Playwright Melissa Ross.
South Coast Repertory's Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) has been a launching pad for many plays and playwrights, including David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime, Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and Vietgone by Qui Nguyen and Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee.
Among the five readings at the 2019 festival is Unlikeable Heroine by Melissa Ross. Her play Of Good Stock had a PPF reading in 2015 and premiered here in the following year.
We caught up with Ross and talked with her about the books she secretly read in childhood, her writing routine, the play that changed her life and more.
Describe your favorite writing space.
I write in two parts. My first drafts are always long hand, in notebooks. For that, I pretty much always write sitting in this old, falling apart leather club chair in my apartment—that I should probably get rid of, but I love it too much. And so I try not to notice that it's literally crumbling into pieces. And then, for part two, I switch to the computer to type it all up and I sit at my desk—surrounded by various keepsakes from productions of my plays.
What was your favorite story or book that you heard/read as a kid?
Oh there are so many! When I was really little, and mostly getting read to, I loved Eloise. I knew the entire thing by heart. I think I still may! I thought it was hilarious. The first book that I remember reading myself was Charlotte's Web. I devoured it in a few days and was unbearably devastated at the end. I don't think a book had ever made me cry before. But I also remember how real it felt, how grateful I was to spend the time with the characters and how much it meant to me that the ending felt like actual life. I can still viscerally remember what it felt like to read that book for the first time. It's such a profoundly beautiful story about love and grief and loss and friendship.
When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?
I had written a lot as a kid, in high school and in college. Plays, but also short stories, and a few attempts at novels. Once I graduated college and moved to New York, I was mostly an actor. And then, after we closed Our Lady of 121st Street, I started writing again with my theatre company, LAByrinth. Mostly 10-minute plays that I started stringing together into a sort of collection. I was really enjoying the writing, but totally nervous about sharing anything beyond friends in my living room. And then a play dropped out of the LAByrinth Summer Intensive Program; someone called and said, “We hear you have a play that has a lot of characters in it. We need a play with a lot of characters in it.” And I think I said, "Yes I do but I don't want anybody to ever see it. So sorry I can't help you.” But somehow they convinced me to bring it. And I was terrified. And we presented it. And people laughed where they were supposed to and cried when they were supposed to. And I loved being in the audience watching my play come to life—more than I think I loved being on stage myself. I don't know that this was the moment where I decided I was going to be a playwright, but it was definitely the moment where I fell head over heels in love with everything about writing plays.
What play changed your life?
As an artist, I would have to say Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. It's such an extraordinary piece of writing. When I was an actor I worked on it a few times and was completely awestruck by how the play is scored so exquisitely. You just need to give in to the language and it takes you on an emotional journey. It's effortless. It's like working on a piece of music, hitting the harmony and feeling everything soar. I love how she so perfectly replicates the actual rhythms of how people speak to each other. We rarely pause politely, listen and then respond. Language is all about how we loop in and out of each other’s words. And the how and the why and the when that we do that. I was—and continue to be—hugely inspired and influenced by the magnificent art of the Caryl Churchill overlap.
What should we know about Unlikeable Heroine?
Since I've started writing plays, I've thought about when I was going to write “My Feminism Play.” It's been looming over everything and, as a woman and a feminist, I tend to think of all of my plays as inherently feminist. But they aren't necessarily tackling it head on literally. I originally started writing this play before the 2016 presidential election. And then #TimesUp and #MeToo happened. And then Kavanaugh. And… and…and… at some point, it became impossible to write and keep up with the ever-changing landscape. Then I thought about the play I would have written even before any of this. Because none of it is actually new. What's new is how we're talking about it. And so I think in some ways, this play is one I’ve been waiting to and wanting to write for pretty much my entire life.
The PPF reading of Unlikeable Heroine, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, is Saturday, April 27, at 10:30 a.m. Learn more and purchase tickets.