Melissa Leilani Larson is enjoying a moment. She is the co-writer of “Freetown” which just finished its first weekend in limited US release. And the writer of the play “Pilot Program”, which plays at the Plan-B Theater Company in Salt Lake through April 19, 2015.
“Freetown” follows six missionaries as they navigate the complicated and perilous landscape of war-torn Liberia. The characters of “Pilot Program” are navigating a different kind of perilous landscape. The play explores the hypothetical of what would happen if the Church reinstituted polygamy. LDS.net had a chance to sit down with Melissa and ask about her new projects. Many plot details are discussed below.
LDS.net: Congratulations, with the premier of “Pilot Program”, and “Freetown”, this must be a very exciting time for you.
Melissa Leilani Larson: Thanks very much. It’s been a really exciting week. I’m going to have to adjust to going to back to real life.
Your two big projects right now are focused on LDS characters. What attracts you to LDS characters, and how does your approach writing them differ from other characters?
I don’t think my approach concerning LDS characters is different than any others. My primary concern with any character is honesty. I want them
all to exist—to be real, honest, and believable. Someone to whom an audience can relate. One of the best compliments I’ve received is when audience members tell me that they know someone like a character I’ve written.
I think it’s only right that we tell stories about ourselves.
I used to think that writing about LDS characters would narrow the scope of interest for my work. But through practice I’ve found that the specificity of exploring both LDS culture and the faith that serves as its foundation is really important.
Mormons are fascinating, both to ourselves and to people outside of our belief system. We get really sensitive about how we are portrayed, so I think it’s only right that we tell stories about ourselves. Mormons have great stories to tell, and staying truthful to that specificity makes things interesting and applicable for a more universal audience.
That being said, I have a lot of stories in me, and they aren’t all LDS. I do think LDS audiences will appreciate the things I’m trying to do, but not every play or film I write will be a specifically LDS story.
In both “Freetown” and “Pilot Program,” your characters are faced with very extreme tests to their faith. How much and in what ways do you feel your writing is influenced by the very public faith struggles some Latter-day Saints are facing?
Faith is hugely important to me personally. It is something that people of any background can understand. We all take leaps of faith every day, even if some are bigger than others. Working on “Freetown”, I was constantly amazed by what these young men went through; truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
My faith is a part of me, and it bleeds into everything I do
I was reminded throughout that process of how blessed I am and that trials are so very different for all of us. No, I don’t have rebels threatening me with guns. But I do have things I know I need to work through, things that can be hard in a soul-threatening way, if not a life-threatening way.
My faith is part of me, and it bleeds into everything I do. Several of my plays exist because my faith pushed me to ask difficult questions. The theatre is a safe place to ask questions about ourselves and explore avenues to be better human beings.
I want to focus on “Pilot Program.” The decision of the married couple Abby and Jacob to accept polygamy is made by the end of the first scene. Why not investigate further the drama of whether or not to accept the “pilot program”? What was the appeal of getting to the ramifications?
I think you could write a whole play just about the decision to jump in. Another writer might just do that. I was interested in charging ahead. And I think Abigail, as a character, needed to charge ahead or she might change her mind. I was more interested in exploring the ripples than in throwing the pebble in the pond. Abigail talks about going with her gut; I wanted to be true to that idea.
The subtitle of the play is “A supposition,” and the play very much exists as speculation about what you’ve described as a very remote possibility. How different was your experience writing in a completely hypothetical way, compared to your adaptations (“Freetown” from the true story, or your play adaptation of Pride and Prejudice)?
I have written a number of plays in historical contexts, including those you mention. With “Pilot Program,” I decided that to best understand and appreciate the topic, I needed to make it as relatable as possible. So I set up the hypothetical situation and asked what might happen if polygamy were in practice today or in the near future.
There is something freeing about the fact that “Pilot Program” is a completely original story. I don’t have source material to draw from, and I can take the story any way I want. The trick, though, is the simple fact that not every way will work. In building the world and introducing the characters, you need to be sure that everything is real and complete.
Really it’s a character study. To think about how these characters would deal with that situation so that we, as an audience, can also ponder the same question. The point is not to upset the apple cart, or disturb anyone’s faith. The point is to step outside of ourselves for a little bit and explore what it’s like to be someone else and to think about how that person’s experience compares to our own. We might all make different choices than Abigail and Jacob and Heather. I know I would. That’s just fine.
Abby very much is the driving force in her and Jacob accepting polygamy. She suggests they say yes, she suggests Heather as a possible second wife. How do you think the story would have worked if it had been the husband pushing to accept polygamy, and the wife willingly acquiescing?
I’m not sure. I know it would be a different play. It feels like that view of polygamy is a little more typical, and has been explored by other writers. I’m a feminist, and so is Abby; I knew the story was going to be told from her perspective and through her filter.
Jacob is not the kind of guy who would drive it. He was waiting and expecting Abby to say no. He’s not the right guy to push for it. He was enjoying the status quo. And it’s not that he’s hen-pecked;
not at all. Abby and Jacob are equal partners in their marriage. He trusts her implicitly and follows her lead, not because she is bossy and controlling, but because he has faith in her instinct. Almost like he has faith in her faith. That sounds strange, but it feels right.
Almost like he has faith in her faith. That sounds strange, but it feels right.
The real emotional heart of the story comes when Jacob and Heather leave for their honeymoon night, and Abby writes her blog post about catching the water dripping from the faucet and letting it slide down her finger. As a writer, how much of her reaction, is what your reaction would be? And how much is separate from you and specific to Abby’s character?
As a writer, I relate to the need to find an outlet. When I have found myself in upsetting circumstances, I often find myself trying to focus on something—anything nearby, really—that is beautiful. Sometimes it’s just tiny—the way the sunlight hits a wood panel floor so that it gleams, for example—and I think about how to describe it. It’s calming. Helps me to clear my head. So I suppose, yes—in that way, her reaction is my reaction.
Abby is an essayist; she teaches creative non-fiction. For her writing, seeks out the beauty of ordinary things: favorite books, leaky faucets, grocery shopping. The image of the faucet in particular is unexpected and stirring.
You’ve said that you find comfort that polygamy is in the past. So why disrupt that comfort? What value did the unpleasantness of the topic bring to you as a writer?
Drama is about conflict and relationships. You can’t have a play about the status quo. Good and perfect are boring on stage. We need to explore conflict both to raise interest and to stay invested.
While polygamy can be an unpleasant topic, it sure is a fascinating thing. Talk about conflict and relationships. Wow. It’s an incredibly rich chapter in LDS history. Part of that richness, though, is that the conflict at its core can be so troubling. We have, as a people, shied away from dramatizing it or even really talking about it much.
We can’t deny that polygamy happened. We owe it to ourselves and to the people who lived through it to do our best to understand it. How those saints lived and worked from day to day, and how polygamy changed and influenced them and their choices. Understanding it is key to appreciating what those saints went through more fully.
Yet at the end of the play, all of the characters seem to have accommodated the change, adapted to a polygamous life. Did your feelings about polygamy change as you wrote the play? If the Church did end up instituting polygamy do you think many people would adapt like your characters did, or do you feel they are unique?
Strong people find ways to make the best of things. They find a way to make it work. I don’t know that Abigail is fully happy, but she is always on the lookout for a way to deal.
Even in the most difficult relationships, there are moments of normalcy
Even in the most difficult of relationships, there are moments of normalcy: getting ready for work, tending a baby, sharing crossword puzzles. That’s a lesson I’ve learned in my own life. In days of both incredible highs or devastating lows, you still have to go through the motions of living. Sometimes the simplest things require the most work. You have to get up, you have to eat, you have to work, you have to find a way to function as a human being.
I don’t necessarily believe that Abby and Jacob have acclimated completely to the change their marriage affords, but I do think they are all coping as best they can. And in such a crazy situation, a little normalcy might just be the sweetest thing.
You seem to clearly have your finger on the pulse of what interests Latter-day Saints, so what can we expect from you next? What projects are you currently working on?
I have such a crowded back burner. I’m working on another play for Plan-B: The Edible Complex. It’s a short play for elementary school audiences, about a young girl asking questions about healthful eating and body image. I have a new play about a young mother in early 20th century Germany dealing with schizophrenia. A beautifully heartbreaking story. It will have a staged reading in Provo this summer, and I’m very excited about it. I love the novel Little Women, and I’m working on adapting it for the stage.
Melissa, thank you for taking the time, and best wishes on “Freetown” and “Pilot Program”!
Thanks so much for the opportunity, Christopher!