Nia Vardalos: What I Learned From Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things

“Listening, ultimately, is what Tiny Beautiful Things is about—listening to others, and to ourselves,” writes Vardalos, who adapted Strayed’s collection of Dear Sugar advice columns into a play now running at The Public Theater.

by Nia Vardalos

Tiny Beautiful ThingsPublic TheaterNewman Theater
©2017 Joan Marcus

Long before Thomas Kail directed the musical that would become the juggernaut known as Hamilton, we met in 2010 when he directed me in a charity benefit, 24 Hour Plays on Broadway. In 2013, the writer Marshall Heyman gave his pal Tommy Kail a book. Tommy gave it to me, and told me he felt this book could be a play. The book was called Tiny Beautiful Things.

I had read and admired Wild, which came out the previous year, but I had no idea author Cheryl Strayed had also moonlighted as an anonymous advice columnist called Sugar. I read the book on a flight from New York to Los Angeles and truly think the entire plane of people could hear my heart smashing against my chest. I had never read anything like Tiny Beautiful Things: The letters, written by real people, are about love, grief, loss, family, and all of life’s conundrums. Sugar’s responses are filled with empathy, forthrightness and unabashed love, as if she says, “I hear you. You shared that thing that happened to you, and I’m going to share something that happened to me with the hope that, perhaps, you will find something in it that is useful.” Though it’s an approach rooted in the self, it is not a self-centered approach. It’s glaringly generous and unfathomably honest as it reaches across the space dividing us by the isolation of our pain; its compassion is achingly divine. As Sugar, Cheryl gives the reader permission to grieve, all while telling them it’s possible to heal and to move on.

As soon as I landed in Los Angeles, I called Tommy. “This book is a play,” I agreed. “And, I want to write it.” Yes, I had never written a play before. But I had never written a screenplay before I wrote My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “Let’s do this,” I said. “Let’s go.”

At our first meeting, I told Cheryl it was important for me that the play honor her writing. To option the book, I had reached out to her on social media; we met for tea and made, rather than a handshake deal, what I now call a hug deal. We held each other, writer to writer, and I promised her that Tommy and I would treat her, and her writing, with respect and love. She magnanimously told me she looked forward to seeing what the book would become.

With Cheryl’s blessing, I got up the nerve to go into her epistolary exchanges and add narrative to translate them to the stage: I took from pieces and added to others; I wrote within her writing; and I arced Sugar’s trajectory. Some of these changes were also informed by interviewing Cheryl repeatedly and by watching her speeches and reading other interviews. I asked her many personal questions and searched through the original column, trying to figure out what motivated Sugar. I thought about Cheryl Strayed a lot. I felt a kinship to another woman who writes: Like Sugar, like Cheryl, I write at night. It’s the quiet hours that appeal to me. At night is when the ideas come. At night is when it flows. Sometimes, I get up at 3 a.m. to write because the dark outside is calming—plus, I know no one will call. (Unless my brother in Australia knows I’m up.)

I wrote the play Tiny Beautiful Things over the course of three years, and to this day, I’m still rewriting. With each draft, it’s gotten deeper and more concise. When I get lost, I go back to the book and I call Cheryl and Tommy. I don’t worry too much when I get off course; I believe it’s good to write until you’re empty or blocked. If you’re confused, lacking in direction and uncertain what to do next, you’re in a good place. Not knowing what to write means you’ve pushed yourself to the absolute boundary. As you slowly crawl across that edge, you find your best work.

Still, while Cheryl remained involved with our workshops and rehearsal process, it was challenging at times to take ownership of the material. I’m a middle child and I’m Canadian—so I’m annoyingly nice. I want to please. Here, a producer friend’s advice was crucial: “You always have to write what you want,” he once told me. “Don’t ever try to please anyone but yourself.” Ironically, that was good advice. I had to make some tough decisions while writing Tiny Beautiful Things. I spiraled, stumbled and soared while writing the play, and some of my favorite pieces from the book had to go by the wayside. The writer’s adage is true: You have to be willing to kill your darlings. (Cheryl told me with a laugh that the difference here is that I was killing her darlings.)

Teddy Cañez and Nia Vardalos in *Tiny Beautiful Things* at The Public Theater, 2017.

©2017 Joan Marcus

Cheryl’s openness continues to surprise and motivate me to be more open in my life, albeit in a different way. I thought I was open and candid before: After all, I write about my family. But now, I’m more open to what I want. Since I delved into the world of Sugar when the play opened at the Public Theater last fall, something has happened to me. I’ve become bolder, more direct; I say “yes” and “no” more readily.

After Tiny Beautiful Things finished its run last winter, I put the play away and went back to writing a film and a television series. I didn’t imagine we would return; a three-month run is typical for an Off-Broadway production, and it had been a good run. We had sold out, we’d received the Holy Grail from the New York Times—the Critic’s Pick. But in early spring, we got invited back to the Public for the fall of 2017 in an even larger theater. So I pulled out the play Tiny Beautiful Things and began to look at it again, consulting with Tommy and continuing to tweak the material.

Suddenly, it’s October, and we’re back onstage. This time, Tiny Beautiful Things has more shape, but even more than that, I am now truly grateful to play Sugar. Every performance, before I step onto the stage, I think, I get to do this again. We get a second chance. As a professional advice columnist for an hour and a half, I feel responsible for everyone in the audience. It’s my job to guide them gently through this process, because with this material, hang on, we’re going to go deep. At the end of each show, I feel spent and clean, as if I’ve taken a long shower.

After each performance, I sit, usually with my head on my makeup table, for about ten seconds, just to let the blood go back into my skull. Then, among the cast, we discuss what we took in from the audience and how it affected us. The Newman Theater at the Public is an intimate space. We hear everything, and we are reverent of our audience. These conversations make us feel close to the audience, because the first time we read this material, we cried too. We all cried in rehearsal with Tommy. We cry onstage. Crying is good—as Cheryl writes, “Get it out, talk it out, cry it out.” Tiny Beautiful Things isn’t just some sad play—it’s heart-wrenching, wry, sweet, and, for both audience and actors, a cathartic experience.

Cheryl once said in an interview that she always tried to be illuminating rather than instructional. This is why I believe Tiny Beautiful Things is for everyone. Who wouldn’t want the path lit in any way? Since our play opened at the Public last fall, so much of the political landscape has changed, and yet the Public’s mandate remains that all are welcome here. The text of this play assures that it is inclusive, and it is my optimistic hope that we can learn from each other if we listen. Listening, ultimately, is what Tiny Beautiful Things is about—listening to others, and to ourselves.

‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ with Nia Vardalos, Teddy Cañez, Ceci Fernandez, DeLance Minefee, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Natalie Woolams-Torres, adapted by Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed, co-conceived by Vardalos, Thomas Kail, and Marshall Heyman, and directed by Kail, opened Oct. 2 and continues through Dec. 10 at the Public Theater’s Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette St.

As told to Katherine Cusumano.

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