What has been and what is the role of theater in the Church?

    “What has been and what is the role of theater in the Church?” New Era, Sept. 1972, 46–47

    “What has been and what is the role of theater in the Church?”

    Answer/Keith Engar

    Theater has played four basic roles in the Church: first, in Nauvoo days and early Utah days the Church supported theater primarily to provide wholesome entertainment for the isolated Latter-day Saint members. A small group of professional actors trained casts from among the members, and the plays were selected on the same basis that any American theater group would select plays. There was nothing unique about the repertoire. What was unique was the Church’s sponsorship of theater to provide entertainment for its members.

    Second, in Nauvoo and throughout our history the Church has supported the theater as a recreational activity for performers and other participants in the production side. Brigham Young himself appeared as the High Priest in a Nauvoo production of Sheridan’s Pizarro. MIA plays, roadshows, blackouts, one-act play festivals, and musicals have been presented thousands of times to millions of spectators. Of course, when audiences are given fine entertainment by watching their friends and relatives perform, then the first two roles of theater in the Church form a happy combination. Leadership is the key factor in determining whether or not the happy combination works.

    The third major role of theater in the Church is to provide inspirational reinforcement of the Church’s divine mission. For this purpose plays and pageants on Mormon themes are written for presentation by all age groups. Primary pageants, Sunday School Christmas programs, MIA parent-youth night presentations, and MIA plays and musicals represent a few examples of what has been done.

    The fourth major role is for the theater to serve the Church as a medium for missionary work. The Hill Cumorah Pageant, the annual production of Promised Valley, and The Mormon Miracle are examples.

    I think any objective student of theater would have to acknowledge that the Church has had a remarkable history in its support of theater as an integral part of the total Church program. We have critics, however, who question the quality of our activities and who claim that our programs have not resulted in universally acceptable Mormon plays.

    The only answer that I can give for the first criticism is that one will find all levels of production in Church theater from highly professional to downright embarrassing. But then that continuum is characteristic of all theater, not just our own. We can and must do better, and we will do better as growing numbers of talented young people start to take their share of responsibility.

    As for the second criticism, I have no simple answer—just a hope that Mormon playwrights will continue to develop. We have had some excellent plays from Mormon playwrights, and I feel it is only a matter of time before some truly significant plays on Mormon themes will be written, particularly as we develop the capacity to laugh a bit at ourselves. The delightful New Era article, “Through Gentile Eyes” (March ’72), was a refreshing harbinger of new attitudes on our part.

    Some new patterns point to a promising future:

    First, I’m excited by the Brigham Young University Theater’s potential as a center for the Mormon playwright. The BYU Festival of Mormon Arts and the BYU Theater’s season of new Mormon plays have already resulted in memorable work. The New Era has contributed to Church-wide consciousness of the new program by publishing excerpts from Carol Lynn Pearson’s book and lyrics from The Order is Love, a delightful musical produced by the BYU Festival of Mormon Arts.

    Second, the new Promised Valley Playhouse will be a theater operated by the Church for cultural programs. During the summer months Promised Valley will hold the boards, but during the rest of the year Mormon playwrights will likely have opportunities such as they have never before enjoyed.

    Third, private theater ventures are producing more Mormon plays than heretofore and will do more if the public supports them.

    As the Church continues its phenomenal growth as a world organization, I expect that several different kinds of Mormon plays will develop based on divers cultural patterns.

    The Mormon playwright needs our help as never before if we are to have the benefits of his talent. He needs time to write, he needs a place to write, and he needs a theater in which to produce his plays. I for one am highly optimistic that these needs are going to be met in many different ways, and I hope that young Church members will be aware of what these needs are and do their part to meet them.