“Morag Shepherd never plays it safe,” is what Matthew Ivan Bennett wrote about the Utah playwright in 2022. His words ring true a year later, as Immigrant Daughter’s Theatre prepares to stage Shepherd’s “Worship,” a play that delves deep into the complexities of devotion and the dark undercurrents of power dynamics.
Shepherd’s play is inspired by the case of a Brigham Young University professor who sexually and spiritually abused female students. To figure out how these relationships might have gotten “from point A to point B,” Shepherd wrote a scene with one of the college students. But that wasn’t enough. She began wondering about the other women in the professor’s life. More scenes followed. “When I put them together it was clear that the play had taken on a life of its own outside of the original thought experiment,” Shepherd says. “It became more of a suspense thriller, which makes sense considering the undertones of violence in most religious settings,” says the BYU alumna (MA, Theatre Criticism). “So, yeah, there’s some blood, but you’ll have to watch to see how it comes about.”
To stage the world premier, Shepherd is partnering with Immigrant’s Daughter Theatre, a company that tells new stories in unconventional spaces — in this case, Utah Arts Alliance’s artist studios west of the Gateway, where the play will be an immersive experience for 27 audience members at a time. “They are an immensely collaborative company that creates new works of the unexpected, daring, and sometimes taboo,” Shepherd says. “Immigrant’s Daughter allows me to explore the unknown and create a theatrical experience as a collective.”
The cast, including Ariana Farber, Renny Grames, Brynn Duncan, Nick Matthews, and debutante Ainslie Shepherd, embark on an audacious journey, embodying characters that confront uncomfortable truths. Duncan, who portrays Mary, the courageous BYU student, shares her commitment to authenticity, remarking, “Religious abuse has been hidden for years; it’s time to talk about it.” Ariana Farber, a co-founder of Immigrant’s Daughter and producer of the show, embraces the challenge of bringing Emma, a character of great complexity, to life. Renny Grames, cast as Flora, a sex worker, bravely steps into a role that promises to challenge societal norms. And Nick Matthews, in the role of Mason, the professor, anticipates the opportunity for nuanced portrayal, acknowledging the contemporary relevance and thought-provoking dialogue that permeates the play.
Shepherd says writing the voice of Mason was particularly difficult. “I thought that I knew the voice of the man, because I have interacted with the same type of guy many times in my life, but when I started to write his dialogue it was just too unbelievable. I really had to get inside of his voice, find sympathy for him, and go in from that angle, so I could get something of a truth there.”
Though Shepherd’s play is inspired by true crime, don’t expect the writing to be straightforward or easy. Stephanie Stroud, who directs “Worship,” calls Shepherd’s writing style “innately honest in its absurdism and complexity.” While the play scrutinizes the intricate web of power, exposing duplicity and corrosive behavior, Stroud says the play goes beyond the vilification of those in power, delving into themes of forgiveness, redemption, and complicity.
Morag Shepherd’s “Worship,” SLC Arts Hub (663 West 100 South), Salt Lake City, Oct. 6 – Oct. 21, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinee on October 8 at 2 p.m. TICKETS.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.