SALT LAKE CITY — Worship, a new play presented by Immigrant’s Daughter Theatre is premiering October 6 through 21 at the SLC Arts Hub. Written by Morag Shepherd (the author of UTBA favorites, like Cherry Wine in Paper Cups, Flora Meets a Bee, A Brief Waltz in a Little Room, and Hindsight), Worship is based on the case of Michael James Clay, a geography professor at BYU who pleaded no contest to sexual battery charges for abuse he committed against three female students in 2020.
Originally from Scotland, Shepherd is one of the producers and resident artists of Sackerson. She is a member of the Plan-B writers lab, where Worship was originally workshopped. Shepherd’s work is well known throughout Utah, as a playwright, director and producer. As a playwright she is known for innovative works presented often in unexpected places. The late Eric Samuelsen called Shepherd one of the “most exciting young voices in contemporary theatre.” Utah Theatre Bloggers Association had the opportunity to ask Shepherd some questions about the development of her new script and its world premiere.
UTBA: Without giving anything away, what would you say is Worship about?
Shepherd: I would say that Worship is about the people and ideas we choose to revere. And breaking down how and why we make idols of certain people — in this case the main character, Mason. I would say that the play is less about abusers and victims, and more about how people make choices in the systems they give their power to. But mainly it’s about relationships, and the give and take, and little negotiations that naturally unfold between two people.
UTBA: Why did you write this particular play, and why do you think it is relevant now?
Shepherd: I wrote this play because now that I’ve been out of a high-demand religion for a while, I try to grapple with why I so easily and willingly gave my power, my choice, over to the men in authority. Or why I bought in so hard into the whole system. The voices of these men still show up in my head a bit, and so I guess the play has been brewing for a while. I finally decided to write this play when I heard about the story that came out about the professor at Brigham Young University and kept wondering how the situation went from A to B. So, I wrote that scene, and then the play kind of unfolded from there.
I for sure think the play is relevant now because these types of things happen daily, and I think it’s so easy for members of the church to just relegate these incidents as anomalies. But the truth is that sexual predation is baked into the doctrines, into the history. So no matter what, it’s going to creep out like this.
UTBA: In your playwrighting career to date, you’ve written in various styles, including some very innovative and non-traditional theatrical experiences, such as Hindsight and The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done. How does Worship compare in terms of style and format to your other works?
Shepherd: A lot of times I will write a play with form in mind. Meaning, I will find a physical space and then write a story that the space inspires. I wrote Worship during the pandemic, and so I wrote content first this time. Yet the whole team really took into consideration the kind of space we wanted to present this story in, and because my first memories of Mormon church were in the room of a run-down building, we looked for a space where it looks as though some people just gathered together to do some religious stuff. So how we present a story is definitely always on my mind.
UTBA: I understand your daughter has a role in the show. How did that come about? Did you write the role with her in mind?
Shepherd: Yes, my daughter is in this show because she is a fine little actor. She has always read the part in the workshops, and I definitely catered the dialogue to her, which is something that is pretty cute. Nothing nefarious happens in that scene, other than setting up the themes for the rest of the piece, though she is aware of what happens in the rest of the play, and we’ve talked about it.
UTBA: You’re a playwright, but also a director and a producer. Which of all these roles do you feel most connected to and why?
Shepherd: I would say writing is always harder for me, even though I’ve been doing it for over two decades now. It takes more out of me, but I do it because it’s a way for me to artistically process life. Directing is way, way more fun, and I love it, especially when I feel supported by a team. Producing is the pits, don’t ever do it!
UTBA: I understand Worship was workshopped in the Lab at Plan-B. What was most instrumental in that process to the development of this script, and has it changed significantly since that workshop?
Shepherd: Yes, I workshopped early drafts with Plan-B, and working my stuff in the writers lab is always super helpful because I think we have some of the smartest and most talented artists in that room. I would say that the play has changed significantly since that time because I cut about half of it out, and there are less correlations between the main character and Joseph Smith. They’re still there, but more subtle.
In one of the earlier drafts I wanted all of the characters to be played by older women, but after the staged read I realized that it would have more of a hit if I actually went young, and made things more believable. I think with theatre especially, the only way to know if something is going to work, is to see it on its feet.
UTBA: What is the most rewarding part of the new play development process for you?
Shepherd: The most rewarding part of new play development is always when people can see the vision and are excited by the process. I happen to have a few people in my corner who sometimes know what I’m up to better than I do myself, and when we all work together to create something that has a bit of resonance, that makes all the difficulty worth it.
UTBA: Any words of advice to emerging playwrights?
Shepherd: Words of advice: get a notebook and write things down.
UTBA: If someone is on the fence about coming to see Worship, what would you say to them to get them there?
Shepherd: I think you should come and see Worship because there are a lot of surprises, and I don’t think it’s going to be what you expect.