Best Life: Interview with Playwright Melisa Tien

Best Life
“Best Life” is a play by Melisa Tien that is playing at Brooklyn’s JACK Theater from March 21 to April 5, 2020. Melisa is a resident playwright at New Dramatists.

“Best Life” is a play by Melisa Tien that is playing at Brooklyn’s JACK Theater from March 21 to April 5, 2020. Melisa is a resident playwright at New Dramatists.

“Best Life” is a dark comedy about two women; Lourdes is a poor woman of color with the power to rewind time by five minutes. Sheryl is a kind wealthy white woman. After meeting in a cafe, Lourdes starts talking to Sheryl and continuously rewinds time in order to make the conversation deeper and deeper.  Before long, the pressures of history, social guilt, and well-meaning yet misguided intentions creep their way into the exchange.

Playwright Melisa Tien recently discussed this play via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the arts and why do you gravitate towards the theater?

Melisa Tien (MT): I really enjoyed getting immersed in other worlds as a kid–I still do–and would often read books while I was walking to school. I also watched a lot of films made in countries outside the U.S.– the weirder, the better. I tried for a few years to write prose and poetry, and then in high school I chose a performing arts concentration in order to avoid the other two more intimidating math/science and medical concentrations. I didn’t know a lot about theater at this point, and was excited about the dual-attention proposal of live performance–that art was occurring and being received in real time.  I think I’ve been enamored with this dynamic ever since.

MM: How did you become a New Dramatist resident playwright and what does that entail?

MT: I submitted a couple of plays that I felt represented the breadth of my interests in playwriting–they were very different from each other–and I waited. If you apply and don’t hear from them during the long and thorough adjudication period, you’re still under consideration. After lots of waiting and hoping not to hear, I got a call from the Artistic Director Emily Morse, thanking me for my patience. I think I blurted out something like ‘Is this good news or bad news?’ And as she invited me to be part of the next cohort, I started weeping. I imagine a lot of the others have done the same. In the ensuing years, I’ve been part of an incredible, hugely supportive group of playwrights, developed new work at my own pace and in my own ways, and expanded my boundaries as a theater-maker. In many lovely ways, New Dramatists is a true writer-led community.

MM: What inspired you to write “Best Life” and is it based on any personal experiences?

MT: I grew up having lots of sociopolitical conversations with a good friend who is white and came from a financially secure background, while I came from a financially disadvantaged background. Though we were both progressive, we often did not see eye-to-eye, and I was convinced it was because of our race and class differences, but I didn’t know how to articulate this.  I would always wish I could go back and re-do our conversations.  The play is about someone who can do exactly that–go back by a few minutes, and try to move the conversation in a new and different direction.

MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?

MT: My answer to this probably changes on a daily basis; right now, my favorite segment is when Sheryl asks for, then kind of imposes a hug on Lourdes, and what comes after. This is when the play starts to break away from notions of realism, when words and actions start to get wild.  To me it’s a beautiful part of the play because it’s like getting swept up suddenly in dangerous, unknown waters before finally washing ashore in one piece.

MM: What were the challenges of getting this piece staged and how did you find the venue?

MT: I’m producing “Best Life” and I find that producing comes with natural challenges like scheduling around artists’ lives, replacing personnel if someone has to drop, working within a tight budget, planning meaningful audience engagement events, etc.  Though the specific challenges for each production might vary, the collective challenges a producer faces feels familiar from show to show; every production will require creative problem-solving of some kind.  JACK has always been a place where I wanted to present full-length work.  In 2015 I participated in a workshop that was held at the old location (just down the street from the current location), and workshop participants had a showing of short pieces. I was impressed that the venue was so seamlessly interwoven with the neighborhood, from the workshop itself, to the audience that came to see our work, to Alec Duffy who co-founded and ran JACK. When I had a play that I wanted to put up, I e-mailed Alec out of the blue in 2019 and asked if he’d consider it for JACK.  I wasn’t sure he’d remember me, let alone reply. He very kindly did both.

MM: How did you secure the cast?

MT: I met Erin Anderson at New Dramatists, where she was cast in a reading of something I was working on.  She was smart and talented and I knew I’d want to keep working with her.  I asked her to be in different readings and workshops after that, and when I wrote Best Life it made sense to ask her to play Sheryl.  As for Ayesha Jordan, I had seen her perform in other people’s plays, and loved her versatility and her energy.  I almost worked with her on another piece I was developing, but the scheduling didn’t work out, and I was excited to ask her to play Lourdes for the production of Best Life.

MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?

MT: I think the play will elicit a different response depending on the audience member.  I hope that, no matter what, people come away from it feeling like they’ve had an experience, and that they’ll want to talk about what it is they experienced.

MM: What other shows have you created, what are they about, and what themes might you like to address in the future?

MT: I’ve written a play called “Familium Vulgare” about a Taiwanese American family navigating a sudden death, I’ve written a play called The Boyd Show about a boy who grows up in an economically depressed town whose main connection to the rest of the world is his YouTube channel, I’ve written and produced a play called Yellow Card, Red Card about Muslim girls in Cameroon defying societal restrictions to play soccer, and I’ve contributed lyrics to and produced a workshop of a song cycle called Swell featuring composers who are immigrants/children of immigrants writing about their personal histories.  I’m currently working on: a play about long haul truckers and their eventual displacement by automated technology (for which I’ve traveled across the country and interviewed truck drivers), a play about two very different women who come together to create and market the world’s first menstruation-tracking app, and a devised piece about the landscape of a human life with director Tamilla Woodard and a growing and rotating cast of performers.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

MT: Later this year there will be a recording of a song cycle called Daylight Saving that I’ve written with composer Joseph Rubinstein, and a reading of a musical called Mary that I’ve written with composer Matt Frey.  Next year, in 2021, I’ll be producing a fully staged version of the avant-garde song cycle Swell that I co-wrote with ten very talented composers.

* * * * *

Tickets to “Best Life” are now on sale at