Melissa Leilani Larson
Melissa Leilani Larson is an American writer and playwright based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mormon literature critic Michael Austin described her as "one of the true rising stars of Mormon literature." Her plays commonly feature women in leading roles, and some center around the faith of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). She is the youngest person and first woman to receive three Association for Mormon Letters (AML) awards.
Early life and education
Larson is from Hau'ula, Hawaii. Her mother is Filipina and her father is of English and Swedish ancestry. Her family moved to Utah when she was twelve years old. She received a Bachelor's in English from Brigham Young University (BYU) and an MFA from The Iowa Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa. She names Helen Edmundson, Sarah Ruhl, Richard Greenberg, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Lillian Hellman, and Oscar Wilde as some of her favorite playwrights. Larson has contributed to LDS Church History's "Saints: The Standard of Truth".
Martyrs' Crossing, originally titled Angels Unaware, shows St. Catherine and St. Margaret influencing Joan of Arc through her resistance and martyrdom and was first produced in 2006 at BYU. Genelle Pugmire at Deseret News named it as the best production of the year. Fellow Utah playwright Mahonri Stewart wrote that while Larson beautifully emphasizes the humanity of Catholic saints, the chorus of historians is "redundant." He found the comparisons of Joan of Arc to Joseph Smith distracting.
Larson won the 2009 AML award for drama for Little Happy Secrets, a play about a faithful young LDS woman who develops romantic feelings for her female roommate. In the award, AML called the play "a celebration of heartbreak." In his blog, Brigham Young University English professor Gideon Burton described the play as "[making] the problem of same-sex attraction [...] normal, that is, as credible."
Larson's 2010 play A Flickering features a filmmaker and actress who are friends, and was set in the early 1900s during the silent film era. Critic Katie Roundy found the live piano music and title cards occasionally distracted from the main action, but that the play left her "wanting more." A Flickering was a Trustus Playwrights Festival finalist.
After a stage adaptation of Persuasion, BYU commissioned Larson's stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It won the 2014 AML award for drama, with the award text referring to the adaptation as "one of the most entertaining works by a Mormon playwright to date." Salt Lake City Weekly gave Pride and Prejudice a "Best Modern Jane" headline, stating that Larson's adaptation felt "fresh without resorting to gimmickry." At the Utah Theater Bloggers Association, the play was spotlighted in a 2014 roundup under "Excellent New Plays." Barta Heiner directed both plays.
Larson co-wrote a musical adaptation of Silas Marner called The Weaver of Raveloe in 2013, and the play was produced in 2014. She is part of the lab for playwrights at Plan-B Theatre, which she joined around 2013. Pilot Program was her first play shown there. Pilot Program centers around an imagined future where a faithful LDS couple is asked to practice polygamy. At The Utah Review, reviewer Les Roka described it as "a compelling tableau of social messages and contemplation of religious identity that resonates with the depth of exploration suggested in the works of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Gerhart Hauptmann." The play won AML's 2015 award for drama.
Larson's 2016 play The Edible Complex was written for elementary school students and has actors taking on the roles of Larson's favorite foods. The play addresses eating disorders. Sweetheart Come was a 2016 O'Neill National Playwrights Conference semifinalist. The University of Utah's Daily Utah Chronicle critic Palak Jayswal wrote that the play "encourages empathy while breaking the stigma about isolation and unhappiness." In City Weekly, Scott Renshaw called the play "a character study of mental illness," praising the play's unique set design, which used paper to outline and subvert the confines of the stage. Writing for The Utah Review, Les Roka described Larson's script as "a fascinating, cogent interpretation of Emma Hauck’s story."
Larson adapted Rabindranath Tagore's The Post Office for a theater collaboration between the Granite School District, Plan-B Theatre, Gandhi Alliance for Peace, and the United Nations Association of Utah. She adapted the play for modern audiences and made the original twelve-man cast more gender-diverse; in Larson's adaptation, the three main characters are female or non-binary and other characters are adaptable to any gender. The production's director sought specifically to involve refugee students. Roka wrote that Larson's script "flows with elegant, accessible symbolism."
Larson collaborated with Garrett Batty on the script for Freetown (2015), a movie about six Liberian LDS missionaries fleeing the country in the First Liberian Civil War. Freetown won the 2016 Utah Film Award for Best Feature Film and the 2015 Ghana Movie Award for Best Screenplay.
The film Jane and Emma (2018) focuses on the friendship between Jane Elizabeth Manning James and Emma Smith, examining racial issues in the early LDS church. It appeared on a list of films that fulfilled ReFrame's criteria for gender-balanced and racially diverse films. Sales from the film's opening night were matched by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' foundation and the Bonneville Charitable Foundation and given as a donation to the NAACP Salt Lake Branch. Larson studied the journals of both women while writing the script, and stated that the film is "not about preaching to people. It's about these two women and their relationship." Mariah Proctor at Meridian magazine wrote that the film "issues an invitation to a conversation" about the two women and their relationship to each other and the LDS Church. Fellow Plan-B playwright Eric Samuelsen reviewed the film in BYU Studies, writing that Larson's script "honors the history in which the story is rooted while fictionalizing when needed." Camlyn Giddins also reviewed the film in the same publication, noting that while the climax seems forced, the film encourages introspection. Jane and Emma won the Feature Film award at the LDS Film Festival, as well as the Audience Award in the same category. The film was also a finalist in the 2018 Narrative Film category at the Association for Mormon Letters.
Martyrs' Crossing was an IRAM Best New Play. Standing Still Standing won a Mayhew award. Lady in Waiting was the winner of the Lewis National Playwriting Contest for Women. Larson won the 2003 AML award for drama for Wake Me When It's Over.
Larson received the Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters in 2019. The award citation stated that Larson "offers herself as a witness to both the pain and faith of her fellow Saints when their obedience to God pushes them up against the limits of their endurance."
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- "Faculty and Staff". English: College of Humanities. Brigham Young University. Retrieved 14 October 2019.
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- Roundy, Katie (13 April 2010). "'A Flickering' inspired by early films". DeseretNews.com. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
- "Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson brings the awkward to PILOT PROGRAM". Plan-B Theater Company. 31 March 2015.
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- "Artys 2014". Salt Lake City Weekly. 10 September 2014.
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- Morris, William (28 May 2013). ""I'm Addicted to Story": An Interview with Playwright Melissa Leilani Larson". A Motley Vision.
- "World Premiere Of New Musical, The Weaver of Raveloe". MarketWatch.
- Mortensen, David (12 August 2014). "9 playwrights on The Lab at Plan-B Theatre Company". Utah Theatre Bloggers. Retrieved 31 July 2019.
- "About Us". Plan-B Theatre Company. Retrieved 14 October 2019.
- Roka, Les. "Plan-B Theatre's 'Pilot Program' brings polygamy forward in living room drama". The Utah Review. Retrieved 31 July 2019.
- Hall, Andrew (5 March 2016). "2015 AML Award Winners". Dawning of a Brighter Day. Association For Mormon Letters.
- "Ten Foods I Like An Awful Lot: Melissa Leilani Larson's THE EDIBLE COMPLEX opens October 8 | Plan-B Theatre Company". Plan-B Theater Company. 2 September 2016.
- Clements, Derrick (20 May 2016). "10 day-trip-worthy Utah productions still coming in 2016". Daily Herald.
- Jayswal, Palak (3 May 2019). "'Sweetheart Come' Concludes Pygmalion's Season with a Fresh Perspective". Daily Utah Chronicle.
- Renshaw, Scott (6 May 2019). "Theater Review: Pygmalion Theatre Co.'s "Sweetheart Come"". Salt Lake City Weekly. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
- Roka, Les (10 May 2019). "Two spring premieres: PYGmalion Theatre Company's Sweetheart Come by Melissa Leilani Larson; Efren Corado's Dust. Breath. Place. for RDT Link | The Utah Review". The Utah Review. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
- Roka, Les. "Impressive late summer entertainment with The Post Office, Rose Exposed". The Utah Review. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
- Roka, Les. "The Post Office set to premiere in conjunction with Rose Exposed; companion piece to upcoming UN Civil Society Conference in SLC | The Utah Review". The Utah Review.
- Hirschi, Julie (18 August 2019). "This 1912 play once comforted children facing death. Now Utah students will perform a new adaptation". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
- Pugmire, Genelle (11 May 2016). "Mormon movie collaborators to speak at LDS History Museum event". Daily Herald.
- Larson, Melissa Leilani. "Freetown". Melissa Leilani Larson.
- "2016 Winners". The Utah Film Festival.
- Harris, Sarah (11 October 2018). "'Jane and Emma' takes 'beautiful look at friendship'". Daily Herald. Retrieved 31 July 2019.
- Stack, Peggy Fletcher (30 August 2018). "Utah film about Mormon heroines Emma Smith and Jane Manning James gains Hollywood honor for its gender balance and racial diversity". The Salt Lake Tribune.
- Gardiner, Emmy (11 October 2018). "'Jane and Emma' opening day ticket proceeds will be matched with donation to NAACP". DeseretNews.com. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
- Mikita, Carol (12 October 2018). "Women Behind 'Jane And Emma' Reflect On Bringing History To Life". KSLTV.com. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
- Proctor, Mariah (11 October 2018). "'Jane and Emma' Adds Human Dimension to Our Picture of Church History". LDS Magazine.
- Samuelsen, Eric (2018). "Jane and Emma". BYU Studies. 57 (4).
- Giddins, Camlyn (2018). "Jane and Emma". BYU Studies. 57 (4).
- "LDS Film Festival 2019 WINNERS". ldsfilmfest.com.
- "2018 AML Award Winners". Dawning of a Brighter Day. 31 March 2019.
- "AML Awards 2002 – 2003". Dawning of a Brighter Day. Association For Mormon Letters.
- "Little Happy Secrets". Melissa Leilani Larson. Melissa Leilani Larson.