Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ben’s work is honest and true, excellent in both art and craft, and exquisitely Mormon --Theric Jepson / Lloyd

A Motley Vision

Mormon literature and culture

I. Writing in A Motley Vision:  Mormon literature and culture (4.25.13), Theric Jepson reminds readers of Ben Abbott’s quality production of Questions of the Heart at UC Berkeley and encourages their donations to support his current updated production.

For those who remember thinking Questions of the Heart sounded awesome and sometimes wonder how it would be different were it made today, now that so much has changed, Ben needs money to show you.

All I’ll say is that Ben’s writing and performance the first time around were powerful and I myself would love to know how he synthesizes what’s happened over the last two years.

Many of the characters in the play are friends of mine. In the last two years, one has come out of the closet and appeared on national television as a faithful, woman-married gay Mormon man. One gave up on his marriage. One is now fully active in his ward. One is getting married to his longtime boyfriend this summer.

And those are just the personal stories. The gay/Mormon relationship has changed in many ways since March 2011 on the macro level as well.

Ben’s work is honest and true, excellent in both art and craft, and exquisitely Mormon.

And that’s it. That’s all I’ll say.

II. After the first night of Questions of the Heart at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse, Theric Jepson addressed the play’s accessibility to a non-Mormon audience. Reader comments seemed to agree.

During his one-man show Questions of the Heart (tickets still available — tonight’s show includes a Q&Q with the creator), writer/actor Ben Abbott speaks, I believe, 100%ly in the actual words he recorded during his interviews. One character early in the play speaks of loving those fabulous Primary ladies as a child, then clarifies that this is back when Primary was held in the middle of the week. What the original interviewee did not say (and what Abbott does not insert) is what Primary is, who goes to it, why ladies seemed to be in charge — none of that! Later in the play his characters use distinct Mormon phrases like “taking the sacrament” or “temple recommend”! They use uniquely Mormon meanings of common words like “gospel” and “ward”! And yet never once does Abbott slow things down to give the Gentiles in the audience definitions or explanations or anything else of the kind! He just trusts his audience to keep up. And, based on audience reaction, so they did.

I overheard Kelly Ann speaking with the play’s designer and her assistant about the Mormon diction and phrasing, and they couldn’t think of anything at any point during the play that would have been inaccessible to someone not Mormon. In the end, the only people worried about Mormon sprachen were the Mormons. Everyone else ate it right up and simply enjoyed the show.
I knew it.


1.RecessionCone 4.1.11
The audience who attends an experimental one-man play in Berkeley is cosmopolitan enough to learn about foreign cultures on their own terms. But let’s not forget that Berkeley is just as weird as Provo. =)
Sometimes, it’s appropriate to explain strange Mormon terms. Sometimes it’s patronizing.
It depends on context and audience.

I’m indeed going back on Saturday afternoon to just enjoy the show, as last night I knew I would be critiquing it. I love that it spoke to everybody, Mormons and non-mormons as I believe it has an important message for both. I really hope that it will become more than experimental.

FWIW, Abbott’s work seems to have gotten notice in the San Francisco Chronicle today:

-- UC Berkeley student Elijah Guo's senior thesis, a dramatic work called "Time and Materials," is based on the works of Robert Hass and includes brief nudity; it's paired in performance (at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday in Zellerbach Room 7) with a monologue by Ben Abbott, "Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity." "We talked it through," said Guo about himself and Abbott, "and decided that those Mormons who could handle gay Mormonism, but not naked breasts, would be able to leave partway through."

III. Earlier Theric Jepson interviewed Ben and Barbara Abbott in two posts for A Motley Vision. The first for his series (A) Couple-Creators. Then a sequel for Ben’s opening play (B) Questions of the Heart. I’ve excerpted parts of each interview that give context for the new vision of Questions of the Heart that is scheduled for both the Cincinnati Fringe Festival and the Indianapolis Fringe Festival. Links for both posts will allow you to read the reviews in their entirety.

A. Couple-Creators: Ben and Barbara Abbott

When Ben and Barbara moved into our ward last year as newlyweds, I knew I wanted to interview them even though they are still at the beginning of their careers and less established than other artists I’ve interviewed for Couple-Creators. I thought a) it would be nice to get a sense of how my questions get answered at the beginning of a marriage rather than a decade (or decades) in and b) it would be nice just to get to know them better.

Th: Let’s start though with Your Story. Because your existence as Mormon Couple-Creators is not only newly coupled, but, in Barbara’s case, newly Mormoned as well. So tell us how Ben & Barbara came to be.

{Break}  I know - not fair to break here. But check the entire interview. It's really fun.

Th: Theater is one of the more collaborative artforms and so I wonder how you’re looking forward — how do you hope your careers to track together? How do you intend to get this to work for both of you?

Ben: Well, it’s weird.  Even though we both work in Theatre, we both definitely work in our own spheres.  Especially since we’re both young and new, and just trying to get work from other people at this point.  Even when we’ve worked for the same company we haven’t really worked together.  So at this phase our goal is basically to get work in the same area at the same time. When one of us has a great opportunity, the other follows and then tries to get something going in that area for him or herself.

Babs: We’re sort of figuring it out as we go along.  I think ideally, we would have a sort of home base — either a city with lots of theaters that we’ve networked with, or a place like PCPA which has one resident theatre in the area, and from there we can do freelance work all over.  We’re both willing to travel for shorter periods of time.  We just have to be extremely flexible.  With grad schools, for example, we set out looking together for schools, but ended up deciding to go to Indiana so I can go back to school and Ben will audition for theaters in the area and work.  We have entertained the idea of starting our own theater company someday.


Th: Creating as a couple has always struck me as a particularly Mormon pastime in the sense that someday, the goal is, you will be capital-c Creators. In that sense, how do your artistic efforts reflect your faith (and vice versa)?

Babs: I really haven’t come to the point of connecting my creativity to capital-c Creativity.  I hang out in a much simpler plane of existence right now: I like making pretty things.  Of course, I am oversimplifying it.  I absolutely love designing.  I love collaborating with other designers; seeing all the elements together on stage work so well together.  The pure joy that comes from a job well done, or a good design, even if it has to come out of struggle and frustration, is worth it.  I like to imagine those elements are the same in capital-c Creation… just even better.

Ben: It seems to get harder and harder for people to find a common ground where they can even understand each other, but in a play you create a common experience.  From there you can talk.  I think that in Theatre you can build bridges that just aren’t there usually and thus people can experience things like empathy, forgiveness, understanding etc.  Ultimately, we’re creating a space where scenarios can play themselves out and the participants can expand and learn and grow in this created environment.  That sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?

B. Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and theSearch for Identity

When we left off yesterday, we were segueing from the couple-creators portion of this interview to talking with Ben Abbott about the new one-man show he has written and is starring in this weekend (with, of course, some additional insights from his wife Barbara). If you will be in the Bay Area, click on the poster to buy tickets. Hurry — the show is expected to sell out.

Th: How has working on this project changed you?

Ben: These are not easy questions.  I’ve thought this before, but it’s just been magnified a hundred times that empathy and understanding are so much more important than being right and having the answers. Also, I think my testimony in the Church is so much more flexible, like a skyscraper that’s able to wobble in an earthquake, but not topple. I don’t have to know all the answers to everything or be right about everything for my testimony to be intact and strong. I’m more comfortable than I used to be with difficult questions, and being able to say, I just don’t have an answer to this or that, but that doesn’t bother me.

Babs: In many interviews the subject of personal revelation is brought up by the interviewee and each of them received answers unique to their situation, even if it was to leave the Church, or to stay with their same-sex partner. There just isn’t a cookie cutter shape for what a Mormon or any other Christian should look like or do; therefore — and I know this is such a cliche statement — we can’t judge others based on our shape and our actions. I’ve developed a stronger sense that Heavenly Father really loves and interacts with us on an individual level, and my testimony of personal revelation has been greatly strengthened.

Th: After the show closes on Saturday, what’s next for Questions of the Heart?

Ben: Well like I said, the more people I interviewed the more people I wanted to interview. This show really is only a very small sampling. What I really want to do is continue the research. I would love to find a theater company interested in producing Questions of the Heart, but I would also love to spend another year or so interviewing and learning more. I have so many questions now that I didn’t have before I started. It’s a one-act show now, but perhaps it can be developed into a full length. I’m talking in circles, but basically, what I have now is a vehicle I can continue working on, and there’s so much work to do, I’d love to find a way of researching full time and getting this issue into our dialog as a community. I would love to perform this in both Utah and the Castro district in San Francisco and see what I learn. The difficulty now is that I’m graduating and thus leaving this wonderful support system, so I’ve got to figure out either how to plug into a new one or how I can proceed just on my own. If there’s anyone out there interested in financing this kind of work, let me know.


Th: What sort of buzz are you hearing in the communities you’re addressing — theater, LGBTQ, LDS? And how do you expect (slash-hope) they will respond?

Ben: Mostly people seem excited about it.  I can’t really speak for them, but from the feedback I’ve received, the LGBTQ community seems glad that I’m raising these questions, and interested in what my take is on this as an outsider; the LDS community I think is hungry for someone to really look at this issue in a way that doesn’t wreak of anti-Mormonism (I’m thinking specifically of 8: The Mormon Proposition [link to AMV review])because that’s an immediate turn off; and the theater community is interested to learn more about something they don’t know much about and are hoping that it’s a good show.

Th: I’ve bought tickets for Thursday’s show, but for people who are squirmy or never seen a one-man show or who otherwise still need convincing, give them your best shot. (This is probably a good spot to mention the nudity thing.)

Ben: OK, so since you mentioned the partial nudity, the first thing I need to say is that it’s not me!!  I stay fully clothed the whole time thank you very much. My show runs with another one act senior thesis project called Time and Materials which is a stage adaptation of some of former Poet Laureate  Robert Hass’ poetry, and in that show there is a brief moment of a topless woman. My show is going first so that anyone who objects to brief partial nudity can politely excuse themselves at intermission.  But if you do come I would really encourage you to stay for both shows. Time and Materials is worth seeing and we don’t want there to me a mass exodus at intermission as that wouldn’t be fair to them.

Why come to the show?  When was the last time you went to a show that actually surprised you, and both affirmed and challenged you in intriguing ways?  No matter who you are, you will hear things in my show that you strongly agree with, things that you strongly disagree with, and things that you hadn’t ever considered.  The neat part of theater is that you’ll be in an audience where everyone has a different opinion, and you’ll all be experiencing and reacting to the show differently, and I think there’s a lot to learn from that. These are wonderful characters, and I was both enlightened and challenged by each of them. I also want to point out that I have no interest in doing or seeing a show where I just get talked at the whole time, or lectured, or just constantly challenged. That’s not my kind of show. I still think that on top of everything we should be able to go to the theater and be entertained, and because of that, this show is fun and moving. And hey, if all else fails, there is the partial nudity in the show after mine.

Babs: And Ben is too modest to say this but he really is a very talented actor.  Not to mention the script is great.  There’s a balance between the serious and funny, heartwarming moments.  It’s just a good and honest show.

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