As Plan-B Theatre's season winds to a close, the company leaves on a local high note with the world premiere of a local playwright's look at polygamy. Pilot Program
poses the question: “What if you were called to serve in the restoration of polygamy?” An interesting take on a modern-day marriage of a man and two women and the experiences of being in a legal, polygamist marriage in 2015. Today we interview the show's playwright Melissa Larson, director Jerry Rapier, and actors April Fossen, Mark Fossen and Susanna Risser, about this production and their thoughts heading into the opening week. (All images courtesy of Plan-B.
April Fossen, Mark Fossen, Susanna Risser, Melissa Leilani Larson & Jerry Rapier
Gavin: Hey everyone, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
I'm an actor, wife, mother, baker, accountant.
I live in the Fort Union area with my talented wife April (who’s in this play with me), our two girls, and our toy poodle Mac (who’s not in this play with me). I’m and actor and director in Salt Lake, and an a web developer by day.
I’m originally from Hawaii—the “Leilani” is a tribute to my false ethnicity. Born and raised in Hawaii until I was twelve, when my parents moved to Utah. I’ve always been a writer, constantly making up stories for as long as I can remember. I’ve had plays staged at universities all over the country, as well as at the Edinburgh Fringe. Pilot Program
is my twelfth produced play.
I have lived in Salt Lake City since 1994 (with a few months-long detours here and there) and have been with Plan-B Theatre Company since 2000.
I'm an Aquarius. I dislike olives and horseradish. I love the colors green and purple. I have a slight astigmatism and should probably wear glasses, but I don't. I have four children, two cats, and a minivan.
Gavin: What have all of you been up to in theatre over the past year?
Last summer I had the immense joy of playing Barbara in the Utah Rep/Silver Summit production of August: Osage County
. And I've done a few staged readings: Love Letters
at Utah Rep, Bull Shark Attack
at SLAC, and Marry Christmas
Since Plan-B’s Clearing Bombs
last year, it’s been another busy year. I have directed August: Osage County
, The Children's Hour
, and The Skin Of Our Teeth
and acted in The Threepenny Opera
and Marry Christmas
. Most important of all, I finally completed my undergraduate degree. I received a BA in Theatre Studies from the University of Utah in May 2014.
BYU commissioned me to adapt Pride & Prejudice
in celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary. The run last March sold out, and the play won a City Weekly
Arty and the Association for Mormon Letters Drama award. I also wrote a film called Freetown
which had its world premiere in Accra, Ghana, in March and opens in the U.S. April 8.
I directed Carleton Bluford’s MAMA earlier this year for Plan-B.
Last summer I appeared in Much Ado About Nothing
and She Loves Me
in Northern California at the Davis Shakespeare Festival. Here in Utah I have been seen One Man, Two Guvnors
and the Play-By-Play Series reading of Speculator Spirits
at Pioneer Theatre Company.
Gavin: Melissa, how did the idea for Pilot Program come about?
Polygamy is a tricky topic. Just bringing it up makes people uncomfortable. As a single Mormon woman in a marriage-centric culture, I have no problem admitting that I’m glad the LDS Church left polygamy behind a long time ago. But with recent changes in the law and conversations about marriage in general rising to the forefront, I couldn’t help wondering what it might be like if polygamy were to return to LDS practice. When I ask myself what it might take for me to not be a Mormon anymore, polygamy is the answer. And yet I can’t stop thinking about what it might be like. The thought of being in a plural marriage has always terrified me and I can’t not write about it.
Gavin: What specifically was it about polygamy as a whole that made you compelled to center a play around it?
There’s just a lot of meat there. Polygamy is a rich chapter in LDS history, and we’ve shied away from it for too long. It’s too good NOT to write about. A relationship with two partners is difficult enough; what happens when you throw in a third? However, I didn’t want this to be a historical play. I decided to set the story in the near future and contemplate how contemporary characters would deal with it. Pondering how polygamy works—the nuts and bolts of day to day living—is just so complicated and fascinating and awkward. Did I say awkward? Because it’s got to be so awkward.
Gavin: What was the process of writing it and bringing it to Plan-B?
The idea has been percolating for a long time. Over the years, I’ve thrown around ideas and sketched out scenes but never really attacked it. When I joined the Playwrights Lab at Plan-B in 2013, I finally decided to find an angle and give the story a go. The first draft happened really fast; it had to come out before I changed my mind. Jerry has been incredibly supportive from the first reading, and he directs with a very light touch. The text is always the most important thing. Our cast is tremendous. They just get the play, and they’ve made it real. I’ve always enjoyed attending Plan-B shows, but experiencing the quality and professionalism consistently happening on the inside of every production is fantastic.
Gavin: Jerry, what were your initial thoughts on the play and bringing it to this season?
I have been trying to get Mel to write for Plan-B for several years. I finally succeeded! I knew from the first page when we read the play in The Lab, Plan-B’s monthly meeting where ten playwrights share their work with each other, that we’d produce the play.
Gavin: For the actors, what did you think of Pilot Program when you first read it?
I think I sobbed through the entire first reading. I can't even explain why. I loved the vulnerability in the writing, I loved the character of Abby. I don't know, it just moved me.
I just really loved the balance of it. It’s not a polemic and it’s not about the most salacious aspects of polygamy. It’s nuanced, complex and truthful. I really also like the fact that it’s a piece that will challenge everyone—Melissa writes from a place of faith but doesn’t shy away from the complexities of faith. Too often in SLC, it becomes a “us vs. them/black and white” worldview and I am all for exploring the grey are in the middle where no-one feels too comfortable.
I was fortunate to participate in the earliest reading of Pilot Program
for the Lab. Although it was still in its early phases, I loved the idea presented and the humanity Mel captures in a situation that's hard to imagine.
Gavin: How has it been for each of you discovering your characters and helping bring them to life?
It's been interesting to find the ways in which Abby's relationship with Jacob is different from my relationship with Mark. I'll admit I was a little worried in the beginning that our real-life marriage would be on stage, but it's not. These people talk differently and interact differently than we do. That was a surprise and a comfort.
This has been a great, simple rehearsal process. Melissa has a way with language, and it all feels extremely natural. The characters feel real, and our relationships onstage mirror our relationships offstage. It’s not hard playing April’s husband, and the fact that I am working for the first time with Susanna also reflects itself in our onstage relationship.
It's been pretty smooth and straightforward. There is so much in the text to give depth and character to Heather that she has felt like a complete and complex person from the beginning.
Gavin: What's it been like interacting with each other while putting the play together?
I love working with Mark. He's one of my favorite actors to watch and to work with. I love that we can do what we do in the rehearsal room without it bleeding into our real life together. And that I get to spend this time with him. Susanna is so easy-going and easy to get along with it's like she's been around and we've been working with her for years. And, you know, the Plan-B family always feels like family, in the good way.
We’re having a great time. It’s very relaxed in the rehearsal room, in part because April, Jerry, Jennifer Freed (our Stage Manager) and I have been working together for almost ten years now. We’re family, and Susanna fits right in like she’s always been there. It’s hardly work.
The Fossens are lovely people, and wonderful to work with. The fact that they are actually married and I come into this existing dynamic only made the character relationships that much more accessible and realistic.
Gavin: What's been the most appealing aspect of the story to you as an actor?
Finding the journey that Abby takes in the play is challenging in the best way. I'm not sure I've found it yet. But I love having this complex of a story to work on.
I just like seeing the whole thing work, and playing my part to make that happen. I compare it to a band: I’m certainly not lead vocals here, or even lead guitar. That’s April and Susanna. I’m just sitting here playing rhythm guitar and hopefully doing my part well enough so that they shine.
I like diving in and working through
what it might be like in any character's situation. The initial appeal was just working with Mel and Plan-B. The fact that the character is rich and interesting adds to the pleasure of it all.
Gavin: What do you hope the audience will take away from this production?
I don't know. I guess I hope it makes them think. About love and marriage. It's been rattling around in my head for a year now since I was first cast, so I think there's a lot to chew on.
I hope they take away questions. There are no easy answers here, and it’s a play with deep feeling. This should be the start of a conversation, not the end of one. Come see the show, then plan to head out for a drink or a slice of pie with the people you saw it with, you’ll have something to talk about.
Conversation. The idea for the play has filled my brain for so long because there is so much to consider and talk about. Creating these relationships makes me examine how I interact with the people I love.
It’s amazing to me that polygamy, such a huge part of our shared Utah history, is so difficult for people to talk about. It’s such a loaded topic and Mel has given us the perfect way in.
I don't really know. I hope they'll just listen and experience.
Gavin: What are all of your thoughts going into opening night?
I hope we have an audience. I hope people won't be scared off by the subject matter.
I’m really looking forward to seeing people’s reactions to the play. It’s very funny and very touching, and I think it will be fun to go on that ride with the audience each night.
Nerves. So many nerves.
I can’t wait to share the fine work of this cast and Mel’s lovely play with our audience.
Let's get this show on the road.
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you next season?
This summer I'll be in Pinnacle Acting Company's production of Comedy Of Errors
this summer. And in December I get to play with Plan-B in Rob Tennant’s Booksmart
I’ll be appearing in Elaine Jarvik’s Based On A True Story
next year at Plan-B, running February 25-March 6, 2016.
Plan-B has commissioned me to write a piece for their 2016 elementary school tour. It’s called The Edible Complex
, and it tells the story of a young girl dealing with questions of healthful eating and body image. It’s slated for Fall 2016, so really it’s season after next. I also have a new play, Sweetheart, Come
that I’m very excited about. It will have a staged reading in June and I’m hoping it will see a full production soon.
I’ll wrap up Plan-B’s season directing Jenifer Nii’s Ruff!
, our third annual Free Elementary School Tour. And then I’ll direct a trio of plays as part of Plan-B’s 2015/16 season, which is our 25th anniversary: Eric Samuelsen’s The Kruetzer Sonata
(an exciting co-production with NOVA Chamber Music Series), Rob Tennant’s Booksmart
(our second collaboration with The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists) and Kingdom Of Heaven
, the first new musical in Plan-B’s history, with music and lyrics by David Evanoff and book and lyrics by Jenifer Nii.
I'll be heading back to Davis Shakespeare Festival to for The Mystery Of Edwin Drood
and Twelfth Night ,
and then returning to Plan-B next season for Kingdom Of Heaven
. As well as (hopefully) a show or two in between.