In Achievements and Awards, Alumni, Theatre

Earlier this year, Larson received the Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters

Melissa Leilani Larson discovered her talent and love for crafting words at an early age, writing her first short story in third grade. She majored in English at BYU, determined to become a novelist — until a single class in the Department of Theatre and Media Arts changed the course of her career. 

Melissa Leilani Larson recently received the Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters. (Nick Stone)

“I loved going to the theatre and the movies, and my senior year I took a TMA playwriting class for kicks and giggles,” Larson said. “I struggled to switch over from writing prose to writing drama. While you ultimately have the same goal with both novels and plays — to tell a good story — each requires specific tools and skills.” 

With an undeniable attraction to theatre and playwriting, Larson decided to stay at BYU and work toward an MA in theatre history and criticism. She eventually transferred to the University of Iowa’s prestigious MFA Playwrights Workshop partway through her master’s program at BYU. 

But Larson’s BYU story was far from over. She has returned to BYU several times over the years to see her work staged, including campus productions of “The Beggar’s Opera” (2004), “Angels Unaware” (2006) and adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” (2011) and “Pride and Prejudice” (2014).

Larson has also found some of her best professional contacts through her network at BYU.

“Probably the greatest blessing to come from my time at BYU is friendship,” said Larson. “Over the course of my career, I’ve collaborated with many great artists who also got their start at the Y.”

Many of Larson’s biggest successes — including the screenplay for 2018 feature film “Jane and Emma” — are rooted in her own explorations of the history and drama of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, faith and the experiences of women. Larson also worked as a writer for the Church History Department on “Saints,” a four-volume narrative history featuring the stories of pioneers and church members throughout the world.  

“When I started at BYU, I took for granted the fact that my faith was a part of me,” said Larson. “I did a lot of growing up during undergrad. BYU helped me realize I was a playwright and that I wanted to tell women’s stories. Looking back, I don’t know that it could have happened any other way or in any other place.”

Whether she is writing about missionaries caught in the Liberian Civil War or adapting a classic romance, faith continues to play a key role in Larson’s process.

Production still from 2018 feature film “Jane and Emma.” (Courtesy of Melissa Leilani Larson)

“I pray constantly for help and inspiration,” said Larson. “Sometimes I write directly about faith, and sometimes I just let my faith shine through. Art is a gift to help us all see and understand things better — to be better. It’s a medium to bring us closer to Christ. When I’m in tune with the Spirit, God uses art to teach me things. My hope is that when someone sees or reads my work, they might have a similar experience.”

With 15 produced plays, a musical and two feature films under her belt, Larson looks back on her decision to shift writing genres at BYU with confidence and affirmation. Today she has reached and inspired audiences on four continents and continues to garner recognition for her work. Earlier this year, Larson received the Smith-Pettit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters.

“It’s a huge honor, and rather unexpected,” Larson said of the award. “I’m happy to count so many wonderful Latter-day Saint writers among my peers and friends, and to have them recognize my work in this way is incredibly humbling.”

Larson is now one of only three playwrights — and the only woman — to win three Association for Mormon Letters Drama awards. Each accomplishment is a reminder to Larson of the hard work that goes into every draft.

“You can have a career in the arts, but it won’t be handed to you,” said Larson. “You have to earn it, and once you have it, you have to maintain it. Making art isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it.”

Larson’s most recent work — a commissioned stage adaptation of Kelly Barnhill’s Newberry-winning “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” — will premiere Nov. 8 at Utah Valley University.

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