By Anne Flinders, dramaturg
Melissa Leilani Larson is the playwright of BYU’s 2014 production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mel. 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.
For you, what has the journey of this play entailed so far?
Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson
First thing, I went back to the novel. It had been a while since I had read Pride and Prejudice. So the first thing was to re-read the novel, and just read it. I didn’t take notes, I didn’t write any scenes. I was just a reader revisiting a favorite novel. Reading the book felt almost new. In spite of familiarity with the book and the many film and stage adaptations, there were moments in the novel that struck me as quite new and stunning. I realized there were indeed different ways I could approach the story and the characters.
So then I went through the novel again, this time armed with highlighters and notebooks. I plotted out the scenes that needed to happen on stage, and tore apart the narrative for dialogue and motivation. And I pounded out a draft over the summer.
The book is just massive, so the big challenge for me was streamlining. The essence of the story has to come out and be clear to people who know it as well as those who don’t. Is this just the story of Lizzy and Darcy falling in love? No. I really wanted to flesh out all the characters and make them real people. Jane, for example, I think gets boxed in as the “pretty one” in that cute “other” couple. Boo on that. I wanted Jane to have opinions, to state her mind, to make choices. I’ve tried to root all of the characters in a very real need; they all have goals and aspirations, obstacles and struggles. Yes, they are funny; but the humor comes out of the fact that these characters are human beings making choices.
In Fall 2012 BYU’s Writer/Dramaturg/Actor workshop worked on six plays, including this one. Workshopping a play as a series of readings with a cast is useful because I hear a variety of voices and get to experiment. The WDA semester culminated in a staged reading. Throughout the drafting process, I’ve had five readings—three with audiences and two without—to gauge the play’s progress.
When the play was selected for production, I met with the designers for their feedback. I consulted with the director and dramaturgs through the summer. More rewrites! I finished a draft for the production team in September, and another for the cast in January.
I love rehearsal. There is nothing quite like hearing actors speak your words aloud. I work closely with the director and smooth out the bumps: Is this line too difficult to say? Will this joke land? Does this make sense? A lot of problem solving happens in rehearsal.
The big challenge with this piece is streamlining. There’s a lot of plot, and we don’t have a 5-hour miniseries to tell it. The essence of the story has to come out and be clear to people who know it as well as those who don’t.
Has it always been writing plays for you?
All growing up and through undergrad, I knew I was going to be a writer. Originally I planned to be a novelist. I became a playwright by accident. One day I saw a poster in the JKHB offering a $500 prize for a playwriting contest. So I went home and wrote a play. The play was pretty awful and it didn’t win, but my life changed.
What lies in store?
Oh, goodness. I hope a lot of things. I have a lot of things in the works, a lot of stories I want to tell. I have a couple of original pieces I’m working on, as well as a couple of other adaptations I’ve been asked to write. (People are asking me to write things! Commissions! Woohoo!) I have a couple of screenplays—one is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It—that I would love to see made. I’m in the midst of drafting a television pilot, and I would like to go back to writing fiction someday.
I just want to keep making stuff, and hope that people keep coming to see it.
What is the most important message you want to share through Pride and Prejudice? What is the most important message you will take away?
Pride and Prejudice is about accepting people as they are, including ourselves, flaws and all. It’s about second chances—both giving and accepting them. It’s about not judging those around us. It’s about finding humor and beauty in things that are supposedly mundane. It’s about a lot of things.
My hope is always that people leave the theatre changed. If not better, at least more are more aware of the ways in which they could be better. Hmm. Maybe that’s what I just hope for myself.
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.