Living in the Borderlands | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Living in the Borderlands 

Friends and colleagues reflect on the life and legacy of playwright Eric Samuelsen.

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  • Plan B Theatre

With a career that included 20 years on the faculty at Brigham Young University, and work that often dealt with Latter-day Saint characters, it's understandable if one of the descriptors in an obituary for Eric Samuelsen would be "Mormon playwright." But that phrase would also understate the complexity of the relationship between Samuelsen's faith and his creative work.

"People thought of him as a Mormon playwright," Plan-B Theatre Co. artistic director Jerry Rapier says, "but he thought of himself as a playwright who happened to be Mormon."

Samuelsen died Sept. 20 after a long battle with chronic illness, leaving a legacy of thoughtful, challenging plays and a generation of students who have gone on to create their own work for the local theater. Samuelsen plays produced by Plan-B included Borderlands, Amerigo, Clearing Bombs, Nothing Personal and 3; former students of Samuelsen include Utah playwrights Matthew Greene, Melissa Leilani Larsen and Morag Shepherd.

Rapier recalls first becoming aware of Samuelsen during the early 2000s, when the company was initiating its Slam production of original short works. Samuelsen's The Butcher, the Beggar and the Bedtime Buddy was part of the first Slam in 2003, and Rapier says, "In our little postmortem meeting, we were kind of blown away with what Eric had done, and realized we wanted to know more about the characters in his piece." The full-length expansion of that short work, Miasma, premiered at Plan-B in 2006, part of a long artistic collaboration between Samuelsen and the company that included a 2013-14 "Season of Eric" featuring four world-premiere works.

"The joke among other writers in the [playwriting] lab was, 'If only we could write as quickly as Eric can.' He didn't pursue a lot of productions of his plays, because once one was out, he was off on three other things," Rapier says.

The writer's ability to be prolific aside, Rapier says that one of the qualities he most associates with Samuelsen professionally is his remarkable memory. "He never had to write anything down for any reason, ever," Rapier says. "He could sit in a reading, and process everything. His students would say he never taught from notes. ... I think that's why people feel connected to Eric in a very different way. The beauty of not having to refer to notes is he was always present in the moment."

Significantly, his former students recall the encouragement he provided, and the lessons he imparted on creating psychologically rich plays. Matthew Greene (Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea) remembers meeting with Samuelsen after enrolling in his Intro to Playwriting class "on a lark," but not yet really clear about his own interest in writing professionally. After an initial assignment to write a 10-minute play, Greene says Samuelsen asked him to come by his office. "He sat me down to tell me, 'You could do this, you know.' As much as I tried to deflect the compliment, Eric insisted that I could have a future as a playwright, and talked me through my doubts."

Melissa Leilani Larsen (Sweetheart Come) counts among the things she learned from Samuelsen as "Structure, subtext, humor, but also compassion. Eric taught me to love my characters, and to tell their stories with the honesty and empathy they deserve. Even villains have the right to say their piece."

That willingness to wrestle with complexity characterized Samuelsen as a writer and as a person, according to Rapier. His plays notably addressed his church's doctrines about homosexuality, and he always personally made his support for the LGBTQ community clear. "The day after Prop 8 [making gay marriage illegal] passed in California, he sent me maybe the longest email anyone has ever sent me, apologizing for the actions of his church against my family and families like mine," Rapier says. "He asked if there was any way we could still remain friends. There is no way anyone who knows Eric wouldn't know where he stood on that issue; it embodied his conflict between his love of his faith and his problems with the culture of his faith."

That conflict was manifested most memorably in Borderlands, a play that included a closeted gay Mormon among its main characters. "He was terrified of what he was writing," Rapier says of the earliest incarnation of the play, "was afraid anyone would ever know he had written that play. ... No one will ever know the risk he took, and the cost of his commitment to that play." (The 2011 original cast reunited for a free reading on Oct. 5.)

Greene has his own very personal recollection of Borderlands, and its impact on him as a then-closeted gay BYU student. "When he brought an early draft to a playwriting class, he knowingly asked me to read the role of a young gay Mormon," Greene says."The play left a lasting impression on me, and I spent many hours speaking with Eric about it, disguising my own internal struggle in a character discussion.Eric wasn't fooled, but he didn't push me to reveal anything I wasn't ready to admit yet.

"That was Eric's way: infinitely perceptive, leading others gently to become their best selves."

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