Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson brings the awkward to PILOT PROGRAM

MLL candidMelissa Leilani Larson makes her Plan-B debut with PILOT PROGRAM. An award-winning writer from Provo, Utah, her plays MARTYRS’ CROSSING (IRAM Best New Play) debuted at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (Association for Mormon Letters Drama award) enjoyed a sold-out run at Brigham Young University last March. Her screenplay FREETOWN, presently filming in Ghana, will be in cinemas in April 2015. Other plays include LITTLE HAPPY SECRETS (Association for Mormon Letters Drama award), A FLICKERING (Trustus Playwrights Festival finalist), STANDING STILL STANDING (Mayhew award), and LADY IN WAITING (Lewis National Playwriting Contest for Women winner). Dramatists Guild ambassador for Utah, BA in English from BYU, MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

I’m rather good at being awkward.

The other night I went to a screening of a film I worked on. It’s probably been one of the biggest things I’ve done so far, just by sheer audience size: 750 people saw that one screening. That’s more than whole runs of shows of plays I’ve produced. A little depressing if you think about it, actually—but amazing at the same time. After the film, the filmmakers moved to the lobby where a vinyl backdrop emblazoned with the film’s title had been set up. The producer, director, distributor, composer, and myself posed for photos in front of the title backdrop. Because everyone wants to get a photo taken with a first time screenwriter, right?

Melissa Leilani LarsonAt one point I stepped up to take a photo with the director—just him and me. We’re friends, so I didn’t have any qualms about giving him a hug or putting an arm around him for the photo, and I don’t think he did either. But as I stepped up to him I said, “Your wife isn’t going to mind, is she?” It was a lame attempt at a joke. Not only did it bomb, but it made everyone who heard it uncomfortable. Egad. And lucky director, I still put my arm around him and turned to smile for the smartphones. Not awkward at all, right?

This is what I do. I bring the awkward. I enter a perfectly pleasant situation and I spoil it with awkwardness—like spilling my root beer on the pizza, not the table. Being awkward myself, I’m especially attuned to sensing awkwardness in those around me. I watch for it, grab it up, and store it away for the winter.

April Fossen, Mark Fossen and Susanna Florence Risser, the cast of PILOT PROGRAM

April Fossen, Mark Fossen and Susanna Florence Risser, the cast of PILOT PROGRAM

Great comedy comes organically from tragedy. I’ve found that some of the best comic moments sneak up on audiences. A good laugh helps us step back and assess what we’re experiencing. Awkwardness makes for comedy we can all understand. It makes dramatic situations real and relatable.

As a single Mormon woman, the possibility of polygamy being restored to LDS practice is not something I want. Which is exactly why I told myself I needed to write about it. It’s a touchy subject; simply bringing it up makes a lot of people, myself included, uncomfortable. Knowing how difficult it can be to maintain a healthy relationship with one other person, how in the world do you manage it with more than one?
Polygamy is one of the most awkward relationships human beings have ever conceived. Just painful for everyone involved. It has to be. Plural wives arguing over evenly dividing one-on-one time with their husband? Ugh. Who holds hands in public? Do the kids call everyone Mom? What if one spouse walks in on the other two having sex? You can’t accuse anyone of doing anything untoward, but that doesn’t make the situation any more comfortable or keep feelings from being hurt.

PILOT PROGRAM is a supposition. An experiment I’ve built to examine how people react and interact within supremely difficult and awkward parameters. Plural marriage aside, life is not an easy thing, and we all have our ways of dealing with the awkward.

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. Click here to read her earlier blog post from when PILOT PROGRAM was first announced.

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