Nia Vardalos is best known for My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, the romantic comedy (and, before that, play) she created and starred in.
Cheryl Strayed is best known for Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
And the work they’re best known for together is Tiny Beautiful Things, an emotional, evocative book that Strayed wrote and Vardalos adapted into four-person play, currently at the Arden Theatre through Dec. 8 with Emilie Krause in the lead role that Vardalos played off-Broadway in 2016.
In Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed memorializes her anonymous online advice column, Dear Sugar. To hear Vardalos tell it, the column, the memoir, and adapting them for the stage were life-changing. Here, she explains how the book found her, and transformed her.
My friend Tommy — Thomas — Kail (director of In the Heights and Hamilton) and I were looking for something to do together in New York theater. He gave me the book and said, “This might be a play.”
The book had also been given to him. That’s the way this book was passed, from hand to hand, people saying, “You might find some stories in here that are of value to you.” One person would give it to a friend who just lost a parent or another friend who was hurting.
I read it on the flight home from New York to L.A. And, I really lost it. To use a phrase Cheryl uses, the writing “unzipped me” in a way that was really painful to me. It also brought out emotions that were not necessarily pain: empathy, compassion, understanding — every emotion that you could experience happened to me on that flight.
I got off the plane, called Tommy, and said, “I have to adapt this. How do I get the rights?”
He told me it’s really hard to get an agent on the phone for a play. At that point, he had not directed Hamilton, but he was a Tony nominee for In The Heights. So, I found Cheryl Strayed on social media, which was ironic because her columns existed online [on The Rumpus] before they were a book.
We communicated once via a direct message and agreed to meet for tea. Within minutes, we made an agreement that I would be adapting the play. I’ll never forget what Cheryl said in that meeting, “The book is yours.” That sentence was really moving.
Also, she said, “Do you want to play Sugar [Strayed’s character]?” That hadn’t occurred to me, how much I wanted to dive into that material and work out of my comfort zone, from my fingertips to my whole body.
It was something Cheryl said in our first meeting. She said that she would receive a lot of letters, but they would stay with her. She would answer one in particular once a week, but they would stay with her. She said, “I would be pushing my daughter on a swing, and I would think, ‘how can I help this person? How can I respond?’”
The people who wrote to her would enter her house — and not leave until they were answered. That’s theater, definitely theater.
Tommy, Cheryl, and I — we are all middle children. That goes a long way. Cheryl is now one of my closest friends.
Our process was really respectful. We both stayed in our lanes yet constantly spoke, shared, and told each other our secrets, so I could find a trajectory and a narrative — and find the reason why she wrote this column.
I couldn’t understand why Cheryl would take on the column for free, and write anonymously. She explained she wasn’t writing anonymously for her. She felt it freed the reader to have an unencumbered vision of her.
That she did it for free, that she wrote in her kitchen, that she wrote at night: When we learned these details, Tommy and I would look at each other and say, “That’s it.”
It’s easy to fall into the trappings of it all and say, “Now I write studio movies.” I try to write theater once a year. Like people do crossword puzzles, to challenge myself, I’ll do theater. I wrote Tiny Beautiful Things for free, and I performed it onstage while paying New York room rates.
All parts of it were financially taxing, yet emotionally rewarding. I’d fly back and forth from L.A. to New York, where I’d usually stay with friends, occasionally splurging on a hotel because I didn’t want to become a parasite.
It was also largely frustrating for my agents, because I was obsessed and driven and wholly occupied by the play, which I was working on while I was writing and filming My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.
Adapting Tiny Beautiful Things took three years and put me in the poorhouse — and I’ve never lived in a more happy place.
This play gives audience members a space to escape and emote openly. One thing that stays with me to this day, after years of doing stage work and musicals and a one-woman show, happened onstage in New York during the second run [in 2017].
My favorite scene in the play is when I’m wearing a red dress, and I say, “In a month I’d be 19. In a year I’d be married. In three years I’d be standing in a meadow not far from that old woman’s yard holding the ashes of my mother’s body in my palms.”
As I said that line, a woman in the audience wailed. I had to hold for a minute, give her space. I was facing the audience and continued, line by line, gently, slowly, while she was just unraveling — unzipping. And everyone in the audience around showed radical empathy. Strangers held her. They helped her.
It was not just a moving moment: It was a connecting moment. Later that night, she wrote me a message on Twitter. It said, “That was me. My friend brought me to the show. I lost my mother a year ago.” I didn’t need an explanation, but boy I loved talking to her. That’s life. That’s live performance.
The goal was to create a piece of theater in which anyone could play any role — and everyone was invited. I put a note in the script that said, “Please cast to reflect the geography of your city. Please feel free to set it where you want to set it. Please cast Sugar in any form, any ethnicity, any age.”
We’ve had requests to cast a trans woman as Sugar. I said: of course. A nonbinary person was cast as Letter Writer #2 in San Diego. The play is for everyone.
I’m sure this is a strange thing to say, but I try not to give advice, because I had years of unsolicited advice coming my way while I was in the middle of 10 years of trying to become a mother. People were forever telling me what I should do.
“Should” is my least favorite word in the English language, after “Nazi.” So, I try not to give advice. I love hearing information — a lot. It’s a different thing to share information.
Cheryl’s columns weren’t advice: They were illuminating rather than instructional. That’s why I was so drawn to them. Their message was: I hear you, I understand what you’re telling me. Here’s something that happened to me. Maybe my story can help you.