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October 12, 2021
ON WITH THE SHOW: Playwright Melisa Tien on how the theatre shutdown prompted her to write for the moment
Interview with Melisa Tien

As live, in-person theatre returns to the greatest city in the world, we're spotlighting the NYC theatre artists who make it all happen. Today's spotlight is on playwright Melisa Tien, whose dark comedy Best Life was set to open just before the theatre shutdown. Now, revised for the moment in which we find ourselves, it has an upcoming run at JACK.

Cherrye J. Davis and Erin Anderson in Best Life. Credit: Rosa Gilmore.

What do you do in the theatre world?

I’m a playwright, lyricist, librettist, and producer, and right now I’m really fulfilled by making formally unconventional, socially relevant, and emotionally evocative theater.

What’s one part of your job that might surprise people?

When I start a new theater project, it’s rarely, if ever, one about which I can say ‘I’ve done this exact thing before, and I know exactly how this is gonna go.’ I find that I embark on new projects largely because I *haven’t* done them before. The initial impossibility of something new, and all the discovery that follows, are what prompt me to make theater, again and again.

What was the last live production you worked on before the theatre shutdown?

I was in the middle of the final rehearsal before tech week of the pre-pandemic version of Best Life, when I got the phone call informing me we would have to shut down.  I stepped out of the room for the call, knowing what it was probably about, and decided that when I went back in, I’d let the actors do their job for another few minutes, before there was a break and I told them the news. I waited because I wasn’t sure if or when they might get a chance to be in a theater space again; I had no idea at the time that it would take another year-and-a-half.

What was your quarantine hobby? 

I started to foster cats during quarantine; my cat Bartholomew passed away in late 2019 at the ripe old age of 20, and I was missing feline energy around the apartment but not yet ready to adopt. I also explored the city on foot, with a beloved friend who walks around way more than I do and knows the city pretty intimately because of it.

What was your first show back?

The first show I saw was an installation/puppet piece called Plastic Bag Store. It occupied a then-empty storefront in Times Square and literally created art out of plastic waste. I loved the disorienting combo if it being delightful (creatively) and in-my-face (ecologically).

What show are you working on now?

I’m about to open a post-vaccine version of Best Life, with all the social, political, and medical implications that implies. Everything you need to know about the show is right here:

What would you tell people to encourage them to come see it?

This version of Best Life is consciously of-the-moment, because this country is currently struggling with things like teaching Critical Race Theory in schools, introducing diversity, equity, and inclusion at institutional settings, and figuring out how to identify and bring about meaningful change, especially if you’re a white person.  The play considers multiple facets of a liberal outlook on these issues, and asks tough questions in order to arrive at worthwhile answers.

What’s a new or returning show you’re not involved with that you’re excited to see?

Many of my fellow playwright/producers are putting up work that I’m super excited about. A couple of great examples are Aya Ogawa's play The Nosebleed, and Kate Cortesi's Is Edward Snowden Single? I’m also really looking forward to checking out Fire Shut Up In My Bones. Rush tickets for that show have been hard to come by, however I got a seat at a Live in HD showing at a local movie theater—not like being in the same room, but maybe the next best thing.

What aspect of your job are you most excited to get back into? 

What I love most about making theater is getting to watch people come together to bring something into existence that wouldn’t have existed without their necessary part in creating it. I see it as a metaphor for society—if we can make this impossible thing possible within theater, maybe there’s hope for us outside of theater.

Best Life runs October 21 - November 6 at JACK (20 Putnam Ave, Brooklyn). For more information and to purchase tickets, visit:

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Written by: Erin Kahn
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