Process & Notes: For Time & Eternity
Welcome to For Time & Eternity. This play has been kicking around in my head for a while, for about six years now, to be precise. At the time of its genesis, I worked as a touring actor, and while on the road, I stayed with a lot of families. One leg of this journey took me through Utah, Idaho, and other Western states with large Latter-day Saint (LDS) populations. Naturally, I spent many a week living with Mormon families who generously opened their homes to me. Having been raised a Baptist (still recovering from that) and then identifying as an atheist, I knew next to nothing of LDS faith and culture, so I started doing some reading.
After a bit of digging, I found the history of Emma Hale Smith, and was immediately awestruck. While her husband’s history is well-documented and celebrated/parodied in ample measure, Emma Smith’s story is shrouded behind years of obfuscation, purification, and outright denial, and the stories of her sister wives are buried even deeper. Our play is an unearthing of a small part of these lives, and an attempt to understand what it’s like when the ground on which your faith stands sinks from underneath you. All of my love to this company, my partner, and every Latter-day Saint. Thanks for coming and enjoy the ride. -- Rob Yoho
As far as I can see, people use the term “devised theatre” to describe a variety of creative processes and practices, but the common denominator is that the script—whether it’s a traditional script or not—is created during and through the rehearsal process, not before. And so the whole company takes part in creating the play.
This is the process we used to create For Time & Eternity. Our director, Rob Yoho, had long wanted to do a play about the relationship between Joseph and Emma Smith, and particularly about how Emma—who deserves much credit for the early success of the Mormon church—struggled against Joseph’s polygamy. So Kaci, Rob, and I did some research, assembled a cast of trusted collaborators, and got started.
We decided early on that, given the type of play we wanted—a historical drama with a classic dramatic arc—one person ought to have final responsibility for writing a script that would take our devising work, tie it all together, and elevate the dialogue into a credible 19th-century idiom. I stepped into that role.
In each rehearsal, we’d bring in ideas for scenes to improvise. The company discussed characters, style, staging, timeframe, and shape of story. As we discovered the heart of our story, our focus narrowed to certain characters and incidents. I’d record our rehearsals and take notes to refer to later as I worked on scripted scenes, which I’d then bring to rehearsals to see how they played.
I’d liken the process to writing songs as a band. Sometimes, the band comes together with nothing and noodles around until something takes shape. Sometimes, the band starts with an idea: a riff, a dynamic, some words. Sometimes, the songwriter brings in a nearly complete song, with parts and lyrics already in place. (Right? To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been in a band.) Eventually, they end up with some songs that they like and practice those until they sound good.
In the last couple months of rehearsal, I began finalizing the script. The biggest challenge then was that we had discovered so many great characters and moments that we could have easily turned out a whole season of high-budget prestige television—which we’re still willing to do, if you’re reading this and happen to be an HBO or Netflix executive. Rob and Kaci did heroic work in editing my drafts down into something that would actually work as an evening of theatre.
So you may ask: What’s the point of this “devised theatre” business if you end up with traditional script anyway? To me, the magic is in the deeper connection it creates between the company and the material. It’s one thing to be given a role; quite another to shape that role. It’s one thing to have the playwright and director tell you “this is what this play is about”; quite another to discover what it’s about together. If some of that magic is discernible in the final product, we’ve done our jobs. -- Curtis Luciani
Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell & Valeen Tippetts Avery
No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith by Fawn Brodie
In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd M. Compton
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it came to be called, was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, a western New York farmboy and treasure hunter, and a few loyal followers--first among them Joseph’s wife, Emma Hale, a devout and serious-minded Pennsylvania girl. At that time, the Second Great Awakening was still raging and new churches were blooming like flowers, but the Mormons (as they also came to be called) quickly got notoriety for Joseph’s audacious claim of discovering an entirely new and uniquely American testament, the Book of Mormon, which Emma helped to “translate” from golden plates delivered by an angel.
But while many saw him as a pure charlatan, Joseph’s buoyant personality and humanistic theology, which closed the distance between man and God, attracted waves of converts. His ambition to build not just a church but a new Israel organized those converts into thriving frontier communities. In all this, he was greatly aided by Emma, who managed their tangled and overextended finances, saw to communal welfare, preached on behalf of the church, and compiled their first hymnal.
However, the Mormons’ success and Joseph’s self-styled status as their prophet-king made them objects of fear and jealousy wherever they went. They were driven first out of Kirtland, Ohio, then out of Independence, Missouri. As our play begins, they are in exile in Quincy, Illinois; Joseph has been imprisoned by Governor Lilburn Boggs of Missouri.