Meet Melissa Lucero McCarl

Playwright Melissa Lucero McCarl is no stranger to the local stage. Her play Painted Bread, about the tumultuous life of Frida Kahlo, was voted “Best New Play” by the Denver Post. And her Poignant Irritations, about the life of Gertrude Stein, won her Best New Play and Best Local Playwright nods from Westword.

But in case Melissa Lucero McCarl, who will be teaching her first class for Lighthouse this August, is a stranger to you, we caught up with her recently to ask a few questions.

Q. You've written plays about both Gertrude Stein and Frida Kahlo, artists with particularly distinct styles. Were you mostly interested in telling their stories, or did you find their styles seeping into your work as well?

A. When I write about real figures, I am a literary chameleon. Without a doubt, their styles influence the tone and structure of the play and even my approach to the daily work ethic. For instance, Gertrude Stein faithfully wrote for merely a half hour every single day and managed to crank out novels prolifically. I took a similar approach to writing her theatrical story and managed to crank it out in a couple months. I adopted her cubist style within the play by making it a series of vignettes that could be performed in any order. Similarly, the magic realism of Frida Kahlo is alive and well in Painted Bread, which plays with time and space constantly.

Q. Was there something about a play that made it the right genre to tell these stories? What about these two artists made you want to write about them?

A. In the case of Gertrude Stein, I was commissioned by the Mizel Arts Center to write the play as part of their festival that celebrated Jewish female artists. I would not have naturally gravitated toward her, but once I started researching, I was hooked. It quickly became apparent to me that the part of her life that was stage-worthy was the extraordinary love and partnership between Gertrude and Alice Toklas. They had such a "twinship" that I had the two actors portraying them switch roles at intermission to illustrate the way they saw themselves as two halves of a whole.

I read about Frida in a New Yorker story during a plane ride, and it was as if she reached out from the pages and pulled my ear to her mouth and whispered, "Tell my story onstage. Do it now." Days later, I was in a playwriting class at DU with beloved Lighthouse instructor Terry Dodd. He said, "Start thinking about what you want to write about," and I knew right away that it was time to obey my orders from Frida. Much in the way a proscenium frames a play, I created living paintings to frame Frida's story. Each time a character spoke his or her truth, the painting frame flew up and they were free to move about the stage.

Q. Many of the plays you've written have been commissioned. When that happens, how much direction does the organization commissioning the play give you? Do they decide what you'll writing about? Or who the characters will be?

A. I have been fortunate to have a large amount of freedom, even within the confines of a commission. I was assigned to write about Gertrude Stein, but I got to discover organically what the overall theme of the play should be. The producer and director Steve Wilson largely helped edit the piece during the rehearsal process, which was tremendously helpful. When I wrote for the Curious Theatre Company's War Anthology, I simply had to select a conflict to write about. Being the only local playwright on the project (which included such luminaries as Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel,) I decided it would be most appropriate to write about a local conflict. Researching the Sand Creek Massacre was one of the most gut-wrenching and emotional assignments I've ever taken on. It haunts me to this day.

Q. Within those confines, how do you make a work your own?

A. I think there are certain stylistic choices that are consistent in my work, regardless of who or what I am writing about. There is often a whimsical way in which the play breaks structural rules. A spiritual under or overtone usually creeps in. I need most everything I write, no matter the weight of the subject matter, to somehow offer an element of grace and redemption. I'm not interested in leaving an audience devoid of hope at the end of a theatrical experience. (We have reality TV to do that...seriously, have you ever watched an episode of Hoarders? Yikes.)

Q. A lot of our Lighthouse playwrights started in other genres. Were you always interested in writing plays? And if not, what initially attracted you to the form?

A. In school I wrote short fiction prolifically. I had fabulous professors who encouraged me to pursue writing; however, at that time, I was obsessed with performing. Eventually I was accepted into a New York City conservatory where we had to perform new audition monologues every other week, so I started writing original material for myself and my fellow students. I continued to be a performing gypsy, going where the work took me for a couple decades, until I decided to return to Colorado, set down roots, and shift my focus to directing, teaching, and writing, which has given me endless pleasure.

Melissa Lucero McCarl is teaching our 8-Week Playwriting Workshop starting August 19.