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?
Iâ€™ve been writing for as long as I can remember. Iâ€™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 distinctâ€¦ 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 themâ€”several strong female roles per play. Thatâ€™s the distinction to which I aspire.
After a half decade of delays, obstacles, research, and revising, I am so pleased that this behemoth is now ready to release onto an unsuspecting world! The plays it includes (from such Mormon Letters luminaries as Eric Samuelsen, Margaret Blair Young, Melissa Leilani Larson, Thomas F. Rogers, Susan E. Howe, James Arrington, Scott Bronson, Tim Slover, Robert Elliott, and Thom Duncan) have effected my life in profound ways and I hope other people will feel the same. They make up some of the finest accomplishments in the history of Mormon Drama. The volume is huge… nearly 700 pages. It has 11 plays, playwright biographies, and a 30+ page introduction on the history of Mormon drama. We’ve tried to be thorough, we’ve tried to give you something meaningful. I hope you’ll see why this is a project I thought was worth working and waiting for.
Saints on Stage is the most comprehensive and important work on Mormon drama ever published. This volume anthologizes some of Mormonism’s best plays from the last several decades, many of them published here for the first time. Several of these plays have won honors from institutions as varied as the Kennedy Center and the Association for Mormon Letters.
This volume includes historical backgrounds and playwright biographies, as well as an introduction that provides an extensive overview of Mormon drama. The following plays are included:
PRESS RELEASE: Zion Theatre Company celebrates Farewell to Edenâ€™s 10th Anniversary with a Production at the Echo Theatre.
Ten years ago, Farewell to Eden premiered at Utah Valley University. The student written show by Mahonri Stewart was a success, selling out its run, prompting enthusiastic reviews, and going on to win second place in the Kennedy Centerâ€™s American College Theatre Festivalâ€™s national playwriting award, as well as snagging a KCACTF National Selection Team Fellowship Award. The strong showing the play presented at the Festival prompted one of the judges, Gary Garrison, to say that the play was â€œthe most intelligently written play I have read [for the festival] in a decade.â€ For its ten year anniversary, Zion Theatre Company is remounting a production of the play directed by Ronnie Stringfellow on April 15-27.Â
Farewell to Eden takes place in Victorian England, circa 1840, and tells the story of Georgiana Highett and her siblings Thomas and Catherine, who have recently lost their father and are tasked with carrying on his legacy. When two men enter into Georgianaâ€™s life, including a childhood love from her past, life spirals into a web of complications and conflicts that have a dramatic build and a philosophical tension. Georgiana and her family are put in a place where they have to prove their mettle or fall, leading to a number of twists, turns, hilarious comedy, heart tugging romance, and intense drama.
Noel Miller and Ivy Worsham-Gambier in my play A Roof Overhead
Over the course of the past several months, Noel Miller and I have become good friends. We met at a party last Spring hosted by some mutual friends in the theater department (okay, so I was crashing their cast party for Sorry, We’re Closed…but I was invited by the playwright Cody Goulder!). Noel stood out to me. I felt like the Spirit was trying to tell me something about her, so I kept her on my radar.
Our next involvement with each other was when the above mentioned Cody cast her in staged reading of my play Evening Eucalyptus which was being put on for one of classes for one of my classes for the MFA in Dramatic Writing that I’m currently working on. Not only did she have the best Australian accent, which the play required, but she had an emotional resonance which was powerful in the role. I was impressed with her as an actress and as a person. Once again, I felt the Spirit attempt to tell me something about her.
When I found out that my play A Roof Overhead was accepted at part of the next 2012 season of ASU’s student theater Binary Theatre Company, Noel was one of the first people who came into my mind to invite to be a part of the production. At first it was as a lighting designer, since she had done an excellent job in that capacity in Cody’s play Sorry, We’re Closed, but having seeing her skills as an actress in the staged reading of Evening Eucalyptus, I felt prompted the following Fall to have her audition for an acting role instead …which became a rather providential move.
Noel rocked the audition and landed the lead role of Sam Forrest. In A Roof Overhead, the character of Sam is an atheist who moves into the basement apartment underneath a family of Mormons, the Fieldings. The conflict that ensues because of their clashing cultures and belief systems is the central obstacle in the play, as both sides make major mistakes and move towards understanding, tolerance and love. It turned out that casting Noel as the atheist Sam was a good bit of casting, as Noel was an ardent atheist herself and could very much relate to and convey Sam’s character from a very real, natural place. At one point during rehearsals Noel jokingly yelled at me, “Mahonri, stop writing what’s in my head!” It turns out Sam and Noel were working from very similar places. Continue reading “_A Roof Overhead’s_ Real Life Sam Forrest: The Baptism of Noel Miller”
I’ve written before about the once great status of Mormon theatre, and the infrastructure it once enjoyed. So I was pleased to find comments about the beginning of this infrastructure from Horace G. Whitney, longtime Deseret News editor-in-chief and the paper’s drama critic. In my opinion infrastructure, broadly conceived, accounts for much of what has happened in Mormon drama over the past century. Whitney, in the article below, describes a vision of how drama could operate under the MIA and ward amusement committees (which were roughly the equivalent of the recently disbanded ward activities committees, I assume).
NOTE: This was written for a final paper in my Dramatic Writing MFA Writer’s Workshop class where I was supposed to apply Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares to my ownÂ work. Thus the navel gazing…
In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a directorâ€™s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriterâ€™s point of view as well.
Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when Iâ€™ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays isâ€¦
In her book, Bogart states:
Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).