SALT LAKE CITY — While the majority of 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference, held in Salt Lake City Aug. 26-28, will consist of meetings and workshops, there will be something different about it this year. Alongside town halls, networking and workshops, the conference will also include the premiere of Utah playwright Melissa Leilani Larson’s adaptation of “The Post Office.”
How did a local play come to be associated with a U.N. conference?
The original idea came from the Gandhi Alliance for Peace, an organization of Utahns committed to encouraging nonviolent conflict resolution, and the United Nations Association of Utah, which wanted to raise funds to support students in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Together, the organizations decided to host a play and donate proceeds from the ticket sales. They picked Indian playwright, poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Post Office.” This production of the play, presented by Plan-B Theatre Company, is an adaptation written by Larson.
“(‘The Post Office’) is kind of a classic because it is such a simple story ... about a child,” Larson said in an interview with the Deseret News. “The message is both sad and hopeful. At the same time, it’s been done in a lot of unexpected and difficult situations. It was actually performed in German-occupied France during World War II, in the ghettos of Poland and in concentration camps. It’s got this message of finding the best in a terrible situation.”
Leaders from the Gandhi Alliance for Peace and the U.N. Association of Utah reached out to Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre Company, with the opportunity to produce “The Post Office.”
“When Deb Sawyer from the Gandhi Alliance for Peace first reached out to me, I was crushed because I didn’t think we could get heavily involved,” Rapier said. Plan-B was already planning to participate in the seventh annual “Rose Exposed” production the weekend of the conference, an event that presents newly-created short plays centered on a yearly theme.
“But the moment we started talking, I knew it was another project guided to us by a force greater than ourselves and we had to do it,” Rapier said. Plan-B agreed to work on “The Post Office” and incorporated it into the “Rose Exposed” events.
There was still a problem, however: “The Post Office” was written over 100 years ago in India. Plan-B decided it needed an adaptation that would be more relatable to a 21st-century audience. Rapier reached out to Larson, whose film “Jane and Emma” premiered in 2018 and who has written many other plays, and asked her to adapt the play.
“Thankfully, (Larson) said yes,” Rapier said. “She writes about people living their lives and big ideas organically surface. What fertile ground for an adaptation.”
“The Post Office” is a story about a young child with a mysterious illness who is confined to his home. “The play takes place basically at the window of his home. All these strangers go by and he calls out to them and he makes friends with all of these people,” Larson said.
Written in 1912 during the British Raj, Larson noted that the play stays close to the events of its time. “It’s got a lot of symbolism,” she said. “The little boy in the home is Indian, being held under the hand of the British, and that’s why he’s shriveling and dying.”
Tagore also wrote “The Post Office” in Bengali, an Asian dialect, and the play featured a cast of 12 Bengali men. “One of the big things right off the bat was like, well, we want to be diverse in our casting, but it requires 12 Bengali men, and we can’t do that here,” Larson said.
Larson used William Butler Yeats’ English translation for her adaptation, placing the drama in a more modern context. “One of the things we tried to do was to open it up so that it wasn’t quite so firmly in India,” Larson said. “I didn’t want to set it in a particular country, so it’s set in a kind of fictitious place.”
Another of Larson’s goal in adapting “The Post Office” was to make it a play that was easy for future companies to cast. “I changed things up so that it was more flexible,” Larson said. “Most of the roles are gender-flexible.”
Larson generally writes original plays, so this project was a new venture for her. “It’s not something I would have considered doing myself, (but) having that challenge was really nice because it was outside of my wheelhouse a little bit. (It was fun to) take a classic story and put my own spin on it,” she said.
Last year, Plan-B Theatre started an education program called “In the Classroom.” “We … wanted to be able to be open to unique ways to work with students,” Rapier said of the program. “The Post Office” was a natural extension of this project.
Plan-B partnered with Granite School District to cast students from five high schools in “The Post Office,” all of whom brought unique perspectives to the production.
“The cool thing about working with young people is that they’re going to let you know if they’re bored,” Larson said. “It’s like the most honest feedback. If they throw themselves in it, and they’re committed, that tells you that there’s something good to the play.”
Rehearsals for “The Post Office” started in July and the show is now fully in production mode with lights and costumes. Many playwrights don’t get to be involved in the staging of their plays, but Larson has been lucky.
“They’ve been really great about me being involved and inviting me to be part of the process,” Larson said. “I really enjoy going to rehearsal.”
However, she’s mostly relinquished control to the director and actors. “I can only do so much writing by myself,” Larson said. “There are things that you only figure out in rehearsal, like sometimes you don’t know if a joke actually works until an audience laughs at it. ... You’re basically making a blueprint for what’s going to happen in three dimensions later.”
The proceeds of “The Post Office” will go to Adopt-A-Future, a program that supports education in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The weekend marks myriad community-centered events, including the unveiling of the “Rose Crossing” mural in front of the Rose Wagner Center, all of which demonstrates the theater’s community spirit. Larson, Rapier and the others involved in these projects hope they can help change the world in some small way, whether through donations to a refugee camp or supporting local arts.
“Theater is a communal art; it’s a place where we get together,” Larson said. “It’s about having a communication between the actor and the audience, between the playwright and the audience. And the best way to do that is to tell a story, and hopefully to tell it well.”
If you go …
What: “The Post Office”
When: Aug. 24-26, times vary
Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South
How much: $10