Interview: Joy Gabriel

July_2008_postcard_emailI heard from a friend of mine from NYC a couple of weeks ago, who I learned is now putting on a solo play she wrote. Here’s the description:

Mother May I?

A Mormon girl’s journey to independence from the tag-team of Mom and Jesus.

Little Joy wanted to be like Mom so much she had to leave the pre-existence (a Mormon green room for babies) and beg to be named after her. You would too! Mom has the best friends (Jesus is always over for dinner), the biggest heart (she’ll take down a bus load of 4th graders), and a way with money (her visions stretch the food stamps and make for some divine swindling). Joy finally gets her wish – and her own mission from the Lord – and ends up in NYC trying to change the world and live it up Mom style. When all hell breaks loose … what will little Joy do? Choose Mom? Jesus? Or end up in Outer Darkness? Find out in “Mother May I?”

*Plus Door Prizes and Home Made Cookies

Putting on a solo show you wrote yourself strikes me as something particularly creative and brave, and so I asked Joy for an interview, which appears below the fold.

Steve: I’m interested in what impetus led you to write a solo show and put this together to start with. Where did it start, for you?

Joy: A friend of mine just asked me why I wrote this show and my eyes got really wide. I suddenly couldn’t remember. Everyone keeps telling me I’m brave but lately I’ve been thinking it’s because crazy runs in my family. Something compelled me to do it. Even though I was terrified and literally thought I was going to hell for it. The cold sweats couldn’t stop me – I had to write it. Now I can’t remember why (there must be a concrete reason that launches you on these life-altering journeys, right?) I wonder if it’s a little like having a baby. You really want one and then you get into labor and you don’t know how or why you got there but that baby’s coming.

Steve: So, superficially people can think that this is about you getting over mommy issues, but it’s part of a larger voyage of discovery. How would you describe the theme of your play?

Joy: My mom and I had a powerful bond and as our relationship progressed she basically became my god. Ultimately the play is about spiritual manipulation and how you find answers in life. Sometimes that involves leaving everything you thought you knew for sure and stepping into the great void of the unknown.

Steve: What’s the preparation like for a solo play? Is the internalization process different? As the author, how do you gauge the effectiveness of your acting?

Joy: Acting in a solo show is pretty wild. It takes a lot of rehearsal with a director to make sure all the characters are clear and distinct and you (the actor) move effortlessly between them. Once you get on stage the acting is the same as with a scene partner (reacting, listening) you’re just doing it all with yourself. And those 14 voices in your head.

Steve: Let’s talk about the religion in your play. Your play clearly depicts a Mormon upbringing, but it’s fair to say that it is not your typical Mormon doctrine. Where did this belief set come from with your mother?

Joy: Yes, I believe my mom practices her own “brand of Mormonism.” She is an ardent supporter of personal revelation and does not feel anyone has the authority to challenge her testimony. Once the Lord tells her something through any means (dreams, visions, whispers) it’s gospel. Whether getting instructions for our family, clarifying points of doctrine, or learning a tidbit about the personal lives of ancient apostles – once she “heard it” – it was in the canon. I grew up believing she was infallible (due largely to her revelations) which also seemed reinforced by doctrine I was taught at church.

Steve: How much of that upbringing (or that particular or unique view of Mormonism) stays with you today? How have you decided what parts to keep or to reject?

Joy: I separate my mom and the church. She uses the same doctrines and practices – but they aren’t the same thing. It’s a challenge of my adult life to sift through everything I was taught as a child and find out what matches up with official church teachings.

Steve: Although it’s pretty unstated, there’s a sub theme of the interplay between devotion and mental illness (I think). To what extent, do you think, a little psychological and/or pharmacological intervention might have changed the relationship with your mother?

Joy: My mom was wary of any mental health treatment because of her religious convictions. I can’t imagine her agreeing to medication or therapy of any kind. In order to do that she’d have to admit she was weak – or wrong – and that would involve “turning her back” on her revelations. If she’d received help – I guess I would have had a completely mother. Looking back, I would’ve appreciated any professional help and I’m somewhat baffled that no one ever intervened in such a clearly unstable situation.

Steve: Not much is said about the nature of maternal relationships in Mormonism — we have no archetype of the Mormon Mother compared to, say, the Jewish Mother. What’s the Mormon Mother like? Does your mother, as represented in your play, stand for any sort of symbol or archetype?

Joy: I don’t know what a regular Mormon mom is like. I think she encourages you to get married and have babies. In that way my mom fits the bill.

Steve: So what’s next on the horizon? How has life been as a Mormon actress?

Joy: Being Mormon and a creative artist doesn’t make a lot of sense. Both lifestyles are so incredibly demanding that you always feel torn. Being an artist is about clearing away the brush and the boundaries – to see what bubbles up. Being a Mormon is about censoring yourself before you even begin. There are certain restrictions (dietary, language, taboo subjects). Which impulse wins? All I can do is take a deep breath and try to figure it out one project at a time. This project was liberating in a lot of ways – because I spoke about things that were labeled “sacred” not by the church, but by my mother. I finally realized that sometimes things aren’t sacred. Sometimes they’re just screwed up. Sometimes you have a sick mother who thinks the Three Nephites are bringing you grocery money. And it takes you 24 years to realize you’re not going to hell because you think that’s a little crazy.

Thanks again to Joy for agreeing to the interview. Below is some information for “Mother May I?”, which will be running this weekend.

Midtown International Theatre Festival Presents “Mother May I?” by Joy Gabriel
directed by Bricken Sparacino
presented by Joey Productions
Running Time: 60 minutes

Friday, August 1 at 6 pm; Saturday, August 2 at 7:30 pm
Stage Left Studios, 438 West 37th Street, New York, NY 10018 or — Enter Discount Code MAYI for $15 tickets!


  1. Awesome. I love her!

  2. Norbert says:

    Sometimes you have a sick mother who thinks the Three Nephites are bringing you grocery money. And it takes you 24 years to realize you’re not going to hell because you think that’s a little crazy.

    That’s fantastic. I really wish I could see this.

  3. Neat! Let’s get a film of this made for us folks in the sticks…

  4. Sounds interesting. I hope she finds the peace and perspective she is seeking. In a very real way, it is similar to what all of us need to do – separate what is of the Church from what is of our individual upbringing in it.

  5. Martin Willey says:

    I would love to see it. Out of curiosity, would it be clear to someone not of our faith that Joy’s mother was “different” from the average Mormon mom?

  6. Re #3 – In the sticks is right. Nearly 900 miles is a little far to go for for a play, no matter how good.

  7. Joy Gabriel says:

    I make it known from the top of the play that my Mom was doing her own thing. As the play progresses – things get weirder (and she runs into trouble with church leadership). So far the audience gets it loud and clear.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Looks terrific. Thanks for doing the interview, Joy.

    (I’m simply amazed by the creative community we have in NY these days. We’ve come a long way, baby.)

  9. Sounds interesting. I might cross the bridge and see what this is about.

  10. The Right Trousers says:

    I agree with Ray. Joy, I really hope you succeed in discovering who God really is in spite of your mother, and that you can find it in yourself to forgive her as deeply as Christ can.

    This touches on a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot. If a child’s concept of God is based on his or her parents, what can we do to correct that? I never understood until recently how much more patient and merciful he is than my own parents, and that would have been great to know about a decade ago. We talk about weaning children form their parents’ testimonies a lot – but what about their misconceptions about God’s character and attributes?

    Sorry if this is too much of a thread-jack.

  11. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Being a Mormon is about censoring yourself before you even begin.”

    It’s too bad we continue to feel this. Mormonism is about truth – beginning with _telling the truth_, I think. There are surely times and places to not say things just because they are true. But even when unspoken they need to be acknowledged. How can we progress in truth if we can’t even tell the truth about our own experience. Or, importantly, how can we discvoer the truth about our experience, and _learn by our own experience_, if we strongly resist any exploration of it.

    I know I’m preaching to the choir.

    I don’t mean to be analytical about another person’s emotional experience – but doesn’t this whole thing seem to typify dominion? Lording over someone else with the ‘truth’ rather than providing an environment where they can freely find it? We all do this to some extent.

    Anyway, best of everything to Joy.


  12. Rechabite says:

    Dear Joy,

    Jesus would like you to send me a copy of your cross-stitched pillow pattern. Because that is the most awesome thing I have ever seen in the history of things cross-stitched on pillows. Best of luck with the show!


  13. Joy Gabriel says:

    Re #11 I agree — it should be about the truth — and I love the way you put it. The issue can just get a little complicated because as Mormon people we make covenants to avoid certain things. But as an actor — you portray many life experiences. (Not every character you portray leads a “mormonesque” lifestyle). Some people (and leaders) feel uncomfortable with a Mormon person making choices to portray “other” kinds of truth. It can be difficult to negotiate that space. Bottom line: I’ve always felt the most important thing in life (and art) is living close to the truth.

  14. I agree with Rechabite — that pillow is hilarious.

    This play sounds wonderful. I am still unlearning some of the crazy things my mom presented as doctrine.

  15. So what’s next on the horizon?

    Good question. Perhaps she has another parent she can make fun of in front of large groups in exchange for middling fame?

  16. This looks fascinating. I’d love to see it.

  17. Ok, so I’m Joy’s brother Daniel, and I can tell you that everything she says is absolutely correct. We’re coming out to see the play this weekend (We’re so excited)!

    Re: #10 – I think that’s the hardest thing when you grow up in an abusive environment. A child’s basic archetype for god comes from their relationship with their parents. It’s a major struggle to rethink both god and the nature of your parents.

    Joy, you’re my hero, as always.

  18. Latter-day Guy says:

    So this sounds fantastic. I am sad I cannot attend.

    Also, I totally agree with Ray. I was a freshman in college when I realized that my Father’s doctrine, “the Holy Ghost goes to bed [ie, ceases to function] at midnight” was not somewhere in the Doctrine and Covenants. It was never said with a wink and a smile, it was just parental gospel. (When I told this to them, they couldn’t stop laughing.) Also the whole “Jesus was born on April 6th” thing? Yeah, I totally bought that one too. When I finally found out what that was based on, and what a stretch it was… geez…

    I guess, my experience has been something like my little almost-8-year-old cousin’s: her parents decided it was time to kill off Santa, so they let her know that it had been them all along delivering the presents. Then, in answer to her ensuing questions, they broke into a litany of child-fantasy murdering. Tooth Fairy. Easter Bunny. Hubert the Hanukkah Hobgoblin. (Okay, not really.) Finally, after enough carnage, her lip started to quiver and her eyes misted up: “No Holy Ghost?” Of course, they proceeded to try to reassure her on the reality of the religious characters, but by that point, I think their credibility was shot. She has since turned out to be well adjusted, but for a while I was afraid she was one Paul H. Dunn talk away from hard liquor and a heroin addiction.

  19. her own “brand of Mormonism.”

    You’ve hit a great topic starter.

    Being Mormon and a creative artist doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    I hope you aren’t giving up on or the other.

  20. Joy:

    I think your phrase “Being a Mormon is about censoring yourself before you even begin.” is true all to often in practise, even if, as Thomas rightly poinst out, it shouldn’t be.

    You hint at it in your #13, but I wonder if you could tell us more about how this play (and your doing it) is received by your fellow saints there?

  21. Joy Gabriel says:

    Overall people have been very supportive. (People from my ward have even helped out with the show). Occasionally when someone casually asks me about “that show you’re doing” – they get that “deer in the headlights look.” Like maybe they were hoping I was doing “Saturday’s Warriors in Space” or something. (And usually it’s the same guy who’s putting “Little Mermaid” through his Clear Play machine). But I would probably feel blindsided as well — it’s a weird story. There were a few Mormons who saw it last weekend – and they responded well. I have many more Mormon friends coming this weekend – and I’m excited to see their response. That’s the interesting thing about this play — the audience responds differently every time. That’s theater, baby.

  22. Ultimately the play is about spiritual manipulation and how you find answers in life. Sometimes that involves leaving everything you thought you knew for sure and stepping into the great void of the unknown.

    wow Joy, I wish I could see it. I am interested to know if your Mormon audience finds they can relate to spiritual manipulation in a broader and more personal sense or if they think it’s limited because your mom was an extreme case or was not following official church teachings in her revelations? It’s not a phenomenon unique to Mormons, but we all know it exists – maybe because our parents are so worried our sins will be upon their heads or we won’t be “an eternal family” if we don’t follow their brand, which they see as the one true way.

    And that pillow is to-die-for!!!

  23. Joy,

    Love that pillow! Needs a sampler to go with it:

    “Dear Mom and Dad,
    Remember Who you represent.
    Love, Your Heavenly Parents”

    This totally alerted me (again) to the fact that my kids really do see their relationship with God through my husband and me. Thanks for the reminder, I needed that.

  24. Randall says:

    WOW gst (#15), if I interpret your comment as intended, I would never allow you to speak with guests at my home.

    Joy, any chance of you bringing your show out west?

  25. Joy Gabriel says:

    We’ll see! After we wrap this version I’m going to take a look at my options. It would be fun playing to a western crowd…

  26. Randall, you read it right.

  27. Adam Greenwood says:

    My mother too believes in the Three Nephites. Courage!

  28. Melinda says:

    I liked the question in #10: “If a child’s concept of God is based on his or her parents, what can we do to correct that?”

    I’d make it personal, though. If my concept of God is based on my father, what can I do to correct that? It would be easier to do if my father wasn’t so righteous. He *is* the Church, and not in a weird “three Nephites bringing the grocery money” kind of way. Can it be spiritual manipulation if he doesn’t know he was doing it? Because he never ever does anything wrong, at least not in his own opinion. Since his opinion is the only one that matters, he’s never done anything wrong.

    I wish I could see your play. I would probably identify with it a lot. Best wishes.

  29. I wish I had read this post sooner, I definitely would have gone to see this. It sounds like Joy and I could be long lost sisters (or our mothers are long lost twins).
    Joy- I am really interested in hearing more about your mother and her ‘revelations’. How are you/have you dealt with them in real life? (at present I am trying to separate fact from fiction and differentiate truth from those other revelations of the mom’s) It is nice to know I am not the only one with a mother like mine.

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