Archive of "14"

By John Clarence Cameron
David Thayer Theatre
January 2008
Iowa Partnership in the Arts

List of Artistic Staff for 14
Creative Staff  
Director John Clarence Cameron
Scenic Designer Edward Matthew Walter
Costume Designer Loyce Arthur
Lighting Designer Bryon Winn
Projections Designer Edward Matthew Walter
Music Composer Chris Okiishi
Sound Designer Patrick Ashcraft
Stage Manager Erin Glasspatrick
Dramaturg Dexter Locke

Scenes from 14

Scenes from 14

Oh Say,  John Clarence Cameron, What is Truth?

by Dexter Locke

In his play 14 John Clarence Cameron poses the question; what is truth? Cameron, playwright and director of 14 and head of the Acting Program, at the University of Iowa presents truth as a journey, not a destination. Cameron does not presume to have the answer to the question. In 14 Cameron deftly posts road signs that lead us in the direction of truth. In fact it may have been a question of truth that was the impetus behind 14. The question came in the form of an email from Jodi Mardesich, a freelance reporter who was researching an experiment that took place at Brigham Young University in the mid-seventies. The experiment was part of a doctorial dissertation by Max Ford McBride entitled “Effect of Visual Stimuli in Electric Aversion Therapy.” In this experiment, fourteen gay male students were subjected to electric shocks while shown visual stimuli. The purpose of the dissertation was to determine if nude images were more effective than clothed images in altering the subjects’ sexual desires. Mardesich contacted John because she knew he was a young psychology major at Brigham Young University in 1975 and one of the fourteen subjects.

At first, John was reluctant to speak with her. He had recently read Connell O’Donovan’s The Abominable and Detestable Crime Against Nature: A Revised History of Homosexuality & Mormonism, 1840-1980 and was reeling emotionally by what he had discovered. O’Donavan wrote about BYU’s purge of homosexuals from their campus.

It was all a revelation to me. I knew none of that stuff, absolutely none of it. I refused to give in to my tendencies in any way; I was living the total life of a straight man. The purge and the persecutions were a total shock…I knew I was going through the therapy but that was my little shameful secret. I do remember hearing rumors of the purge but I felt disconnected from it. I was focused on my own journey. Later when I read about it, it kind of put it in perspective as a bigger thing that I had not thought about.

But when Mardesich informed him that Merrill Bateman, at that time the President of Brigham Young University denied any knowledge of the experiment, John decided to speak out:

The atmosphere at BYU during the mid-seventies was difficult emotional terrain for a young man in his twenties to travel alone, especially a mainstream Mormon experiencing homosexual urges. Young John Cameron, like the character Aaron in 14, was lost on the campus of Brigham Young University and all of the psychological road signs and spiritual detours sent a young gay man traveling in circles. Finally, like any lost traveler, John asked for directions and ended up in Max Ford McBride’s experiment.

Up until that time I never ever, ever, ever thought of blaming the Mormon Church for anything. I wasn’t mad at them. I was mad at myself. I was angry that I didn’t have the courage to deal with who I was earlier; that I didn’t have the guts to leave religion behind and move forward with my life. But when he [Bateman] tried to deny that [reparative therapy] ever happened, [when]they said they couldn’t find any record of the experiment, … that infuriated me because that was lying and a Church should not lie.

It was after these revelations that John started to write 14.

I wanted to tell about it because I actually think they were trying to do a good thing with this [reparative therapy]. They were trying to help people. They were trying to help people out of sin, and that’s what Church does. Not the best idea, but at that time did we know any better? No. We thought this was good cutting-edge work.

I never blamed them but don’t lie. I have a thing about that. I have lied about myself. So the first line in the play. “We’re going to tell you story, a true story full of lies” and it is not just about the lies from the Church. It’s about the lies I told myself. It’s about the lies of memory. You think you remember things accurately but you don’t.

When I read that dissertation I realized that a lot of stuff that I thought had happened never happened and [it] was actually in some ways worse than what I remembered. So that’s where the line comes from. This play is about being truthful, facing what you’ve done and owning it. This is what made me, this is what I am, this is who I am, and this is what I’ve done. And I think the Church should do that too. It is the time for them to say yes we did that, it probably wasn’t the best idea but we were trying to help people.

The atmosphere at BYU during the mid-seventies was difficult emotional terrain for a young man in his twenties to travel alone, especially a mainstream Mormon experiencing homosexual urges. Young John Cameron, like the character Aaron in 14, was lost on the campus of Brigham Young University and all of the psychological road signs and spiritual detours sent a young gay man traveling in circles. Finally, like any lost traveler, John asked for directions and ended up in McBride’s experiment.

They weren’t abusing me. I made the choice. I made the choice. I asked them to do that to me and I need to be a grown-up and take responsibility for that.

The main character Ron reflects midway through 14 that he made a mistake a few years ago and somehow in the process, lost track of his life. For Cameron that sentiment resonates with his personal journey and his responsibility for being a participant in the “reparative therapy” experiment at BYU. Writing 14 has been instrumental in Cameron changing his self perspective. But he is quick to point out, “I don’t think those feelings go away because you write a play.” John recognizes there are still remnants of the spiritual detours he took twenty five years ago. The music of the church remained with him long after he had left the church. This is why the hymns play such a significant role in 14.

I read every lyric of every hymn in the Mormon hymnal looking for hymns would resonate with a diverse audience.

John describes the Mormons as a very musical people and that music was a huge part of that life.

Frequently, I’ll be driving down the highway and I’ll just start singing the hymns. They are embedded in me.

John does not describe himself as a playwright but as an actor who is trying to write. He describes his playwriting process as “absolute chaos.” John says he just starts writing, anytime day or night. John may portray his writing process as “absolute chaos,” but during the evolution of 14, he has been meticulous and tenacious in his rewrites and revisions. He consistently solicits feedback from his colleagues involved in the production and welcomes questions that require a closer analysis of all aspects of the play.

Cameron has written at least fifteen plays, most of which he has not shown to anyone. He says he writes for himself, and with the exception of a few plays, most of his work is tucked away or thrown away. John’s produced work includes Legend, which he co-wrote with Jeff Richmond. Legend was produced at The American College Theater Festival at Ohio University where John performed lead role of Teddy. He also directed and contributed additional book and lyrics for Richmond’s Lobo A Go-Go, which ran successfully at The Theater Building in Chicago. John doesn’t consider himself a director either, despite his successful direction of Metamorphoses, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at the University of Iowa.

Cameron says he knows it is a theatrical faux pas for a playwright to direct his own work; however, he felt so strongly about his vision for 14 that he knew he had to direct it. John describes his directing process as “Blitzkrieg” blocking. He says:

What I do is not academic or scholarly in any way it is just the way I do my work. We have one reading; I don’t do a great deal of table work. I personally think that actors need to be up and moving. I think they figure out more when they’re doing then when they’re sitting. I find when they’re sitting and thinking it is harder for them to bring the connection to the physical. So I do one reading. Then I try to stage the play within three or four days, the whole play. I move very fast, which literally means walking very fast around the theater telling actors you go here, you go there, then you’re going to move toward each other etc.

Then we go back and look at each scene. But the actors have a skeleton; they have a framework on which to hang their work and then we can go back and think about it. Sometimes we completely discard that framework but the actors do memorize the lines better when they have the physical context. I like my actors off book. So I tell them, ok now your blocked, now get the book out of your hands. Of course, in the whole process, before hand, I try to figure out what the play is about but I go into rehearsals with the play staged in my head then I alter it.  Lanford Wilson was a huge influence on me. The first time I read one of his plays I fell in love with it. I appreciate Langford Wilson’s ability to manipulate structure and still write a well-made play. I was amazed. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be able to write a well-made play but also diverge from the standard form.

14 is not John Cameron’s autobiography. There are many similarities to his life. However, he has taken full dramatic license in creating this play.

Writing this play has been a uniquely personal journey that I didn’t anticipate. … I think that’s good for what it’s worth. I always think change is good if you embrace it and try to figure out what the benefit is. I think it started something, that isn’t complete yet.

In 14 John Cameron takes us on that journey with him; a journey with hills and valleys and rivers to cross. Like Cameron’s writing of 14, we must be cognizant there are moments in the journey when we must stop and reflect. “We must think before we act and not rush to judgment.” “…what seems like a horror to us now, in 25 years may not be such a horror, and we might come to a new level of understanding,…” 14 is about integrity, 14 is about forgiveness and 14 is about the life long journey to answer the question, oh say, what is truth.


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