Fort Worth — Audience members may already be familiar with the story told in Amphibian’s newest production, Babette’s Feast. Gabriel Axel’s film of the same name won the foreign film Oscar in 1987, and both Amphibian’s production and Axel’s film are based on the 1958 short story by Isak Dinesen (the penname for Karen Blixen). The stage play, conceived and developed by Abigail Kileen and written by Rose Courtney, adheres more closely to Dinesen’s original telling of the goings on in Berlevaag, Norway, using narration and sparse props and set to engage audiences’ imaginations as we move across decades of sisters Martine and Philippa’s lives. In Amphibian’s production, director (and Amphibian Managing Director) Jay Duffer was interested in exploring the true meaning of hospitality; his seven-person ensemble moves in a rigid synchronicity that mirrors the townspeople’s devout Lutheran ideas of faith and generosity – ideas that are challenged when French refugee Babette arrives seeking a new home and a place to work. The show is the largest in Amphibian’s history, so TheaterJones sat down with Duffer to discuss the challenges, rewards, and lessons of hospitality learned from bringing this ambitious telling of a time old tale to life on stage.
TheaterJones: This play is based on a short story and also a movie. How much research did you do on the previous iterations of this story before you got into the staged production?
Jay Duffer: It is a much more faithful adaptation to the short story. When I saw the script, I knew it had a lot of creative license to it. So I read the short story, but I did not re-watch the film, specifically because I did not want any ideas to be planted in my head in terms of visuals or character development or anything like that. So I really went just off the short story as researched, and then digging from the script what I wanted to take out of it, because the script is very open and interpretive, which is beautiful.
How much of the style is dictated by the script? Does it give you the breakdown of which ensemble member plays which specific roles?
No! It says Players 1-6 and we added Player 7. Really just Martine, Philippa and Babette are the only true ones that are specifically given lines. Now, I did go off the off-Broadway script, and I have actually known Abigail Killeen [who conceived and developed the play], so I called her a couple of times and asked a couple of questions, but it was non-traditional and gender-bending casting in the off-Broadway [production] and I really liked that approach. It doesn’t really say whether they are male or female in the script, it just says “Player 1” or “Player 3.” You have to figure that out then, and as we added that seventh player, how is that going to work in terms of logistics of “OK, this person [should] actually play this character” or “if they get bumped to this character what does it do to the other characters?”
Is much of that just dictated by the staging and tracking?
By the tracking, yeah. Some of them, we knew it would be difficult because they’d be a character right before that, but then I thought that’s sort of fun, to have the audience watch an immediate transformation.
Alongside the story research, this depicts a very specific community and religion at a very specific time. Did you do any research within that community that then guided or illuminated your production of the script?
Not specifically anything Nordic Lutheran. I’m very familiar with the Lutheran tradition — I’m Lutheran currently — but I’m more familiar with and used my background of being Southern Baptist. That, to me, has some of those rules and regulations growing up that I looked at thinking “what’s the purpose of these things: not drinking? not dancing?” — I was not allowed to dance when I was raised in that specific religion. And “what’s the impetus behind it? How does it lead to sin? What’s so sinful about indulging something like that?” I think that’s where I met the characters, from my own understanding of the rigidity of the religious tenants, or the dogma associated with it and questioning “is that really God’s plan?” or “how much is being enforced through some sort of interpretation along the way? Where did that come in?” So, I look at [the play’s] small religious sect and think “OK, how much of this [rigidity] is the Dean’s doing?” We talked about that as a cast — what would the Dean have enforced because the Dean took issue with something. Including diet. If you’ll notice, in one scene, when Papin and Philippa and are doing their singing lessons, I actually had the Dean and Martine eating a meal, and we were very particular in how they ate. They did not speak, they would take a very limited portion and savor it — it’s a very slow process, a thoughtful process without much communion or community at that table. So, to me, all the clues were there in terms of rigidity of that sect.
The rigidity seems to be something you’ve really captured in the piece. I was really struck by the movement being almost like a music box, these people moving in these very set paths. It must be a feat with such a large cast…
And in such a small space!
Right, and Amphibian’s website mentions that with 10 actors and several designers this is the biggest show in the theater’s history. I’m wondering if you can speak to why, especially when so many theaters have an eye on the bottom line—something I know you can speak and relate to in your position as Managing Director—why is this story something you can take a chance on with that large cast?
Everything’s a risk, but our job is to look at it through the lens of risk management. As we started to look at the popularity of the movie, and the particular demographic we already have a strong connection with, we felt like it would be a draw. Ever since we announced it in our season, everybody goes “Oh yeah! Babette’s Feast!” and they have some sort of figment, way back in their brain, of recognition. We knew we grabbed it early—it hasn’t had a chance to gain momentum or steam because it just ran off-Broadway last spring I believe [TJ note: The play ran at the Theatre at St. Clement’s from March 25 through September 3 of last year], so we were one of the first theatre companies to snatch it up… That’s another thing we can look at and say “what are we offering that no one else is offering?” and we’re constantly looking for those kinds of things. But, thematically, I think it’s so topical with the issue of how do we deal with refugees, and that is a topic of national debate right now.
I think most people are good. And they want to do good by anybody that’s coming into their borders, or anybody that they are going to be hospitable to. They have really true intentions of being good. And so, I think we can watch something like this and [it] can remind us of this impetus. Even beyond this, [I mention in] my director’s note, … the kind of love and grace that [Dinesen] represents in her story… it goes on a deeper level. [It’s] more than just a provisional need of “I’m going to bring you into my house, I’m going to feed you and give you a place to rest.” Ultimately what she’s talking about is acceptance: … “You’ve been raised unlike me, your ideology is completely different than mine, but the grace you have given me through this meal has opened my eyes to something that is beyond my own comprehension.”
I think that’s a beautiful expression because [the characters] are kind and they are so generous, but they have conditions, and not until the very end are those conditions released. … It hits them like a ton of bricks that maybe their vision is a bit too narrow. … That’s such a beautiful story where everybody comes together and finds common ground at that meal.
Speaking of your director’s note, you write about hospitality and the difference between “hospitality” and its roots in a more familial “brotherly love.” I’m struck by that and wonder about its relationship to theatre. In the vision statement for Amphibian, the theater is referred to as a “home,” and anyone that’s been in a play before has probably heard the expression “my theatre family,” or “my show family.” Can you speak to any moment in this process where you were really struck by that feeling of brotherly love you mention? And maybe more largely to the hospitality Amphibian is trying to extend to its community, and the obligation that most theaters are wrestling with here and nationwide about how can we be better about extending “hospitality” in that bigger way?
In this particular process, it’s been very difficult — I’m not saying it’s not enjoyable, it’s been a very enjoyable process, this cast is wonderful — but I think as they got into day 2 or 3 of rehearsal, they had no idea what they signed up for; Because of the [movement], they are moving constantly, and [so] it was a struggle to connect to the vision, and it was a struggle to connect the actual blocking to the text at times. I felt where that hospitality revealed itself in the process was there was a great deal of patience on both sides. I knew I needed to be patient with them because what we are asking them to do is hard, I mean they are exhausted, and it’s not what every actor does. If you’re in contemporary realism you have a lot of flexibility, and here you still have the ability to interpret and bring your own style to the characters but you have to be in the right pose in the exact right spot, you have to be tonally within the play, you have to share lines with other people. They quickly realized that there can’t be any selfish agenda. The play itself is community, the play itself is being hospitable to the actors around you in order to give them the space to create.
To the larger issue, I think most theaters worth their salt are going to try to be addressing relevant issues and contribute to the conversation in a way that’s not necessarily didactic or preachy, but in a way that enlightens the patrons, where it’s an open-ended question. “You’ve seen this, you’ve seen one response to it, and what are you going to do?” And that’s part of our mission, because we are not just a certain slice of people, or culture, or anything, in Fort Worth.
The beautiful thing about theatre is it’s all-encompassing, and if you’re going to truly say you’re all-encompassing, then you sort of have to walk the talk, and that means diversity in casting, diversity in season selection, that means taking risks sometimes where the theater could be a catalyst for change. I think that’s where we can really embrace a play like this and say “You’re welcome here. Whether you’re an actor, whether you’re starting your career, whether you’re in the middle of your career, whether you’re towards the end of your career.” … We certainly want to make sure as we’re moving forward in our future that we are inclusive and not exclusive of any particular culture, or person, or belief system, or anything like that. The minute you start doing that you lose your validity. It was a smart thing [Executive Artistic Director Kathleen Anderson Culebro] did when she created our mission statement. We take care of ourselves and we want to take care of others. You can see that reflected in our programming, you can see that reflected in our additional programming like Tadpoles and DE-CRUIT, so hopefully that mission is getting out there. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to be locked into just these kinds of plays, but it does certainly mean we’re always going to be thinking about it.
» Babette’s Feast runs through Sunday, May 26 at Amphibian Stage Productions. Tickets are General Admission, $34 Friday through Sunday and $20 on Thursdays. Amphibian is also asking patrons to consider donating $20 to celebrate their 20th season to help fund further training for their Tadpoles students and teachers.
» Haley Nelson is a dramaturg and actor based in Dallas