Quechee Resident’s Play Reckons With His Mormon Upbringing

  • Playwright Mike Backman, of Quechee, left, talks with director Bill Coons, during a break in rehearsal of "Sunset," at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, N.H., Friday, April 27, 2018. "It's really his call," said Backman of Coons' interpretation of the play. "This is what you have to do, let go." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mike Backman, of Quechee, watches a rehearsal of his play "Sunset" at the Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, N.H., Friday, April 27, 2018. The play is largely based on Backman's own experiences as a missionary for the Mormon Church. From left are actors Justy Kosek, of New York City, Will Moore, of Hanover, Alexander Miller, of Holladay Utah, and Haulston Mann, of New York City. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mike Backman works on changes to dialogue in a key scene in "Sunset" at his home in Quechee, Vt., April 28, 2018. The play is largely based on Backman's own experiences growing up Mormon, a religion he began to question at a young age. Backman remembers meeting a girl in the first grade who was not Mormon and recalls thinking, "What does this mean to not be Mormon?" (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Mike Backman takes his canoe out of storage in preparation for warmer weather at his home in Quechee, Vt., April 28, 2018. Backman works in information technology at Dartmouth College and is an actor in local theater companies. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, May 03, 2018

According to the lore of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Brigham Young brought to a close a migration that started in the Upper Valley, where Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was born. Young gazed upon the valley of Utah’s Great Salt Lake one spring day in 1847, declared “This is the right place,” and led his pioneers into their promised land.

Mike Backman’s journey traveled in the opposite direction, in more ways than one. When the Utah native arrived in the Upper Valley with his future husband, Steve Swayne, in 2000, he was leaving behind not only his birthplace, but its founding myths. And he wasn’t sure he’d found any promised land, either.

“I had in my head that we were aiming for five years, and then we were going back to California,” Backman, now a Quechee resident who had lived and acted in San Francisco through the 1990s, recalled last week. “That was it.”

Thirteen years after surpassing that deadline, Backman, 56, has become a fixture in the Upper Valley theater community. For his next artistic act, tonight in Enfield he’ll watch Shaker Bridge Theatre premiere the first full production of Sunset, a play that he based on a formative experience from his years as a Mormon missionary.

It’s also a play that he doubts would have reached a professional stage if he hadn’t settled in the Upper Valley.

“I’ve gotten so much support from the people I’ve met through acting and directing,” Backman, who works in IT at Dartmouth College, said last week during an interview at a café in Hanover. “They’re a big part of what’s keeping us here. Anytime we start looking at other potential places to live and maybe retire it’s, ‘Omigosh! There’s no other place like this.’ ”

Among his network, there’s no actor quite like Backman. When he’s not exploring the woods and waterways of Vermont and New Hampshire, he’s propelling his 6-foot-4 frame — sometimes with menace, sometimes with grace, sometimes with mute anguish, depending on the role — around stages in productions by Shaker Bridge, Pentangle Arts in Woodstock, Parish Players in Thetford, at Northern Stage in White River Junction and at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph.

“We’re lucky,” Shaker Bridge founder and director Bill Coons said this week between rehearsals of Sunset. “We’re lucky that he found this place, and found the encouragement and interest. Mike has so many friends here, and there are so many people who care about him as a person.”

Those people include Thetford resident Kay Morton, a Parish Players stalwart with whom Backman has co-starred in several plays, including Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey into Night. After Sunset closes on May 20, they’ll reunite for rehearsals of the Parish Players production of Sam Shepard’s True West.

“He’s such a warm person,” Morton said on Tuesday. “People are attracted to him. And he’s so diligent in his work. You can always count on him to come through.”

While everybody knew how well Backman could interpret other people’s words, nobody in his circle, least of all Backman himself, was counting on him to write a play. But in 2014 his friend, the Quechee architect and playwright Charles Egbert, died, leaving the North Universalist Chapel in Woodstock looking for a new person to write a short play to be read at a benefit for a church charity.

As it happened, Backman had been mulling for decades a way to process on the page his falling away from the Mormon church during his missions in his late teens and early 20s. Soon he was crafting a one-act play about a mission he did in the American South, during which he fell for his mission partner and came to terms with his faith and his sexual orientation.

In the course of tweaking the original script, with suggestions from Morton and other early readers, Backman decided to enter a new version with a second act in the Chandler’s contest for plays exploring social issues. Perusing it in preparation to direct a staged reading late in 2015, Richard Waterhouse saw his occasional acting student in a new light.

“It was clearly something that had to come out, pardon the expression,” Waterhouse, who lives in Newbury, Vt., with his husband and fellow actor Dan Butler, said this week. “I liked it right away. I told him, ‘I can’t give you writing advice on this.’ What I love doing is working with actors and with writers. That’s really when we bonded in a completely different way. I grew to love Mike through that play. It’s such an expression of him. I learned lot about him in that piece.”

So did Backman’s husband of more than 15 years and his partner of more than 25. While Swayne, who teaches opera at Dartmouth College, knew some of the backstory, watching readings of the play as it developed opened his eyes and ears and awareness anew.

“It’s been a challenge for both of us,” Swayne said. “To see the pain that Mike had to endure back in those days ...”

That pain included Backman’s falling out with his devoutly Mormon family in Utah, particularly his father, who died in 2016 without ever fully accepting Swayne, who is African-American, as his son’s life partner.

“Reconciliation is too strong a word for how we left it,” Backman said. “I’d say it was more of a coming to terms. I’ve spent my creative life with this chasm between my father and me. A chasm full of religious differences, differences over racial attitudes. But we always looked each other in the eye. Looking across the chasm, we never lost sight of each other.”

While Sunset itself, focusing on the young protagonist Greg Anderson’s mission in West Virginia, makes just a few references to his family conflicts, Backman can foresee channeling them into a follow-up play someday — and playing it for laughs.

“Bill (Coons) and I have already talked about it,” he said. “In the future, Elder Anderson has an African-American boyfriend and brings him back home to meet his Mormon relatives. It would be more of a comedy. Coming home to a holy, white family in central Utah, dealing with family issues. There’s a lot of comedic moments, now that I look back.”

Before launching such a project, Backman first wants to see Sunset through this production, and to tweak it further to see how far it might travel.

“I would love this to play in Utah,” he said. “I’ve submitted it to a couple of theaters, and had some good feedback, but the more conservative companies aren’t sure they can afford to alienate their base audience of Mormons, and the more counter-cultural ones aren’t sure they can do plays with ‘the Mormon thing’ and get their audience to come out.”

To help Backman make Sunset more ready for prime time, Northern Stage education director Eric Love conducted a series of informal workshops in 2017 with a team of Northern Stage interns. After a series of what Backman called “haircuts,” the collaborators trimmed out somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the dialogue, in a play that now includes several supporting characters as well as the two young missionary partners.

“When we did a reading at the Center for Cartoon Studies,” Love recalled this week, “you could tell the audience was following it very closely. The struggling with faith, in a religion with a very entrenched set of beliefs. It’s almost more about his struggle with religion than with his sexuality. It shows that we all have sets of beliefs. It causes trauma, but it also causes great potential for growth and change.”

Backman credits much of his own growth to the move to Vermont, just in time to join the campaign for civil unions after the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples deserve the same benefits as heterosexual couples. During the divisive debate in the Legislature, Backman and Swayne made the case at Rotary Clubs and other gatherings, and visited hotbeds of the “Take Back Vermont” movement, such as Williamstown, where a Republican representative lost her seat after voting for civil unions.

“It very much felt like a mission,” Backman remembered, “going house to house with people slamming doors in your face.”

In the years that followed, Backman found one door after another swing open wide for him and for Swayne.

“It’s almost just this year that we reached the point where, I don’t know if we can say this is home, but it’s home enough,” Backman said. “We love the people here. We love the environment. We love the small-town feel here, where at the same time it’s so full of very progressive, arts-loving people. Where else in the world can we be living like this? We have friends here. We have a life here.”

Watching his husband “blossom” in his many roles onstage and off, Swayne sometimes fights back tears of joy at the life they built.

“There was a concern for me, given that he was a ‘trailing spouse’ because I was starting my career here, that he would be following in my shadow,” Swayne said. “I’m so proud of him that he’s found his way. He’s an amazing, amazing individual. The idea of being in his life is more than I could tell you.”

Sunset opens at the Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield tonight at 7:30, and runs through May 20 with stagings at 7:30 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and at 2:30 on Sunday afternoons. To reserve tickets ($16 to $35, plus $2 fee for online orders) and learn more, visit shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 603-448-3750.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.