Zion Theatre Company founder Mahonri Stewart is a prolific local playwright who has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre companies in Utah. Among many accolades, he received the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival’s “National Playwriting Award, Second Place,” for his play Farewell to Eden.
Stewart graciously agreed to speak with BroadwayWorld about his new theatre company.
1. What is your theatre background? What initially attracted you to theatre and has kept you involved?
I've been involved with both theatre and writing in earnest since about the 5th grade, but I'm sure my more recent education is more relevant. I received my bachelor's in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University and am currently about to begin my second year for my MFA in Dramatic Writing (playwriting and screenwriting) at Arizona State University. My focus is the writing/directing/producing aspect of theater, but I've enjoyed acting, design and all other aspects of the art. I also am getting more involved with screenwriting, with a couple of my screenplays having been optioned by Utah-based independent film producers.
I'm often asked by writer friends and associates why I didn't focus on writing novels or some other kind of traditional prose. I tell them that theatre (and by extension, film) is a social art. I'm a weird mix of introversion and extroversion, where I get my energy from private, thoughtful time, but I really do love the communal aspects of theater. It also has this spiritual quality that my soul resonates strongly with. There's a reason that both Western theatre and Western religion both have the same roots, as we see in the Greek Festival of Dionysus. Theatre is ritualistic act that has a deeper meaning than I think any of us realize.
2. What made you decide to create Zion Theatre Company?
I've wanted to create a theatre company since I was a young high school student. It was an idea that, once it entered my mind and heart, I couldn't let go of. It's been a tenacious idea that beat down logic and pragmatism and became a deep-seated voice that I felt like I had to follow. It's one thing to follow another playwright and producer's vision...it's a completely other thing to follow your own. It's scary and exciting and bewildering all at the same time.
3. Describe the process you went through to start Zion Theatre Company and what you are doing to continue to improve it and grow audiences.
I started out doing a lot of my plays at New Play Project, which is a great theater group, but there was one of the productions of my play Farewell to Eden which NPP was initially going to do but, for some reasons I'm still not quite sure of, they were unable to do anymore. We already had a director, cast and funding in place, so I decided to hurriedly realize my goals for a theater company much quicker than I had planned. We filled out the necessary forms, and put on a production we were very pleased with. The company grew out of necessity, but continued on out of passion.
4. How did the idea come about to use various venues throughout Salt Lake and Utah Valleys? How does this work logistically?
Again, that wasn't necessarily done out of design. We originally put our first couple of plays on at the old Provo Theatre Company, but when that building was sold (and has since become a church, which is a nice piece of poetry in and on of itself) we had to seek a new space. I approached some spaces and some spaces approached me, and thus we now have a kind of network of theaters who work with us and are able to bring our shows to different parts of Utah.
5. What is the logic behind the theatre's season selection?
We're focused on plays that have some sort of spiritual or moral dimension. The word "Zion" in ZTC wasn't chosen flippantly. We want our plays to engage the most spiritual and real part of our collective identity.
6. What are you most looking forward to in the near future for the theatre? What are your long-term plans?
Short term, we're going to keep producing shows at the locations we've established. Producing them from a distance while I'm doing my graduate work in Arizona has been a strain, so we may do a few less shows next year (we've already done seven in 2011-2012 and have a few more planned before the end of the year!), but still have plans for a number of excellent productions in 2013. Long term, after I'm done with my grad school work, I would love to eventually be able to have our own space and make this a part time or, hopefully, full time occupation.