An immigrant art teacher in Utah becomes a target of conservative parents and administrators in a complicated rural landscape of children at risk, substance abuse, religious intolerance and marital uncertainty in Matthew Ivan Bennett’s complexly shaded new play Art & Class, the first new script getting sunshine in Pioneer Theatre Company’s 2018-19 season of Play By Play, PTC’s new works development series. Three script-in-hand public presentations will play Oct. 5-6, 2018, in Salt Lake City, following a week of collaboration between Utah native Bennett, professional actors and a guest director.
According to Pioneer, “A free-thinking Latina art teacher fights for her job, reputation and autonomy in her classroom, when she’s accused by a Caucasian parent of showing ‘pornography’ to her sixth-grade students in small-town Utah. This new play by Bennett takes on our perceptions about race, class and the human body in classic works of art.”
Bennett, whose play A/Version of Events I wrote about in 2015, told me that Art & Class is inspired by real events that were widely reported in Utah: “Last December, in Hyrum, Utah, a Latino teacher was fired after he was alleged to have said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with female nipples’ when his sixth-grade students reacted rambunctiously to nudity in classic art. I first heard about it via Twitter. It made national news. I did not immediately see it as a play because I worried a dramatization would be too political and not personal enough. But, as I stewed on it, I realized there was a story in the social dynamics more than the facts of a teacher being fired for so-called pornography. What leaped out was how quickly it all happened, and how severe the punishment was. That did not make sense to me. Really, it was the blanks in the reported facts that made me want to write about this.”
Guest director Jennifer Cushman directs a cast that includes Susanna Florence (as intolerant parent Mindy), Elizabeth Ramos (as art teacher Lucía), Max Woertendyke as Lucía’s rural-Utah native husband Riley) and Roger Dunbar (as a school principal named Leland).
The readings are at the Babcock Theatre in the lower level of the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre on the campus of the University of Utah, 300 South 1400 East Dr, Salt Lake City. Get more info here. (Play By Play is where my play Alabama Story had early development prior to its 2015 Pioneer world premiere and more than 20 productions so far around the country.)
Bennett explained Art & Class to me this way, in an interview via e-mail: “The story kicks off with an early-morning meeting between a flibbertigibbet, small-town school principal and an art teacher, Leland and Lucía. They’re friends and taught together before Leland got promoted. She’s an immigrant from Costa Rica, who came to the states for an MFA and stayed because of a guy. He’s the epitome of a white, Mormon man who tries, but fails, to fit in with the rural patriarchal culture because he’s highly educated and can’t conform to masculine stereotypes. He’s nervous as hell about meeting with her, because being the boss around your friend is hard. And because a major donor at the school has, more or less, asked for Lucía to be fired over an incident in the school library. She showed her kids some classic works of art with nudity. From there, Lucía finds few people willing to stand up with her. Leland is caught between supporting his friend, and the autonomy of teachers, and appeasing donors and the superintendent. Riley, her husband, sees nothing good from her speaking her mind in this case. And her marriage may be already on its way to the hangman. Lucía tries to appeal directly to the mother who complained, but gets nothing but microaggressions for her trouble. All this escalates against the backdrop of Cache County, Utah, a place caught between being a small (white) town and, well, not. It’s a story about the cost of fighting institutions and prejudices alone.”
Bennett is a resident writer at Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake City and has premiered over a dozen stage and radio plays. Bennett is also assistant business manager at Pioneer Theatre Company. He answered a handful of my questions in the days leading up to the reading of Art & Class. Read more about Bennett on his New Play Exchange profile.
Race is part of your story. Your main character, Lucía, is from Costa Rica. Was race an element in the true story, or were you raising stakes and underlining opposites?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: The real-life teacher is from Colombia. He studied at Utah State University. None of the news stories focused on race, but Hyrum, Utah has been in the news before on race-related/immigrant-related matters. The meatpacking plant there suffered a major raid by ICE in 2006. Hundreds of workers were interviewed and bussed away. People still talk about it. There was vitriol on all sides. People upset at ICE. People upset at the business. People upset at the fact of immigrants. And on and on. So, yes, I am using racial tensions to raise the stakes in the story, but I feel it’s rooted in real and ongoing sentiments in Utah and elsewhere.
What surprised you along the way in the writing process? Which characters or ideas became prominent or more distant in the writing?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: None of them have become more distant. If I’ve been surprised by anything, it’s what’s happened as I’ve made an agreement with myself to make all the characters windows into the play. Up until now, maybe, I’ve always concentrated on creating that psychic bridge with the protagonist. But there’s no reason a play can’t do that with all its characters.
I love that the play creates a world — a remote one that suggests high desert or high plains of Utah, and a variety of social and economic levels within it. What does the world of Utah bring to the tension of the play?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I’m from Salt Lake. So, a city boy to a lot of Utahns. I grew up in Wonder Bread suburbia. But my family made yearly outings to a tiny, tiny town called Holden every year — where my family originally emigrated to. Holden was dear to me and is a part of my American mythology. My wife grew up in Wellsville (very close to Hyrum), which during the 80s, was a place of irrigation ditches, horse fields, main street shops, etc. … I guess what the world of Utah brings to the tension of the play is a lingering consciousness of the people as belonging to a wild, independent, religious utopia.
Growing up Mormon, I more or less thought of Utah as utopian wreckage. It was a place that faithful pioneers came to get away from the madness of the 19th century. They minted their own money, created their own alphabet, re-distributed wealth — and also committed atrocities. Even now, as a 40-year-old man, I’m weirdly unwilling to give up on thoughts of utopia, though. I think it’s a part of Utahn DNA. So, when Mindy Van Tassel, the mother in the play, tries to get Lucía fired, and the offensive materials pulled from the school library, she’s trying to reinstate utopia.
Your wife, Wendy, is a school librarian. Did conversations with her help?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: A lot of my “research” was informally talking to Wendy about education politics. About how and why bad teachers don’t get fired. About the double-standard between male and female teachers. About the outsized influence of parents. That is the play.
There is a love story in the play — Lucía and her husband, Riley. How has that thread of the story changed or grown in the process?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: I knew from the outset that I wanted a relationship story. I wanted that because, let to my own devices with a straightforward issue play, I’ll turn into a guy with a big hammer. The romance subplot has grown in that it’s become more rooted in place. Riley, the husband, is totally unwilling to leave Cache valley. Lucía wants out.
In the play, themes of censorship and freedom of thought and freedom of expression collide with current crises of school bullying, addiction and the American suicide epidemic in the U.S. You seem to be painting a wholly American portrait. I love the ambition of the play. What at the moment speaks most strongly to you in the play?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: At the moment, it’s the struggle between Lucía and Mindy, teacher and parent, Latina and white, non-LDS and LDS, non-mother and mother. It’s a failure of respect that lives at the center of this play. And the most important lack of respect happens between them. It’s Mindy’s refusal to even engage that gets my dander up. She tries to orchestrate a teacher’s firing without talking to her. She’s more honest on Facebook than she is in person. That’s (the worst part of) America right now.
Where was Art & Class previously developed?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: The Constructivists in Milwaukee gave Art & Class some support and a reading in May, and Plan-B Theatre hosted a table-read for it in August. I’m really hoping for a Utah production, though. It is, probably, the piece most rooted in Utah that I’ve ever created.
You’ve set some of your other plays in Utah, right? How is Art & Class different or similar to your past plays?
Matthew Ivan Bennett: Let’s see, plays I’ve set in Utah: In the Open, Eric(a), A Night with the Family, Block 8, Figurine, What We Had To, among others. Many. A/Version of Events [licensed by stagerights.com] has Utahn characters who are driving across the country. Art & Class is kind of like In the Open, another play I set in small-town Utah about a would-be school shooter. In the Open also looks at the politics between Mormons and non-Mormons — or as they now prefer to be called, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I write so much about Utah because I know it, of course, but importantly because I love it.