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Department Of Theatre And Media Arts

Theatre Students Share Sacred Stories in Sacred Spaces

Theatre Students Perform “City of Women: Book of Miracles” at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the BYU MOA and West Campus

Theatre Students During a Rehearsal in the West Campus Classroom Building
Photo by Matthew Larson/CFAC External Relations

Each year, a different theatre faculty member takes on the TMA 480 course, a special topics course that focuses on theatre research. During the winter 2024 semester, Alexandra Mackenzie Johns led the nine-student course to “create and perform a play about medieval women and their faith.”

“I wanted to learn more about devising plays,” said theatre studies major Nahee Choi. “There are no other courses that incorporate devising in the way [TMA 480] does; it is a special course. When I heard about this class, I knew I needed to take it.” However, what started out as an opportunity to research and devise an original play, turned into much more for these students.

For students who enrolled in the course, the classroom was an intimate setting. “I have studied at BYU for five years and the other students in the class have become the best friends I have made since I began my time here,” said Alyssa Call, a theatre arts studies major. “It's been amazing to not only strengthen my testimony and improve my skills, but to do so alongside a group of close friends.” According to Call, the group of students became friends quickly due to the vulnerability and confidence that was required to work together on such a faith-centered project.

“The whole process was inspiring,” said Choi. “Going to class felt like resting. Everyone came with an open mind, and it was such a warm and loving environment. Not only did I have the chance to be inspired by the faithful women that we were studying but also by my professor and classmates.”

Alyssa Call Portraying Hildegard of Bingen During Performance at the Cathedral of the Madeleine
Photo by Courtney Russell

The students also collaborated with Julie Robinson, a faculty member from the Department of Dance, and Shelley Graham, a theatre faculty member who served as a dramaturg on the project.

As “City of Women: Book of Miracles” started to take shape, it evolved beyond the expectations of the class. On the second day of class, Mackenzie Johns invited the students to share some of their personal experiences. Many of these experiences became part of the performance as some of the students portrayed themselves and shared their stories with the audience.

Julie Putnam, a student majoring in theatre arts studies, had the chance to share her experiences on stage. “This was my first performance at BYU, and I was sharing a personal story about my dad passing away,” said Putnam. “People might have expected that to be out of my comfort zone but truthfully, I began to feel that it was an experience that was largely given to me to share with others. My experience played a key role in growing my testimony and a large part of that growth comes from sharing it with others.”

The group was able to perform “City of Women: Book of Miracles” at three locations, moving from BYU West Campus to the BYU Museum of Art (MOA) and Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine. Each location provided the students with unique experiences that brought the performance to life in numerous ways.

The Cathedral of the Madeleine is the only cathedral in the U.S. under the patronage of St. Mary Magdalene. The interior is donned with art dedicated to women in the Bible. The students were invited to perform their original play at the cathedral for its annual Madeleine Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

Significant Women of Faith Such as Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Christine de Pisan, St. Bridget of Sweden, Hrosvitha and Julian of Norwich Were Portrayed in the Play
Photo by Courtney Russell

“It's really interesting to perform in the cathedral because of the artwork that was in there,” said Call. “Many of the pieces reflected our performance. For example, on the ceiling of the cathedral there is a painting of angels and women wearing crowns. In the show there is a scene inspired by one of the texts we studied where she talks about crowned women in heaven. It was really interesting to perform in such a sacred setting.”

Much like the cathedral, the MOA offered a setting surrounded by art. The group performed in the museum’s exhibit Of Souls and Sacraments,” a collection of religious artworks dating back to the 14th century. Although similar to the performance at the cathedral, the performance in the MOA was unique in its own right.

“I didn't have high expectations for the performance in the MOA,” said Choi. “We couldn’t bring our set in and there was no stage, but it went really well. I think it was successful because it was such an intimate setting. There was no difference between the stage and where the audience sat. We were telling our stories directly to them and that helped us connect to them even more.”

From strengthening their testimonies to building friendships, the students of TMA 480 believe their class was an example of how the arts can build connections between people. “I loved every part of the experience, and it wasn’t exclusive to us as performers and students,” said Putnam. “The audience was included in the experience. I remember seeing people who came to multiple performances. Just like us, they had the chance to experience the performance in different spaces. This show, this idea of connecting the past to the present and the spiritual experiences of these women was the epitome of connecting worldly education and the secular to the sacred, which BYU is uniquely fit to combine in an educational setting.”

The Performance Included Musical Numbers as well as a Choreographed Dance
Photo by Courtney Russell