Addison — Busy young actor Kate Hamill was more and more bothered by the lack of meaty, meaningful roles for women onstage, especially, perhaps, in the classics of English literature she loved. Being a resourceful sort, she wasn’t content to let things stay that way. Hamill told a recent interviewer she woke one day and said, “Oh, God, I’m gonna have to write them myself, aren’t I?”
Hamill’s sparkling, romping adaptation (for NYC’s Bedlam theater company) of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility premiered in New York in 2014, and was revived for a sold-out run in 2016 and 2017 at The Gym at Judson, a literal gym space off Washington Square that gave it room to move…and play. Eric Tucker directed and Hamill was Marianne, one of the two sisters at the heart of the story.
Early this year, in her blazing, biting adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair at The Pearl Theatre Company (also directed by Tucker), Hamill was Becky Sharp, a poor girl who rises on nothing but her ruthless determination. No better than she ought to be, that one—and we rather loved her anyway.
Now WaterTower Theatre has snared one of the first flights of Hamill’s latest hit, her riff on the Austen mothership Pride and Prejudice—which premiered at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival just this summer. WaterTower’s promotional video for the production features a basketball-playing cast—in sweatbands, sneakers and period dress—all true to Hamill’s theme of courtship and marriage as a love-game we’re all trying to win. This regional premiere is an opportunity for WTT’s new artistic director Joanie Schultz to put her own stamp on work by one of the country’s most exuberant young playwrights.
The WaterTower cast features Justin Duncan as Mr. Bingley/Mary, Steph Garrett as Lydia/Lady Catherine, Bob Hess as Mr. Bennet/Charlotte Lucas, Jenny Ledel as Lizzy, John-Michael Marrs as Mr. Darcy, Kate Paulsen as Jane/Miss De Bourgh, Brandon Potter as Mr. Wickham/Mr. Collins/Miss Bingley, and Wendy Welch as Mrs. Bennet. (Side note since we’ve mentioned Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair: Ledel played the title character in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, a contemporary play inspired by Vanity Fair, at Kitchen Dog Theater years ago.)
Hamill will see the WaterTower production on Saturday, Oct. 14, and participate in a conversation after the performance. See the full schedule of Intersections events at the bottom of this interview.
TheaterJones recently called her in New York City to talk shop.
TheaterJones: Well, we’re very excited to have Pride and Prejudice here so quickly after its premiere a few months ago. Your Austen adaptations—Sense and Sensibility came first—seem to be going around the country at warp speed.
Kate Hamill: Yes, it’s been crazy—and this was very fast!
There seems to be a real hunger for Austen’s work out there.
These are stories people grew up with and are very attached to. I started adapting them myself because I loved them. I do think some of the hunger is that they are women’s stories—and when I started, there were very few adaptations of Austen by women. I was a young woman, and Austen writes about young women—all women, really—who are caught between the demands of their consciences and the demands of society. Unfortunately, that’s evergreen. And the men are caught in that too.
And maybe to your surprise, you found that the Jane-ites out there rather liked what you were doing.
My first time, I really thought people would turn up with torches and pitchforks. But it’s been interesting. With Pride and Prejudice especially, there are several good, straightforward [stage] versions of it out there, along with those on film and television. So I wanted to do something very theatrical and surprising, not the typical Pride and Prejudice. I was afraid of people’s reactions, but so far it’s been great; people have been receptive, open-minded, and willing to see this classic story in a new way.
Your adaptations are marked by a wild level of humor and physical action—but still feel quite faithful to Austen’s voice, and to her surprisingly snarky and comic view of her society. Did it surprise you that you could blend the original “drawing room and teacups” stories with outrageous comedy—and make it work?
You kind of want to create her world and then break it up, to highlight the rules in a theatrical way—the physical comedy is what makes it theatrical—and then show how that world does and doesn’t work, and whether it can bend. And it also shows us our ideas about that time period might not be that accurate. A lot of people think of [early 19th-century England] as a very clean, very refined place—but they all had fleas, and went to the bathroom in chamber pots! There was a thriving underworld of prostitution in Austen’s time—not that you should stick a prostitute in the play.
Life is always messy.
And human beings have always been human beings, now and in 1811, and we’re going down the wrong road to think that they are different from us.
In Sense and Sensibility, and in your adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, you really came to grips with how economically dependent the women are—how easily they can have an awful future if they don’t marry, and how desperately everyone around them is trying to get them paired up.
I once had an acting teacher who said the tragedy of women who couldn’t have jobs is a central truth for all these period plays. It’s easy for modern audiences to think this is a play about romance and marriage. But modern-day marriage, I hate to say, is a bit of a luxury, something that can be about romantic love—whereas in Austen’s world it was about your entire future. You could never get divorced, of course, and if you didn’t make the right decision it’s really tragic for you. And that’s where some of the humor comes up from; as Lizzy says, “You have to laugh so you don’t cry.”
And in Pride and Prejudice, that’s what makes Mrs. Bennett rather a larger character than you might think at first. Yes, she’s silly and annoying, but what a job she has to get all these girls married off.
Exactly, and they don’t have much to offer, they’re quite poor. That’s why it is so revolutionary when Lizzy turns down both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy. It’s sort of an insane decision—speaking to how independent-minded Lizzy is, but it’s a choice that people then will see as completely crazy.
Lizzy’s mother takes to her bed, so she must think that too.
Mrs. Bennett all but stages a hunger strike, basically.
Do you still get people—and by “people” I possibly mean guys—who come up and let you know they’ve entirely missed the sharp comedy and the clear-eyed social commentary, and still think of Jane Austen as a small, boring, chick-lit writer?
You know, I really don’t get that reaction, and that’s lovely! Of course, if those people are there, they probably don’t stick around to talk to me afterwards. The positive response we’ve had, I think, is an argument that these stories are universal. The men face their own problems and restrictions—they struggle with the expectations the world puts on them, as opposed to who they really are.
You’ve called Elizabeth and Darcy “odd ducks who swim together.” It’s a different kind of love story.
I wanted to create a Pride and Prejudice that was not completely predictable. It drives me a little crazy when I feel like everyone has figured out the whole formula before they walk into the theater, and they’re never going to open their eyes. For me, love is most moving when you fall in love with someone because your idiosyncrasies plug in together. If you’re lucky! So I didn’t want to create a world in which an impossibly beautiful Lizzy Bennett falls in love with an impossibly perfect Mr. Darcy. How many of us are supermodels who fall in love with other supermodels?
I think it’s much more interesting to have a character like Darcy, because he is someone who is simply not communicative. He’s not good at using his language—almost a bit on the autism scale. Lizzy uses language well—but badly too, because she talks herself into prejudices, she has a sharp tongue, and she says things she only halfway means. “I talk a lot of nonsense,” she says. I wanted to create a world where these two people have an instant connection, and then spend the rest of the play fighting it—like Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado, where we spend the whole play wanting these two people to get together.
For me, Pride and Prejudice is a story about how you know if you’ve met “the one.” Darcy comes around faster than Lizzy, who starts the play with “I’m never going to marry, that’s not for me.” She’s looking at the kind of bad marriage her parents are in. In life, though, there will be moments when you have to confront your own hypocrisy, when you’re about to do the thing you swore you wouldn’t do. She fights it almost to the end of the story.
I examine a lot of different marriages and matches in the play. But it’s Lizzy’s journey that tracks my own, to tell the truth, starting with “not for me” and “no, I don’t want to get involved”…and then finding how wonderful and terrible it is to fall in love despite that. [Hamill’s partner, actor/director Jason O’Connell, played Darcy to her Lizzy in the Hudson Valley P&P. O’Connell will direct a small-cast version of Cyrano de Bergerac at Amphibian Stage Productions early next year.]
WaterTower has a promotional video for Pride and Prejudice featuring a basketball-playing foursome: Lizzy, Darcy, Jane and Bingley—and I hear there’s a very strong game-playing theme running through the show. [Video trailer at the top of this story; and a “making of” video is at the bottom.]
I did put game imagery all through the play; I’m really interested in the way we codify love as a game. Love is very serious, yet inherently a little bit silly—and we do tend to play it as something with rules, strategies, wins, losses. We even have books called The Game and The Rules, with plenty of advice: don’t call her until a certain number of days have passed, don’t kiss him on the first date, whatever. And the way we treat love as a game does tend to pit people against each other in a way that’s often broken down by gender. So I think that [battle of the sexes image] is very accurate.
In WTT’s production, the Persian rug that fills the stage floor has basketball court markings in the pattern. [The staging is tennis court-style, with the audience on two sides.]
I think that’s so cool! Joanie Schultz is the new artistic director at WaterTower, of course, and we’ve had a few conversations. But one of the best things about seeing [other companies’] productions is getting to watch how they make it their own. I am so sports illiterate it’s ridiculous, so I’m very excited to see what WaterTower does. That video is awesome!
There are a lot of sisters in the Austen adaptations you’ve done so far.
It’s funny, I feel like I’ve done two plays in a row with houses full of girls. I was just workshopping [her adaptation of] Little Women, and was saying to the cast that inter-female relationships have a very particular dynamic. Funny, though, I grew up with a whole lot of boys at my house.
The sisters in Sense and Sensibility are almost the central relationship. In Pride and Prejudice, it’s also all girls in the family—just like my sister’s house. My nieces are wonderful, full of life and intense love, and things can easily devolve into total chaos! The Bennett sisters have very divergent relationships: some of them really love each other, but there’s also love-hate, and sometimes just hate. And they’re all trapped as young adults under one roof.
The relationship between Jane and Lizzy Bennett, very much like the bond between Jane and her sister Cassandra Austen, is a key to the play. Lizzy is very cynical about romantic love for herself, but she has the highest hopes for Jane. And when Darcy stands in the way of Jane’s [marriage to Bingley], that’s what dooms him in Lizzy’s eyes, at least for a while.
You were raised on a farm in rural upstate New York. Did your passion for classic literature take off at home, at school, or…?
I did grow up on a farm! My family was very, very literature oriented and creative. My dad and mother are both English PhD’s, and I didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up, since my dad thought it would rot my brain. So I read, and we were encouraged to be creative. It was a combination of extremely rural—like driving cows off of our front lawn—and all the books you could want. My parents were very unsympathetic whenever I would say “I’m bored.” They would always tell me, “You have books.”
In the original productions of Sense and Sensibility and Vanity Fair, almost all the furniture had wheels, and went whirling around the stage—pushed by the actors—as the scenes or the conversations shifted. I loved it, partly because it kept the audience on their toes, and perhaps listening even harder to the dialogue.
I do not do it [in Pride and Prejudice] because you can’t use the same trick forever. But there are lots of other things going on.
In Vanity Fair, which is a much darker story, you took another 19th century British author, William Makepeace Thackeray, and followed two young women who face limits and problems much like the Bennett sisters—but on steroids.
I was already playing in that world, you know. I wrote Vanity Fair in between writing Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. I’d been doing research into the time period, reading about the criminal underclass and prostitution. Then I picked up Thackeray’s book and fell madly in love with how dark it was. I actually go dark quite easily.
Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both happier plays. Right now I’m working on an adaptation of The Odyssey, and that’s sometimes pretty dark. I like to bounce back and forth.
How hard is it for you to let go? You were so involved, both as playwright and actor, in the original productions. Does sending them off to other directors and other visions make you sad, happy, what?
I’ve been lucky in that I am not a control freak, so I can go to other productions and think, “Oh, how interesting!” But I can see that it would drive you crazy if you were a control freak. But playwrights and directors are like co-parents of a given production—so if you have a child with a different person, they’ll be very different. For me, that’s very moving, because the play is out there in the world.
Your life, your journey as you called it, has changed a great deal in the past few years. If you were describing yourself as a modern-day Austen heroine, who would you be?
Oh, gosh! I think if I had to identify myself as one of them, I probably would be Lizzy, with a healthy dose of Marianne [the unconventional sister of S&S] in the more outré aspects of my personality. Since I’m doing the books in order, I tend to identify with the last character I played!
If you’re doing the novels in the order written, your next Austen would be Northanger Abbey, yes?
It is indeed. And I think that one’s going to be a musical—because it’s such a fun teenage girl adventure. The next Austen play will probably be Mansfield Park, unless my plans change. And I’m working on a musical for the Dallas Theater Center too [adapting the Jules Verne novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea] with Lee Trull and Shawn Magill, who came up with the idea.
There are absolutely no women in the novel, though—so we gender-swapped, and have turned it into a feminist electropop environmental adventure.
Which will be cool!
» The 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct 15 preview is pay-what-you-can and proceeds will benefit efforts to help Houston's Alley Theatre, which was flooded after Hurricane Harvey. WaterTower Theatre has announced its Intersections series for the run of Pride & Prejudice. These talks and events happen after the performance.
Oct. 14 – BELLS AND BALLS – A Conversation with Playwright Kate Hamill
Oct. 15 – A SERIOUS MATTER – A Conversation about Marriage
Oct. 18 – A Conversation with the Artists
Oct. 19 – THE GAME OF LOVE – A Conversation about Modern-Day Matchmaking
Oct. 22 – REGENCY DAY – Dress Up with The Jane Austen Society of North America
Oct. 25 – THE ART OF THE ADAPTATION – A Conversation with Dr. Bonnie Blackwell
Oct. 26 – ASL-Interpreted Performance
Oct. 29 – A Conversation with the Artists
Nov. 1 – A Conversation with the Artists
Nov. 3 – THEIR SHARE OF AMUSEMENT – A Conversation about Misbehaving Women
Nov. 5 – A Conversation with the Artists