Literary Arts | Theater

Eric Samuelsen in Three Acts



Eric Samuelsen enters stage right. He’s a broad man with keenly intelligent eyes and an infectious smile. Samuelsen looks surprised to be here. He’s a playwright after all, not an actor.

ERIC: Choosing not to act was not a difficult call.

He laughs good-naturedly.

ERIC: It was a complete, absolute, all encompassing lack of talent. That decision was not made by me, it was made by a great number of casting directors.

Samuelsen makes broad, thoughtful gestures as he talks – his large arm strokes illustrate the scene.

ERIC: “(But) I’m one of those people for whom life wouldn’t really make sense if I weren’t involved in theatre.”

A small boy enters stage left: a young Samuelsen, his Indiana home indicated by the Hoosier t-shirt he wears. He is surrounded by the grandeur and opulence of an opera house. The older Samuelsen looks on at the fond memory.

ERIC: “My father was an opera singer so I was raised in theatres. I grew up with that larger-than-life, operatic, high-emotion, high-energy, high-music kind of theatre. I’ve loved it my whole life.”

The small boy trades places with a young man who, wearing a BYU t-shirt, his packed suitcase weighting his body to one side, looks toward a distant horizon. He slowly walks across the stage making one stop to open his suitcase and put on a graduation cap with a blue and white tassel. When he reaches the far side of the stage he removes the graduation cap and puts on a tweed jacket with leather on the elbows. He exits stage right. 


Samuelsen sits at a computer typing. A series of posters are projected on the wall — all plays he’s written including Accommodations (1993) and Gadianton (1996). Both were published in Sunstone magazine and won the annual AML award in drama. Other posters appear: A Love Affair with Electrons (2000),Family (2005) and the images come to a halt on a poster for Plan-B Theatre Company’s annual production of SLAM. The typing slows and Samuelsen looks up from his computer.

ERIC: I initially got involved with Plan-B when I first participated in SLAM. There aren’t a lot of cities in the country that have something like Plan-B, it’s an astonishing thing — a theatre dedicated to producing new work by local writers. I’m not sure if Salt Lake appreciates how rare and how wonderful of a thing that is.

Behind Samuelsen a montage of scenes from his past Plan-B productions moves across the screen.

ERIC: Finding Plan-B was great for me in lots of ways, because it’s allowed me to transition from a Utah Valley or Utah County playwright to more of a Utah playwright. I think I had previously been known as a Mormon playwright, and I never minded that. I liked exploring Mormon culture, I liked that part of my career, but it had gotten to the point where I wanted other challenges.

On screen appears a poster for Borderlands (2011), a bright red “sold out” sticker crosses the bottom right corner. Beneath the posters hang an array of awards from the 2011 City Weekly Awards: Best Theatre Production, Best Theatre Performance (Kirt Bateman) and Best Original Play.

Samuelsen gets up from his chair, and momentarily puts his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels to quietly admire and contemplate the success.

Meanwhile, City Weekly reporter Gavin Sheehan enters from stage left. He reads from one of his own articles.

REPORTER:  Challenging the aspects of both religion and sexuality, the Plan-B Theatre production of Borderlands watches the two collide head-on in, of all places, a used car lot. How much more Utahn can you get than that? The play centers around a family-owned dealership with a brother rising out of tough times, his sister in pain, a mother at a crossroads at home and her nephew struggling with the family.

The reporter exits stage left, and Eric watches him go.

ERIC: Borderlands is a really important play for me. I felt that there was a community within Mormon culture that was not talked about and is also huge.

He looks at the Borderlands poster until most of the projection goes dark. The year 2011 lingers for a moment before disappearing with the rest of the image. A soft spotlight, initially highlighting only the playwrights face, slowly expands as he reads from his bio in the playbill.

ERIC: ‘He joined the faculty of Brigham Young University in 1992, where he was head of the playwrighting program from 1999–2011.’

A soft sigh escapes his lips, but whether it’s one of relief or disappointment is uncertain.

ERIC: In 2012 I retired. About three years previous to that I became very ill with a muscular degenerative disease called polymyositis, and I tried to hang in there and teach as long as I could but it reached the point where it was not possible. Standing in front of a class or lecturing, or frankly just being on campus for the hours worth of meetings and faculty interactions and student interactions is just beyond what my energy level will permit anymore.

Slowly crossing the stage, he explains his situation without sadness or self-pity. He sounds reflective, and then his tone turns optimistic. He smiles, and there is overwhelming gratitude in his voice.

ERIC: It prevents me from teaching, it prevents me from doing a lot of the things I love doing, but the core of who I am is playwrighting and directing, and I’m still able to do those things.


In the background actors Kirt Bateman, Mark Fossen, and Jay Perry play out a scene from Samuelsen’sClearing Bombs. Producing Director of Plan-B Theatre Jerry Rapier enters stage left.

JERRY: I was so impressed with the first draft of Clearing Bombs I did what I had been considering for quite some time – I invited Eric to be a resident playwright, which eventually led to me asking if Plan-B could stage an entire season of his work.

A new projection appears on stage: “2013 – 2014 AKA The Season of Eric.” Posters for the plays that are part of “The Season of Eric” scroll across the projector screen: Nothing Personal and Radio Hour Episode 8: Fairyana. The scrolling comes to a stop on a Poster for Clearing Bombs.

JERRY: I wanted to celebrate his range as a playwright and let some of that been-under-a-bushel-far-too-long work see the light of day. From there I asked him what mattered most to him of the dozen or so plays and outlines he shared with me. Without missing a beat he said Clearing Bombs.And without missing a beat, I said okay. Why? Because from the first read, what could be perceived as an erudite economics lesson from the outside felt, from the inside, that it might just help me make sense of the chaos of the changing-faster-than-I can-possibly keep-up-with world around me.

He exits stage left. Samuelsen enters stage right. He wears a t-shirt that says “Working with Plan-B for 12 Years and Running.” In one hand he holds a book, and with the other he gestures to the projection.

ERIC: I still pinch myself.

He holds up the book in his hand, “Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics.”

ERIC: There’s a brief section in the book that describes an evening in the summer of 1942 when the two economists spent the night on the roof of King’s College in Cambridge. Just from the mention, I was excited by the possibilities.

He opens the book and turns the pages with rabid curiosity.

ERIC: As I read the rest of the book, I was completely taken up by the clash of personalities between Keynes and Hayek, and of course, the clash of ideas in their work.

He closes the book with a snap.

ERIC: Two brilliant men who were willing to risk their lives for the sake of ideas, and those ideas are centrally important to what’s going on in the world now and what will go on in the world in years to come.

To illustrate his point, he briefly ruminates on the last election as images of the 2012 presidential debate appear behind him.

ERIC: What you end up with, and I think this happens all the time, are candidates who try to distinguish themselves in terms of personality, and personal narratives, and personal competence and so on, but really they are mouth pieces for dead economists. The 2012 election, in my own mind was not an election between Barak Obama and Mitt Romney. It was an election between Keynes and Hayek.

He stops and shakes his head, clearing his thoughts.

ERIC: Nothing could have shocked me more. I never thought, ‘Gosh, I should write a play about economics.’ It never would have occurred to me.”

He holds up the book, the catalyst for his idea, and raises his eyebrows and shrugs as if to say, “But here we are anyway.” Samuelsen makes his way back to the computer table, and supports himself with one hand on the chair.

ERIC: I feel fantastically lucky. With my illness, fifty-percent who get it are dead within the first year, and I’ve had it for six years. I feel just incredibly lucky, and every day is a blessing. It makes me want to enjoy every day and savor it because I literally have no idea how much longer I have. In the meantime, I’m just going to have a ball. You’re going to have to drag me out of this world kicking and screaming because I’m really enjoying my life right now.

He eases himself into the chair and goes back to work on his next play. Samuelsen smiles to himself. He playfully reflects on his next project.

ERIC: You have to give audiences what they want, and what audiences clearly want right now is hard-core macroeconomics and when you’re finished with that there’s really no place to go except tenth-century papal politics. It’s the obvious next step.

He chuckes warmly. The lights fade and only the clicking of keys is heard.


Categories: Literary Arts | Theater

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