Women of Faith is an independently produced short film that weaves together the stories of several under-the-radar Latter-day Saint women. The film premiered early in 2014, but the work to get it there began nearly three years earlier.
Bringing Joan of Arc Back From the Dead
Utah Lake, fifteen minutes west of BYU, is perhaps the most beautiful locale on the Wasatch front. The snow-topped mountains reflect off the still lake nearly year round.
Yet when the sun goes down all attention turns away from the scenery toward the camp fire, where, if you’re lucky, stories will begin to crackle.
Storytellers. Perhaps the most ancient artists. You can probably recall the thrill of seeing a good one. The passion of their eyes opening, the pleasure of changing accents, and their ability to draw life from nothing but their voice.
Winter semester 2011. BYU. Anna Hargadon sat in class ready to learn storytelling.
“I grew up reading stories, writing stories, drawing stories, and then acting out stories,” she said. And she couldn’t wait to bring a story to life.
Stories, after all, are the universal language.
And it was in this language that Anna began to craft and create the story of a teenage French girl–Joan of Arc. The name was historical. Frigid. But today Anna says, “Stories create a space where miracles can happen!” Anna knows this is true, because she brought Joan of Arc back from the dead.
Anna stood in front of her class, and for five minutes, with nothing besides her voice and imagination, turned a dusty medieval tome into the adventure of a fascinating, courageous, complex girl brimming with life.
The experience led Anna to conclude, “Stories take us to a place that allows us to understand in a way that is personal and deep.”
Anna saw the power of stories, and she was hooked!
Daughters in My Kingdom
The fall began to tumble over Provo, Utah. The long nights, and cool days pressed down on Anna. She had been out of her storytelling class for more than four months. She needed a project. She needed a story.
Often, Anna turned to what she called the “story-sphere,” a place where, she believes, the stories that need to be told rise to the surface.
During this time, Anna settled into her ward’s Relief Society. A new manual Daughters in my Kingdom was being distributed among the sisters in Anna’s ward.
Anna opened the book and read, “We know that women who have a deep appreciation for the past will be concerned about shaping a righteous future.“
Anna held the light blue cover patterned like a quilt. The kind of quilt you could snuggle under while listening to a story.
Those 246 pages springboarded Anna in front of two of her storytelling classmates, and dear friends, Amber Richardson and Camlyn Giddins. The story-sphere had shown Anna a story. This may not seem like much, but to a storyteller, this was a calling, a mission, to tell stories of faith from the complex lives of Mormon women.
They got to work writing, brainstorming, and researching. Amber remembers, “From the beginning we knew this project was going to come to fruition somehow.” When asked if the production felt like destiny, Amber laughs, but finally admits it felt exactly like that.
So the group began to write a three-woman show about six historical Latter-day Saint women. Women of Faith, they called it. The momentum exhilarated the writers. And they told everyone–including Anna’s roommate Jennifer Chandler–about the production.
But momentum can prove fickle, and what felt like destiny sputtered and died before a production could ever come to life. “We all were still devoted to telling the stories of women,” Anna recollects, “but [we] weren’t quite sure how to move forward.”
Amber remembers how the life of the project ran out, “It was just life. Work, and classes–classes–and rehearsals.” But she insists, “We were never worried [the project] wouldn’t happen. We were just waiting for what would come next . . . It was just a line by line kind of thing.”
Besides, Anna had a penchant for bringing things back from the dead.
Learning to Create Plays Line Upon Line
“I say number. You say one. Number”
Jennifer watched as her group of about twenty children eight to fifteen years old warmed up for rehearsal on the southern tip of Lake Michigan.
Warming up might have seemed unnecessary. The summer of 2012 clocked in as the hottest ever recorded in Chicago history. But the intensity felt appropriate.
This group of children needed to write, rehearse, and perform an original play in four weeks. Jenn knew what she had signed up for. She was serving as an education intern to prepare for her senior year in the BYU Theatre Arts Education program.
Lookingglass Theatre led the annual camp. The theatre, which features actors such as David Schwimmer and Joey Slotnick and has won a Tony as the best regional theatre in the United States, relies on a powerful, if little-known, method called devised theatre.
In devised theatre, the head collaborator begins working with a group of actors to progressively build a play from the combined efforts of the many players involved. They can develop ideas from theatre games, at home research, and from the individual actors’ creativity. The play is built, together, as Amber might say “line by line.”
By the end of the summer, the kids had a play, and Jenn had learned a fascinating new approach to directing.
But new challenges lay ahead. 1400 miles away, back at BYU, Jenn needed a senior project to capstone her degree. Her mother was in town, and they went to a popular local soup, salad and sandwich joint, Zupas. “I remember very specifically the moment I knew the topic for my senior project. We were standing in line talking about it, and all of a sudden, Women of Faith appeared in my head.”
And “Bingo, that’s the door we were waiting to open,” Amber remembers. Anna, Amber, and Camlyn’s wait was over. Women of Faith was back.
Asking Questions to Further the Plot
If you’re ever speaking to a BYU theater alumni, say the word “B201” and you’ll likely elicit a smile, perhaps a sigh, and a little nod of the head. There’s something remarkable about the memories and passion attached to a place. And B201 is a special place.
The room, which you might mistake for a ballet studio, has full length mirrors on one side, floors that look like a cultural hall–minus the free throw lines, and a collection of blue mats lined up in the corner, as though a wrestling match could break out at any moment.
Over the course of six weeks in fall 2012, Women of Faith would join the list of projects brought to life–or in their case brought back to life–in B201. But the journey would prove long. Jenn wanted to rely on the devised theatre process she learned in Chicago. As she began the process, Jenn wrote that the finished play needed to be “completely created by the cast. It will be their thoughts, passions, ponderings, questions, hopes, and dreams.”
But among that list the cast remembers one playing a particularly prominent role: Questions.
“It’s funny,” Jenn muses, “women in the Church is a hot topic right now. And many of the women we studied and portrayed struggled with questions that were just as hard, if not harder than some of the questions being asked today.”
“I was dealing with a lot of feminist questions at the time,” Amber says, “[and] Camlyn was wondering if she should serve a mission.”
The devised theatre process that Jenn brought with her, meant that each of the questions that the individual members of the cast brought with them were relevant, and would shape the project to come.
Before rehearsals began, Jenn prepared a packet over a hundred pages long filled with short blurbs about dozens of faithful women throughout history. The cast used the list as a jumping point, researching and exploring the lives of these women. For each rehearsal the cast would bring a scene they had written and perform it for the group.
Anna explains, “We chose the women whose stories we individually wanted to tell. We would do research on our own, then play around with how we would want to put the stories together and share them.”
Rehearsals took place in B201. The actors would take several black boxes, and set them around the room to create an impromptu set. They would perform a scene that one of them had written. Afterwards the group would discuss it. “Always focusing on the positive things we saw,” Amber remembers. Jenn would ask questions, and push the group forward, but she refused to be the director, settling instead for the title “head collaborator.”
These scenes proved the perfect opportunity to probe the many questions the cast had brought with them. “What does it mean to be a women of faith? How do you move forward with faith? Why is it hard? Why do I have questions? What is my place in this world?” Jenn recited some of the many questions they had.
“[Jenn] fostered group creativity by creating an environment where everyone felt like we could explore our questions without being judged or misunderstood. And question we did! We asked about ourselves, we asked about womanhood, and we asked about God,” Amber says.
They looked at ancient stories, such as the women who came before King Solomon arguing over a baby, wondering what could have motivated them. To modern scholars such as Juanita Brooks who fixated on learning the truth about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Each scene brought questions from the women writing it, the women performing it, and the lives of the women featured in it.
Anna sums up the experience well, “Those were really wonderful and inspiring times.”
And Amber suggests that this process of questions, began to bring something more important to her, “it helped us begin to discover the answers we were seeking.”
Seeking Answers to the Questions
Many people suggest writing questions before General Conference and then seeking for the answers during the sessions. Amber had heard this advice, and followed it many times.
These questions though are “generally broad concepts that I need to study, never anything specific,” Amber explains.
But as she prepared questions for this conference, one unusual question appeared to her, “I wonder if any Mormons were on the Titanic?”
“I thought this was very strange. And I laughed,” Amber says. Through four sessions of conference, not a word was spoken about the Titanic. I can only imagine the smile that would have broken across Amber’s face when that Sunday afternoon Elder Quentin L. Cook said, “In only a few months, it will be one hundred years since the tragic sinking of the Titanic.”
Surely the Spirit had directed Amber to this talk. She learned that while several Latter-day Saints had planned on sailing on the Titanic, only one ended up taking the fateful voyage.
Her name was Irene Corbett, and she and Amber were about to go on a journey.
Like Amber, Irene grew up in a home of faithful Latter-day Saints. Irene became a school teacher and later married Walter–which put an immediate end to her teaching career. At the time it was illegal to be a married teacher.
Irene believed that women had just as many rights as men. And soon after Irene was forced to quit her job, she aligned herself with the suffrage movement. No longer allowed to work in education, Irene turned her attention to public health.
Childbirth was still difficult in Provo, and several local physicians encouraged Irene to go study midwifery. The General Lying-in Hospital in London devoted itself entirely to obstetrics. Many considered the hospital the best training facility, due to its use of the most state of the art equipment. Irene’s program would last six months.
She approached Walter about attending. But he refused her. Still Irene felt prompted to go. Walter’s mother, the niece of then President of the Church, Joseph F. Smith, asked her uncle to convince Irene to stay. He tried, telling her not to go.
Here Irene stood at a crossroads between her own sense of purpose, and the direction of her husband and the prophet.
Reading Irene’s story, Amber recognized herself, “I have struggled deeply with personal questions about my place in the Plan of Salvation as a female,” she said,”I was hurt and I was angry. I didn’t understand how God could allow such atrocities to be consistently enacted on His daughters.”
Amber admits the topic makes her feel as though lava will explode out of her head and all over her Sunday school class. But Amber wasn’t merely taken by large political statements, her struggle came from a much more personal place.
The small things. The little messages that women receive daily that devalue them. And when Amber looked inside, she found that her insecurities and weaknesses came from the collection of small pricks against women that God had allowed.
Pain that God had allowed? The thought seemed foreign and harmful to Amber, she “looked inside and wondered, ‘Am I a bad person? Am I about to lose myself and my faith?'” Amber had a decision to make. Should she reject her questions, or pursue them and see where it led?
Inspiration has always played an important role in Amber’s life. So she went to God. “I went to Him in prayer, fully expecting him to tell me that I needed to run from feminism at high speeds. You can imagine my surprise when my answer was that I should proceed. That I should continue studying feminism.”
So Amber ran headlong into Women of Faith. Amber said she “wanted to produce Women of Faith for what you might call feminist reasons. Give these women a voice! Create well rounded female characters! Show the diversity of womanhood! Promote social change!” It may not have been the direction Amber first thought God wanted her to go, but at this point Amber believed her feminist motivations were divinely directed.
You can imagine Amber’s joy at seeing Irene on the list of women in Jenn’s packet. To Amber, Irene felt like “a dear friend.”Amber sat down to write a scene about Irene to perform at their next rehearsal. “I’ve written a lot,” Amber assures, “but I never have the experience where everything is given to you. But that was what happened. I just sat down and started writing, and it all came out.”
Irene also followed her inspiration. Her journey to London proved turbulent. She went aboard a single-funnel steam ship. The steam turbine technology in use on the ship made it an uneven journey, and ocean conditions were particularly rough. She swore on the trip back she would take the biggest, safest ship she could find–the Titanic.
Nearly ninety-percent of women with a second class ticket survived the sinking of the Titanic. But ten days after the Titanic sunk, the Ogden City Evening Standard wrote dispassionately: “The relatives and friends in Provo of Mrs. Irene C. Corbett have given up all hopes of her life having been saved from the wreck of the Titanic.”
“She went against the recommendation of the president of her church — and [people said] that’s what happens when you don’t obey,” her grandson remembers.
Could Irene’s death be reduced to an object lesson in obedience? Was her desire to better herself, to save the lives of mothers and children of the Utah Valley all a misguided path that led to her death?
“Of course not!” Amber says. “I don’t think you can ever reduce anyone’s story to a simple morality tale. Especially not Irene’s; it’s far too complex.” Amber admits there’s no way to know through the research.
Irene’s death hit her family so hard, that they destroyed her journals. Her parents moved from Provo, unable to grapple with the grief. No one knows how or if Irene was able to address her own questions, but Amber’s questions were answered to her–personally–through the Spirit.
As she began to pursue and understand feminism, Amber recounts “my confidence in myself and in my God have both grown alarmingly. I know now that He (and She) love every part of me. They love the part of me that questions, the part of me that wants to make a change, to use my God-given capacities for intellect and leadership. They created all of these bits of me, and each of them have a purpose.”
In rehearsal, Amber performed the scene she had written for Irene. And the group loved it. But while they appreciated Irene, they were particularly interested in Julianne. A modern day interloper that Amber had written into the scene. Julianne stood in for Amber, questioning and challenging Irene, looking for how to apply her story. “Why’d you leave him?” Julianne asks Irene in the finished film. “It is a little bit unusual,” she challenges just moments later.
Through the collaborative process Julianne grew into the protagonist. Julianne acted as a proxy for each of the nine writers, asking their questions and seeking answers in the stories they brought to the rehearsal.
If you watch the film today, you may notice that many of these questions remain, but the answers are absent, locked away in the hearts of each individual who watches. “We hoped the audience would be able to find its own answers,” Jenn shrugs.
Closer to God Through the Process
Black theater curtains often drape over the wall length mirrors that occupy one edge of B201. But why would anyone cover up mirrors in a performance and rehearsal space? Wouldn’t the actors want to know what they looked like? Wouldn’t there be comfort in the instant feedback of the mirror?
The trouble with mirrors is that they provide a false sense of security. When we see ourselves, we think we know how others will see us. But those who perform come to know better. They understand that no matter what a performer puts out, what every member of the audience takes in will be unique and individual.
So the black curtains stand–a reminder to those rehearsing that they have no idea how they’ll be seen.
Similarly, the women who gave themselves to this play interacted and responded to the process differently. While it may have been an inspiration to Anna, and an ascent from darkness for Amber, for Jenn the process proved tumultuous and redemptive.
As Jenn prepared for the play she wrote in her notes, “The entire process is going to rely heavily on the Spirit – recognizing, interpreting, following, and acting upon His promptings.”
For Jenn, the Spirit was more than an abstract theological idea. Heading into a senior production without a single word written, faith that the Spirit would provide inspiration was bedrock to the effort.
“I remember praying about Women of Faith, multiple times, and crying. I begged Heavenly Father to help me with this project, because I knew it was important, and I felt so utterly inadequate,” Jenn says.
This production always had the feel of something more substantial than a simple school project. “From the beginning we had a sense this was something God wanted us to do,” Amber says.
But a divine mandate can bring a lot of pressure. “At times I lost faith in myself,” Jenn says, “I knew that Women of Faith was supposed to happen. I knew that it was something special. I knew that it had the potential to not only touch our lives (those of us who were creating it), but the lives of so many others as well.”
“But the thing was, it was my first time directing. And not only that, it was my first time devising. And the first time you do anything, rarely are you good at it. I was so afraid that this project would fail because of me. That it would fail because I wasn’t good enough, because I was just a beginner. I could actually physically feel my doubts and fears as a weight on my back and shoulders.”
“Those six weeks were some of the most stressful and faith-building weeks of my life. And you know what? It was beautiful. In my humble opinion, there is no way we could have done any of that without Heavenly Father’s help. This project was meant to be. I wish I could properly describe it, because when I look back at it, Heavenly Father’s hand in this work is so clear that it is impossible not to see.”
“It’s interesting. This experience actually helped me to understand the Atonement better, because that’s exactly what it is. There is no possible way that we can repent of our sins on our own; Christ makes up the difference. In this instance, I wasn’t sinning, but I definitely wasn’t ‘the perfect person’ to direct/devise/head this project. But Heavenly Father made up the difference.”
From Stage to Film Productions
Imagine a theater. A classic theater. It probably has red velvet seats curving severely toward the back of the room. They match the red carpet, and the heavy red curtain obscuring the squarely framed stage. What you’re imagining looks an awful lot like the Nelke theater.
The Nelke isn’t BYU’s largest or most ornate theater, but it is the quintessential theater. It is a space where the story sphere and the sphere of reality collide. And when they collided with Women of Faith some sparks were made.
Carlen Wirth, one of the performers and writers said, “Performing this play was kind of surreal. It was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. Acting out what we created was something really neat to see.”
Amber remembers, “A lot of magic happened during that project. Magic of the theatre variety, definitely, but the moments that still stand out to me the most were the moments where all nine of us performers came together.”
“We presented it,” Anna said, “and after our first performance we had a stunning reaction from the audience.”
John Gibbons who watched the show opening night said, “I came away from Women of Faith wishing I could share it with lots of other people . . . It’s also very refreshing to see hard cultural issues tackled in an atmosphere of the Spirit. I would recommend this play to anyone.”
And Jenn’s wrestle with the Spirit paid off. “We had people ask us time and time again, what are you going to do with this. It needs to be seen by people. Where can you go?”
One of those people was Dr. Kay T. Swan. Dr. Swan is something of an expert on what it means to be a woman. She served as a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and has served on the Utah Commission for Women and Families. She is the oldest of five girls, has five daughters, and twenty-five granddaughters.
When Dr. Swan saw the production she knew there was something powerful about these stories.
“This material is so greatly needed for Mormon women to have the faith to step into their futures,” she later wrote about her reaction.
She approached Jenn and offered her $500 that night. “Use this money to keep telling these stories,” she told her.
“We all felt strongly that it wasn’t over,” Jenn remembers, “but we weren’t sure where we needed to take it next.” After many earnest prayers, and with Dr. Swan’s seed money in tow, it was decided that Women of Faith would be turned into a film.
Films lose the intimacy of a play, but replace it with longevity. By committing these stories to film, the team would ensure that they could be enjoyed for years.
But $500 does not a film make. And while Jenn had been instrumental in creating the play, she had no experience in film direction.
Enter Derek Dunn. Derek had just graduated from BYU’s Media arts program. He had recently begun a KickStarter campaign to produce his own senior project, a short film called Mirror Portrait. And while less than 40% of KickStarter campaigns get funded, Derek’s proposal hit its target and went into production.
Derek knew that $500 was not nearly enough to produce a film. But it was a fantastic running start. He took Women of Faith to KickStarter and in 12 days they had raised 116% of the funds they needed to produce the film.
“I would actually describe production of the film in similar words as I did the creation of the play,” Anna says. “Something that has been important to us from the beginning is that our work is consecrated and Spirit-led. We tried to keep to that perspective as we created the film, so it was interesting to find a volunteer film crew that was open to being on that same page. Miracles happened over and over again.”
With the extra money raised from the KickStarter campaign, Anna and Amber began a fireside series that screens the film and then talks about the lessons they learned during production.
If you are interested in having a fireside about the film e-mail [email protected]. And you can view the film at IAmAWomanOfFaith.org
When she’s asked to summarize the experience with Women of Faith, Amber throws her head back toward the ceiling and smiles. There’s something fulfilled and satisfied in the way she approaches. “I think there is unique power in women telling each other stories about their foremothers. There is something empowering about knowing what other women did before, what they’re doing, and what they can do today.”
Women of Faith is evidence of that.