“Curtain Call,” New Era, Oct. 1997, 29
Could you use some great new friends? Would you like to discover talents you never knew you had? And how’s your self-confidence and poise? Could you use more?
Okay, let’s say you’re interested, but suspicious. What would I have to do? you are wondering. It’s easy. Become a pirate. Or a pioneer. Or a Nephite warrior. In other words, you might consider getting on the stage—and we’re not talking about the first stage out of town, either.
Every year, thousands of LDS youth are making new friends, discovering new talents, and gaining new confidence by getting involved in community theater, stake productions, or pageants.
Wait a minute, where are you going? What was that you mumbled about not being able to sing or dance or act? So what if you’re not one of those people who are loaded with talent and love to perform? Plenty of nonsingers, nondancers, and nonactors are discovering that they can sing and dance and act—at least a little—and they are having a great time doing it. They have no intention of making a career of it, but they are learning worthwhile things about themselves and about life. And they are making new friends and having fun in the bargain.
And those who absolutely don’t want to be in front of the scenery are having lots of fun painting that scenery. Or moving it around. Or handling the lights and sound. Or playing in the orchestra.
Oakley, Idaho, is just north of the Utah-Idaho border. Population: between 600 and 700. This is an unlikely place for an opera house. But it has one. And local youth, most of whom are LDS, are playing major roles in its success.
If the term “opera house” conjures up images of big ladies wearing horned helmets and carrying spears, well, that’s not exactly the kind of opera we’re talking about here. Last summer’s production at Howell’s Opera House featured bumbling cops, bungling pirates, and giggly school girls. Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance is hilarious to watch and even more fun to perform.
But even before the performance, when you visit backstage, the first thing you really notice is the closeness of the cast, the easy-going, comfortable friendships. Downstairs in the crowded “green room” they joke and chat as they help each other with makeup like life-long friends. Only when you talk to cast members do you discover that it was the show that really brought most of them together. They come from all over the area, and they go to several different schools. Some are new to the valley, and this has been a great way to make friends.
Nathan Archibald, 16, and Matt Niu, 18, are good buddies now. But they didn’t even know each other before the play. “That alone is worth your summer,” says Nate.
Melanie Ricks, 18, agrees. For her, the cast is the best part of the show. “I’ve made a lot of friendships I wouldn’t have made otherwise.”
Okay, time to change scenes (notice the theatrical term). Now the setting is the Salt Lake Valley. Earlier this year, the Sandy Utah Stake staged Promised Valley, which portrays the sacrifices of the pioneers and the Mormon Battalion. This musical drama has its humorous moments, but it centers around the pioneer experience, the hardships and separations and the faith they required. This makes it very different from The Pirates of Penzance. But if you put the two casts together to compare experiences, they would have a lot in common—like the friendship element.
On a Saturday morning at the Sandy stake center, one of the final rehearsals is taking place. There’s an air of controlled chaos as the orchestra tunes and practices and groups of performers mill around waiting their turns. You see them everywhere in small groups in the halls, the foyers, and corners of the cultural hall: friends, like Justin Dunslow and Thomas Hood. Both are 17 and both are very busy in school, and one of the best things about being in this play together, Justin says, is “it’s brought our friendship closer.”
Obviously, friendships are not the only thing that grows when you answer the casting call. Some of the kids in both Oakley and Sandy are old hands in the theater, with experience in numerous church, school, and community productions. Others are just beginning to discover what they can do. But everyone is discovering new talents and abilities.
Eli Hansen, 15, from Burley, Idaho, was taking an acting class in high school and thought Pirates would be fun. “I learned I have some talents I’ve never used before,” he says. “I didn’t know I could dance or sing. Now they’re getting me into the ward choir.”
Jud Vorwaller, 19, was in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat the summer before. In his senior year he sang in his high school choir. “I didn’t know I could sing,” Jud says. “A friend prompted me to try out. I didn’t want to because I was shy. Last year I had one solo and I was scared to death to do it. Opening night was nerve-racking. This year [when he had a lead role] I wasn’t nervous. I knew I had a lot to do, and if I got nervous, I was really in trouble.”
What has this experience done for Jud? “I’m not nearly as shy as before. I have more confidence in myself.” For someone headed for the mission field, that’s not a bad accomplishment.
Spencer Williams, 17, had a role as a Mormon Battalion member in Promised Valley, a part that required him to sing a solo. “I don’t like it much,” he admitted before the performance. And the thought of singing on the stage at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall was kind of intimidating. But he went through with it. “It was a good experience,” he reported later. “Each night I got a little better.”
To be honest, Spencer didn’t sound like he was anxious to try out for a solo part again. And Thomas Hood, who had acted in his high school’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace, was pretty frank in evaluating his musical talents. “I found out I can’t sing,” he said good-naturedly. But even those who found singing a real stretch enjoyed their overall experience.
Speaking of music, one of the most obvious places to use a musical talent is in the orchestra pit. It’s hard work, say Shane Larsen, 14, and his brother Joseph, 16. When you point out to Shane that nobody really sees the orchestra, he says, “Yes, but they hear us. And if the music isn’t good, the play won’t be any good either.” Joseph admits that when he was on stage in previous productions, he kind of took the orchestra for granted, too. But not any more.
Of course, when it comes to being seen, no one would be seen—or heard—if the stage and sound and light crews were not on the job. Sandy stake’s Thomas Craft, 19, has acted in some productions, but he prefers to work behind the scenes. “Backstage people don’t always get credit, but they are very important for the play to turn out the way it should.”
Which brings up some of the things the stage can teach you about life. Kaisa Hansen was in Pirates. Now she’s a student at BYU. As much as anything, performing gave her an appreciation for the work of others. “When you get involved, you see how much people do behind the scenes. I have started realizing how much work people put into things. And when you are involved in something with other people, and you just play a small role, you are part of the glue that holds things together.”
Eli Hansen, 15, of Burley, talks about another lesson learned from the stage: “When you’re not part of the action, don’t upstage the others. Focus attention on them. Stay in character all the time. There’s always somebody watching you. You represent the Church name, your family name, even your employer. You have to be ‘on’ around the clock.”
When you get involved in stake productions or even Church pageants, there are still more lessons learned—things that shape and strengthen your testimony. Many of those who performed in Promised Valley volunteered that the experience had given them a greater appreciation of the pioneers and of their own heritage. As Spencer Williams notes, “To get into character, you have to imagine what it would have been like.” For him, the miracle of the crickets and the seagulls took on much deeper meaning.
Just like the friendships formed, those kinds of experiences can stay with you for years. Amy Hill, 18, of the Taylorsville Utah Central Stake, remembers when she was in her stake’s performance of the Book-of-Mormon-based A Day, a Night, and a Day. Amy was a ninth grader and had only a small nonspeaking part. But she has vivid memories of “acting out the Book of Mormon, thinking, Wow! this is so cool. This is how it would have felt.” Would she do it again? “I’d definitely recommend that kind of experience. I miss it sometimes.”
So what do the critics say? You’ve just heard from the critics who matter most—the people who have done it. So next time you have a chance to get on the stage (or behind the scenes, or in the orchestra pit) don’t start looking for the first stage out of town. If you want to develop friends, talents, and self-confidence, that stake musical or school play or community theater may be just the ticket.
Be a critic. The world judges plays and musicals as good or bad based on how well they are written and performed. Latter-day Saints must be concerned about content. What is the message? Are language and costumes appropriate? If you have to “become your character” in order to act well, what kind of character are you being asked to play? Several of the young people we talked to indicated that they were touched emotionally and spiritually by what they were portraying.
Be aware. There are lots of opportunities to get involved in wholesome theater. Most—but not all—school plays are safe. (Get a look at the script if you are unsure.) Stake and ward productions are a wonderful opportunity for friendships and personal growth. And many communities—especially those with a strong LDS influence—have local theater companies that have high moral standards. Ask around.
Be prepared to commit yourself and work hard. Rehearsals can be boring and tiring. But when everything comes together, the payoff can be terrific.