Liza Sipos used to be a menace to society.
It sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant to. When she was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church, she was over 25 and unmarried — thus considered “a menace to society.”
“So, in the Mormon community, the phrase ‘a menace to society’ is a popular quote from Brigham Young, who is the second prophet, who stated that if you are over 25 and unmarried, you are a menace to society,” Sipos said.
That was one of the many things that didn’t sit well with Sipos, now 31, when she was a church member — feeling pressured to marry young. In her new play, however, her recollection of life as a Mormon woman is carefully balanced between what she sees as the good and the bad.
What’s left is a lot of gray area, which she delves into in “Menace to Society: A Mormon in Milwaukee,” a play by Sipos being produced by Broom Street Theater, 1119 Williamson St., Feb. 9 through March 3.
Sipos’ first draft of the piece was overwhelmingly negative. It took a lot of rewrites, as well as personal healing, to get it to a place where it was ready to be produced, she said.
Writing the play was a way for Sipos to come to terms with how she was raised and how she initially viewed the world before coming into her own and leaving the church.
“I think my play shows a little bit of the anger, a good amount of sadness and a lot of the joy in finding yourself,” she said. “Or the embarrassment of not knowing what you’re doing.”
That feeling of not knowing was one of the biggest challenges Sipos faced when leaving the church, she said. She didn’t know how to order a drink from a bar, she didn’t have any non-Mormon friends and, until she decided to seek it out, she didn’t know other perspectives on the church. Reading “anti-Mormon” literature or websites was not allowed growing up.
Sipos recalled an example from a few years ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, when she was at a church holiday party and decided that she wanted to check out a bar. Sipos didn’t tell anyone about her plan. She simply looked up a bar in Milwaukee and headed out.
But she had never been in a bar before, and she became nervous once she arrived. Sipos said she sat in her car with her hands on the steering wheel. Then she saw a group of young women, likely drunk, wandering down the street in short shorts and high heels, laughing when one of them stumbled into the street a little. A car full of men drove up, and they all laughed about it before the car drove away.
Suddenly, Sipos’ windshield “felt 12 inches thick.” In that moment, she didn’t think she could ever be part of that culture.
“That was when I really started to question,” she added. “I wasn’t even thinking about leaving the church, just exploring what it means to not be Mormon. I needed to make a decision about my life. Just seeing that was like the Disney song ‘Part of Your World.’ That’s what I related to.”
Emma, the main character in “Menace,” struggles with many of the same things Sipos did. Although she doesn’t consider the character to be herself, Sipos has drawn from her personal experiences for the role.
Other characters in “Menace” are reflections of people Sipos has known in the church or even some parts of herself as a practicing Mormon.
The 10-person main cast even includes church prophet Joseph Smith, who makes appearances in “Menace” as a figure living in in Emma’s head.
What Sipos found the most challenging about writing “Menace” wasn’t balancing the positive and negative experiences she had in the church, she said. It was describing the church itself, which is “complicated” and something that many people don’t understand.
“Part of me enjoys sharing the religion in the good and the bad, instead of letting people take what they know and run with it,” said Sipos, who lives in Madison.
Addressing both the good and bad aspects of Sipos’ former life makes the play a more complex topic for the radical Broom Street Theater, and that is absolutely the goal of the theater’s new artistic director, Doug Reed.
‘Ruffle some feathers’
Reed, who took over the position from Heather Renken in 2017, said he hopes to bring back some of the original “confrontational” aspects of Broom Street. By producing shows that don’t take a firm stance for or against a certain idea, organization or person, he hopes the people of Broom Street are given a chance to grow.
“I think it’s OK to ruffle some feathers — I think it’s OK to ruffle our own feathers,” he said.
Reed wants to diversify the voices presented at Broom Street, not just in the performers on stage or the crew backstage, but in the playwrights.
Since it does only original work, Broom Street is in a unique position geographically and artistically. The theater company has the option to produce many kinds of shows from many kinds of voices, and Reed wants to make the most of that opportunity.
“We’re so close to Chicago and Milwaukee and Minneapolis, there have to be other writers we can pull in,” he said. “Not to the detriment of Madison’s community of writers, but to have other voices and cultivate those relationships.”
One of the ways Broom Street is opening itself up to those chances is through The Madison Short Play Festival: “Unpresidented.” It will be a festival of 10-minute plays for the fall that focuses on the American presidency. Submissions are being accepted through March, and the company has already received more than it ever imagined — hundreds of scripts, Reed said.
Reed hopes that Broom Street might receive a play written from an opposite political perspective so the company can perform it in “good faith” and challenge its own ideologies.
“Menace” easily fits into that change of pace at Broom Street. While many audience members might know information about the Mormon Church only from a show like “The Book of Mormon,” “Menace” is an opportunity to teach and empathize with groups of people the audience (as well as the performers) might not know personally, Reed said.
Mormons are simply some of the nicest people, Sipos said. Much of her family is still in the church, and the religion serves as “a source of comfort for people and an amazing community.”
“When I left the church, I got sick — we’re talking super sick — and it was a wake-up call,” she said. “It was a wake-up call because all of these non-Mormons I thought were my friends didn’t reach out. But the Mormon community came to my house, gave me soup and a blessing, and I will forever miss that about the church.”