Culture Conversations: Theatre
Eric Samuelsen in Three Acts
Utah Playwright Begins a New Stage in Life
by Dale Thompson | photos by Caitlin Himelright
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’s Clearing 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.
The next play in Plan B's The Season of Eric is Clearing Bombs, which will be held in the studio theatre at Rose Wagner from February 20–March 2, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 4 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets can be purchased through ArtTix.
The dialogue in this piece was based on an interview with the playwright in January 2014.
Culture Conversations: Dance
Movement Forum Mixes It Up
Salt Lake's Dance Improv Troupe invites a few friends
by Ashley Anderson
As they embark on their eleventh year as a collective improvisation company, Movement Forum should be well known to most in the Salt Lake dance audience. However, their unconventional, and frequently public, performances may also mean their patron base has extended beyond the expected dance crowd into more ambiguous territory.
Since 2003, Movement Forum (sometimes called MoFo) has been dancing in the 9th and 9th crosswalks, at museum exhibition openings, as part of lecture series, and even in the beating sun at Liberty Park. They have also seen the occasional proscenium setting like the University of Utah’s Performing Dance Company, the Rose Wagner, and, recently, the Utah Arts Festival. Founded by Graham Brown and a group of fellow graduates and students from the University of Utah, the company carved out new territory inspired by their belief that artists could collaboratively practice improvisation as performance. Now headed by Danell Hathaway and Erin Kaser Romero, alongside their numerous company collaborators, Movement Forum continues to believe that practicing improvisation in unique environments has great value as a performance model.
Movement Forum’s performances still embody the physicality that Utah audiences have come to expect from dance, as many of MoFo’s artists use contact, or partnering, as an element of their collaborative performances; but co-directors Danell Hathway & Erin Kaser Romero are starting the new year asking questions about what varieties of improvisation the current company model may have overlooked. Part of their reflection has included a consideration of alternatives to push into the next decade of making dance.
The company has formerly worked in large collaborative ways where all members are viewed as co-creators and participants in a given piece. At some point the group also saw company members take on leadership roles as desired, but any structures or concepts still came primarily from within the group. As the years passed and the company members changed, the initial commitment to the true collaborative experience waxed and waned. Given this information, Danell and Erin embarked on 2014 with an idea for change: an invitation for local and national artists to create a new piece for the company. After successful pitches for funding from Kickstarter and other granting agencies, the company official invited Gabriel Forestieri, Miguel Gutierrez, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Steve Koester, and Yvonne Meier to participate.
Romero notes that “we conceived of this project for the company because working with the same model for 10 years we figured, hey, there must be new ways to approach this,” while Hathaway adds that “seeking outside ideas helps open MoFo to see how national artists are collaborating. We hope it helps us find a new direction and pushes us through the ebb and flow of working together this long.”
The artists they’ve invited represent both local and national practitioners of improvisational movement forms. University of Utah Department Chair Steve Koester was the first selection, having been a mentor to many company members as he introduced them to improvisational strategies throughout their undergraduate study.
Others guests are linked to the company in diverse ways. Ishmael Houston-Jones, Yvonne Meier and Miguel Gutierrez have initial ties to the group through Michael Watkiss, a company member who studied with all three at the American Dance Festival. Watkiss developed close ties with Houston-Jones in particular as he toured his revival of “THEM” across Europe in the past several years. Houston-Jones and Gutierrez are both part of Salt Lake’s dance scene in other ways — serving on the board for a local non-profit and attending SaltDanceFest as a visiting artist respectively. Gabriel Forestieri, another artist included as a guest, was connected through a different company member, Leah Nelson Del Porto, who had worked with him previously in New York.
Although all included artists have worked with the form of improvisation, each brings something different to the table. Given his tradition of performing as a method for connecting communities with their environments, Forestieri is considering working outdoors. As the only locally commissioned artist, Koester will presumably work most intimately with the group through the course of the year. And Miguel Gutierrez plans to do a virtual collaboration.
Yvonne Meier, a New York based artist from Switzerland, is known for a lot of things but definitely for the scores she creates for improvisers. Scores are a kind of map or series of directives that shape an improvisational performance — Meier’s in particular are wildly uncanny and definitely a challenge. Other challenges Movement Forum faces may include the way several of these artists work with layers of verbal and physical improvisation alongside other new methods or styles.
Romero adds that the pool of invited guests is primarily national because “living and working in Salt Lake City, national artists don’t know us and reaching out is a way for us to connect and expand our own network. These residencies are also for us as company members to become more aware of what is out there in the larger world.”
The residencies for each artist will extend throughout 2014 with periodic informal showings and a culminating performance in-the-round at the Rose Wagner Studio Theater. Audiences who’ve seen Movement Forum before can expect their own ideas to be changed, both about what the company is capable of and what improvisation can look like. Audiences who haven’t, can expect to see a wide exploration of movement styles and probably find something unlike what they’ve previously seen in the theater.
As each artist comes to town, Movement Forum also hopes to include them in the tradition of monthly improvisation jams at their rehearsal home base at Rowland Hall as well as other community dance venues. The jams are free to attend and a unique way for artists outside the company to work with guests they may not otherwise experience.
For more information on the choreographers coming for MoFo’s 2014 season, the improvisation jams, or past work by the company visit their website.
This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.
Culture Conversation: Dance
Upcoming dance you should but may not be aware of
If you haven’t heard of Movement Forum before (see above), chances are you are missing a lot of smaller-scale dance projects taking place along the Wasatch Front. Differences in funding over the years mean that many current projects don’t have as deep endowments or foundation support as larger companies have acquired over the years, but that’s no reason to miss out on what younger artists are offering the community at diverse venues.
SUITE: the fifth annual showcase of women choreographers at the Sugar Space
February 13-15, 8pm at Sugar Space (616 Wilmington Ave) $10-12, www.thesugarspace.com
MUDSON: a semi-annual works-in-progress series featuring new choreography by Brooklyn Draper, Molly Heller, Efren Corado Garcia, Temria Airmet, Josie Patterson-Halford, Katie Meehan, Movement Forum & more. February 17 & March 17, 7:30pm at the Masonic Temple (650 E. South Temple) Free Admission, www.lovedancemore.org
BODY LOGIC at Sugar Space, February 21-22, 7:30pm at Sugar Space (616 Wilmington Ave) $10-15, tickets/info www.thesugarspace.com
CO.DA, the third installment of the cooperative dance company housed at Sugar Space, Feb 27-March 1, 8pm at Sugar Space (616 Wilmington Ave) $10-12, tickets/info www.thesugarspace.cm
SALT LAKE MUNICIPAL BALLET presents Son et Lumiere
a fundraiser for the Utah Heritage Foundation’s Ladies’ Literary Club (850 E. South Temple), Feb 27-March 1, 7:30pm, suggested $10 donation at the door.
PROVO SITES featuring works by Ashley Anderson, Kate Monson, Kori Wakamatus, Lehua Brown, Nathan Balser & more, May 19th at the Provo Library
for more details, www.lovedancemore.org.