Playwright, film producer strive to teach truth through storytelling

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

As creators of works for stage and screen, Melissa Leilani Larson and Garrett Batty try to impart eternal truths while ostensibly entertaining audiences, and thus, they liken what they do to Jesus’ method of using parables to teach gospel precepts.

Sister Larson and Brother Batty were featured May 19 at the Church History Museum for its periodic Evenings at the Museum Lecture Series.

She is a writer based in Provo, Utah, whose plays have been produced at universities across the country and whose adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, originally written at Brigham Young University, recently enjoyed a sold-out run at the University of Ohio.

He is the writer and director of “The Saratov Approach,” a 2013 movie with nationwide distribution that told the true story of the 1998 kidnapping of two Mormon missionaries in Russia.

The two collaborated on a more recent film, “Freetown,” about Mormon missionaries in Liberia seeking to escape the perils of a civil war to find safety in Sierra Leone. The film was released nationwide in the United States and in Ghana, where it was nominated for 10 Ghana Film Awards.

Sister Larson began her lecture by sharing some history of the Jesuits, a Catholic order that was founded in 1534 and built colleges throughout Western Europe, where annual plays were produced to teach students about prophets, saints and the scriptures.

The goal of these productions, she said, was not to entertain but to teach. Regardless of the intent, elements of comedy, music, dancing, scenery and special effects began to “sneak in” to the productions to make them more accessible to common people.

“In this way, the Jesuits ended up doing what they swore they would never do: entertaining people at the same time they were educating people,” Sister Larson said.

These days, the main goal of theater and film is to entertain, but the best of it educates audiences at the same time, she explained.

“It’s at the core of what I try to do as an artist with my work, and it’s what I look for when I go to the theater and when I experience art,” she said.

“It only makes sense,” she added, “that theater is a place where we as an audience can learn through the fictional — and sometimes nonfictional — lives of others.”

To illustrate, she had actors read a scene from one of her plays, “Martyrs’ Crossing.” It tells the story of Joan of Arc through the eyes of Catherine of Alexandria, one of the deceased saints said to have appeared to Joan and inspired her to do the things she did in leading France to victory in its long-running war with England before suffering a martyr’s death herself, just as Catherine had done.

“Telling the story from that perspective has made me think a lot about my faith,” Sister Larson said. “It has helped me realize the strong parallels between Joan and Joseph Smith, another young person who had very strong spiritual experiences that shaped the rest of his life.”

They had similar backgrounds, and both ended up dying for what they believed in, she said.

Good drama and good stories, at their core, have a timeless combination of education, enlightenment and entertainment, Sister Larson said. “We just go about it a little more obtusely than the Jesuits did.”

She said she believes that God built into humans an innate love of stories. “I personally believe that the Savior is the ultimate storyteller, that He used parables not to dumb things down, not so that common people could understand difficult concepts, but that we as people hearing those stories could relate to them and could understand them and apply them in our lives much more easily than just being given a list of principles.”

Brother Batty said as a filmmaker, one of the first things he does is to try to understand the audience. “Will they come to be entertained? I hope so. Will they come to be inspired? I certainly hope they will by the story and perhaps even be enlightened by the end of it.”

He said movie audiences comprise a variety of people. “Most are not looking for the type of story that you hear across the pulpit on Sunday. In fact, the box office shows that the majority of films aren’t really religious in nature.

“As a filmmaker, though, I still have a passion to tell these stories — our stories — to an audience who would not readily seek them, because there’s an opportunity there to communicate.”

Brother Batty said his films are inspirational dramas, but he doesn’t phrase it in that way; instead, he calls them “spiritual thrillers.” Thus, he is able to connect with film distributors and potential audiences.

He quoted one review of “Freetown” as saying, “Like ‘Saratov Approach,’ ‘Freetown’ is sure to scare any woman away from sending her son on a mission.”

He reflected, “Not only does that statement severely misinterpret the message of these films, but it irresponsibly perpetuates the incorrect belief that fear should be a cause for inaction. Please, dear writer, give moms and missionaries the credit they deserve.”

He cited scriptural stories, such as that of Alma and Amulek, in which missionaries showed courage in the face of peril to carry truth to those who needed to hear it.

“Drama that inspires is the goal,” he said. “We follow Christ’s method of teaching. Bringing doctrine to people in a language they understand and will relate to, we hope to aid in carrying the gospel message to audiences throughout the world.”

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