Twelve years after its initial premiere, writer and actor Steven Fales is bringing Confessions of a Mormon Boy back to the stage. Part One in Fales’ Mormon Boy Trilogy can be seen at Bay Street from Tuesday, July 17 through Sunday, July 22.
We caught up with Fales, “an exiled sixth-generation Latter-gay Saint,” about revisiting the production, his healing journey, faith, and more.
The production at Bay Street will feature a never-before-seen rendition of the script. Tell me a bit about that.
SF: Unofficially I’m calling it Confessions: Revisited because we’re looking back with a new perspective, using a lot of what works. Scott has helped me to go deeper, find a few missing beats, and really flush out the story even more so. There’s more emotional impact. It’s definitely a new, different script than what we did almost 12 years ago Off-Broadway. It’s very exciting. And, because this is Part One in Mormon Boy Trilogy, we’re also adding things that help enliven and enrich the other two solo plays.
You’ve had quite the life journey so far. Is it challenging or more cathartic to relive those parts of your life onstage?
SF: I think the challenging part is writing about it. As a writer/performer the real catharsis comes in the writing. Then, the acting craft takes over and you’re basically playing a character of yourself, so you’re able to leave it onstage. It’s definitely in the writing where all the healing is and catharsis and enlightenment comes from.
What led you to write the Trilogy?
SF: When I got excommunicated in the summer of 2000, I was performing at Sundance summer theater, and my life was falling apart and I was also working as an actor playing Perchik in Fiddler on the Roof in Utah in Sundance. I thought, you know, what I’ve been through is so wild – this kind of medieval, barbaric, cult tactic happening in the 2000s – and I had been such a good Mormon and overnight I was gone. So, I’m like this is happening to other people and no one has written about excommunication at the turn of the millennium, certainly not about their gay excommunication. I thought someone should write about this and I thought, okay, this should be me. So I started journaling, writing down ideas, bits and pieces, plot points, and details about it. About a year later, I took all of these notebooks and scrap pieces of paper and basically storyboarded them. I took some acting classes, so I could find a comedic voice with all this intensity and seriousness and the pain of the story. I thought I need to lift this so it’s not too heavy and I came up with this writing balance that mixes all of the honesty with a lot of humor so that the story would land. Within a year I had some readings and within a year and half of my excommunication I first premiered an early version in Salt Lake City in November of 2001.
Were you nervous?
SF: I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared in my life. I was living in New York, but I booked this theater in Salt Lake City because I figured if I could make it there I could make it anywhere. I was coming back to Salt Lake – to the scene of the crime. My ex-wife was there, all of her family – they were not very happy that I was doing this. But, of course, my ex-wife Emily and her mother are writers and they write memoirs, but it was like they didn’t want me writing my story. So, that was scary because you had all that family pressure, my own family, and then I was doing it two blocks from the Mormon Vatican, basically, so right there in the center of Mormondome and it was a lot. Not a lot of Mormons were onstage. People weren’t telling the truth about things quite yet. This was before The Book of Mormon, the musical, so a real Mormon, a gay Mormon, telling a story as a dad was… I was terrified. But, that first preview, I thought I would just fail, but that first preview was completely sold out and the response was overwhelming. I realized I was onto something and there was a counter culture in Salt Lake at the time that was so hungry for anyone to talk about these things.
Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like the Church’s stance on the LGBT community has changed much since then. Have you seen the documentary Believer with Imagine Dragons’ front man Dan Reynolds about the Mormon faith and LGBT community?
SF: It’s on my short list. He’s a good ally for us.
It seemed like the Church might have been changing its viewpoint but at the end of the documentary…
SF: No, they’ve doubled down with this new PR campaign. The PR campaign is “Oh, we’re nice to everybody.” But, the bottom line is the Doctrine isn’t changing. Mormon’s are into PR. They want to look good. When they stop looking good, that’s when the Doctrine changes. That’s how the African Americans were able to have the priesthood. It was such a PR nightmare they just had to force revelations that African Americans could participate fully. The problem is everything hinges on the temple ceremony and we don’t talk about what goes on in the Mormon temples. It’s all this reimagined Freemasonry that Joseph Smith took and reinvented the Mormon heavens with all these handshakes, and signs, and tokens, and cult rituals that you’re never, never to talk about. Mormon eternity is based in temples and temple marriage, so they don’t ever want to let two men or women be sealed for all time in eternity because that would end their very rigid view of what the eternities look like. The temple ceremony is key to talk about and I’m reliving the Mormon temple ceremony in my second show in The Mormon Boy Trilogy – that’s where we go deeper into the Mormon machine and answer questions journalists don’t even know what to ask Mitt Romney in the first place because the cult practices in the temples are what fuel the almost militant way the Mormon church attacks gay marriage and, of course, the way Mormons attack is with a great, big, huge smile on their face. It’s misleading and it’s not intellectually honest. So, you have a lot of these nice Mormons with a lot of Mormon guilt still wanting to be Mormon and be nicer, but they’re not being intellectually honest and that’s the disconnect. That’s what throws off a lot of gay men and women. My opinion is it creates a lot of depression, which can result in suicide or on the other extreme, I found myself acting out with drugs and feeling worthless – so why not just sell my body? So, Confessions is about getting my life back, how did I survive all this trauma and leaving clues for others.
Actually, Believer does cover the suicide rate among Mormons and it was a shockingly high percentage.
SF: One thing I would like to clarify is that Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees, and it’s not to be sour grapes, but he was never formally excommunicated. He wrote an album called Excommunication and it, I think, it might have some poetic honesty, but he just left the church. Some of us were formally excommunicated and it was like being burned at the stake, in a way. What happens is when I started doing my play, Confessions, I think that that got out – that someone was talking about this barbaric tactic and I’d like to hope that my play stopped excommunication so that Tyler Glenn never had to be excommunicated. So there’s a disconnect there – some of us have been the heretic, we’re not better than the apostate who feel away or who left, but that is an interesting distinction since you brought up the documentary that he’s featured in.
What do you hope that the audience takes away?
SF: I hope that they’re struck by not just the honesty that we need to have, but there’s an opportunity to come back with a generosity of spirit that no one expects. In this age, where we’re all taking sides right now politically, the extraordinary thing is for either side to take the higher road, and it’s not that I’m taking that road necessarily, but this is not just an attack. There are things about my own life that I have to take accountability for and so if I hold other people or institutions accountable, including the sex industry which I felt was so vulnerable and got sucked in and how I got out. I even have to be generous to the john’s that I feel exploited me when I was in a lot of pain. So how do we be a generous spirit and still have our integrity and truth?
And for you, how did you get there?
SF: I wrote the play in a generous way when I didn’t even often feel like it. I strove to write from a higher place and when you perform that material that’s stretching you to be your best self, it rubs off. I’ve had a lot of good psychotherapy to help me heal. In a way, my writing was ahead of my healing and now I feel like I’ve caught up. Now, almost 12 years after we did that original version of Confessions, I feel like I’m in a really good place, the timing’s right, the political climate is right, all the issues are on the table again, and I get to come back and attempt this all again with the entire Mormon Boy Trilogy. We’re going to be opening this up Off-Broadway at the beginning of next year, 2019, with three one man plays in repertory, and what they are are: Confessions of a Mormon Boy: Revisited, Mission Statement, about my Mormon mission to Portugal and the temple ceremonies, and the last play is called Prodigal Dad and it is about fighting for my rights as a dad in Utah and it’s about a lot of ultimate family healing. So these three plays as a trilogy, we’ll do these in rep Off-Broadway. We’ve got Scott Schwartz, who will be directing it. So, right now we’re workshopping it, trying out the new scripts. Bay Street is a dream come true to develop these.
You’ll be performing Confessions at Bay Street, and you’ll also be performing the rest of the Trilogy in the Hamptons.
SF: Yes, we’ll be doing readings. You have a chance to see all three within 24 hours. That can be done if you come to the last show of I call it the “Mormathon.” You can come to Confessions on Sunday at 2 p.m. and the reading of Mission Statement will be that night at 7 p.m., but that will be at The Old Whaler’s Church, just a reading. And the third show or the second reading will be on Monday at 4 p.m. That is also at The Old Whaler’s Church.
And does the audience need to see all three or if they’re only available for Prodigal Dad and Confessions, would the storyline still make sense?
Yes. Each of these solo plays are self-contained. They do interconnect, but each one is designed to be its own solo very thorough and satisfying theatrical experience. All three become a really dynamic solo performance event. I don’t think there’s another solo performer out there, certainly not writer/performer, who’s ever written three plays that will ultimately be done eight shows a week. In New York, you could see all three in one day or one each night. It’s a $10 ticket for the readings, half of it goes to Bay Street, half of it goes to Live Out Loud, which is a local LGBT organization out here.
Faith played a huge part in your early life. What’s your current relationship with faith?
SF: I took a break from it all and did psychotherapy and a lot of self-help and then I actually converted to Episcopalian about ten years ago. Now, what I really believe is there’s some kind of storytelling gods out there, looking after me. It’s almost like the Greek gods are back in my life to help me tell this story. So I do have a lot of faith in my heart and this is probably one of the messages of Confessions more than anything – that God is so much bigger than any church, mosque or synagogue. In a way, my work has been called post, postmodern because we’re not being brutally honest about the realities and the existentialness, but how to add faith back to that mix.
Admission to the readings at The Old Whaler’s Church (44 Union St, Sag Harbor) is $10 per reading. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 631-725-9500.
Bay Street Theater is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit www.baystreet.org.