“I’m Addicted to Story”: An Interview with Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson

5.28.13 | | 5 comments

As one of my last posts for A Motley Vision (I’ll go more into that in a different post) I wanted to conduct an interview with one of my favorite Mormon playwrights (one of my favorite playwrights, period), Melissa Leilani Larson. Mel has created a body of work that is impressive and moving, and she is one of Mormonism’s best and brightest dramatists. So without further ado:

1. So, first, tell us a briefly about yourself. Your personal, educational, creative background as a person and as a playwright, your interests, what makes you distinct?

Melissa Leilani Larson, photo taken by Alisia Packard

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I think that love of reading led me to writing stories of my own. I wrote all through school, first grade on up, until I earned my BA in English/Creative Writing from BYU and later my MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

As far as what makes me distinct… Fabulous actresses far outnumber the parts they can play. My ultimate goal is to write fascinating, engaging, and challenging roles for women. A lot of them—several strong female roles per play. That’s the distinction to which I aspire.

2. You were chiefly an English major/literary personality before you switched your focus to writing for a theatrical medium. What changed that direction?

Growing up I planned to be a novelist because that was the form of literature I thought I knew best. I wrote short stories for competitions in high school (1993 New Era contest, anyone?) and college (BYU’s Literature and Belief writing contest). I started—and in some cases finished—several novels, all the while writing poetry in secret (that’s the romantic way to do it, you understand).

Junior year of undergrad I saw a poster advertising a playwriting contest with a whopping $500 prize. I thought, “I can write a play.” So I did. I went home and I wrote a play. That was the start of everything.

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Persuasion 2011, BYU Theatre & Media Arts; photo by Melissa Leilani Larson

3. Lately you have done a lot of adaptations—next year BYU is about to do another production of a Jane Austen adaptation from you (first Persuasion and now Pride and Prejudice), while I know other theaters are looking at other adaptations of yours. What draws you to adapting previous literature? Why not focus solely on your original work?

For me, it’s all about the story. What makes adaptation tricky is that you are telling an extant story in a new form. You need to make it appealing to a new audience without alienating its already devoted fans. You need to balance the tone and language of the original work with your own voice and experience. It’s incredibly hard to strike that balance with classic authors like Austen. Wharton. Alcott. Their readers are entrenched in what they think they want the story to look like on stage, and it’s sometimes rather impossible to shake those ideas loose. I will admit, though, that I find that challenge exciting. I say: Bring it!

4. This question may be similar, but your taste tends towards a kind of “BBC period drama” style. Fans of Masterpiece Theatre will love you. What about these sorts of books and stories draws you?

There is just a lot of good stuff coming out of the UK. The first season of Downton Abbey was awesomesauce. I think Call the Midwife is also pretty fabulous. Ripper Street and Luther are super dark and really cool. The BBC, Studio Canal, Working Title, Focus Features—they are all constantly putting really great stuff out there. I would love to work at any of those studios someday. 

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A Flickering 2010, Leilani Productions; photo by Jeffrey Lee Blake

I’m addicted to story. My taste in theatre and film is really quite eclectic. I love hearing and seeing all sorts of good stories, well told. That’s the kicker—I want to enjoy the telling as much as the story itself. I love contemporary comedy, I love period drama, I’m a sucker for historical epics. Hey, if I could pen the next Little Miss Sunshine or Easy A, I would be all kinds of thrilled. I would be so proud to say I made Hanna. My fingers are crossed that DC Comics realizes I’m really the only one who can write the first Wonder Woman feature because really—I am.

That being said, part of making a career in any field is knowing and highlighting your strengths. One of my strengths is heightened language: I try to take period vernacular and balance its authenticity with contemporary audience accessibility and actor speak-ability. Naturally I’m drawn to well-made pieces that are made in a similar vein.

5. Barta Heiner, who teaches acting at BYU, was the director for your production of Persuasion at BYU, and will be directing their production of your Pride and Prejudice as well. This seems to have been a fruitful, collaborative partnership. Tell us a little more about Barta and your relationship with her.

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Little Happy Secrets 2013, Echo Theatre/Leilani Productions; photos by Jaron Hermansen

I first worked with Barta as her stage manager. She has since become one of the most important mentors—and friends—I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. To think about her having directed one of my plays and looking to do another—that’s just a writer’s dream. 

Barta has so much to offer in the rehearsal room; I’m constantly learning from her. She is a great director who can think like an actor, because she is one. She is true to the text, which can’t be said of everyone. When I talk to Barta about my ideas, I know she’ll be straight up about what works and what doesn’t. I trust her experience and instinct, and I admire her as a person. She is really, well—good. In all senses of the word. Barta is a pretty amazing woman, and one of the greatest Mormon artists I’ve been blessed to see work. I’m grateful to have her influence in life.

6. Can you tell us anything about the adaptations you’re currently working on? Or is that top secret?

I’ve never been satisfied with a stage version of Little Women. It’s a classic American family drama, much more gritty than we give Alcott credit for writing. It tends to be simplified and sentimentalized, and I see it much differently. I’ve been asked to explore a musical version of George Eliot’s  Silas Marner, with music and lyrics by Erica Glenn. I’m also working on a musical adaptation of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s North and South, with original music composed by my good friend, the ultra-talented Julianna Boulter Blake.

Someone recently challenged me, I think as a joke, to adapt all of Austen’s canon. Thing is, I didn’t take it as a joke.

7. The Echo Theatre in Provo recently did your play Martyrs’ Crossing about Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d’Arc, if we want to use her name as it would have been said in her native tongue). But you had a different take and focus on that particular story. Tell us a little more about how you approached that particular play and what made it a unique take of the Maid.

I’ve always found it curious that one aspect of Joan’s story tends to get glossed over when it’s dramatized. She insisted on the real and prominent presence of her “Counsel” or “Voices”: St. Catherine and St. Margaret, as well as the occasional appearance by St. Michael. In so many stage and film versions of her story Joan speaks of her voices, but not to them. I’ve always been intrigued by the connection between the mortal and the supernatural, and this story was no exception. So I made her voices into characters—real, full, dimensional characters despite their lack of mortality.

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Martyrs’ Crossing 2012, Echo Theatre/Leilani Productions; photo by Lauren Laws

That became the spin. The play changed in the writing and Joan, though still a major player, was no longer the protagonist. The play now centers on Catherine, a Christian martyr who, while witnessing Joan’s short and brilliant career, has a posthumous crisis of faith.

I’ve been told it’s a very Mormon play in its theology and philosophy. That the play embraces the idea that all roads lead to restoration. I agree totally. I have known and studied Joan’s history all my life; I think I first discovered her in a picture book in the first or second grade. I have since come to realize what I think is her role in the grand scheme of things. Joan, playing a significant part in the rise of French nationalism, along with her practice of personal revelation, helped set the stage in Europe for the Reformation and, eventually, the Restoration. There are even a number of parallels to draw between Joan and Joseph Smith. Both were born poor, had little formal education, and came into their missions young; both mustered a fascinating combination of admiration, bewilderment, and persecution; both performed miracles; and both were ultimately martyred for their faith.

Humble beginnings. Miraculous happenings. A brief mortal tenure. Who doesn’t want to tell that story?

8. You’ve taught classes at Utah Valley University and Brigham Young University. What did you emphasize in your classes? What is your approach to teaching dramatic writing?

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Little Happy Secrets 2009, New Play Project/Leilani Productions; photo by Jen Jenkins

The best dialogue, I’ve found, tastes real in the mouth of the actor and sounds right in the ear of the audience, despite being condensed and heightened to work on stage. My favorite contemporary playwright is Helen Edmundson. The best word I can think of to apply to Edmundson’s work is that it’s muscular—it’s lean, it’s always necessary to the story, and it works. At the same time, it’s lovely to read and to hear. That’s the good stuff.

Good writing doesn’t let anything get in the way of the story and its action. A good play is full of action. Not ‘splosions necessarily. A quiet conversation can be incredibly action-packed because something is happening—something that drives the story forward. The audience needs to see characters make choices, and see them be changed by those choices.

Write! 

Write!

Why are you still here? Shouldn’t you be writing? 

9. Your many “original” plays are wonderful as well. When you approach an original work, what do draw from for inspiration?

I’m always on the lookout for stories. In line in the grocery store. Lilting strains of music. Snippets of conversation. Unsung heroics. Funny gestures. Unbelievable histories. Little miracles. The supposedly uneventful events of everyday life. American film pioneer Lois Weber once said, “I pin my faith to that story which is a slice out of real life.” I think about that quote a lot when I’m looking for something to write about; it really sums things up for me.

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Little Happy Secrets 2013, Echo Theatre/Leilani Productions; photos by Jaron Hermansen

10. One of your most well known plays is the exquisite Little Happy Secrets. It is a play that deals with a lesbian, Mormon character named Claire who, despite the heartbreaks and struggles in her life, sticks with the Church. Now you’ve mentioned in the past that you are also not a lesbian. Yet the play still has a ring of authenticity to it, and it seems as if you have drawn from a lot of personal areas in your life to create Claire… even down to her favorite books (Jane Austen, of course) and restaurants. What sort of balance did you have to walk as a playwright to write a character that was so like you, yet unlike you?

When I began writing Claire’s story, I knew that more than anything else I wanted to tell it as honestly as is possible. So I approached the play with this mindset: I’m not Claire, but what if I were? What would I do? How would I react? I had to become Claire, for just a little while, to properly tell her story. Hope she doesn’t mind.

11. How have people chiefly reacted to you personally about the possibly controversial aspect about writing about how homosexuality plays into a faithful Mormon like Claire’s narrative? Have you had any pushback in that regard, from either or both sides of the spectrum, or have people generally been appreciative of your compassionate, yet faithful approach?

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Little Happy Secrets 2013, Echo Theatre/Leilani Productions; photos by Jaron Hermansen

My favorite responses have been from people who told me quite frankly that they didn’t want to see the show, but got dragged to it anyway and are so glad they were. After the most recent production in February of this year, a fellow from a very conservative background told me it was the first time he felt empathy for a gay person. He found himself thinking about things differently than he ever had before, and that was pretty fantastic.

Yeah, that was a good day.

12. Who do you consider to be your main inspirations, artistically and personally?

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Little Happy Secrets 2013, Echo Theatre/Leilani Productions; photos by Jaron Hermansen

I will go to the theatre or the cinema and see something great—feel something great—and want to come home and start working right away. Sometimes that’ll happen after seeing something not so great too.

13. What’s next on the horizon for you? What are your plans and goals for the next number of years and what is already in the frying pan?

I’ve got a very crowded back burner. I’m working on a new piece inspired by an incredibly moving love letter; a drawing room comedy involving

a mummy; and a drama about Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. As I mentioned earlier, I want to do several pieces touching on Hawaiian history; first among those is a film about Ka‘iulani, the last princess of Hawai‘i. One of the projects I’m really excited about is an original television pilot, Hope Falls. I feel really good about how it’s starting to take shape. I also have several screenplays in various stages of completion. Anyone got a couple million dollars they can spare?

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Little Happy Secrets 2013, Echo Theatre/Leilani Productions; photos by Jaron Hermansen

14. How does your Mormonism inform your work? Where do you think that faith ought, and ought not, to be a part of a religious writer’s narrative?

Speaking for myself, I learn from example. Parable, metaphor, analogy. I don’t do well with being on the receiving end of a sermon. That preference permeates my work. Faith isn’t something that can be turned on and off on a whim. It’s part of you, and therefore seeps into your writing. I’m a fan of letting that happen naturally; it’s going to be more prominent in some pieces than in others, and that’s just fine. 

I’ll tell a religious writer to do what I would tell any other writer to do: be honest. Let the story speak for itself. Don’t sugarcoat, don’t apologize, don’t depend on shock value. Tell the story the way it needs to be told.

5 comments: ““I’m Addicted to Story”: An Interview with Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson

  1. Wm Morris

    QFT: “Let the story speak for itself. Don’t sugarcoat, don’t apologize, don’t depend on shock value.”

  2. Jonathan Langford

    Lovely interview. I look forward to reading and/or seeing more of your work!

  3. Th.

    .

    So many comments I want to make and I only have about three minutes. So:

    Barta’s great. Haven’t seen her in ten years and I’m sure she doesn’t remember me, but I certainly remember her. And I never even did theater with her.

    Inhabiting a character is incredibly personal. Hoping Claire doesn’t mind is proof of how well you built her.

    Grrrgh. So many cool things Mel’s doing or has done, but I have to jet. Leave it at: I’ll keep watching from afar.

  4. Mahonri Stewart Post author

    Barta is indeed a magnificent human being! I never attended BYU, but have had some personal interaction with her and always walk away from her feeling enriched by her beautiful spirit.

    And Claire does seem to live and breathe when you watch her in Little Happy Secrets.

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