely as possible in the community. Some of its greatest accolades have come from leaders of non-LDS churches who have asked to show “The Award” to their congregational groups because of the Christian message it carries, despite the clear LDS affiliation of the central characters.

    Based on a short story that appeared in the November 1979 New Era, “The Award,” by Jack Weyland, the film shows how a group of high school football players learn that the worth of a soul is not measured on the stadium scoreboard.

    In an early scene, the football players decide to honor the “ugliest” girl in their school with a corsage and a poem telling her just how unattractive she is. Kevin, the only Latter-day Saint on the team, is chosen to present the award because his girlfriend, Colleen, also LDS, has a locker next to the intended victim of the joke. Shocked by its cruelty, Colleen refuses to cooperate.

    Kevin himself has a change of heart when he meets Mary Beth, the “ugly” girl, at Colleen’s house and learns that she selflessly spends her spare time helping children at a school for the handicapped. At Colleen’s instigation, he gives an award that delights Mary Beth but leaves him in trouble with his teammates. In the end, some of the football players still maintain that other students are “losers” in life and that they are “winners.” But Kevin does find an ally in the team’s quarterback and leader of the group, who also comes to admire Mary Beth. The quarterback muses that there is probably something that makes each individual a winner in his or her own way.

    The story hits home for many who view the film, largely because it depicts a compassionate solution to problems of insensitivity and lack of self-esteem common among young people. Many youth and adults who have seen the videotape say it changed their attitudes about people around them.

    “The overwhelming reaction of the students is that they love it,” says Joan Edwards, who showed the film to her high school seminary class. “They watch every minute of it. There are some changes that take place after they see it.”

    Sister Edwards showed it to the class just after discussing the Savior’s admonition that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.) “My students didn’t understand what ‘least’ meant until they learned it as the ‘Mary Beth’ scripture.”

    Will the stake make another movie sometime? Perhaps. But it may be a while before it is produced.

    “You have to have quite a bit of professional talent (in a stake) to do that,” Sister Dick explains, and such a large-scale production is an intense, time-consuming experience, especially when people are working on a volunteer basis. “I don’t think you can keep making that kind of demand” without a period of recuperation.

    Leaders in the Cypress Stake have found that they need to seriously evaluate every project they contemplate doing. “Red-flag” questions they have learned to ask themselves include: Will this project enhance the purposes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Is it in harmony with the feelings of priesthood leadership? Will the project meet some important needs of the stake membership? Do we have qualified people in the stake to do the project? Can they offer the time needed to bring the project to completion?

    For wards and stakes that have struggled with their own cultural arts programs, there are some important lessons in how “The Award” came to be. “It’s something that just didn’t pop out of nowhere,” Sister Dick emphasizes. “We had seven years’ experience working up to it”—from the time she was called as cultural arts specialist in 1978.

    Shortly after her call, President Lake wrote Sister Dick a letter elaborating the goals of the stake presidency with regard to her calling. He expressed a “great desire to heighten and refine the cultural experiences of our Saints. We believe that as our families share these experiences, they will be enriched individually and also grow closer together.”

    Sister Dick took his counsel to heart. Among the cultural events Cypress stake members have experienced since 1978 are a program to display uplifting artwork by stake members in the stake’s meetinghouses; a biennial Young Artists Showcase featuring all kinds of artwork and an evening of performing arts presentations; a stake cultural arts fair to display the talents of everyone from singers and dancers to woodworkers and cooks; cultural arts firesides in which LDS musicians speak; a number of high-quality concerts; and full-scale theatrical events, including dramas about past members of the Church and a play by Moliere.

    “You have to teach a stake” to expect of itself this kind of quality, to grow through developing individual and collective talents, comments Dale Lake, stake music chairman and wife of the stake president. Donna Dick, Dale Lake, and Tom Bay, director of “The Award” and the stake’s high-quality stage productions, are the three prime movers in building the comprehensive cultural arts program the stake now has.

    Sister Lake explains that at first audiences had to be won for the high-quality music programs that were presented, but the programs have developed a loyal following. The stake’s large-scale Christmas programs every year, for example, are eagerly awaited by both members and nonmembers.

    Usually the program is offered by a special group composed of members from ward choirs, which have been greatly strengthened through the stake’s cultural arts programs. But in 1983, the stake invited the Cypress Community College Choir to perform Handel’s “Messiah,” helping to build relations and drawing many non-LDS music lovers to the stake center.

    President Lake says one objective of the Cypress Stake cultural arts program is to create a “carryover” effect. What members learn through experience should be usable throughout their lives.

    Betsy Olson did not think of herself as a musical performer, though she took piano and flute lessons before her marriage. But when Sister Olson lived in the Cypress Stake, Donna Dick recruited her for the Cypress Ensemble, a group that played and accompanied choral groups in stake programs. Sister Olson performed as both flutist and vocalist.

    Then she moved to Cerritos. “I sit on the board of directors for a symphony orchestra here because of the experiences I had in the Cypress Stake,” she says.

    Sister Olson looks back on her experiences in music with gratitude and notes that they could not have come without a self-motivated cultural arts leader eager to give other people the opportunity to serve and share.

    “My greatest joy is to see other people have opportunities to use their talents,” Sister Dick says.

    “There are great talents out in the Church, and they need to be developed and need to be used. As a cultural arts specialist, if you see that possibility in your stake, I think you should go for it.”

    “Going for it,” in fact, is something that the Cypress Stake does very well. Over the years, many members have had the chance to use and magnify their talents. Participation has become a tradition.

    “All they have to do to get a response to a casting call is send a flyer through the mail,” President Lake says. That, in fact, is how the stake’s moviemakers found Cheryl Pence, who played one of the starring roles in “The Award.” Her father, who is not a Church member, saw the flyer and encouraged her to try out.

    None of the talented people involved in the stake’s cultural arts program will take credit for its successes, preferring to focus attention instead on the efforts of others. But all agree that Donna Dick has played a pivotal role.

    Sister Dick insists that the vision of what could happen in the Cypress Stake has not been hers. She has been guided by what Church leaders have said about the role of the arts in the gospel. She refers specifically to President Spencer W. Kimball’s message in the July 1977 Ensign (“The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” pp. 3–5) and a talk by Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve at a Brigham Young University fireside in February of 1976. (See “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord,” Ensign, August 1976, pp. 60–65.)

    “I believe the arts can do a great deal in building the kingdom, because they really touch people spiritually. I believe they’re part of living the spiritually abundant life,” Sister Dick comments.

    Could other stakes undertake cultural productions of the same quality that the Cypress Stake has handled?

    Of course, she says. Each stake has artistic and technical talent waiting only to be identified, organized, and put to work. In her Southern California stake, near the movie capital of the world, there was a happy combination of theatrical resources available. Other stakes will have different talent upon which to draw. All they have to do is find what resources exist in their stake, then lay the groundwork by providing quality experiences that build up to the bigger ones.

    The key to a quality cultural arts program is strong priesthood leadership—and adopting an attitude President Kimball expressed in that 1977 article:

    “We must recognize that excellence and quality are a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and about life and about God. If we don’t care much about these basic things, then such not caring carries over into the work we do, and our work becomes shabby and shoddy.

    “Real craftsmanship, regardless of the skill involved, reflects real caring, and real caring reflects our attitude about ourselves, about our fellowmen, and about life.”

    Scenes from some of the Cypress Stake’s successful cultural arts activities: (upper left) mob members plot Joseph Smith’s defeat in a scene from Prophet; (upper right) Bob White gets a response from the miser, Marvin Follett, in a production of Moliere’s The Miser; (bottom) cameraman Brent Kesler sets a stadium shot for the movie, The Award.