Bedlam's production of Sense & Sensibility is unlike any rendition of a Jane Austen novel you've ever seen. The New York City-based theater company's interpretation is energetic, innovative, dynamic, and cacophonous—but, above all, it's funny. Laugh-out-loud funny. The cast members twirl about on rolling chaise lounges, dole out an endless array of outrageous facial expressions, and foster a rare level of intimacy between actors and audience (they will quite literally sit on your lap)—all under the vision of actress and playwright Kate Hamill, who also plays the young and passionate Marianne Dashwood.
I talked to Hamill about her adaptation of the beloved novel, the struggles of being a female actress in a male-dominated industry, and what she thinks people always forget about Jane Austen.
How did you first get into theater?
I grew up in a very small farm town in central New York where there were more cows than people. I was a small, high-energy child, so my parents were always trying to find ways to channel that energy into something constructive. I started getting into theater around fourth-grade, and I just got the bug. It felt like such a home to me, and a way to express things, and I fell in love with it.
"You go to these auditions where 400 amazing women are all in a room auditioning to play a prostitute, or some guy's wife." —Kate Hamill
I ended up going to Ithaca College upstate, which has a great BFA program, and then moved to New York City. I was doing pretty well as an actor, but I quickly realized that there are so many more roles for men. Statistically, three quarters of all new American plays are by men. That's not even including the classics! In Shakespeare, it's 16 men to every 3 women. You go to these auditions where 400 amazing women are all in a room auditioning to play a prostitute, or some guy's wife. There are some great roles for wives and prostitutes, but I wish there were better classic roles for women, and more of them.
So I realized that I would just have to do that myself. I decided to start off by creating a new classic, and Jane Austen was someone I'd always loved. Most Jane Austen adaptations are by men, and I feel like, as a young woman, I have a new perspective to give to a lot of her female-based stories. So that's what I started doing.
What is the process of adapting a book into a play? Where do you start?
I had a point of view on Sense and Sensibility, so I started thinking about how I could take some of the skeleton of the novel and turn it into a play. In the end, this adaptation ended up being about 60 percent me, and 40 percent Jane. She uses this amazing complex language, but it's not designed to be spoken in full sentences.
One of the coolest things about the show is the staging, and the ways in which characters interact with the props. How intertwined are the staging and writing of a play?
The director, Eric Tucker, is really a genius of creative staging. Some of the blocking is written in—but the decision to have all the furniture on wheels, for example, is all Eric. We came in for the first day of rehearsal, and he was like, "A chair is going to roll in here, and a chair is going to roll in here," and we were all like, "That sounds so cool!"
The stage is set up in between the sections of seating, so that the audience is actually facing each other. Where did you get the idea to make the audience part of the show?
Including the audience is very much a Bedlam aesthetic. It also makes the show different each night—if there are ten people in the cast, the audience is sort of our eleventh cast member. If we have a really crazy, raucous crowd, versus a more thoughtful crowd, that changes our energy.
"Someone once told me that if you can make people laugh, you open them up further." —Kate Hamill
The show is so funny—why did you make the decision to push the comedy?
I was really interested in giving Jane Austen her due, because she gets dismissed as boring and porcelain—your grandmother's type of thing. But I think she's hysterically funny. I wanted to play that up, but I also have a really stupid sense of humor, so even when I try to write something that's deadly serious, some bizarro humor creeps in. Our whole cast is the same way. We get in a room together and we just try and make each other laugh. Eric really encourages that, which makes it really feel like a playhouse. Plays should feel like play, like fun.
Someone once told me that if you can make people laugh, you open them up further. When they open their mouth to laugh, the truth comes in. If you can make people laugh, they can hear you better. I just think humor is such a great part of life, and I can't help but want to see it on the stage.
What advice would you give someone who was interested in playwriting or acting?
I'm always so weary of advice, because I think there's no right path to getting things done. I would say: The unusual is not impossible. If someone tells you something is not possible, what they really mean is it's unusual. It's rare. It's very rarely impossible. Don't be swayed by other people's view of what's possible. When I first started this play and would mention it to people, it was a like I was talking about my stamp collection—something that sounded a little boring, a little dorky. People were like, "Good for you, sweetheart, I'm glad you're keeping yourself occupied."
"If I had listened to some people's opinions of me, I don't think I would have been able to get out of that small town" —Kate Hamill
Another thing is to not think too much about other people's perceptions of you. If I had listened to some people's opinions of me, I don't think I would have been able to get out of that small town and come here. But I just refused to believe some people, so I didn't get trapped. Realize that other people's perspectives of you are limited, and only you know what you're capable of.
Catch Bedlam's Sense & Sensibility, adapted by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, at The Gym at Judson in New York City until November 20th! Check out bedlam.org for ticket pricing and more information.