Mormon Artist

Melissa Leilani Larson

Melissa Leilani Larson is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter originally from Hau‘ula, Hawai‘i. She holds an MFA from The Iowa Playwrights Workshop and a BA in English from Brigham Young University. Her first commissioned piece, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, will premiere at BYU in March 2014. In April, Persuasion will open at The College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University in Minnesota. Utah Valley University presented Martyrs’ Crossing at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Little Happy Secrets was staged at Provo’s Echo Theatre earlier this year, where Mel will make her directorial debut next summer. Honors include: Association for Mormon Letters Drama award, Trustus Playwrights Festival finalist, IRAM Best New Play, Mayhew Award, and winner of both the LDS Film Festival Feature Writing Contest and the Lewis National Playwriting Contest for Women. Mel is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Website
Photo courtesy Nick Stone

How did you get into writing?

I was reading before I started school, inhaling stories. It simply made sense to write my own. When I was about eight or nine I started telling myself a story to fall asleep. It became a crazy-long, episodic adventure that spun out a little further each night before bed. This went on for years and years. Sometimes I still do it; I’ll lie in bed and whisper a story to myself to wind down.

What’s so intoxicating about stories?

Stories, like life, are about relationships. They allow us to see things from different perspectives, to gain empathy, to better understand each other. All that being said, I love language. I get giddy when I experience the music of a beautiful sentence. Word choice and syntax are powerful things.

Which writers make you giddiest with the beauty of their words?

Playwrights Helen Edmundson, Sarah Ruhl, Richard Greenberg, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Lillian Hellman, Oscar Wilde. Screenwriters Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Emma Thompson, Julian Fellowes, Joss Whedon. Novelists Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Louisa May Alcott, Robin McKinley, Neil Gaiman. Historian Antonia Fraser. Lyricists Stephen Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown, Lynn Ahrens. Poets T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop.

Wow. That’s a list, isn’t it? Not at all intimidating. It’s fair to say I collect writers. When I hear or read something that strikes me—even if it’s just a single line—I file it. Here is a monologue from one of my favorite plays, Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing:

We used to gather blackberries, way into the stumbling darkness. We didn’t care if our arms were scratched or even our faces. Little purple fingers in the leaves. Then sometimes in the summer, we’d go down to the river and collect wet pebbles on the shore. And we’d take them home and my mother would say, why do you bother with those things, they’re not pretty, they’re not shells. She didn’t know that every one was a tiny country or a town, depending on the size and the colour and the shape of the thing. Pocket size pieces of our country. And you could say, here, I’ll give you Mayo and I could say, here I’ll give you Meath and dream of a time when I would give you the whole world.

I read that and I get a chill. It’s poetic; it moves; it gives insight into the character; and, in the context of the scene, it serves a purpose—it’s not just pretty for the sake of being pretty. It’s glorious to read, yes; but then an actor takes it and raises it to another level, and your head explodes with awesomeness. Beautiful words in performance are just killer.

Photo courtesy Nick Stone

You just touched on part of this, but why do you write plays instead of, say, novels?

For the longest time I planned to write novels. I wrote all sorts of fiction throughout my academic career, from grade school through undergrad. It’s just what I always thought I was meant to do. One day, fall of my junior year of undergrad, I saw a poster advertising a playwriting contest. I thought, “Hey, I can write a play.” So I went home and did it. I finished a first draft in about two weeks. It was pretty terrible. There was potential in it, but I didn’t consider at the time just how limited my theatre experience was. I didn’t get the magic; I didn’t even think about it. So my senior year I took a playwriting class, and my life changed.

Now most of what I write is for stage and screen. A great play is literature; it’s just as enthralling to read as a book. But what rocks is that a play becomes something else entirely when you put it in the hands of a director. A team of designers. A cast of actors. Suddenly it lives and breathes. When performed, a play changes from a good read to a great experience. And every time a play is produced by a different company it’s a new show. A new cast, a new interpretation—it’s really pretty amazing.

I do come back to fiction now and again. Sometimes when I’m drafting a scene it doesn’t go the way I want it to. I’ll stop, take a breath, and write the scene as I would if it were intended to be in a novel. This helps me see the moment fresh and figure things out. When I’m working on a screenplay, transferring how a moment plays out in my head to the page almost feels like fiction. You’re painting a picture, creating a world. So narrative prose isn’t something I’ve given up. And if I were to say I had a novel or two on the back burner, well … that wouldn’t be a lie.

Image courtesy Jeff Blake

How do you see theatre and novels and other forms of story helping people become better disciples of Christ?

We all love to hear and tell stories; they keep us human. Christ himself is a wonderful storyteller. He understands and embraces the power of story—the power of example—because he knows us so well. He knows that life is about people making difficult decisions. Good stories are also about people making difficult decisions.

The theatre is a sacred space where lives can be changed. An audience comes in, sits down, and is transported to another time and place. With every play I write and produce, my hope is that it touches someone—even if it’s just one person—enough to think differently. To reconsider life and its many blessings. To want to be better. Composer George Friedrich Handel said, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.” Amen.

How do you do that? How do you write so that people’s lives change and they want to be better for having seen your play?

It begins with writing the best play you can. I want the quality of my work to stand on its own, because goodness invites goodness. The Spirit is present in the making and experiencing of great work, no matter the medium. If you are true to the story you are telling, and tell it as best you can, then the Spirit will fill in the blanks. The play will find who it needs to find, and do what it needs to do.

Respect your audience. Don’t sugarcoat, or condescend, or patronize. You can’t assume that your work is going to change anyone, or anything; I’ve made that mistake before, and the words came out false and stale. Hackneyed. It’s the wrong attitude—it’s prideful. I’m always on the watch for how a story can change me—can make me better—before I share it with anyone else.

Martyrs’ Crossing. Photo courtesy Lauren Laws

Let’s talk Martyrs’ Crossing. What drew you to Joan of Arc? Also, do you ever regret that apostrophe?

Oh, that apostrophe! I don’t regret it, not at all—because it’s correct. Three martyrs share a crossing. Not one martyr, but three. Hence the plural possessive. Gravy, though; a lot of people sure get it wrong.

I have been studying Joan for years and she still blows my mind. She is so many things that add up to awesome. Joan was a strong woman in a time when women weren’t supposed to be. She was illiterate, yet smart. She exercised personal revelation. She pretty much embodied the beginnings of French nationalism. Personally, I think Mormons should really get to know and appreciate Joan because she has so much in common with Joseph Smith. I emphasize those parallels in Martyrs’ Crossing.

The play, though, is really about Catherine. In the Catholic tradition, St. Catherine of Alexandria was an early Christian martyr who defied Roman rule. She was one of the voices who instructed Joan in her mission. While I was drafting, I realized that I could have not only a dead protagonist but a posthumous crisis of faith. The climax of the play is not about Joan’s impending death but about how Catherine deals with it.

We also have Margaret, another Christian martyr who visited Joan. Margaret is the letter of the law while Catherine is the spirit. Old Testament and New Testament. The senior companion, if you will. I set things up so that Margaret was Catherine’s spiritual guide during Catherine’s mortal life; now she’s advising Catherine as Catherine helps Joan. I think it works, but I’m biased.

Three martyrs. One apostrophe. Isn’t English fun?

A Flickering. Photo courtesy Jeff Blake

That it is. Now, you’ve got an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice being produced in the near future, right? When and where?

Yes! And I’m very excited about it. Brigham Young University gave me my first commission, requesting an adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I revised the first draft last fall in BYU’s writer/dramaturg/actor workshop, a course I co-taught with BYU playwriting chair George Nelson. Now a great production team is working on it, auditions are today, rehearsals will begin in January, and the show opens in March 2014.

I was very intimidated by the novel at first. It’s everyone’s favorite; that’s an awful lot of people to disappoint. But if I didn’t do it, someone else would, and I couldn’t just let it go. I came to trust both Jane and myself. There’s a reason it’s one of the best-selling books of all time; it’s so well built. Incredible characters in a very relatable story. I do think the script is true to the novel, but it’s also new and theatrical in the telling. Part of the challenge—and fun—of adapting an existent work is that you need to make it enjoyable for existing fans as well as newbies. I think audiences—Austen fans and otherwise—will enjoy it.

What was your process for adapting P&P? Has your method for adaptation changed at all over the years?

First I read the novel just to read it. I pick it up and, over the course of several days or weeks depending, simply enjoy it as any reader might. I get a really strong sense for the world and the characters, as well as what makes the book work.

Then I go back to Chapter One and begin again. This time, though, it’s much slower to get through, since I annotate as I go. I mark passages that are of import. Dialogue or narrative, it doesn’t matter; I highlight lines that reveal exposition or motivation or character. And, of course, I mark sentences and phrases that are just good.

Chapter by chapter, I go through and consider first which moments will absolutely need to be on stage, and which I will need to create from scratch to fill in the blanks. With the first draft, I stick pretty close to the chronology of the novel. I may fuss with the order later, but I start out assuming a chapter can equal a scene until I decide on a better way to break the story down.

Sometimes the hardest thing is to run into a moment or a line or an event that you love and think, “This is wonderful. But will the play work without it?” If you take the scene out and the play still works, then go it must. It may hurt to let that moment go, but you’ve got to. A playwright just has to be practical. You get to a point where you ask yourself, “Do we have time to do this?” Two minutes here and one minute there add up. A novel is enjoyed over days or weeks or months; usually with a play you have one shot, one two-hour window to tell the story well and completely.

Over the course of drafting the play, and even in rehearsal, I continue to revisit the novel. I think I’ve reread Pride something like a dozen times over the past eighteen months. It’s yet to get old.

Persuasion. Photo courtesy Melissa Leilani Larson

You’ve also adapted Persuasion. Are you planning to do any more of Jane’s books, or do you have other works in your sights? How do you decide whether to adapt a book?

I first adapted Persuasion because Barta Heiner, an acting professor at BYU, told me I should. It’s my favorite Austen novel, and one of my favorite novels generally, so I took Barta’s advice—an action I’ve yet to regret. It worked out nicely when BYU decided to produce Persuasion, because Barta was assigned to direct it. I admire her so much as a woman, as a Latter-day Saint, and as an artist; it was an incredible blessing not only to work with her again, but to have her bring my words to life.

When the opportunity arose to adapt Pride and Prejudice (Barta is on board to direct again, which thrills me) I couldn’t turn it down and a friend joked, “What, are you going to adapt them all?” And I thought, “Why not?” Austen’s stories are relatable and timeless; they translate well to the stage, and I like to think I have a knack for the language. Sounds like a win-win. Of course it’ll be a while before I can say I’ve done the whole canon—talk about intimidating!—but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

As far as adaptations go, I’m working on stage versions of Alcott’s Little Women, Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, and Gaskell’s North and South; the latter is a musical on which I’m collaborating with my good friend, gifted composer Julianna Boulter Blake. Another composer, the very talented Erica Glenn, has asked me to help with the script for her musical The Weaver of Raveloe, based on Eliot’s Silas Marner. I’m also working on securing the rights to adapt a more contemporary novel.

Choosing a novel to adapt comes down to the story; I get really wrapped up in the characters and want to see them live and breathe. Sometimes as I read I can imagine how a particular moment could be enacted, and how the world might translate to the stage. Film, as much as I love it, settles people into particular ideas and expectations about classic characters; I want to shake some of those ideas loose. I think my version of Pride does that, and that idea is a major impulse behind my plans for Little Women.

Some folks have made a point of asking why I’m doing so many adaptations. Why am I leaving so much of my own stuff by the wayside? Two things: first, it’s great to have people asking me to write things. It’s flattering, and it’s a career opportunity. I’ll be frank: I like getting paid. That being said, anything I write is mine. Part of adaptation is translation; you’re literally changing the form of the story so that it can be consumed in a different way. Adaptation is not easier than writing an original play; sometimes it’s quite tricky. I do have several original pieces in the works, though—don’t you worry.

What would you like to see happen in the Mormon theatre community?

Sometimes we see Mormons misrepresented in the art of others, and our first instinct is to complain. Thing is, we aren’t putting ourselves out there enough. If we want stories that are more true to us and our faith, we need to tell them. That being said, Mormons need to be more willing to let people see us as we truly are, warts and all. None of us are perfect; that’s why we’re here in the first place. And thank goodness we aren’t perfect, or else going to the theatre sure would be boring.

I want more Mormon theatre, and I want it to be real and brave. That’s not much to ask, is it?

Little Happy Secrets. Photo courtesy Jaron Hermansen

Speaking of real and brave Mormon theatre, let’s talk Little Happy Secrets. In your last Mormon Artist interview, the first production was still a few months off. Since then it has been produced several times and it won the 2009 Association for Mormon Letters Drama award. How has the audience reception been?

Since the first production, Little Happy Secrets has been produced at Southern Utah University and was invited to have a script-in-hand reading at Salt Lake Acting Company’s Fearless Fringe. I produced the most recent staging myself, with the help of a fabulous staff and cast at the Echo Theatre in Provo just this past February. There is also a podcast version available online.

Strangers have hugged me because of this play. I have received emails, both signed and unsigned, from people thanking me for bringing their story to light. The most surprising responses, though, are those that come from people who didn’t want to see the show initially. I’ve had people ask me, “I don’t want to see a play about that. Why should I?” But then they see it and say, “I didn’t want to come, but I’m really glad I did.” That’s a change, and it’s huge.

How does the gospel influence your writing?

The gospel shows up in my writing, sometimes more subtly than others. It’s been too significant a part of my life for me to deny it access to my work. The gospel is in me; it’s part of who I am and the life I’ve been given to live. I don’t necessarily draw attention to it in every story, but it’s always present.

I begin every writing session in prayer. Prayer doesn’t make writing easier; I still have to work hard to get the result I want. But prayer sharpens my focus. It inspires me. It makes my words mean much more than they would have without. Whatever talent I have comes from God, so it only makes sense that he knows best how to improve upon it. ❧

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