I met Melissa Leilani Larson in 2000 at BYU. I was enrolled in a class called WDA (writers, directors, actors) and Melissa was one of three playwrights (or screenwriters) selected to workshop a piece that they had in process. Every week each writer would bring in revisions in response to the feedback she or he had received the previous week from the professors and other participants in the workshop.
I liked her play immediately. The first things that struck me about Mel was that her writing was consistently natural and easy, though her subject matter varied widely. The second thing that struck me was how prolific she was. While other writers would come in with small, sometimes inconsequential changes of grammar or syntax, unwilling to make major changes or let go of clever bits that didn’t really serve the story, Mel would come in with pages and pages. She was quick to evaluate critique and then was able to revise and revamp, accepting feedback but also maintaining the integrity of her own idea and voice.
We developed a natural friendship and I immediately looked forward to being in a full production of one of her plays. I have been to productions of many of her plays as well as many readings in New York, Provo and Salt Lake (one inspired by a request I made that she write a play about Joan of Arc). However, because of consistent life events, moves, grad school (for both of us) and other near misses, the timing never worked.
My oldest son, Van, was born in 2008 while my husband and I were living in New York. Two years later we moved to Northern California and had twin girls, Josephine and Cordelia. We stayed there for almost four years and had another little boy, August. Melissa and I had stayed in contact through the years, but I had was so busy running my three-ring circus that I had basically retired from acting. In 2013, my husband took a job transfer that brought us to Salt Lake, and shortly after moving here I saw a lovely production of her play LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS in Provo. I started wondering if maybe it was finally time to be in one of her plays.
A few months later, Melissa introduced me to Jerry Rapier and asked me to participate in an early reading of PILOT PROGRAM for The Lab at Plan-B. When she described the play I was intrigued. It was before the recent marriage equality rulings, but there was already a healthy public discussion about the implications of marriage equality and I heard many discussions in which people said things like, “if they legalize gay marriage, then what would prevent them from legalizing polygamy?” Which was always followed by statements of certainty that that would never happen. Happily, marriage equality has been sustained, and although there has been no mention of reinstating polygamy, the question remains, “What if?”
When I describe the play to people, I tell them the basic premise. It’s 2019, and the LDS Church has decided to reinstate the practice of polygamy, and this couple Abby and Jacob are called to participate. Depending on who is asking, I will tell varying details about how the story develops. But I always include my opinion that Mel does a wonderful job being non-judgemental. She doesn’t set out to condemn the practice. She tries to take an honest look at some of the possible dynamics in such a situation. It’s really a lovely play with very human interaction in circumstances difficult for many of us to imagine.
I am thrilled that 15 years into our friendship, I am finally in a production of one of Mel’s plays. I am even more thrilled that it is one produced by Plan-B. I remember hearing classmates in college talk about why they wanted to become actors. Many of them, steeped in theater history and dramatic lit classes, would talk about the revolutionary impact theatre can have. They would talk about telling important stories to promote social and political change. While there is value in just telling wonderful stories, and sharing a beautiful theatrical experience, it is incredibly exciting to be part of plays that encourage social discussion and critical thought. I admire the commitment Plan-B has to doing just that, and I think Mel’s voice and nuanced writing style are conducive to that discussion.
Melissa Leilani Larson’s PILOT PROGRAM receives its world premiere at Plan-B April 9-19, featuring April Fossen, Mark Fossen and Susanna Florence Risser, directed by Jerry Rapier. Click here for more information and tickets.