New Play about 19th Century Mormon Polygamy

As a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I've always been both fascinated and afraid of the topic of Mormon Polygamy. In the summer of 2012, after producing a play about the early life and conversion story of the prophet Wilford Woodruff, I was bothered that my research yielded so little information about his wives. His personal writings had a remarkable lack of comment on his relationships, and his personal feelings about plural marriage. I felt compelled to take on a new project: a play about the perspectives of Mormon women in 19th century polygamy.

c. 1864. Sugar House Ward Bishop Ira Eldredge and his wives, Nancy Black, Hannah Mariah
Savage, and Helwig Marie Anderson. Photo taken from Mormon Sisters by Claudia L. Bushman.

Three years later, I find myself finally transforming my research into a play! This work will be presented in a documentary theater style known as "verbatim theater," in which every word spoken by the actors onstage is a quotation from the real-life person they are representing. This type of theater has been used since the mid 20th century to support and illustrate journalism and sociology--and has typically been used to present audiences with contemporary issues. Verbatim theater playwrights often interview the people who will be represented in their plays. My work differs in that because my characters are deceased historical persons, my quotations come from journals, diaries, letters, speeches, and other 19th-century publications.

Here's an example of a verbatim theater production (not about polygamy) to give you a taste of this theatrical style.

(This video clip is a portion of a verbatim play about "casual academics," that is, part-time, or adjunct university faculty. These actresses represent interviewees who discuss the anxieties of this type of work. I should warn you that this clip comes from a somber scene in the middle of the play.)

Verbatim theater comes with many artistic challenges. I found (and still find) myself asking, "How do I turn quotations into dialogue?" "How do I turn the stories of many women into a single story with a plot that is both compelling, and simple enough for an audience to follow?" "How do I turn 150+ pages of research notes into a play that's short enough for an audience to sit through?" "How do I make each scene artful and entertaining, so that my play is more than a bunch of actresses on stools taking turns telling their stories?"

Working for solutions to these questions has been an exciting and fulfilling process.  Above all, my goal is to answer my audience's questions about polygamy by cultivating an experience that is
  • informed by the work of respected historians,
  • free from bashing of the Church or the historical persons portrayed, and
  • genuine, in that it doesn't shy away from the odd and sometimes controversial experiences or feelings expressed in the primary source material written by the faithful Latter-Day-Saint women represented on stage.
The characters in my play-in-progress are a diverse group of courageous, passionate, quirky, and devoted women. I can't wait to share their words with you!

I'll keep you posted.

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