Theatre professor Megan Sanborn Jones discusses her recent research and newly released book
Megan Sanborn Jones is a theatre professor and associate chair in the BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts. Her book, “Contemporary Mormon Pageantry,” was published by the University of Michigan Press on Oct. 1.
Q: What sparked your initial interest in the subject material?
A: As a scholar whose work is at the intersection of theatre and Mormon studies, I spent the first 10 years of my career working on Mormon performance in the 19th century, specifically anti-Mormon melodramas on the professional American stage. I finished my first book and started looking around at other places where Mormons were showing up, places like handcart trek reenactments and Mormon appearances on “So You Think You Can Dance.”
I knew LDS pageants were going on, but I had never seen one. I had colleagues who were working on them, so I thought, here we have members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being ourselves — we’re producing our own performances. I’m curious about how we represent ourselves on stage, so examining LDS pageants in the 20th and 21st centuries seemed to logically follow the first part of my career researching the 19th century.
Q: What was the research process like for you?
A: I started out by learning as much as I could about the history of pageants and talking to a few people I knew personally who are involved in them. From there, I quickly made arrangements to do what is called participant observer research, where I went and both watched and participated, where possible, in the various pageants. I had some lovely experiences and some challenging ones.
For me, research is a cyclic thing; I had ideas about things I wanted to say, and then I needed to go on site at the pageants to test those ideas out. Having been on site, I came up with more ideas that made me want to go back on site and follow through on those. It took me about eight years to get to all seven of the pageants multiple times.
Q: Why is this an important subject to discuss and study?
A: First, the Church’s output of theatrical performances for, by and about itself is unparalleled in American theatrical history. There is no other church that is doing this, and it’s worth examining for that alone. It’s remarkable.
Secondarily, as a theatre historian, pageants are a dinosaur that is still alive and tromping around, which is rare. It’s rare to have an unbroken line of performance practice last long beyond its popularity — you don’t go to Broadway and see a fully articulated melodrama anymore. The form went away in American popular culture. Mormon pageants, largely because of the longevity of the Hill Cumorah pageant, have been around since pageants were popular. When it closes, it will truly be the end of an era.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always been a theatrical people. Brigham Young built a theatre. We do road shows and dance festivals and live nativities. The seven LDS pageants are the biggest articulation of officially sponsored, church organized, centrally managed church performance that we have. The truth is, not a lot of members of the church will ever encounter a pageant, but for those who do, all reports are that it is a life-changing experience. There are many ways to be converted and there are many ways to strengthen testimony. Pageants are a very unique way, and perhaps a particularly effective way for those who are involved. They really can convert people in ways unmatched by other methods.
Q: A focus of the book is the connection pageants create with the dead. What started you down that line of exploration?
A: Many of my early questions were simply trying to understand what these pageants were. If one tries to adjudicate them by traditional markers of theatrical excellence or tries to treat them like secular theatre, they’re not very successful. They’re not making any money, they don’t get reviewed — and when they do, the reviews are probably not good — and their form is a little dated.
When I started talking with people who are involved and listening to their stories, it became very clear that no pageant participant thought they were “doing theatre.” My argument quickly became that we shouldn’t assess religious theatre using the same rubric or scale as we would traditional theatre, because it’s not trying to be traditional. It has a whole different purpose, audience and reception.
So then I started wondering, what is that purpose and value? What is it about being by, for and about Mormons that these pageants engages? They are doing work from the past, enacting people from the past, people who are dead. I thought, where else do we do that in the Mormon church? Well, we do it all the time. We talk about our ancestors, we seek after our ancestors — that’s the seeking after the dead. Every prophet has preached that one of the holiest things we can do is to seek after our dead, to take care of them.
My idea is that believers come to the pageants already seeing the world as chains of belonging that move past this world to the ancestors that have passed. When they see people who were once alive being reenacted, revived, restored on the stage, they read it differently. I believe that bodies that are dead and in the ground will someday be resurrected and walk again, so when I see an ancient prophet up on a stage on the Hill Cumorah, that’s a kind of resurrection familiar to me. In the book, I try to trace the different ways that the theology of the redemption of the dead might impact both the creation and reception of Mormon pageants.
Q: What do you hope that readers—religious or otherwise—take away from the book?
A: One, that they know that these pageants are around. I know, you now know, but I’m not sure a church member in Ghana knows. Certainly not all theatre historians know. But the LDS pageants — their audiences, stages, designs, locations, choreography, music, messages and the sheer, vast number of people involved — they are a remarkable American theatrical phenomenon.
I also hope that it inspires people to think differently about the relationship between belief and performance. Performance requires belief. People talk about suspending disbelief with the things you see on stage. It’s a double negative, the idea that you’re going to stop not believing. What I’m suggesting is that this double negative is not necessarily positive. For religious performance to function, people are not suspending their disbelief, they are engaging their belief.
Finally, I want to honor the labor of the thousands of people who have participated and those that will still participate in these pageants. It is a labor of love. It’s a sacrifice of time and money and effort. It’s hard work; they do it because they believe, and they want to use art to share their testimonies. That’s remarkable, and I think it should be honored.