The Dramatization of Mormonism
On the twenty-seventh of October, 2018, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints— colloquially referred to as the Mormon Church— released a statement discouraging the production of large pageants as a means of worship or proselytization. This abrupt decision was issued with little explanation, the official statement saying that, “The goal of every activity in the Church should be to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to share His gospel message throughout the world. Local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate. Larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged.” (Church Statement). Without an understanding of the theological context, this statement may come off as an attempt to maintain a sense of modesty, typical of traditionally conservative religious groups. But given the Church’s historical pageants, which attract large audiences composed of both church members and “nonmembers” and collectively utilize thousands of performers every year, this decision signifies a dramatic shift in cultural identity.
As someone raised in a devout Mormon household who follows Church politics closely, the discontinuation of the pageants was shocking. My religious convictions were largely galvanized by the church’s dedication to performance and art. When I was eighteen years old, a church leader asked me to sing at a church meeting called a Fireside. The Fireside would host Mormon Youth from three stakes (ecclesiastical units of about three thousand members) as well as broadcast to another nine stakes in Montana and Wyoming. Most importantly, Russell M. Nelson—then a general authority and now the general president, or the Prophet, of the multi-million membered church— would be attending.
Although I performed regularly as a teenager, the weight of the message and the size of the crowd made me nervous. Nevertheless, the musical number went well. After the service, Russell M. Nelson shook hands with me and told me I had a beautiful countenance. He briefly stressed the spirit that musical numbers bring to our meetings, and I was reminded of my deep love for my doctrine and heritage.
For members of the Church, these performative experiences are fairly commonplace. I learned to read music almost without noticing, as it came easily through regular hymn worship. Participation in public speaking and performance is a regular part of Mormon life, if not an expectation. Like every other young Mormon singer, I dreamed of joining the Tabernacle Choir, one of the most notorious choral groups in the world. But the performative nature of the church reaches beyond these formal performances. Theatricality is embedded in the very doctrine of Mormonism, and exhibitionism is rampant in our culture. The Church uses dramatization to cultivate ideologies and community in a remarkably successful way.
While a thorough investigation of the dramatization of Mormonism will inevitably involve discussion on church politics, I don’t intend this research to be a criticism of the church’s particular set of values or cultural tendencies. Rather, I’m interested in discussing what the church teaches about the link between performance and convictions, giving theatre practitioners the ability to create similarly firm secular convictions. For American theatre practitioners, the church is the ideal subject to study in trying to understand convictions and performance because they follow a dogged American value system. Trepanier and Newswander, political scientists who write extensively about church politics, provide an explanation:
Mormonism is quintessentially American. Not only did Mormonism originate in the United States, but it carved out a special place for America in its theology. For example, the U.S. Constitution was seen by Joseph Smith as a divinely-inspired document from God. Although there are some religions that claim the United States has a special, divinely-anointed place in the world – a “city on a hill” – Mormonism is unique in that its origins are only American, and not from Europe or the Middle East. The irony for Mormons is that, in spite of their American origins and the special place they hold for the United States, they have been persecuted by their fellow Americans and, as a result, they had to flee the country in order to practice their religious beliefs. Mormons consequently reflect the irony of the American values of religious tolerance and pluralism. By renouncing polygamy and adopting wholesome, family values, the Mormons have sought to be fully accepted into mainstream American society and culture. However, being accused of religious intolerance and socially homogeneous by mainstream America, Mormons actually reflect the American public’s own religious intolerance and rejection of pluralism. (How Mormonism...)
Understanding this, an analysis of Mormon performance tradition should clearly hold a place in the study of American theatre. In this culture of heightened American ideals, the church illustrates our collective devotion, our patriotic sense of loyalty, and our paradoxical ideology. Understanding these dynamics is crucial to creating equally passionate convictions through secular performance. Effective art understands the audience it plays to.
Latter Day Saints boast a performance legacy. Most recognizably, The Tabernacle Choir (Formerly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) is “One of the oldest and largest choirs in the world, [and] has performed before presidents and kings, sold millions of records, won scores of awards and enthralled audiences in more than 28 different countries,” and was dubbed “America’s Choir” by Ronald Reagan in 1981 (The Mormon Tabernacle..., 2019). The Tabernacle which hosts them holds one of the largest pipe organs in the world, with 11,623 pipes.
Nonmembers may also recognize the church’s broadway-style Christmas production. This show annually features celebrity guests, such as Sutton Foster and Hugh Bonneville in 2017. (Mormon Tabernacle..., 2017). These productions feature hundreds of artists. They bring in thousands of audience members and are broadcast every year.
Unlike many of their conservative counterparts, the Church is unusually supportive of its young artists. The universities run by the Church Education System have excellent arts programs. Brigham Young University Provo in particular has a notorious music program, with “approximately 50 full-time and 50 part-time faculty teaching private instruction, ensembles, education… and conducting, in addition to other exciting fields of study. [Their] focus is on cultivating individual talents and fostering some of the most respected music ensembles in any academic setting” (BYU School of Music). BYU Provo offers undergraduate degrees in Music Dance Theatre, Commercial Music, Acting, Composition, Dance, Media Arts, and more. This collegiate training program is incredibly affordable for students who are members of the church, fostering a community of culture-forward young performers in the LDS community.
But the performative aspects of the religion run much deeper than these formalized modes. The doctrine encourages a deep love of the arts from every member, even those who don’t consider themselves to be formal artists, and requires some level of performance from all. In early Doctrine and Covenants, God commands Emma Smith, wife of church founder Joseph Smith, “to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church.” (Doctrine and Covenants 25:11). This doctrine represents one of just a handful of early revelations given to a Sister, inviting both male and female parties to participate in the creative process.
In more contemporary revelation, Elder Richard G Scott has said, “Attempt to be creative, even if the results are modest. … Creativity can engender a spirit of gratitude for life and for what the Lord has woven into your being. … If you choose wisely, it doesn’t have to absorb a lot of time” (Finding Peace). This doctrine illustrates the creative commitment required of each member. Church meetings are structured on a volunteer basis, giving members regular opportunities to speak publicly. Around once a year, a member may be asked by their bishop to give a “talk” and deliver a sermon to the rest of the congregation. Because the doctrine relies so heavily on parable and personal experience, the giving of Talks has created a rich storytelling heritage. The unique form serves as a logistical solution to a community need, but performance divides the talks that “invite the spirit” from those that fall flat.
The temple ceremonies, which are considered to be the most sacred element of Mormon worship, also include several dramatic elements. Traditionally, the “ritual drama of the endowment was presented by live actors (temple workers), with initiates moving from room to room to represent their progress toward the presence of God” (LDS Endowment). Some historical temples still hold these sacred live performances, but the church has created a stunning film series of temple videos in several languages, which have been recreated since the 1950’s original, which had no scenery or costumes and used clips from the Rite of Spring sequence in Disney’s Fantasia to depict the creation of the world. Smaller temples use these videos because they are more cost-efficient. The content of these performances and videos are deemed too sacred to discuss outside of the temple, so they are not available to the public.
While the Mormons have a deep respect for the arts, there is also an exhaustive effort to separate art that is holy from art that is secular. Hymns, for example, are considered reverent and appropriate for church meetings, while contemporary Mormon pop (yes, it does exist) is appropriate only for meetings that take place outside the temple or chapel. Of this, church leader Elder Oaks governs:
We should be careful what music we use in settings where we desire to contribute to worship. Many musical numbers good for other wholesome settings are not appropriate for Church meetings. Our hymns have been chosen because they have been proven effective to invite the Spirit of the Lord...Soloists should remember that music in our worship services is not for demonstration but for worship. Vocal or instrumental numbers should be chosen to facilitate worship, not to provide performance opportunity for artists, no matter how accomplished. (Oaks)
Despite the performative elements of the doctrine, the assumption that performance is intrinsically tied to vanity and sin still appears on occasion. Some instruments are believed to be too irreverent to be played in the chapel, namely all brass instruments, percussion instruments, and saxophones. In church meetings, it is inappropriate to clap after musical numbers, as the loud noise can disrupt the spirit, which is also referred to as a “still small voice.”
Within the effort to make art a more heavenly experience than a human one, an unwritten rule requires that everyone participate in the artistic experience to some degree, such as the singing of hymns. In this way, many members find an artistic identity where they may have never explored one in a secular setting. Performances become much more meaningful when we must create them, because we must understand them. This practice also teaches members that a great deal of artistic “magic” happens during the process, rather than in performance,
Mormon Doctrine teaches that we, as children of God, can become as God is, literally gaining Deity status in the next life. In this doctrine, the power of creation is the defining power of Godliness. For example, I have been told in several church settings, including the university setting—although there’s no doctrine that explicitly states so— that sexual intercourse feels good because we are utilizing a higher power to create life. Essentially, sex is God’s way of giving us a small taste of what it feels like to be God. President Henry B. Eyring says his artistic efforts are inspired by “a feeling of love,” specifically “the love of a Creator who expects His children to become like Him—to create and to build.”(Eyring). In this context, it is easy to understand why the arts and creativity are so essential to the Mormon experience. Creativity is the birthright we have as children of the Being that created the universe.
On a bureaucratic level, the church utilizes this fruitful creative community to assist in vital societal functions. Performers are one of the churches many tools for creating revenue and curating reputation. The church has several historical sites, which vary from document-filled museums and libraries to full on performance spaces. These sites host many of the aforementioned pageants, most famously the Hill Cumorah Pageant, the Mormon Miracle Pageant, and the Nauvoo Pageant. In many ways, these pageants parallel the early morality plays of Medieval theatre. Structurally they vary, as they rarely focus on individuals and focus much more on legacy, heritage and community. However, the pageants and morality plays are produced with similar intent. They create a communal morality. They are designed to convince those who don’t already understand, to bring them into the fold.
The most notorious of these historical sites, Nauvoo, also host several Young Performing Missionaries, or YPM’s, Members who are called in their twenties to preach the gospel through performances, usually in a musical theatre style. YPMs audition for their position, but the casting decisions are still made as callings and are believed to be inspired by God. YPM’s exist in other missions around the country, but the YPM Nauvoo experience is unique in that it functions like summer stock theatre; Mostly composed of students from BYU, BYU Idaho, and BYU Hawaii, Nauvoo performers are called for a single summer to perform multiple shows a week for tourists. YPM’s represent the church’s most direct effort to use performance to convert an form convictions.
Outside of live performance, the Church has a massive collection of LDS film, which ranges from instructional videos to promotional “I’m a Mormon” commercials to beautifully filmed bible story films. These films function as one of the church’s most successful marketing endeavors. Where several churches fail to attract members in the 21st Century, Mormons have done a significant amount of branding and rebranding to maintain its place in the modern world, and film has played a large part in this.
More directly than in live performance, which must appeal to a large audience, the Church uses film to delve into different aspects of the religion and promote certain ideologies. One particularly fascinating example is the Mormon and Gay film series, which includes several short films documenting the stories of members who “experience same-sex attraction or identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual” (Mormon and Gay). Many of these members choose to stay in the church and either remain celibate or, despite their attractions, marry traditionally anyway. Understandably, the policy this project discusses has received extensive critical response (Dehlin). However, these videos take a policy that makes a great deal of members – particularly Mormon millennials and youth in the church– uneasy, and displays it in a positive, comfortable light. Projects like these are built to protect the convictions that larger projects have put into place.
It should be noted that performance-derived convictions can be dangerous, and can be used to justify audience responses contrary to what the creator intended. Brian David Mitchell, a Mormon fundamentalist known for kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, was previously recognized in his community as a man devoted to God. He was called to play Satan in the staged religious dramas at the Salt Lake Temple. The Salt Lake Tribune wrote that Mitchell’s performance was so convincing that “he made church officials uneasy.” (Krakauer 45). Historically, religious zeal has allowed some individuals to defy our societal moral code, often at the cost of other’s safety. Although less recognized, performative zeal can have a similarly dangerous effect when artists go to extreme measures for the sake of a show. In tandem,performative, religious zeal becomes even more dangerous.
Many members of the church have recognized these dangers and responded by creating a coercive counter culture. In his early career Tyler Glenn, lead singer of the Neon Trees, was the Mormon Millennial darling, proving that you could be young, cultured, and an active Mormon. In 2014, when Glenn came out as gay, and intended to “find and marry a gay man, and to raise children in the LDS church as a gay married Mormon” (Mormon Stories 631-633). He participated in the I’m a Mormon Campaign, a series of mini-videos in which the church manifests its diversity by showcasing members with assorted lifestyles and interests who proudly proclaim, “I’m a Mormon.”
Glen’s video was removed after he publicly denounced the church in November 2015, when the church made a change in its LGBTQ policy. The loss of faith inspired his 2016 album, Excommunication. Psychologist and Mormon critic John Dehlin celebrates the album, saying that it “explores 21st century religious faith transitions more deeply, more intimately, more effectively, and more powerfully than I believe anyone has ever been willing or able to do.” (Mormon Stories, A Tribute) Like Tyler Glenn, millennials who have left the church often use the faith crisis experience to inspire their art. These pieces often speak to a larger audience-- as existential issues are central to the the human experience at large-- covering several genres and modes.
My exploration of the dramatization of the Church happens to coincide with a large political shift in the church that would be remiss to brush aside. Like Tyler Glenn, millennials in general have little interest in the church. The death of President Thomas S. Monson in 2018 marked a significant leadership change, as President Russell M Nelson has made policy changes that support individual revelation rather than rigid documentation and obedience. The aforementioned name change indicates a step away from trivial labels. As the church’s central population shifts from the United States to South America and Africa, the church is making moves to accomodate a larger scope of members in different cultural and spiritual circumstances. In the last year alone, the church has reversed a questionable LGBTQ policy, shortened weekly church meetings from three hours to two, and announced a new hymn book that will be smaller and more accessible, removing the American national anthem and other American songs to accommodate a more universal audience. Concerning the rapidly changing culture, Dehlin has said,
Instead of being proud of our Mormon heritage... we’re claiming that Satan rejoices when we refer to each other as Mormons. And we’re doing that from the Mormon Newsroom… We’re running away from our identity… Identity is one of the most important things you can have as an institution. It’s your brand, it’s how you’re known. And when an institution starts to run away from its own century earned identity, it’s a sign of significant distress. (Mormon Stories 1023)
The end of Church pageants is a good example of this cultural shift, although the reasoning is mysterious. It may be that the extravagant pageants come off as just that, flimsy pageantry. If the shows are being received as religious escapism, drowning out the sacred message with frills and fancy, they might not have the same effect that the church communicates through performative elements. Alternatively, many believe that the general authorities see the costly productions as bad investments, and the pageants are merely a byproduct of institution-wide budget cuts.
While these suspicions, might hold some truth, the pageants are an important part of Mormon performative tradition, and like John Dehlin, many members take the end of the pageants to be a signal of cultural distress. Program cuts give the appearance that the church is slowly “shutting down.” Alternatively, I choose to see the pageants as a small piece in a large rebranding process, allowing room for progress and new experiences. Content-wise, most of the pageants rely on Book of Mormon stories, which portray indigenous Americans (usually played by white actors) in inaccurate and objectionable ways. Stepping away from these productions acknowledges members of diverse backgrounds.
If the end of pageants indicates that LDS performative culture is drawing to a close, this would indeed signify distress. However, many small performance projects have gained momentum in the church that offer more accurate representations of members. For instance, the LDS Polynesian Cultural Center recently launched a stunning Huki Celebration, which dramatizes the legend of the demigod Maui. Delsa Atoa Moe, PCC vice president, described the canoe show as “different from anything PCC has done in the past. We’re not focusing on the individual cultures as much as we are on the ocean and how it pulls us all together. We also use this theme to tell the story of Laie and how the Polynesians came together in this place.” (Foley, Mike)
In another part of the world, the church holds an annual musical production celebrating Latin American culture called Luz de las Naciones– Light of the Nations. Church News reporter Jason Swenson said of the 2018 production, “On this night, Mexican mariachi bands blended seamlessly with pan flute music from the Andes.” (Luz de las…) Both this event and the Huki Canoe Celebrations center on the importance of family, including our “world wide” family, which encompasses people everywhere, a critical theme in LDS doctrine.
Convictions are fundamental to the theatre experience, and our job as theatre practitioners is to cultivate them. Although LDS principles may differ from what secular artists wish to advocate, a community bonded by principle teaches us to do the same. Studying the Dramatization of Mormonism reveals an astonishing legacy with more influence than contemporary theatre scholars recognize. From the start, this research has tugged at my heart and caused more than a few sentimental tears, stirring convictions I didn’t know I still held.
Mormon performative tradition is powerful and rapidly evolving. New cultural events are taking the place of outdated ones, and simultaneously we see the church become more inclusive, softening the hearts of members and converting them with compassion and connection. Secular artists can use these tools to craft a collective conviction in their own communities. As the church’s narrative becomes more inclusive and complete, The Dramatization of Mormonism will prove the exemplar in creating convictions in modern America.
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