NYT’s Outdoor Stages: A Madcap ‘Pride & Prejudice’ in the Hudson Valley

Originally Published in The New York Times
By Mary Jo Murphy | June 29, 2017

Lizzy Bennet lives with Mr. Darcy in Queens.

This summer, however, the prickliest pair in fiction can be found most nights in their own D.I.Y. Pemberley, a tent in Garrison, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River — and reminding audiences that the finest china in their beloved Jane Austen is as likely to be a chamber pot as a teacup.

Lizzy is Kate Hamill. Her stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice” had its premiere last Saturday at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival there, where it will play in repertory until September before shifting to Primary Stages Off Broadway in November. And yes, Ms. Hamill acts opposite her nonfictional boyfriend, Jason O’Connell. It’s a first for the couple, although he played the future brother-in-law, Edward, to her Marianne Dashwood in Ms. Hamill’s previous Austen adaptation, “Sense & Sensibility,” a rollicking muslins-on-wheels affair (by the appropriately named theater company Bedlam) that had an acclaimed run Off Broadway last year.

Ms. Hamill, 33, says she plans to adapt all six Austen novels for the stage — probably in the order of their writing, the better to chart her own progress against Austen’s. “Northanger Abbey” may be next. (“There’s something I love about teenage vernacular,” she said in an interview last week.) Starting with “Sense & Sensibility” was perhaps wise: She could gauge the appetite for yet another Austen adaptation before adapting the most adapted — and cherished — of them all, “Pride & Prejudice.” “It’s the one everyone knows,” she said. “People have a serious attachment to it.”

“Sense” was such a hit that even a committed Janeite’s attachment might well withstand an irreverent “Pride.”

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Jason O’Connell and Kate Hamill, center, in “Pride & Prejudice” at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Credit Nicole Fara Silver for The New York Times

And it is irreverent. Think men cast as Mary, the plain and prudish Bennet sister, and as the snobbish Miss Bingley. A lot of “intentional water spillage.” Mr. Bingley as near to being a puppy as a man can be without being on all fours.

“People might feel I have desecrated their idols, but, you know, at least I’ve tried to do something interesting,” she said, noting that she had not put zombies in it, and that “I haven’t set it on Mars.” She has discovered, however, that “Janeites” — and she counts herself as one — “are pretty open-minded people; they’re exceptionally generous. Because sometimes I’m taking liberties.”

Ms. Hamill doesn’t see the purpose in adapting a classic unless there is a clear point of view. She found hers for “Pride & Prejudice” in the exaggerated notion of courtship and marriage as a game with winners, losers, referees and exceptionally bad coaches. She applied her own “historical ambivalence about marriage” just as she was arriving at the age when her friends were pairing off around her. She concluded that matches happen between people “whose weirdnesses fit together.”

She looked to the Shakespeare canon for a model. “It’s a romantic comedy, and I was thinking, what romantic comedies do I not hate?” The answer was “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“I thought the big challenge going into it was, everyone knows who gets together,” she said. “I wanted to make a certain story uncertain. How do you make a ‘Much Ado’ where you’re really not sure if Benedick and Beatrice get together?”

She was not afraid to go broad and go silly. There are games galore in her production. (In researching games of the period, she said, she discovered one in which participants simply slap one another in the face. It’s not in her production.)

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Kate Hamill in her Elizabeth Bennet best for “Pride & Prejudice.” Credit Nicole Fara Silver for The New York Times

Bells ring throughout her play: wedding bells; alarm bells; the kind of bells that signal rounds in a prizefight; a chime that sounds, if only in your head, when you connect with your imperfect perfect match. (“It kind of annoys me when both Lizzy and Darcy are supermodels,” she said.)

The clanging insistence of bells became a critical device to her retelling of this classic story about the game of games: the marriage game.

Ms. Hamill grew up in a farmhouse in rural Lansing, N.Y., the fifth of six siblings. She knows how to milk a cow and collect eggs from hens, but she spent much of her time reading (“My parents didn’t believe in TV”), and she joined the theater program in her very small high school. That’s where she gained some sage advice. She was studying to be an actress, but the drama teacher told the girls that if they wanted work, they had to create it.

When she moved to New York, one of her jobs involved writing copy for catalogs. Hundreds of descriptions of jewelry. “You start to just amuse yourself: What else can I say about this pendant?” Early on, she said, “in my mind a serious writer was someone different from me,” and she remained committed to acting. But she wearied of auditions for “silent suffering girlfriend” and “girl in bikini.” That’s when she recalled her old instructor’s counsel. Three-quarters of all plays are written by men, and an overwhelming majority of parts are for men, she said, reeling off statistics she seemed to have learned the hard way. She began to think about creating “new classics.”

In addition to the two Austen novels, she has adapted Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” and is at work on Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and — why not? — “The Odyssey,” for which she wrote a scene, she said, featuring a Cyclops singing to his sheep.

In the meantime, she is vastly amused to be doing a show with Mr. O’Connell in which they get to “bicker and hate each other for hours” — and nightly he must recite a proposal that was written by her.

 

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
By Kate Hamill
Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
A co-production with Primary Stages
Running June 10 – September 4, 2017

Kate Hamill’s Top 7 ‘Musts’ for an Ideal Mr. Darcy

When considering Jane Austen’s aloof, hard-headed Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, which devilishly handsome leading man comes to mind? If you’re like anyone with access to BBC or A&E in the mid-’90s, Colin Firth may be your go-to embodiment of this unlikely romantic hero, having appeared in 1995’s made-for-television Pride & Prejudice directed by Simon Langton.

“Women being attracted to [Mr. Darcy] took me by surprise,” Firth recently told The Daily Mail. “When I took on the role it seemed to me that he was imperious and stiff and forbidding, and I didn’t know what there was to play apart from him scowling all the time. I thought it would be quite fun and liberating to play someone who was completely and utterly dislikeable, unsympathetic, judgmental and snobbish.”

Darcy may find a foe in Firth, but a friend in playwright Kate Hamill. Hamill’s playful adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE makes its debut under the HVSF Theater Tent this summer, and not without the weirdo women (and men) who’ve become signature players in a Hamill adaptation.

“I’m so disinterested in beautiful, perfect people,” beamed Hamill. “Lizzy Bennet’s a total weirdo and should be treated as such. She and Darcy are both odd ducks… odd ducks that swim together.”

So how will Hamill’s Odd Duck Darcy shape up this summer? Here are her top seven must-haves in an ideal leading man:

  1. Righteous: “He tries to do the right thing all the time”
  2. Smart: “He’s capable of being quite nerdy.”
  3. Stubborn: “That’s a big one!”
  4. Principled: “He has to be someone with a lot of integrity.”
  5. Funny: “Intentionally and unintentionally, for sure.”
  6. Magnetic: “Someone you feel a deep connection with.”
  7. But, above all: “HUMAN! There’s just no other way to put it.”

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is in previews June 10 – June 23, 2017 and runs June 24 – September 4, 2017. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

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Cold Reading: Tech to the Future

The following is part of our ongoing series
Cold Reading: Winter insights on the upcoming season from Artistic Director Davis McCallum


Hi, Friends.

We’re about to start tech rehearsal for Lauren Gunderson’s THE BOOK OF WILL here at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts on Friday. This is the part of the production process when the show’s team of Designers (Scenic, Lighting, Sound, Costume, and Props) appears together in the rehearsal room. Of course, the Denver Center’s brilliant Stage Managers have been keeping them looped in on the many day-to-day decisions we’ve been making, but once we’re able to have our creative team in the room in person, all sorts of new ideas surface and new possibilities emerge.


tech rehearsal, noun /tek/rəˈhərsəl/

A rehearsal that focuses more on the technological aspects of the performance, such as lighting and sound cues, than on acting.


We’ve been working on a production that includes some cheeky moments of anachronism, with elements of our theater culture today sprinkled in with what we imagine it might have been like for Shakespeare’s company in the early 17th century. We can all imagine what it might feel like for a group of actors to go out to the bar after a performance – in fact, you may have even spotted HVSF’s own company members patronizing the watering holes on Cold Spring’s Main Street during the summer months – but how would the actors in Shakespeare’s company take their drinks? In pewter steins? Bottles? Ceramic jugs? Would their post-show haunt include a tap? Might there even be a dart board in the corner?

Would a Stage Manager in Shakespeare’s time use a clipboard? Of course not. But in the world that we’re creating onstage, perhaps he could. How about a stopwatch? Is it possible there’s a ghost light on the empty stage at the Globe in this play, even though electricity won’t truly be harnessed for several centuries?


ghost light, noun /ɡōst/līt/

An electric light that is left energized on the stage of a theater when the theater is unoccupied (‘dark’), for improved safety – and superstition.


This, of course, relates to the vocabulary of the music and the clothes and the set. Our goal with THE BOOK OF WILL is to create a world that’s not at all concerned with historical authenticity, but somehow still feels realer than real, and captures the playful spirit of Lauren’s writing. The play has been exhaustively researched and has woven into it a significant amount of detail from what we know about the printing of the First Folio, but the show’s spirit is irreverent. I keep thinking that the creation of ‘the book’ in the Jaggard Print House in THE BOOK OF WILL should be about as authentic as Doc. Brown’s DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future. In other words, we’re making the play with more emphasis on engaging the audience’s imagination, than on conforming to what we think we know about the past.

I look forward to heading into tech with Lauren and this remarkable team and figuring out how all of these pieces fit together. See you on the other side!

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THE BOOK OF WILL is in previews June 9 – June 21, 2017 and runs June 22 – July 28, 2017. Season tickets go on sale to the public in March, but members of our Saints & Poets Society and Festival Circles have early access. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

Cold Reading: Davis Goes to Denver

The following is the first in our ongoing series
Cold Reading: Winter insights on the upcoming season from Artistic Director Davis McCallum


Dear Friends,

I’m writing you from Denver, where I’m at the end of the first week of rehearsal for THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson. We’ll be mounting the show here at the Denver Center Theater Company at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in January, then again at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival Theater Tent this summer. The play tells the unlikely story of two actors in Shakespeare’s company, who take it upon themselves to ensure the survival of his plays by collecting and publishing them as the First Folio (The Collected Works of William Shakespeare) in 1623 [read more]. It’s funny and heartbreaking and full of lip-smackingly juicy parts for actors. I love it and am having loads of fun rehearsing it. I’m especially looking forward to seeing how it changes and grows over two productions, in two very different spaces.

We started on Tuesday with a big meet and greet and design presentation. It was very inspiring to hear Lauren talk about how and why she started writing the play. We share a strong conviction that Shakespeare belongs to everyone, and the 36 plays contained in the First Folio reflect the full range of what it means to be human. The more I work on the play, the more I am convinced that it’s really a story of a theater company more than it is the story of the creation of a famous book. And that’s something that I relate very strongly to HVSF.

We have a brilliant dramaturge on the show here in Denver, Doug Langworthy. He’s an old friend of mine from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and he’s been at the Denver Center for the last decade or so. His role is to be an advocate for the play, and to help the playwright and director in making a show that expresses as fully as possible the play’s potential. In this context, he’s provided myself and the cast with an exhaustively researched packet full of information about the First Folio, Shakespeare’s theater company, Jacobean society, clothes, manners, money, publishing, copyright, etcetera… anything that might have bearing on the events of the play. It’s great fun to have him in rehearsal because he knows so much about the world of the play, and can be a great resource to the rest of the team as we make all the different choices that go into a production.

We’ve had six days of rehearsal, and we spent the first few around the table reading the play to each other. And then for the last couple of days, we’ve been up on our feet, making the first feeble stabs at staging the various scenes. The company here is wonderful and we’re all excited about the direction that it’s going.

Denver is lovely, but I miss my family and the Hudson Highlands. Wishing everyone there a great start to the holiday season!

More next week…

Warmly,

election_davissig

 

 

THE BOOK OF WILL is in previews June 9 – June 21, 2017 and runs June 22 – July 28, 2017. Season tickets go on sale to the public in March, but members of our Saints & Poets Society and Festival Circles have early access. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.

Our Lady of Will: Playwright Lauren Gunderson on THE BOOK OF WILL

“When I came across the story of the First Folio printing, I was struck by the many rich characters involved and the myriad ways they could’ve not succeeded,” said THE BOOK OF WILL playwright Lauren Gunderson on a recent November phone call. “It spoke to so many themes — lineage, mortality, legacy, family, friendship — and I was excited to write a new play about a timeless subject: how art lasts beyond the humans who make it.”


First Folio, noun \ˈfərst\ˈfō-lē-ˌō\
The 1623 published collection of 36 of William Shakespeare’s plays, otherwise known as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies.

THE BOOK OF WILL, a rolling world premiere set for the HVSF Theater Tent June 9 – July 28, 2017, follows the lives of two actors in Shakespeare’s own company, Henry Condell and John Heminges, as they navigate the preservation and printing of Shakespeare’s work in the early 1600s. With no money, no easy way of authenticating Shakespeare’s catalogue of plays, and a deep desire to get everything right, the pair enlist the help of their wives and colleagues to bring the iconic stories of Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and so many more to the world.

Gunderson, an Atlanta native recently named the most produced living playwright in America by American Theatre Magazine, often writes historical dramas. “I fancy theater as a kind of time travel. We’re not just seeing a world but actively visiting it.” Many of her dramatis personae are respected women in the sciences: astronomers, mathematicians… so what of the women supporting Shakespeare’s all-male company?

“Even though women tended not to be acknowledged onstage or in historical record during Shakespeare’s day, Condell and Heminges both named their wives as executors of their wills,” said Gunderson. “This is a big deal because it meant that they respected them enough to, essentially, hand over their legacies. It was a natural jumping off point for me.”

As the noise and color of Elizabethan London begin to unfold onstage, so, too, do the desires, doubts, and egos of a diverse band of relatable friends. “Shakespeare doesn’t need our help in idolizing him, but humanizing him,” said Gunderson. “Stories of him at the bar with friends, of him being heartbroken or frustrated, of those he left behind in death… they resonate.”


“History walks again here. Love is lived again. Loss is met and survived and wept for and understood here and not the first time but every time.”
– THE BOOK OF WILL

One particularly affecting scene finds Condell and Heminges on a darkened Globe stage in the middle of the night, united in mourning. Gunderson admits that it dragged her into the phenomenon of storytelling itself: “The scene came out all in one big rush and spun me off into… why? Why do we do this together? We still go see Romeo & Juliet. We still go see Richard II. Why? It became the heart of the entire story.”

Gunderson and the show’s director, HVSF Artistic Director Davis McCallum, will get the chance to further investigate that heart in the new year, as the play experiences its first staged performances by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company (January 13 – February 26, 2017). A number of Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival favorites – including powerhouse couple Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson – will perform in Denver’s production before the show is reimagined for HVSF’s Theater Tent by McCallum.

Not a ‘Shakespeare person’? Not a problem for Gunderson. “Ultimately, it’s an underdog tale. I hope our audiences will see it as a powerful story of friendship and legacy.”

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THE BOOK OF WILL is in previews June 9 – June 21, 2017 and runs June 22 – July 28, 2017. Are you between the ages of 16 and 35? Consider joining our Revelers or Teen Revelers program for exclusive discounts, events, and more.