About a year ago, I visited the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Hill Cummorah Pageant as part of a research project into the audience engagement techniques of unconventional performance entities. I wrote a post for the Clyde Fitch Report that was recently excerpted by the National Arts Marketing Conference and got the attention of Abimbola Adunni Adelakun, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin working on the theatricality of religious experience. Her interview with me is reproduced in slightly edited form below.
Adelakun Adunni Adelakun: I am particularly struck by this line [from your original post]: It was the most thoroughly considered and troublingly affective live theater I have ever witnessed. I am interested to know your thoughts about this when you viewed that show. Do you feel that the religious theme has anything to do with what “troubled” you or would you rather retain the scholar’s cynicism attribute the affect to theatre?
Sydney Skybetter: The “thorough consideration” refers to the virtuosic way the show’s producers anticipated and ameliorated attendee pain points. All the standard anxieties of attending the theater — parking, food, shame of bringing a child, ease of exit, clean bathrooms — were mitigated before the show even began. Such seemingly empathetic thoughtfulness instilled a feeling of obligatory reciprocality, a feeling of “they went through all this trouble, I should listen up.” Such attentiveness to audience experience isn’t just about stereotypical Mormon efficiency, though somebody should write a book about the gaggle of Mormon management experts ranging from Stephen Covey (author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) to Clayton Christensen (author of The Innovator’s Dilemma). It’s about priming the audience, and instilling their faith in the show that can, over time, be translated into a faith in The Faith.
I found the experience troubling because, separate from the theatrical larger context, it’s just not that good a show. But the show isn’t the point, nor is it the intended frame. For the Mormons, the “show” consists of the performance, sure, but also literally everything within the twenty mile radius of the performance site. It’s total theater that would make Wagner blush and Speer proud.
AAA: I love this line: a subtle bevy of enchantment engineering and mechanisms of crowd control. It struck me as interesting that “enchantment’ can be engineered especially when a performance is connected to something as metaphysical as religion or religious-themed.
SS: “Enchantment engineering” is a recently minted term, but it’s an old aesthetic concept. It’s why cathedrals and military installations are architected to appear dominating, and why priests and soldiers wear costumes. For me, the engineering of affect is most fascinating when aesthetics and tactics of population control are indistinguishable.
AAA: How does the project of conversion work and what role does theatre play in the entire dynamic?
SS: I don’t see that great a difference between a consumer-centric concept of conversion (through which a brand wins followers and adherents) and a theological notion of conversion (through which a religion wins followers and adherents). For the Hill Cummorah Pageant, the theatrical production is only one milepost within a much larger processional span that, for the Mormons, doesn’t even end in death.
The Pageant is basically impossible to see by accident. Nobody would ever find themselves thinking, “Gee, The Hill Cummorah Pageant is playing up the block, and it’s date night, so let’s pack a picnic.” For Mormons, it’s a pilgrimage. For everyone else, it’s a trek. Anyone there has to want to be there, suggesting that the show is intended to be consumed by folks already somewhere along a process of conversion.
The function of the performance itself isn’t just about edifying audiences in Mormon history and tradition, however. It is, vitally, about the collection of names, phone numbers, email and physical addresses of people that attendees think might be interested in the Church. The show is a giant marketing funnel for friends of believers. Notably, the tactics at Palmyra are only slightly more aggressive than the email collection policies at most performing arts venues.
AAA: I guess a bland way of asking how the conversion process works would be, “Is it God? or Is it theatre?”
SS: There’s never a question of whether it’s theatre or not, or if it’s God or not. The entire thing is theatre, and God is in the details. The stream of testimony emanating from actors before the show, characters within the show, and converts sitting adjacent to you, is overwhelming in the proclaimed presence of God within the lives of the believers. The faith is manifest in the effervescence and friendliness of the converted. The performance of faith is utterly pervasive.
AAA: So, can one presume a universality to this experience? I am thinking of how these ideas can be applied across cultures.
SS: The word “universality” makes me a little uncomfortable, but it’s not far from the Church’s aim. The events in Palmyra are not, literally, for anyone. It’s not simulcast in, like, Russian. People attending the pageant are principally (though not exclusively) from the American continent, and necessarily have access to the capital required to locomote to the boondocks of New York State. The Hill Cummorah Pageant isn’t universal, nor is it intended to be.
Mormons are acculturated to negotiate difference, which is one reason why both the FBI and CIA have Mormon recruitment programs. Mormons understand that, sure, some of their beliefs may be a little funny to other folks, but they’ll gladly explain how the meaning generated through those beliefs outweighs earthly awkwardness or threat of corporeal violence.
There’s an understanding that not everyone will be converted, and that conversion isn’t about the hard sell. I don’t hear about a lot of “Come to Jesus” thunderclap conversions. I understand the conversion process to be more focused on social acceptance. The narrative I hear again and again is that some person has friends who are Mormon, and those friends seem happy, well-adjusted, and host an ample social graph, and then that person gets invited to some church function or another, then they learn a little about the faith, and bit by bit the positive social pressures concretize and are manifested in faith. The conversion process is thus about the gradual transition of an individual from shared positivity into shared dogma.
AAA: Also, does performance ever go “out of control”? Have you had any experience where performing church on stage takes a life of its own and becomes what it pretends to be? Is that church or a representation of it? How can one demarcate between performance of “real life” and “real life” performed on stage that mirrors life?
SS: The Pageant at Hill Cummorah is highly scripted. There’s hundreds of actors and dangerous special effects. What’s is performed on stage doesn’t goes off book. But the fuzziness of performer / spectator boundaries is, I think, where the Church’s “control” is seemingly lifted. Participants who share testimony are all playing from the same playbook, as it were, but their interactions with audiences are basically up to them. I think it is the conversational stance of the performers that makes Hill Cummorah so successful. Everyone is so damned earnest and transparent about their intentions. They talk about faith in awkwardly personal terms that are positively dorky. But they own it. And that’s what permits an empathic connection between non-believer and the saved. The theater is just a venue for conver(t)sation.
AAA: Your last paragraph is a slew of questions that I can imagine some religious groups have already answered and therefore prep people for what they are about to experience. Doesn’t that place the “extra-theatrical” experience above the theatre/performance itself? For church, I can only wonder how this does not supplant the God factor.
SS: What’s brilliant — and I think unique — about the Hill Cummorah Pageant is that it doesn’t particularly differentiate between the extra-theatrical and the theatrical. Not in terms of intention or affect, anyway. Sure, in the “show” people get stabbed people with spears and they don’t at the line for popcorn. There are certain conventional theatrical membranes that hold. But they’re intentionally porous and avoid obvious hierarchy. The attention paid to parking system doesn’t supplant attention to God, but rather permits greater exposure to God.
The Church of Mormon is a proselytizing engine. It has a financial and spiritual prerogative to spread the faith, but have been a self-conscious minority since its founding. The faithful were chased all over America, and a number of rites and covenants were against American law. (That is, until those rites and covenants were awkwardly rescinded). They perform as theological underdog even as they accumulate staggering amounts of wealth and plutocratic power. The aw-shucks friendliness is simultaneously earnest and tactical, because in the end, nobody likes hurting someone you can empathize with.