Earlier this year BCC Press published Third Wheel: Plays by Melissa Leilani Larson. Subtitled “Peculiar Stories of Women in Love”, the book collects two of Larson’s most Mormon, most interesting and provocative plays Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program. Not only is it worth picking up (in electronic or print form–or both!), it also makes for a great excuse for me to pick Mel’s brain. This is our conversation:
There are so many places I feel like I could start, but let’s start here: did you learn something by putting these two plays together in this particular context–a book published by a Mormon publisher meant for reading as a book? Or were those things already there when you went to write Pilot Program because of what you learned writing Little Happy Secrets? I’m thinking about theme and plot and characters here, but also things like form (the monologues, the silences) and voice and conceit (third wheel!).
It’s a good question. I did intend for the plays to go together stylistically. When I started writing Little Happy Secrets, it was very much an experiment. I was trying to be as honest as possible in telling Claire’s story, and the character became very real to me. Somewhere in that first weekend I realized she had to give permission for the story to be told, which is how she ended up actually doing the telling. I usually avoid narrators, but Claire had to tell this story—because she had reached that place in the world of the play, and because it would help us as an audience to accept it.
When I first began drafting Pilot Program, there was a correlation, but it started in a different place. As a single woman, I was thinking about Heather’s role in the marriage. But as I started writing, I realized it was Abigail’s play. It’s a play about being married and then single, not the other way round. Abigail, like Claire, had to sign off on things. She had to talk to me. Breaking the fourth wall would allow Abigail to say things to us she might not otherwise. Almost like a confessional, but without touching on sin. Abigail, like Claire, is at a place where she can tell us what her life has been like.
So there are similarities in tone, in format, and in theme. I think of the plays as a duet; they complement each other. The “third wheel” conceit came naturally into the conversation, as both women identify with the idea and comment on it. Eventually I would like there to be a third and final play in the trilogy, aptly named Third Wheel. It’s about being a single woman in a culture of marriage, and will be told in the same style as the other two—a mix of monologue and scene. It’s the bridge between the other two and, also like the other two, it’s a story we don’t always acknowledge within Mormon culture.
That makes sense. One of the things I discovered when collecting my short stories together is that it was quite clear they were by the same author even though there was some variation of situation and structure. Of course, my stories stay on a page. I’m both fascinated by and a little scared of the whole process of staging a play. Would you be willing to share a moment or two from the rehearsal and staging of one or both of the plays in Third Wheel that spoke to you in some way?
I love being in rehearsal. It’s where I know that the words on the page are in the right order because I get to hear actors bring them to life. I’ve always been rather amazed at how naturally actors take the words from the page and made them their own. For example, the actors cast in Pilot Program at Plan-B Theatre Company were all so comfortable with each other, and with Jerry (the director) and with the script. They inhabited the story and let it unfold organically (it’s a word that gets overused in the theatre world, but really it’s the best choice). I remember feeling a little guilty because there was a scene I added after we settled on the cast. As Heather, Susanna Florence was playing her first role at Plan-B while April and Mark Fossen, playing Abigail and Jacob, have been staples at Plan-B for years. April and Mark are married in real life and were playing a married couple—married to each other, anyway—f or the first time. So there were a lot of ways in which Susanna was the outsider, just like Heather is. And I wrote this scene that is basically Abigail walking in on her husband making out with his second wife. I felt bad, like I was piling stuff on April (I guess I didn’t feel bad enough, because I left the scene in). Naturally April is a professional and took what I gave her in stride. But they were all so good at filling those roles that I sometimes had to remind myself they were acting. Hence the guilt.
Ah. That’s interesting. Taking that back into the work itself–what is it about the experience of the modern Mormon woman (especially single woman) that feels so urgent and rich and dangerous and interesting as a subject for narrative art? I’ve tried writing characters that fit that profile myself and done so with mixed feelings because I’m outside or adjacent to that experience but at the same time want more of those stories. Perhaps it’s as simple (and somewhat condescending, to be honest) as feeling sympathetic towards single Mormon women, but I’m sure there’s also a bit of that artistic selfishness of just: hey, this is an interesting position to be in that if explored could say something unique about the Mormon experience.
I think it’s a point-of-view that seems simple and easily understood from the outset. “Hey, in this faith it’s important to be married, but here is a person who is single.” And it is that. But at the same time, it’s not.
Recently I was working on a project and getting feedback from others on the team. I had written a scene in which the main character, who is single, sees a couple steal a romantic moment. In that moment she realizes that they have something she doesn’t, and that she may never have, and that is heartbreaking to her. The moment happens very quickly; we don’t dwell on it, we just go on. But it affects who she is as a person.
That day, in the feedback session, the responses were like, “This moment is unnecessary. Why do we have it? It’s kind of creepy that she’s watching them. Nothing is happening. This character is weird and voyeuristic. Who cares?” I realized, looking around the room, that I was the only single person there. Everyone was married, and none of them got the point of the scene because none of them felt the same sense of loss. I think they would if they saw it, but they didn’t get it on the page. The point of the moment was like what happened to me in that room: the character realized she was expected to be paired with someone but she wasn’t. In our culture, everyone talks about how great marriage is and how important it is. How you need it to get to the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. But there are good people who just aren’t married. They aren’t weird or voyeuristic or creepy. They are—we are—unattached, and that’s just the way things are.
Another quick experience. A few months back the podcast The Cultural Hall had an episode about mid-singles. I was so excited to listen. What were they going to discuss? But the whole episode was about dating. Because that’s all singles and mid-singles are supposed to be doing? Ugh. What about what the Church and its married members are supposed to be doing in regard to single members? No, it all comes back to marriage. Thing is, I don’t need other people to tell me I should be married. I am well aware.
We all have moments in our lives when we think about what’s missing—what we’re doing wrong in this life that will keep us from ultimately getting where we want to be.
We definitely do. That actually relates well to something else I wanted to ask: in his introduction to Third Wheel, Eric Samuelsen coins a phrase that I found very interesting. Speaking about your stage managing, in particular, he says that you possess a “formidable omnicompetence”. Do you have any sense of where that came from? Do you experience that as a gift or a curse? I’m asking this strictly out of self-interest, by the way, because while I’m not sure about the formidable, I’ve found in my work and church career that being competent at a lot of things often just means that you are expected to do more things and be competent at all things and that’s both gratifying and frustrating. And this is especially true when you’re trying to figure out how and when to also make art.
To be honest, I don’t think that term applies to me in any context but a theatrical one. Stage management is an all-encompassing job, which is part of the reason I had to give it up; I love it, but I didn’t have enough time to write. If I ever had the “omnicompetence” Eric mentions, I don’t think I have it anymore. Culturally, as Mormons, I think it could be equated with the things you mention—expectations, and how they tend to stack up before we can really catch up. As a people, we’re obsessed with perfection even though we know it’s not possible—at least not at this point in our existence. I try not to think too much about expectations; I disappoint myself before anyone else gets the chance.
I can relate to that. The weird thing about expectations–especially in relation to Mormon culture and the arts–is that there are none in terms of being an artist. But the if you do tackle the challenge of being an artist in Zion, there are a ton of (often competing) expectations. We could chat in depth about that, I’m sure, but I’m thinking now about expectations people might have about you and your work, and, not to be Captain Obvious, but I’m going to bring up Jane Austen. Everybody knows you’re the go-to for adaptation of her work (and if they don’t know, they should know). I want to ask about you as a reader of Austen: what do you go to certain Austen novels for and how has that changed over the years? For example, in my early twenties I went to Emma because of Mr. Knightley. Because, I suppose, I wanted to learn to be the mature romantic hero who attracts the bright young thing. Now, I’m more interested in Emma and who she is and what she wants and why.
Sense and Sensibility was my gateway drug to Austen. I remember reading Pride and Prejudice the first time because someone recommended it, but I set myself up to not like it because that friend was so insistent. I read it, and it was fine. I don’t think I even found it very funny. In undergrad, I read Sense and Sensibility and I got it. I related to Elinor in a way I hadn’t related to a character in a long time. She was trying so hard to do the right thing, to do what was expected and to figure things out—she thought she had to sacrifice her relationship with Edward because it’s the proper thing to do where honor is involved. And then I saw the 1995 film adaptation, and it blew my mind. 1995 was a big year for Austen: Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, Clueless, the Amanda Root Persuasion, and of course the BBC Pride and Prejudice (which I didn’t see then, because we didn’t have cable).
I watch Sense and Sensibility at least once a year because the story is so great and the film is just brilliant. Eventually I figured out that Pride and Prejudice is funny and that Persuasion is heartbreaking. Sense and Sensibility falls somewhere in between. I love them all for different reasons, I think. I re-read Persuasion frequently because the prose is quietly beautiful. Plot-wise, I love both Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility because you don’t really know where they’re going to end up; they both have moments where you think everything is going the way of tragedy. That’s a sign of greatness—when a writer can make you wonder what’s going to happen, honestly make you wonder, with just the right level of frustration.
I used to go back to Sense for the romance, but lately I’ve been going back for the family relationships. People accuse Austen of sameness, but I find that ridiculous. I look at all of the families she portrays across her novels, and they are all different and complex and human. Really there are so many different family groups in Sense, and those families affect who the characters are and the choices that they make. The last several times I’ve gone back to Pride (including to adapt it) have been to study Darcy, actually. I wanted to figure out why so many people are so obsessed with him as a character. As much as I love the book, I think a lot of the obsession comes down to Colin Firth. It’s interesting that we can’t seem to separate novels from their adaptations. Of course, that’s a discussion for another day. Though there is a lot about him to like, I don’t personally see Darcy as the perfect romantic hero. Now, Colonel Brandon or Captain Wentworth… Ah, choices.
Speaking of choices (and good ones at that): you know we have to talk about food at some point here. What are some of your go-to food rewards after you finish a first draft or on opening night, etc.?
It’s so true. I love food so much I wrote a play about it. If we’re celebrating and being fancy, I could do with filet mignon, medium rare, with mashed potatoes and garlic butter. On an opening night, I’m usually too nervous to do dinner before the show but I’m ravenous afterward. That’s usually a cheeseburger and milkshake situation. Sushi is great. Fish and chips! Biscuits and gravy. Schnitzel! Chicken tamales. Num. Look, writing is hard and deserves a reward. I should get all the foods. Plus an ice-cold Coke.
You’ll get no argument from me on food-based rewards for writing. There’s something about the emptying out of the mind and soul that is the writing process, and the subsequent buzz after you’ve put in that mental and emotional work that demands reconnecting with the body through food. I mean, I never need an excuse for all the foods, but I am often famished after a writing session.
Based on your tweeting at certain times of the year, you have a fondness for college football. Competitive sports are great, right? I mention this because sometimes people are surprised to discover how much into sports I am. But writers can (and do) like sports that aren’t baseball! So what do you like about sports and do you see any intersections between that fandom/experience and your interest and participation in narrative art, especially theater?
College football is a pageant of sorts. The players are out there to put on a show. What matters is what the ref sees. A receiver will move his body in such a way that pass interference gets called on the defender, even though nothing happened. An offensive lineman will trash-talk the defense, trying to goad them into jumping the line. It’s all a show.
It’s fascinating how football can sometimes take you completely by surprise. Two teams will meet, and everyone seems so certain that one team will win, which makes the upset that much sweeter. So much can hang on a single play—sometimes that play is executed perfectly, and sometimes it isn’t. An intense game can make my breath catch in my throat, just like well-acted Chekhov. How will it end? That’s the question—in sports and in drama. I love the Olympics for similar reasons. Human effort. Human drama. It comes down to inches and seconds. Being in the right place at the right time, or the opposite. NBC tends to lay it on a little thick, both with the human interest and the spoilers, but I can’t turn it off. There is something epic and beautiful about sports that aligns rather perfectly with the stories we enact on stage.
Agreed! The NBA has been my favorite soap opera for three or four seasons now. And it just keeps getting better (and weirder!). I’ve pretty much stuck to fiction in my writing; whereas, you’ve worked across several different narrative arts. What art form/mediums and/or subjects would you like the opportunity to tackle that you haven’t yet?
I would love, love, love to write for television. Television drama right now is very cinematic as far as design, direction, and cinematography go. At the same time, TV writing is actually very close to playwriting; it depends on dialogue, and a lot of it—much more so than your typical film. You have fewer scenes in TV than you do in film, and yet you have more time to explore characters. You get to know a character over several scenes, perhaps even over a number of episodes, which is closer to what happens in plays than in film. The possibility to tell a story serially over a series of episodes is just so cool. There is so much you can do in TV that you can’t really do with any other form of storytelling. I have a couple of ideas for pilots and series. Who’s got several million dollars they can loan me?
I would also like to write a novel. I have a couple of YA novels that I started way back when that was the thing I was going to do with my life.
As far as genre goes, I’m presently writing a Western, which was a bit unexpected. I would love to do something creepy on stage. A ghost story. Ooh. I think I just gave myself a chill.
Sadly, I don’t have a million dollars to loan you, but if you get it, I’d be happy to write a spec script and apply to be in the writer’s room. Oh, something else I’m curious about: are you a listen to music while you write person or not? If so, what parameters do you require? If not, why not?
Typically I don’t listen to music while I’m working because I’m easily distracted. Music is an emotional experience for me. I want to pay attention to it. I can’t seem to listen to music without getting caught up in it, and then no writing happens, because the writing is where my focus is supposed to be. That said, it can depend on where I am in the process. When I’m trying to figure out a character, I often will make her a playlist—not necessarily songs she would listen to, but songs that fit her and help explain her. If I do listen to music while I’m writing, it’s instrumental. Usually classical.
Give me three inks that fountain pen or calligraphy neophytes should try. Also: what are the colors you’re currently obsessed with and/or have an eye on?
For the neophytes, I would recommend:
- Waterman Inspired Blue, a beautiful turquoise with some surprising pink shading. Waterman is a classic brand, and you can use it in just about any pen without problems. I love turquoise ink; it’s probably my favorite color family as far as ink goes. I have a range of them, some leaning more green and others more blue.
- Robert Oster Dark Chocolate, a perfectly named ink. Somewhere between burgundy and brown. Just pretty. And dressy enough that you could away with using it at work. Robert Oster is a new ink maker from Australia who comes out with new colors all the time. Great stuff.
- Diamine Oxford Blue, classic and classy, a dark and intense blue.
As for the ones I’ve been playing with myself, Diamine Blood Orange is an intense red/orange I just discovered and like a lot. I have been playing with Japanese inks lately and enjoying them immensely. Examples: Sailor Jentle Yama-Dori (“copper pheasant teal”) and Pilot Iroshizuku Yama-budo (“crimson glory vine”). Even the names are great. I’m not a fan of black inks; I know they are practical, but they are also boring. I do, however, enjoy grey inks; they have a lot more going on. My favorite grey at the moment is Papier Plume Oyster Grey, handmade in the shop that sells it—a stationary shop in New Orleans.
Going back to your question about getting myself a reward for finishing something—I get myself a fountain pen as a present when I have a show or a film open. It’s really something to look at a pen later and remember the stories that go with it.
That sounds very cool–and dangerous. I think I’ll stick to food for now, although I find the fountain pen life very tempting. Okay, final question: what creative works–theater or not, Mormon or not–are you finding particularly interesting, powerful, etc. right now?
The recent film Jackie is pretty fantastic. It’s a very thoughtful portrait of Jackie Kennedy; it’s also an incredible and compassionate portrayal of a woman in mourning. The shots are beautiful, and Natalie Portman’s performance is stellar. It kind of blew my mind. I had never thought of the parallels between Jackie Kennedy and Emma Hale Smith, but they hit me hard watching that film. I’m working on a piece right now in which Emma deals with the trauma of her husband’s death, and seeing Jackie was a timely and beautiful experience.
I’m a subscriber to NT Live, which is a really great service that screens performances from London’s National Theatre to movie theaters around the world. I go about once a month and the productions are almost always fantastic. The Bristol Vic did a wonderfully theatrical retelling of Jane Eyre that has just stayed with me. It was a simple show, with a few actors who each played multiple roles and a set that was basically a ramp with a few choice pieces of furniture. There was a live band, and the accompaniment really added a lot to the performance. The dialogue was lean and to the point, and yet the story was perfectly clear to those who had no experience with the novel. The emotion between the characters was palpable even though I was watching it several thousand miles away. Wow. It’s the kind of stuff I want to be making. Just beautiful.