2020-2021 Season,  Illusionary Tales

Interviews with the Playwrights

by Emily Trejo, dramaturg

All three plays were commissioned by the TMA department specifically for this fall virtual season. It has been a different experience getting these shows together. To get more insight on how these plays came to be, we took some of our burning questions to the playwrights.

Melissa Leilani Larson: Balete Drive

James Goldberg: Such a Time as This

Andrew Justvig: A Tell-Tale Heart


How did you get involved in working on this show?

Melissa Leilani Larson
James Goldberg
Andrew Justvig

M.L.LI’m a BYU alum and I’ve had several plays produced here, including a commission to adapt Pride and Prejudice. When the TMA department called me and asked if I’d be interested in participating, I jumped at the chance. 


J.G.Wade Hollingshaus reached out to me. I’d run the New Play Project, a theater company devoted to original work, about the time Wade came to BYU, so he knew my work. During the past decade, I’d switched to writing prose, but was happy to go back to my creative roots in theater for this project–especially when I found out that my work would be sharing a stage with a piece by Melissa Leilani Larson! 


A.J.-Out of the blue Professor Wade Hollingshaus told me about the project and I immediately jumped at the chance at working with the great faculty and students of BYU.


What got you interested in working on these projects?

M.L.LI’m fascinated with spooky stories; I both love and loathe the feeling of getting spooked by a great story. I haven’t really written anything scary before, so I saw a great opportunity to try with this piece. 

The story of La Llorona is heartbreaking at the same time that it is terrifying; it’s also very particular to Mexico and Mexican culture. I wanted to be faithful to the story and not appropriate it, so I decided to explore it through a multicultural lens and apply my own background and culture to the play. 

Growing up, my mom heard stories about Balete Drive—a real place, a haunted place in the Philippines. I thought it would be really interesting to look at the similarities and differences of these two stories and combine them to make something that was both new and yet the same. Since starting this project, I’ve thought a lot about how folklore adapts as it travels, and yet at its core remains the same. 


J.G.Wade proposed either doing something with a dybbuk or golem. I initially liked the idea of doing something with a dybbuk because of the show’s Halloween performance schedule.  

On the other hand, Wade and I had talked about how this show—where the mandate to use a Pepper’s Ghost effect was a response to the coronavirus pandemic–was also an opportunity to address other elements of the 2020 cultural moment we’re in. As a Mormon with strong Sikh and Jewish family roots, I feel strongly about the ways the stories we choose to cherish shape our world. I’m particularly aware of the power of religious storytelling. Religious stories have sustained people in times of trial. They’ve fueled movements for a better world.  

As I thought about the continuing threat of racist violence in this country during my lifetime, and the conversations people are currently trying to have about race, I recognized resonances with stories about the golem of Prague. My wife, Nicole Wilkes Goldberg, who’s co-written scholarly work on Jewish literature with me, helped me think through the possibilities. That’s when I really got excited. By the time I talked with the director assigned to the play I would write, I was ready to pitch a contemporary piece that tapped into golem legends.


A.J.– The one thing that excited me about joining this unique project is the use of Pepper’s Ghost. Pepper’s Ghost was a selling point for me because the whole faculty knew of my love for the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland where the Pepper’s Ghost effect is used. I was also surprised when I was told I would be working with source material from Edger Allan Poe because my strength is comedy and I had never attempted any horror. In fact, I hate horror, it scares the Dr. Pepper out of me. Interestingly, doing some of my own research of the Disneyland attraction, the Haunted Mansion was going to be based on some of Edger Allan Poe stories and that’s why you see a raven in the ride.


What are some challenges that you have had to overcome while writing a 10-minute play adaptation?

M.L.LI’d actually worked out a pretty complicated story in my head when I started writing—and I almost immediately ran out of time. Ha! I had to buckle down and think about what I wanted the audience to know and expect and ultimately feel, and then really focus the play in that direction.


J.G.The biggest challenge is not in any given writing project. The biggest challenge for a multicultural writer is sticking around over years, developing craft, when nobody is quite sure what to do with you and some people are actively hostile. 


A.J.– After many conversations it was agreed that we wanted to give the women some juicy, fun roles, so I wanted to come up with a story that was unique involving two women. Once I had the story, it was easy to write. However, a week before the script was due, I was informed that only one actor could be on stage and my first draft had two. It was a stressful week of trying to rewrite the story, but then it was suggested I just inverse the characters who were live actors to projections and vice versa. It was a very collaborative effort and in the end I hope we have a script that either scares people or makes them do a double-take.



  • pollyanna

    Can’t wait to see the show!
    I’m a big fan of Andrew Justvig … and can’t wait to see the other productions as well!
    Like Andrew, I LOVE Disneyland, especially the Haunted Mansion. Although I DO LOVE HORROR … or at least I LOVE HAVING THE PEPSI SCARED OUT OF ME 😉
    Looking forward to seeing the Pepper’s Ghost effect!

    • sgraham

      Thanks, Pollyanna! We can’t wait for everyone to see the show, either! And there will be a great chance to peek “behind the scenes” in between each performance, and we love to share more about the process of making theatre with our audiences. So enjoy having the “pepsi scared out of you,” and then enjoy seeing how we did it!

  • Ruth Eardley

    I think it’s really interesting that the playwrights were able to connect their source materials to their own lives and the current events of the world. Melissa said she grew up hearing about Balete Drive, James talks about his Sikh and Jewish roots and the current conversations about race, and Andrew was able to connect his source material to his favorite Disneyland ride. I just think it’s cool that all of them were able to take their source material and create a meaningful story with it by inserting their own personal experiences. I also like that they all saw the Pepper’s Ghost effect as an exciting addition to their stories rather than a setback.

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