Noted Latter-day Saint playwright and LGBT ally Eric Samuelsen dies

| Courtesy Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen.

Playwright Eric Samuelsen, who ran Brigham Young University’s playwriting program for a dozen years, died Friday at age 63. A noted playwright and three-time winner of the Association for Mormon Letters drama award, he saw more than two dozen of his plays produced across the United States.

As a memorial service of sorts, Plan-B Theatre, where Samuelsen became playwright in residence in 2012, will stage a free reading of his play “Borderlands,” Saturday, Oct. 5, at 2 p.m., at the Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. Plan-B artistic director Jerry Rapier will direct the reading, which will feature the original cast of the 2011 production: Kirt Bateman, Teri Cowan, Stephanie Howell and Topher Rasmussen. Tickets are required; go to planbtheatre.org to register.

Samuelsen, who graduated from BYU in 1983, returned as a member of the faculty in 1992. From 1999 to 2011, he headed up the university’s playwriting program. Diagnosed with polymyositis — a rare disease that causes muscles to become irritated and inflamed — he retired from BYU in 2012.

On Thursday, he posted on Facebook: “It’s been wonderful to see so many friends and family. I’m aware that I’m dying, but I don’t feel like I’m dying. I asked the doctor about it and he said you may not. You may just feel slower and more tired and weaker. Thank you so much for the tributes. Love to my friends.”

Despite his health issues, Samuelsen continued crafting plays. In 2003, he began working with Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City and became the playwright in residence there in 2012. In 2013-14, the theater presented four of his works in “A Season of Eric.”

Rapier posted on Facebook, “There is a hole in my heart; an entire swath of my soul is flapping in the wind, threatening to detach and fly away.”

Plan-B released a statement that said Samuelsen “made our world a better place simply by being in it. … You risked many things to share your work with us. You were good, you were right, you were kind. And you were one helluva playwright. You challenged us, you changed us, you buoyed us and inspired us.”

Samuelsen, a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was known for creating LDS characters who were less than perfect. His 2011 play, “Borderlands,” which debuted at Plan-B, is set in a Provo used-car lot and features a car salesman who identifies as a Latter-day Saint despite his dubious ethics, and a character who is an openly gay, LDS teenager.

The playwright told Catalyst magazine he’s a “straight, married Mormon guy” who “tried to be a friend to LDS gay students, who in past years were treated abominably. I’ve tried to work within the system, to quietly influence attitudes and policies. Things have improved in recent years. But it’s not possible to write about borderland Mormons and not include a gay character.”

According to Plan-B, Samuelsen “advocated for the equality of all, for the protection of all, at great personal cost. Many LGBTQ people are alive today because of him.”

“Letter from a Prophet,” Samuelsen’s first produced play, debuted at BYU in 1978. Over the next four decades, his works included “Accommodations,” “Gadianton,” “The Seating of Senator Smoot,” “The Way We’re Wired,” “Family,” “Amerigo,” “Nothing Personal,” “Clearing Bombs,” “3” and “Kruetzer’s Sonata.”

University of Utah theatre professor Tim Slover, a fellow playwright, said in a statement: “Eric was a fantastic amalgam of intellect, heart, wit, and artistic generosity. He was and will remain an inspiration to all whom he taught and all who aspire to write for the stage, especially those of us who try to dramatize belief and frailty.”

Samuelsen was born in Provo but grew up in Indiana. His father was an opera singer who immigrated from Norway, and he helped inspire Samuelsen’s 2017 play, “The Ice Front.” (Samuelsen himself served a Latter-day Saint mission to Norway.)

“I grew up with stories about the Norwegian resistance,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “My dad told stories of how he would entertain people in fallout shelters. As a child, he would sing American folk songs in English because he loved cowboy movies, especially singing ones. That was the beginning of his career as an opera singer.

“I always wanted to do something with those stories.”

Samuelsen is survived by his wife, Annette, and their four children. Information about services was not immediately available.