Melissa Leilani Larson: Mormon Playwright
Melissa Leilani Larson is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. She is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Larson was raised in Hau‘ula, Hawai‘i. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Brigham Young University and her master’s of fine arts from The Iowa Playwrights Workshop. Throughout college, she wrote novels, but when she saw a poster for a playwriting contest, she decided to enter it and later took a playwriting class.
Her plays include The Church of St. Pinky at Katy, Texas; A Flickering, Lady in Waiting; Little Happy Secrets (which won the 2009 Association for Mormon Letters Drama award and is included in the anthology Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project); Martyrs’ Crossing (which won the IRAM award for Best New Play and is included in the anthology Saints on Stage); Persuasion (adapted from the Jane Austen novel); Pride and Prejudice (adapted from the Jane Austen novel and commissioned by BYU); Standing Still Standing (winner of the 2002 Vera Hinckley Mayhew award, AML honorable mention in drama, and winner of the LDS Film Festival Screenwriting contest for 2006 the screen adaptation); and Pilot Program. Many of her plays have been and are being staged in many other places.
She adapted George Eliot’s novel Silas Marner for a musical called The Weaver of Raveloe. She wrote the screenplay for Freetown, a 2015 film based on a true story about missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ serving in Liberia seeking to escape the Liberian Civil War to safety in Sierra Leone. She wrote and produced The Lilac Thief, an independent feature. She has several short films to her credit, including “Cherry Pie” (writer), “4:53” (writer), “Iscariot” (writer and co-producer), and “Traces” (writer and producer). She also debuted as a director in 2014 with Into the Woods in Provo, Utah.
Larson is the playwright of the 2018 film Jane and Emma. The film imagines Jane Manning, a free black woman and convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a night she spent with Emma Hale Smith after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Larson's adaptation of The Post Office was shown at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference in Salt Lake City on August 26–28, 2019. According to the Deseret News:
- The original idea came from the Gandhi Alliance for Peace, an organization of Utahns committed to encouraging nonviolent conflict resolution, and the United Nations Association of Utah, which wanted to raise funds to support students in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Together, the organizations decided to host a play and donate proceeds from the ticket sales. They picked Indian playwright, poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Post Office.” This production of the play, presented by Plan-B Theatre Company, is an adaptation written by Larson.
Larson usually writes original plays, so this was a departure for her. She updated the 100-year old play to make it more relatable to a 21st-century audience. She used William Butler Yeats’ English translation of Tagore's play for her adaptation, placing the drama in a more modern context. She also made it easy for future companies to cast. The proceeds of “The Post Office” go to Adopt-A-Future, a program that supports education in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre Company, produced the play.
Larson is an Actor’s Equity Association Equity Membership Candidate stage manager and has managed for BYU, Utah Regional Ballet, Provo Theatre Company, Sundance Summer Theatre, Utah Lyric Opera, to name a few. She is also a certified Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival adjudicator and occasionally teaches at BYU and Utah Valley University.