May 3, 2007
Larson Finds Playwright Magic In Her Filipino Heritage
Melissa Leilani Larson's mother is Filipina, but growing up in a middle-class American home, that Philippine heritage seemed a world away. "Often the best way for me to learn something is to write about it," says Larson, a student in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. Now with "The Church of St. Pinky at Katy, Texas," Larson has written her first play with a Flipina protagonist.
The final production in the 2007 Iowa New Play Festival, the play -- directed by Heather Bodie -- will be performed at 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday, May 5, in the David Thayer Theatre of the University of Iowa Theatre Building.
Larson explains that the story is "a dark comedy about the limits of faith, the gift of life, and funeral potatoes": "Out on the Pacific, cleaning staterooms aboard a cruise ship, Pinky Velvet Montalban discovers she has the power to heal -- everyone but herself. A mail-order bride, Pinky ends up in suburban Texas, 8,000 miles from home and being fashioned into a saint."
Larson used that story to ask questions about miracles, faith, friendship, marriage -- both mail-order and courtship -- about self-worth and sacrifice, and even commercialism. "There are two core ideas I was interested in exploring when I first started drafting this play last year," she says. "The first was the idea of an ordinary person having an extraordinary ability, and how that ability affected the playing out of that person's life. The second came out of a fascination with the idea that mail-order marriages do happen, and more often than people probably realize."
That second idea enabled the culture of the Philippines to enter the story, "I admit that I've been intimidated by my Asian-ness, and I'm not lost on the great irony that my first Filipina protagonist came to be while I've been attending grad school in the Midwest. What I know about the Philippines is general and scattered and, though I've always had a fascination with the history and culture of my mother's homeland, I've never felt that I've known enough to let myself explore Filipino themes in my work.
"It's difficult to write about an unfamiliar culture when its many intricacies are shrouded in another language and its social graces have been unintentionally left at the door with guests' shoes. So it's somehow appropriate and comforting that the first Filipino story I've attempted to tell is both Americanized and a play."
Bridging Larson's Filipino heritage and her American experience is a vivid and extraordinary character who makes the literal journey across the sea. "Pinky is a real person to me, a peerless heroine in both her ordinariness and her supernatural ability," Larson says. "I like to think that these are interesting characters in interesting situations; I also like to think that these characters can have some kind of real effect on the audiences watching them.
"I consider the play a dark comedy, and all comedies have threads of humanity and power running through them, as much as any drama. My hope is that while an audience is laughing they are feeling a connection to what is happening and might leave the theatre a little different, or at least thinking differently."
The creative journey of "The Church of St. Pinky" exemplifies the developmental process that distinguishes the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, where the full range of artistic and production resources are at the disposal of playwrights.
"The play has come a long way since it was initially read in the Playwrights Workshop; this is my fourth production here at Iowa, and it still amazes me how much the piece can change for good in the rehearsal process," Larson explains. "I cannot stress enough how necessary it is for a playwright to hear her words aloud, to have them spoken and breathed by actors; things change completely when a scene is on its feet as opposed to on the page.
"For a while 'The Church of St. Pinky,' playing out in the crazy world of my imagination, seemed mythic and impossible; the story seemed more of a modern day fairy tale than a feasible theatrical event, but I loved it too much to let it go. But a fabulous director, cast, and staff have brought the play to a real and approachable place for me and for an audience; for me, this is as much a miracle as any Pinky herself can perform."
Now, having been made possible, "St. Pinky" is a finalist for the Downstairs Reading Series at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Larson, a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, will receive her Master of Fine Arts degree from the UI this spring. Her 2005 IRAM Best New Play "An Experiment in Sainthood" sold out its Brigham Young University main stage run in 2006, and is being prepared for production in Washington state and Tennessee. Her other plays include "Hope Falls," "A Flickering" and "Lady in Waiting," which has been produced at three universities. Her film "Standing Still Standing" is in pre-production.
The Iowa New Play Festival, a tradition unique in American collegiate theater, is presenting more than a dozen new scripts from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop in productions and readings through May 5 in the University of Iowa Theatre Building.
The UI Department of Theatre Arts concludes each spring semester by dedicating all its resources -- acting, directing, design, stage management and technical -- to an intense and event-packed festival that offers student playwrights the productions and feedback that are essential for their development and offers audiences an opportunity to participate in the creation of significant new American theater at the ground level.
Tickets for all the evening productions -- $6 for the general public and $4 for UI students, senior citizens and youth -- will be on sale one hour before each of the performances through May 5, and tickets will also be on sale noon to 1:30 p.m. each day at the Theatre Building box office.
The Department of Theatre Arts is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to http://list.uiowa.edu/archives/acr-news.html, click the link "Join or leave the list (or change settings)" and follow the instructions.
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