Kate Hamill and Amanda Dehnert on adapting Jane Austen for the Stage

Amanda Dehnert and Kate Hamill


Written by Sarah Rebell

Photography by Tess Mayer

December 12th, 2017


It is a truth not sufficiently acknowledged that an actress in possession of a good role must often be in want of a female-driven narrative. Kate Hamill is determined to change that. In 2014, Kate adapted Sense and Sensibility for the stage, garnering an Alliance Award, as well as Drama League and Lortel nominations. Now, the self described Jane-ite (avid Jane Austen fan) has adapted, and is currently starring as Lizzy Bennet in, Pride and Prejudice at The Cherry Lane Theatre, directed by Amanda Dehnert. I recently sat down with Kate and Amanda to discuss the importance of women-centered theatrical narratives and what it’s like to adapt a work by Jane Austen, who they believe was a feminist writer way ahead of her time.

I’d like to start by asking about the impetus for adopting 19th century novels into plays. Kate, I know that you’ve spoken before about how your feminist instinct led to the desire to create roles for yourself.

Kate: I’m explicitly not only a female-gendered playwright, but a feminist playwright. As I’ve spoken about before, I really was frustrated at the dearth of roles, both on stage and off stage, for women and women-centered narratives, especially in classical theatre. That’s both on artistic grounds, because these are the universal stories we build our culture around, but also on, frankly, a show business ground, because theatres want to produce classics. It gets audiences in the door. I believe deeply in the non-cynical view, which is that they’re beautiful and they deserve to be produced. If those are always male-centered stories by male writers, then we’re going to keep losing these female artists. That dynamic is never going to shift. So that’s how I started, and I started with Jane Austen because she’s a young woman writing about young women’s stories. I felt such a kinship with her. I love Jane Austen’s stories. I also decided I wanted to do all of Jane Austen’s novels in the order she wrote them, because it is interesting to track her growth, along with, hopefully, my growth. And I think their class structure and gender issues—especially a rising income inequality and how that affects women—those things are very, very relevant.

And you’re playing a role that you wrote. Are there certain aspects of Lizzy’s personality and the journey she has that you and Amanda are consciously choosing to emphasize?

Kate: I wrote it, more or less, for myself. Sometimes I joke that the subtext of this play should be, “How Kate feels about marriage,” or, “love can indeed exist in patriarchal structures, but patriarchal structures make it harder.” It’s a lot about how I turned from someone who was very cynical about romantic love into someone who is in a happy monogamous relationship, dealing with my own fears about marriage and commitment. And then I think I connect to Lizzy’s defense mechanisms and her sense of humor. If I’m writing a script and I think I’m writing a role for myself in it, sometimes it becomes clear as I write the script, “Oh, I should probably play that part.” Or sometimes I know that going in. This one evolved as I wrote it. One of the nice things about working with a brilliant master director like Amanda on it is that you have an outside eye who can collaborate with you and help you shape that character.

Amanda: I think that acting is a personal art, but so is writing, so is directing. The only difference is, as writers and directors, we personalize all of them. You live inside the point of view of each character, and there’s no way that isn’t ultimately influenced by how your worldview works, how you think about the human struggle, and how as a woman I think about that particular existence. One of the benefits I found of working with a writer/actress is I always can know, “Well, it’s Kate. So, which Kate is it right now?” Out of all of the characters, not just the one she plays. How are these all reflections of this human? It’s fun that way. That’s all we’re ever trying to do, is be human in the theatre, and having that closeness with the author and actor, I think it adds a lot. It makes it special. I think something that we have in common is: I’m basically a classics director. I care about the human universals that are in those stories, and how they are a part of what has shaped our culture, and how to find their life now without denying what they are, or turning it into something that it is not. I always like to joke that I think there are Jane Austen people and Emily Brontë people. I’m actually probably a Brontë, which in a lot of ways helped me because I’m not as steeped in the material. I have the advantage of actually not knowing the novel as a canonical thing. It makes it much easier for me to just take Kate’s story, which isn’t simply a reframing of the novel. It’s its own story, and that’s what I like about directing classics: the assumptions that people have about them are almost never completely correct. The art of it is finding the point of view of the story within that story that you’re going to tell.

Kate: Nothing irritates me more than a copy and paste version of something. I feel like the theatre should be celebrated as its own art form, and a play should be a play. It should not be some copy and paste version of the novel, or you’re not adding anything to the conversation. You’re never going to compete with how good the novel is. I’m not looking to repeat something, because I’m, in fact, looking to do rather the opposite. Because I think it’s just not personally challenging, and not pushing myself. Almost everyone knows the basic plot structure of Pride and Prejudice, even if they forget things about it. And there are a bunch of very good, straightforward adaptations, so I really wanted to create one that was surprising and that let you see an old, old story in a new way. That meant I had to come up with quite a strong take. So I decided, while not losing the depth of the story, the emotional depth, to add a lot of elements of screwball comedy and farce. Amanda and I collaborated on this high structure, bits, and absurd characters. I was very determined to have actors play several characters because that’s something you can only do in the theatre. Especially with Pride and Prejudice, I’m not looking to duplicate some perfect period accurate film. I’m looking to create something specifically theatrical and specifically related to the theme of this play.

Your casting choices were really interesting, where you chose to double cast.

Kate: The characters in the script are written to be gender-neutral, most of them. Mrs. Bennet can be either a man or a woman. Mr. Bennet can be either a man or a woman. Mary can be either a man or a woman. But also, the way that we cast it now, the men who play women are also the women who enforce patriarchal standards on the other women. They’re the women who say, “This is what a perfect woman is. This is what you should do,” and some of them are more sympathetic, like Charlotte, and some of them are less sympathetic, like Mary.

Amanda: There’s always an architecture to how you double characters, whether you want there to be or not. You try to make it serve rather than detract.

What about the choice to only have four Bennet sisters instead of five?

Amanda: It goes back to what makes a novel a novel and what makes a play a play. Dramatic literature works differently. Every role needs to occupy a specific perspective in an almost Dickensian way. If they don’t have that job in the story, they’re not going to help you. They’re just going to weigh you down.

Another thing that’s very particular to your adaptation is the theme of games. I’d love to hear about what it was like for you to research the games they would have played, how you decided what games to put where, dramaturgically, in the show.

Kate: When I was first researching it, I was researching regency games, and I really wanted the games to be recognizable. There was a regency game where the people literally just slapped each other in the face or dumped flour on each other, and I was like, “That is interesting, but the audience wouldn’t really relate to it.” I think that love… we play it like a game. It’s something that’s supposed to be very serious, but also not serious, and there are lots of rules and punishments and scoring. So, I built some games into the script, and then we did a lot of finding the games in rehearsal, finding relatable games so the audience can be like, “Oh, they’re chasing each other.” Because that way, it keeps the theme of the games alive throughout. The play in itself is sort of like a game. They’re trying to out-do each other.

Amanda: You’re dealt a hand before you do anything as a human in a society, and then you’re figuring out how you feel about those cards. The opening [in which the cast sings the Wayne Fontana song “The Game of Love”] is just a little way to create an event like that in a theatrical way that’s also funny, that also deals with whether you fit in or not, and whether that’s by choice or not. And it has bells in it, which stand in for that feeling that you’re supposed to get when you meet the person that you’re supposed to be with. I don’t know who decides the “supposed to,” but it’s also a very real thing.

Kate: There are bells in the script basically whenever something happens that’s beyond the character’s control that will change their life significantly. I’m so lucky that Amanda’s such a musical genius, because I was like, “Amanda, there are bells. Just bells. Some are fighting bells, and some are door bells.” She was like, “You know, there are a lot of kinds of bells in the world.” I was like, “Oh. Yeah, okay.” In my naïveté, I was just like, “Ding dong, I would like some bells.”

We’ve been talking a lot about your collaboration; it’s always amazing to see a creative team that has a woman director and a woman writer. You also have an additional collaborator in Jane Austen.

Amanda: As a director, my job is to understand what the writer meant. Working on a new play, it’s understanding what the writer means to be saying, and is that what is happening? How can you be useful to them in terms of getting them as close to what they mean to be saying as possible? It’s all just stories, and as long as you can let yourself be taken by a story, the writer is very present. You can only go off of what they’ve left you. The source material is awesome. I think, too, Jane Austen herself is an example of the fact that women in the Regency Era were not all just on board for the plan.

Kate: People are always like, “Oh, I didn’t realize Jane Austen is funny.” I’m like, “Jane Austen is hysterically funny.” She herself, when she went to the theatre, loved comedies. That was the thing she loved. So when people are like, “How would Jane Austen feel about this?” I’m always like, “I haven’t gotten haunted yet.”

When do you first remember being aware of Jane Austen or reading one of her novels?

Kate: In school, in high school. I grew up in a very small town, and my parents were both English PhDs, so there was a lot of literature around. My parents were not sympathetic when you said you were bored. They were like, “Well, go read something, or go write.” So that’s when I started. I liked her in high school, but I really fell in love with her in college. I just picked up the novels and started reading them and was just, like, crying. For me, we didn’t have to read them in school. So I never had to come at it from an obligatory place. I just fell in love with her because I loved her.

What kinds of idiosyncratic things have you uncovered in your own journey of Jane Austen, researching her life and her work?

Kate: I love her letters. She was so funny and mean. Oh my god. She was so mean. I slipped this line into Sense and Sensibility early in, although it’s in overlapping dialogue so you don’t hear it. She wrote about a neighbor who had died, and she said, “I suppose he happened to look at his wife.” It’s so mean, and it’s about someone who just died! But it’s so funny. I mean, she was the kind of person you’d want to sit next to at a party. Reading her letters, they’re all fun for me. I feel a real connection to her. I flatter myself we might have been friends. She wrote at a time when there was no reason for her to believe that she would have the kind of immortality she has, and yet she wrote these amazing stories, and she didn’t make much money from them. The thought of how she did that, without quite knowing what the return would be, is really inspiring. Because I think it’s really easy as an artist to be like, “I don’t know if this is ever going to see the light of day; I don’t know what this will mean to anyone.” The fact that she did all that, and not even under her own name—because it was so popular, she got this sort of accidental fame but she didn’t do it for fame—she did it just because she needed to, and that ambition, that’s very inspiring. When you’re writing a play and you’re like, “No one is ever going to want to see this play,” it’s hard sometimes. You’re like, “I could be watching TV right now.” And so it’s inspiring to me that she did that.

She’s really credited in a lot of ways with furthering the development of the novel. She had a huge impact on the whole literary genre.

Kate: When people are like, “Gosh, she writes romance,” I think it’s very sexist. I think it’s a very sexist, reductive way to look at her work, because it’s like, “Yeah, Dickens has romance in his, too.” Dickens is a “social theorist” when Jane Austen is a “romance novel writer.” There’s nothing wrong with romance novels at all, but to reduce her to that, is just sexism for sure, because she absolutely is as brilliant as any of those guys. Thackeray, Dickens, Hawthorne, any of those dudes. She’s just as good, if not better than all of them. I do have people come up and be like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that she’s so lively and fun.” It’s like, “Yeah. There’s a reason we’re still reading it.” She also extends across cultures. And, people can quibble about it, but in my viewpoint, she’s a feminist writer. The fact that she was a feminist writer before feminism was a thing is incredible. So, when people are like, “Oh, the romance novel thing,” it just feels reductive.

What do you think makes her a feminist writer?

Kate: I think she’s telling stories that take a real cockeyed view at marriage, at romantic love, at what is expected of women, of the silent desperation that women in patriarchal structures face, of the struggle to regulate your own behavior based on outside norms that have nothing to do with who you really are. She writes very smart women. She writes women who are wicked. She writes women who are considering the worlds around them, and trying to figure out how to deal with their own lives under those rules. So, it’s explicitly feminist in that she is writing women whose stories are just as interesting as men’s. And so she’s automatically a feminist writer.

My brain was broken by the election. I think everyone’s brain was broken, but especially in the last few weeks, it’s so crazy to me when people are like, “That’s a woman’s story.” It’s like, “Okay, women’s stories are human stories.” Especially in the theatre, 68% of the audiences are women. So when something is just called a woman’s story, it drives me crazy. And it creates these power structures that are like, of course there are Harvey Weinsteins in the world, because when it’s like, “Oh, the male story is dominant…” My point is, she’s a feminist writer because she’s making a female narrative predominant, and there are complicated women who don’t have easy solutions.

Amanda: To explode something you said, she’s writing about the world and the structures that the world imposes on women, and then how women exist within those structures, and how it affects them. She’s not just writing about the female whatever. It’s always in a context. It is frustrating, and yet true, that it hasn’t really changed all that much. Feminism isn’t over.

Kate: No, oh my God.

Amanda: It’s not like, “Oh, that happened, and now everything is great.” You look at how long ago she was writing these books. You look at where we are now. You look at the expectations that we still have of women, that people have an expectation of Jane Austen as a romance novelist simply because she has a uterus.

In the show, there were clear moments of consent being asked, especially at the end when Mr. Bennet tells Mr. Darcy: “Sir, if you can secure my daughter’s consent, you have mine.” Was anything discussed in a slightly different way, or reconsidered in the rehearsal room, as all of these allegations were coming out?

Kate: It become more pertinent. Because it’s an omnipresent, universal problem. Unfortunately, these things are evergreen. I, at one point, got an upset email from someone who was being nice, but saying, “I’m upset that it feels like Mr. Collins is pursuing Lizzy without her consent.” I was like, “That is what happens in the book. If you think that’s not a thing that happens in life, then it’s a mirror up to nature, man.” The fact that you find that upsetting is, maybe you should find that upsetting. There’s a certain comic Pepé Le Pew aspect to it—because Collins is a comic character—but those situations happen. I believe we should show them on the stage.

Amanda: And the benefit, or advantage, of comedy, is just like the advantage of fiction. It lets people relax enough to actually observe what’s taking place instead of separating themselves from it, which we do when it is real or feels too real.

Kate: Lately I’ve been going through my brain being like, “How many times did I gloss over things myself, in order not to get so upset about them?” And now being like, “In retrospect, of course that wasn’t cool.” I do think that happens if one subset of people has too much power and controls all the narratives, then they abuse that power.

It’s interesting to me how you equated power with narratives just now.

Kate: The reason why these stories, like Jane Austen, are so interesting to us is that it’s teaching us about who we are in the world and who we could be. What does it do to you when your protagonist is always male, or always white, or always straight, or whatever? You’re learning that that’s the dominant narrative, and you’re learning that everyone else is tertiary. And that has real repercussions. It has repercussions internally and externally. I think the stories we see influence the stories we make and the stories we become. The great thing about theatre is it can teach empathy, and if you’re only teaching empathy for one kind of story, you’re creating a cultural imbalance. If everyone is always male, straight, and white, you’re just in trouble. So often you’re taught women’s ultimate happy ending is she lands a man, she gets married, the end. The end of her story. Her story is done now. The plot of Sense and Sensibility, the thing that upset me about it is that the end of the story is people getting married. In this, in Pride and Prejudice, how we chose to end it is that it’s accepting the imperfections that make love true, that love isn’t perfect, and that you are accepting this bundle of flaws with your loved one. It’s not that we can’t have those stories [that end in marriage] because, of course, romantic love is a part of life and a beautiful part of life, but that can’t be the only story in the end. It can’t be like, every story—women get married, the end, everybody.

That’s actually a perfect segue to my last question. My understanding is that Sense and Sensibility is being done now at a lot of high schools throughout the country. When Pride and Prejudice gets licensed and is done around the country too, what do you hope that the young girls working on the show will take away from the experience?

Kate: That there’s no one right way to be in love, because I just feel there’s so much cultural pressure. It’s crazy.

Amanda: It’s okay to have Jane’s point of view, and want it to be perfect and magical. It’s okay to have Lizzy’s point of view, and question everything about that, and not try to fit yourself into a mold that you don’t belong in. It’s okay to have Lydia’s point of view, and not get why it has to be this super serious thing. What if it’s just fun? And be inside Charlotte’s point of view. When we talk about women in society, it’s you either are a conformer or a non-conformer, and there are so many other identities.