Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett finds his way through the rewrites

Profile • Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett kicks productivity into high gear for three upcoming world premieres.
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Civilians might consider playwrights to be hopeless romantics who stare out of open windows and argue endlessly with directors and producers.

Not so with Matthew Ivan Bennett. His self-imposed work schedule is more like a scene from "Mission: Impossible," but with pen and paper in hand before the detonation of a script or production deadline.

As Plan-B Theatre Company's resident playwright since 2007, Bennett always has been busy. But he's been especially productive of late, with a string of three world premiere scripts about to hit the stage.

Airing Tuesday, Dec. 18, is "Radio Hour 7: Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle," an adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story. Opening Feb. 28 is "Eric(a)," his play about a transgender man, which is Bennett's second script to earn Plan-B an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Then in April, Bennett throws a script across genres with "A Night With the Family," a comedy set during the holidays, which will premiere April 19 at the Omaha Community Playhouse, segueing into a Utah production, courtesy of Pygmalion Productions, which will open April 25.

Always playtime • He's already at work on his next script, about the historic intersection between abolitionists Harriet Tubman and John Brown.

"I tend to be drawn to characters themselves drawn to empathetic journeys," Bennett said. "They're usually people trying to see outside the walls of themselves and into other people."

Scenes and dialogue wrestle inside his head, waiting for greater form and focus. Bennett carries a black-and-white bound notebook with him constantly. Near his home desk, he frequently jumps up and down on a small trampoline, which he says gives him access to dramatic dialogue's best beats and rhythms.

"Matt's brain is always running at 100 miles per hour," said Jerry Rapier, Plan-B's producing director. "Sometimes there are so many ideas floating around inside him he has a hard time deciding which one to follow. He really understands character-driven dialogue, which sounds like a no-brainer, but is elusive for most playwrights."

It's so all-consuming sometimes that Bennett said he finds himself silently, or not-so-silently, mouthing dialogue at home while fixing lunch, at work as the assistant business manager of Pioneer Theatre Company, or riding TRAX.

"It gets me some pretty crusty looks from other people, sometimes," he said. "But I remember one drama professor who always told me, 'Writing is the art of talking to yourself without being crazy.' "

It's far better than staring in terror at a blank notebook for hours on end, an incident that's struck him only once so far. Even an eight-hour dry spell comes with its own lesson, Bennett said.

"I wasn't able to pull myself out of that empty space until I reconnected with it," he said. "It sounds bad to write a play from that kind of space, but when you think about it, that's where all plays come from. If you know everything, you're not writing a play. You're writing an essay or a lecture."

From Macbeth's dagger to Leonardo • Bennett grew up in Taylorsville with 10 other siblings, attending Granite District schools. He knew instinctively that he wanted to be a writer of some sort, but it was Macbeth's "dagger soliloquy" that sealed the pact on his journey toward becoming a playwright.

Thanks to his parents' frequent trips to Cedar City for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, he was exposed to the Bard and Southern Utah University, where he graduated in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in theater arts.

"Without a doubt, the finest writer who's been in my classes in the past 15 years," said Christine Frezza, associate professor of theater arts and dance at SUU. "He was the leader of a whole troupe of intellects, and it was great setting them loose on a topic. He's truly a son of Utah whom we can all be proud of."

Bennett's early plays, often staged at Cedar City's Groovacious music store, ran the gamut. For example, his 2001 play "The White Light of Terrence" explored the intersection of religious faith and science. That play eventually led him to bigger, wider projects such as "De Esperienza," a stage biography of Leonardo da Vinci produced by Plan-B in 2009.

Rapier became so impressed with the then 30-year-old playwright's voice that he committed to produce a season's worth of Bennett's plays. Most notable was his commissioned work "Block 8," which chronicled the friendship between a young Japanese-American man and an older female librarian at Utah's Topaz internment camp during WW II. That play brought tears to the eyes of some in the audience, Rapier remembers.

Bennett's penchant for characters under pressure, or behaving in unexpected ways, provides a narrative thread through his work, including his radio play adaptation of "Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle."

"It's less black-and-white than many of the stories because the criminal isn't clearly a bad man, just a regular guy who's tempted by the possibility of instant great wealth," Bennett writes on Plan-B's website.

Rewrite, right • His ode to society's outsiders, or those who behave outside its norms, continues in "Eric(a)," his 60-minute play that he describes as a "story of when [a man] fell for a woman for the first time." With local actor Teresa Sanderson in the role, the work stems from an earlier play Bennett worked on for months, until shelving it in frustration.

Even when he picked up the theme once more, Bennett found himself humbled at every turn. To write a play about how transgender people "were people, too" was too naive. It wasn't until a transgender person challenged his idea — asking Bennett how, beyond his chromosomal makeup, he knew he was, in fact, a man — that Bennett found an entry point into the play.

Rapier said the number of rewrites that the play required might have hurt the work for another writer. In refusing to let go of his original subject matter, Bennett said he learned a profound lesson about the nature of crafting a narrative for the stage.

"Writing a play is a lot like trying to control someone 100 percent of the time," he said. "You can't control it that way and expect it to live and connect with other people. It's terrifying that way."


Twitter: @Artsalt

Facebook.com/fulton.ben —

Working man: Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett

Two Utah theater companies are set to produce three of Bennett's plays.

'Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle'

What • Plan-B Theatre's seventh radio play, adapted by Matthew Ivan Bennett and directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff.

When • Tuesday, Dec. 18, 7 and 8:30 p.m.; the 7 p.m. performance will be broadcast live on KUER, 90.1 FM; at press time, only limited tickets were available to the 8:30 p.m. show.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeanné Wagner theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $10-$20; at 801-355-ARTS or www.planbtheatre.org for more information.


When • Feb. 28-March 10. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Studio theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $10-$20; at 801-355-ARTS or www.planbtheatre.org for more information.

'A Night With the Family'

When • April 25-May 12. Times TBA.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Studio theater, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • Prices TBA; at 801-355-ARTS or pygmalionproductions.org for more information.