By Anne Flinders, dramaturg
Melissa Leilani Larson is the playwright of BYU’s 2014 production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I had the opportunity to ask Mel a few questions about herself. I want to share a little of what I learned about her with you. [The following is Part I of a two-part interview.]
Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from? What brought you to Utah?
I was born and raised on the North Shore of O’ahu in Hawai’i. My family moved to Utah just before my thirteenth birthday. My parents live in Provo; my sister and her husband just built a new house in Draper. I also have two aunts and several cousins who are in Provo. I went to high school in Orem and then did my BA in English at BYU. I started studying theatre in the MA program, but ultimately earned my MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.
How did you get back to Provo and BYU at this time?
After three years in the Midwest I came back to Provo to work and teach. For the past few years I have taught theatre courses at BYU and UVU. My current day job is as a content specialist/writer for a tech support company; I do theatre and film craziness for fun nights and weekends.
Why Pride and Prejudice?
I’ll be honest: I didn’t want to touch Pride and Prejudice with a 10-foot pole. I found it incredibly intimidating. Yes, I adapted Persuasion, but that had been a personal challenge: Persuasion is my personal favorite of Austen’s canon, and at that point I had not done an adaptation, so doing it was very different than anything I had done before; it is also lesser known. Persuasion has enjoyed several successful productions, including one at BYU, and there is one coming up in Minnesota in April. As a result of that success, BYU commissioned me to adapt Pride and Prejudice.
How did you feel about taking on that project?
Naturally I was terrified. Pride and Prejudice is by far the most popular of Austen’s novels. It has been adapted the most, for stage and film. As a struggling playwright, what could I possibly bring to the table? It’s no exaggeration to describe the book and its many dramatic iterations as beloved. It’s arguably the most popular novel ever written in English. Egad! How’s that for pressure? On top of all that, Austen fans are not terribly forgiving. They love the characters, they love the stories. What happens if I “get it wrong”? Can my fragile ego take it if the Jane-ites don’t like my spin on the story?
[Interviewer’s note: “Jane-ites” are the Jane Austen super-fans. They are notorious for their meticulous admiration of Austen’s novels.]
That being said, some of the greatest things I’ve done as a writer have come out of projects that were, well, terrifying. Stories I’ve had to confront and wrestle and overcome. Yes, I was intimidated by the project. But if I didn’t do it—well, someone else would, and I would regret letting Jane get the best of me. I would have been disappointed in myself for giving up—and why? Because everyone loves this book? Well, so do I. Who’s to say I can’t put it on stage? Now, just about two years since beginning the process, I can say with confidence I’m pleased with what I’ve done, and I think the Jane-ites may be, too.
Why is now the “time” to do Pride and Prejudice?
Pride and Prejudice is good for us now because it’s always good. Austen’s novels are so specific in their time and place that they have become timeless. They are character-driven, realistic, and relatable. Yes, Elizabeth and Darcy eventually finding each other is beautiful because of the language Austen employs to tell it; but also because it’s full of truth. They stumble, they judge, they make mistakes, and ultimately they learn. Lizzy and Darcy speak and act honestly, and never out of step with who they are as people. Miss Austen rocks at follow-through.
[Be sure to check back for the second part of the interview with Melissa Leilani Larson. We’ll learn about what goes into writing a new play, about the process by which this new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice came from the pen of the playwright.]
Melissa Leilani Larson is an award-winning writer whose work has been produced all over the country. Awards and honors include KC/ACTF Meritorious Achievement, Trustus Playwrights Festival Finalist, Lewis National Women’s Playwriting award, Mayhew Playwriting award, LDS Film Festival Feature Writing award, and the Association for Mormon Letters Drama Award. Pride and Prejudice is her fifth BYU production after Lady in Waiting, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Martyrs’ Crossing (produced under the title Angels Unaware), and Persuasion. Mel holds a BA in English from BYU and an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. She is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.