Exactly one year after the public become aware of a policy change in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- a policy that labeled gay couples as “apostate” and barred their children from access to church rites -- a play will open in Draper that dramatizes the conflict between LGBTQ Mormons, their faith and their families.
But director Joey Calkins said that the timing of this production of the play, “Facing East,” was unintentional.
“We’ve talked about (the policy), but it hasn’t really been the focus. It actually was a coincidence that it happened that way, because I had actually thought about doing it in November of this year months before that policy change,” he said. “It just kind of happened that way.”
Tiffany Dalley, the show's stage manager, finds meaning in the timing.
"It kind of happened on accident but not really -- I believe everything happens for a reason and there are no coincidences," she said. "This play, the first time it was done, was 10 years ago, but I think it's even more relevant now."
Reed Williams, one of the actors in the production, hopes the play will be a balm for those caught in painful relationships between individuals and their faith or their families.
“ ‘Facing East’ does a great job of showing that you shouldn't compromise the people you love — or people in general — for your ideological beliefs,” he said in an email. “That's what I hope people take away from the show. It's not an attack on Mormonism, and it's not making a political statement about LGBTQ issues. It's about the importance of loving and accepting people unconditionally. ...
“I think the LDS Church's policy change regarding children of LGBTQ couples definitely furthered the divide between the two communities in Utah. Hopefully, this show can be a reminder that there is hope of reconciliation and healing between LDS members and LGBTQ individuals.”
“Facing East” was written by Carol Lynn Pearson and debuted in 2006 at the Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City. Calkins saw its encore production the following spring. It tells the story of grieving Mormon parents immediately following the funeral of their son, who has died of suicide, and their accidental meeting of their son’s romantic partner, Marcus.
“I had just moved to Utah right after the production closed, so I saw the encore production. This was right before they took it to New York,” Calkins said. “I loved the show, and it’s been on my mind ever since then.”
The play’s plot resonates with real-life tragedy in ways that feel general and also specific.
Andy, the son whose presence is notably absent throughout the play, has committed suicide in the play on the steps of the Salt Lake Temple, a situation that bears some resemblance to an event that occurred six years before the play debuted.
In 2000, days before California voters would decide on Proposition 22, (a measure banning same-sex marriage in the state, which LDS congregations throughout the state worked to pass) 32-year-old Stuart Matis died of suicide on the property of his local stake center.
"I've heard hearsay that Carol Lynn did base some of the instances or situations in the play on actual events," Calkins said. "But I can't say for sure."
In directing “Facing East,” Calkins has approached the depiction of Andy from the most personal of places -- his own “Mormon upbringing, being gay and suicidal, honestly,” he said.
“In some ways I know almost exactly what he was thinking, what he was feeling,” he said. “When I saw it, I was coming to terms with my own sexuality at the time. This was in 2007, and it would be another three years before I even came out. So I could relate to Andy the best, actually, and I still do.”
Calkins said that the play, for him, provided hope.
“I was still trying to convince myself it was just a phase,” he said. “I remember being uncomfortable at some points, realizing that I really am gay, but I’m not sure I want to be, because I was told that I shouldn’t be. … I do know how it feels like to think that there’s no other option, and I hope that people who come to see this show, if anyone comes and sees the show who are suicidal, would come out and realize that there are people who love them, and that there are other options.”
Material risk involved
Discussing suicide carries complex risks, according to researchers. The Movement Advancement Project has warned of “suicide contagion” in a document compiled from recommendations of several suicide prevention organizations, "Talking About Suicide & LGBT Populations."
In their recommendations, the Project emphasizes the importance of public discussion and of encouraging those contemplating suicide to seek help, as well as emphasizing the danger of normalizing suicide as “the logical consequence” of rejection of LGBT individuals.
One way of preventing the suicide that the play offers, from Dalley's perspective, is to make the point that with more information, high-risk individuals can identify reasons to hope.
"I definitely think there’s a message of hope," she said. "Sometimes I wonder, would Andy have committed suicide had he known how his father really felt? … It’s one of those cases of putting the blinders on and pretending that the problems didn’t really exist."
Aside from any risk related to “suicide contagion,” the production faces a more traditional risk for a theater company: finding an audience. The play is produced by the Utah/Idaho Performing Arts Company, where Calkins is executive director. The Draper Historic Theatre hosts.
“When I first read the script and was listening to the actors’ portrayal of it, my first thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, how is this going to go over? What kind of reception is this going to get?’ ” Dalley said.
Within the thriving Utah theater community, many production companies have staked out names for themselves on one side or the other of “family friendly” content. On one end there are names like Hale and SCERA, on the other are Plan-B and The Salt Lake Acting Company, with Pioneer in Salt Lake and others straddling both.
But Calkins said that audiences at his production company may not expect a show that deals frankly with a controversial conflict of faith and identity.
“Up until this show, the most controversial thing we’ve ever done is ‘The Crucible,’ ” he said. “I’m not really sure what I’m expecting, because most of our audience are opera lovers, or family members of people who are in opera. …
“We don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping that we get a variety of people that come and see the show. And I’m hoping that some of them are changed, and maybe see things in a different light.”
Even without proof of marketability, Calkins felt “compelled” to do the show.
“I feel compelled to do this,” he said. “With my own background, being raised Mormon, and being gay, and I felt like it needed to be done. Which is actually how I choose most shows that we do -- I feel like it needs to be done, whether it’s popular or a moneymaker doesn’t really even affect my decision.”
The play sympathetically presents parents who have felt another kind of risk as well: the risk that their son seems to present to their religious paradigm.
“Ruth especially, she’s basing everything that she says off of what she believes and how she was raised,” Calkins said. “Ruth is afraid of her son not being with them in the next life and the things that she doesn’t know. In Ruth’s mind, if they were wrong, then everything that she has been taught in her life has been wrong, and everything she believes is wrong.”
Making a difference
One hundred percent of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to Affirmation, an organization that supports and advocates for LGBT Mormons. But Calkins doesn’t call “Facing East” itself “activism.”
“I personally wouldn’t,” he said. “I see it as more of a human piece. Taking these three characters and how they feel about an event that happened, and their reactions to it. But I can definitely see how it could be considered an activist piece.”
Earlier this year, in an interview with Pearson about another book project, she described how she sees how art can make a difference.
“Art has to move the needle to a little different spot or it’s not doing its job,” she said.