Eric Samuelsen on writing 3

Eric Samuelsen

Eric Samuelsen

Eric Samuelsen has been writing for Plan-B for a decade: seven SLAM plays, two Ibsen translations presented as part of the Script-In-Hand Series (A DOLL HOUSE and GHOSTS) and six world premieres (MIASMA, AMERIGO, BORDERLANDS, NOTHING PERSONAL,RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA and CLEARING BOMBS).  The 2013/14 #SeasonOfEric is fully dedicated to his work.

3 consists of three short plays in which Mormon women quietly confront and examine their own culture.

Mormonism is my life-long spiritual home. But loving a culture does not mean blinding oneself to its limitations. And chief among those limitations is a deeply rooted culture of sexism, of patronizing patriarchy. And above all, Mormonism can be obsessed with public relations, with how things seem, with appearances.

Often critics outside our culture point to the fact that Mormon women are not allowed the Priesthood. Well, what does that mean? Both more and less than our outside critics understand. The Mormon understanding of ‘Priesthood’ is complicated and difficult; Mormon women participate in public worship and have some leadership role in Church proceedings. No, Mormon sexism is quieter than that, subtler. And it’s tied to issues of body image and sexuality, it’s tied to that focus on the way things look to the world.

So the three plays of 3, each with casts of three actresses, begins with that number: three. Three is an iconic number in Mormonism. We believe in a Godhead of three persons; not the Christian trinity, but three distinct individuals, each of them Gods. We’ll sometimes describe ourselves as monotheistic, but it isn’t really true; we worship an odd sort of Divine Committee; three Gods who run things. The Church Presidency consists of three Presidents; so does each Priesthood quorum, and each individual ward is run by three bishops. Three is magic. So a play called 3, three plays with three women is deliberately transgressive; we’re coopting three-ness.

The first play of 3 is called Bar and Kell. It’s a play about two women, Barbara and Kellie, who decide, with the best of intentions, to intervene in the life of Brandie, a really messed up third woman; advise her, work with her, help her. Laudable, perhaps, but what are their real concerns? Are they genuinely interested in helping someone in need? Or are they primarily worried about the image of their neighborhood, the way a poor family lowers their property values? They ignore the very real abuse in Brandie’s life, and hurry her along toward marriage, rationalizing all the while what a positive difference they’re making. It’s a play that suggests the complicity of women their own marginalization; as long as everything looks okay, it is okay.

The second play was suggested by a Utah obscenity trial from some thirteen years ago, and also the re-release of the movie Titanic. Community Standard suggests the larger social world of a Mormon ward, so three actresses each play multiple roles, though each with one primary role. I thought that juxtaposing those two ideas, an obscenity trial and Titanic, might be an intriguing way to explore issues of sexism and sexuality. Janeal, a Mormon housewife, reflects on a time earlier in her life when she served on a jury intended to establish the community standard for obscenity in her Utah Mormon culture. That experience made her realize how much her husband has pornographied and objectified her. I’ve seen this in LDS culture; the idea that a particularly effective missionary will be rewarded by God with a particularly sexy wife, the way men ‘rate’ the women in their wards, the continued fascination with polygamy, long gone from Mormonism, but still vestigially in our theology. And Utah, as a Mormon-majority state, consumes more pornography per capita than any other.

The third play, Duets, is about a situation I’ve seen far too frequently in Mormon culture, marriage between a straight LDS woman and a gay man with whom she has fallen in love. I’ve had many friends who had suffered the heartache of such misalliances. I’ve seen it end in tragedy, as it does in this play. Not always, thank heavens, but often enough, it leads to botched efforts at reparative therapy, to self-loathing and self-hatred among people who would be better off as friends. In this case, I thought it would be interesting to locate the play among female relationships, among women who have chosen complicity with a damaging status quo.

I had thought of the plays as simply three short plays about Mormon women. But as I reworked them, I came to realize the thematic unity that ties them together. So much of Mormon culture is about appearances, about the social pressure to conform, to share the same attitudes and desires, to seem. I’ve also felt the pressure to have a perfect yard or a perfect marriage or a perfect home or perfect children. I think that pressure can be damaging.

Kell, in Bar and Kell, comes to realize that she doesn’t actually care about her new neighbor Brandie as a person, that she actually does care about how Brandie’s white trash presence makes the neighborhood look. And that knowledge devastates her. By the same token, Janeal, in Community Standard, realizes that her husband’s obsession with her physical appearance has in some very real ways pornographied her, that she is as objectified and as commodified as the women in porn are to men who view it. And Sondra, in Duets, realizes she has allowed the lie at the heart of her marriage to a gay man to destroy the man she loves the most.

The three plays of 3 are all quiet plays, non-explosive plays. But I have tried to explore my own culture honestly and truthfully, to peer into the darkest closets of my own spiritual home.


Eric Samuelsen’s 3 receives its world premiere as part of Plan-B’s #SeasonOfEric March 27-April in the Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.  Featuring Stephanie Howell, Teresa Sanderson and Christy Summerhays, directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff.  Click here for more information and tickets.

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