Dramaturg Maren Robinson sat down for a Q&A on Northanger Abbey with adaptor Robert Kauzlaric and director Elise Kauzlaric.
MR: Rob, what made you decide you wanted to adapt Northanger Abbey and make it musical?
RK: Having it be a musical actually wasn’t the direction I was going when I first proposed the project back in 2012. My initial concept was for a very stripped-down, non-musical production featuring just six actors. Everyone but the actress playing Catherine would would play two roles, emphasizing “light” and “dark” aspects of our heroine’s female friends, love interests, parental surrogates, etc. It was going to be a simple, intimate affair very much interested in (as an obstacle) Catherine’s inability to differentiate between her sources of friendship, advice, etc. since her positive and negative role models wore the same face; and interested in (as a theme) the birth of skepticism and self. And that’s where the concept sat for several years until the show was finally slated for production in this current season.
Stephanie Stockstill as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey
After a few years away from my initial proposal, when I returned to the novel I discovered that my sense of the scope of production had changed. I found myself with a desire to find some way to tackle what I began to feel as the “operatic” quality of Catherine’s experience. The vast majority of the book deals with those tiny-yet-huge social blunders and mini epic-tragedies that are so representative of the adolescent experience (how the smallest things can get blown out to massive proportions in the mind of a teenager). And then, the final chapters of the novel deal with the consequences of ill-informed imagination gone terribly awry.
The cast of Northanger Abbey
My new sense of the action didn’t feel like it was meshing with the vision I’d previously proposed. The more I thought about it, the more it felt like I was leaning towards having it be a musical. I was deep into the first draft of Mr. Popper’s Penguins with composer George Howe and enjoying the experience so much (having long been a superfan of his work), so I asked and he agreed to come on board. I brought the new arrangement back to the Lifeline ensemble and they stood behind it and agreed to keep the project in the season, even though it was very different from what I had originally said I was going to do.
MR: How is your adaptation process different with a musical and in what ways do you work with composer/lyricist George Howe?
Jonathan Schwart and Heather Currie in Mr. Popper’s Penguins
RK: Compared to working by myself on a straight play, it’s a totally different experience working on a musical with a co-creator (especially in a situation like this, where George is also writing the lyrics – for all of my musicals before Mr. Popper’s Penguins, I had always acted as lyricist). On the one hand, I have the challenge of letting go of any sense of absolute control over the ultimate direction of the piece, and on the other hand, I have the joy of embracing all the wonderful scenes and moments and ideas that spring out of my creative partner’s heart and soul. It’s an awesome experience watching something evolve from my own limited interpretation of a thing into a much richer vision. Watching how lyrics lead to new dialogue, dialogue leads to new songs, and a singular story is born out of the collaboration between me, George, Elise, and Jane Austen’s original story.
In terms of process, George and I have worked two different ways so far, at least in terms of the early stages. For Mr. Popper’s Penguins, we sat down ahead of time as a team (with director Paul Holmquist) to map out our take on the story, where we felt songs would land, what purpose we hoped they’d serve, and how everything would connect. And then we did that. It worked well for that (admittedly much simpler) piece.
With Northanger Abbey, because I’d already been working on one version of the piece, I took the first stab at content and structure on my own, suggesting where I felt songs might live and the thematic direction the show might go. Then George picked up my structure, suggesting changes for sections, pointing out where he had different song ideas, adding in new elements of his own creation, and developing things on his end that made more sense to him. Once we had a first draft sketched out in this way, he and I (along with Elise) were able to start working as a real team as we progressed into drafts two, three, and four – dialoguing as a group on how the story, characters, and themes would develop.
The cast of Northanger Abbey in rehearsal
It’s been very exciting to be a part of. And it’s been fascinating to see what songs and scenes have survived almost intact from their original iteration (like Catherine’s introduction to Isabella in the delightfully playful number, “Horrid Little Novels;” or the lovely “Symmetry of Flowers” that Henry and Eleanor sing with Catherine) and what has changed and evolved numerous times (we went into rehearsals with what was the fourth completely different song about what Catherine imagines happened to Mrs. Tilney, and the location of “Symmetry of Flowers” has changed both in scene setting and placement in show, moving from Beechen Cliff in Act I to the gardens at Northanger Abbey in Act II).
MR: Elise, you have directed adaptations of Gothic novels and Austen before; what drew you to Northanger Abbey?
The cast of Pride and Prejudice
EK: I loved the gothic sensability of both Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White, which I directed for Lifeline, but I have to say it was my experience on Pride and Prejudice that made me keen to direct Northanger Abbey. Austen has such a skill for balancing comedy with drama. It is great fun to enter into a world where the stakes are so high that both the ridiculous and the heartrending have opportunity to be explored. Certainly, Northanger is much lighter overall than Pride and Prejudice, but Rob and George have mined the dramatic nature of Catherine‘s journey in such ways that I think Jane would be quite pleased.
Lucy Carapetyan in The Woman in White
In addition to wanting to work on Austen again, Rob and I were looking for another project to do together. Our last adaptor/director project together was The Woman in White, and this was the first project that he was adapting since then that felt like the right fit for me. When it changed from straight play to musical, I was all the more excited. Musicals first drew me to theatre (I was a Musical Theater major in undergrad) and I was excited to approach a full-length musical as a director. And then when George signed on, it was perfection. George and I have known each other for 15 years. I directed his productions of The Emperor‘s Groovy New Clothes (2001) and Arnie the Doughnut for Lifeline‘s KidSeries and appeared as Lucia in Queen Lucia on the Lifeline MainStage. I was thrilled to get to work with him on this piece. And he and Rob are such great collaborators, it really is blessing to get to work on it.
MR: How does it feel different from the other pieces you have directed?
EK: Well, certainly the fact that it’s a musical is the biggest difference. There are many more technical layers to consider in a musical – and more collaborators. On a typical Lifeline play the adaptor and director are a tight team and partner on the vision of the piece. With Northanger we also have George (composer) and Ellen Morris (music director) who have strong visions as well. All four of us are invested in the conversation for the overall storytelling.
Jeff Kurysz, Ashley Darger, and Amanda Jane Long in One Came Home
Other than that, I do tend to direct more dramas than comedies. But I love comedies and enjoy the chance to play with the actors. When we worked on One Came Home last year, Heather Currie, who played Ma, said at the end of the run she was ready to be happy again. It was hard to be sad for so many months. Dramas take a particular kind of energy and focus (which I love), but it is quite fun to watch a run-through of Northanger and be delighted at how much fun the actors are having.
MR: Rob and Elise both, what do you think will surprise audiences most about the musical?
EK: Hmm. Well I don’t want to give anything away… If they are very familiar with Austen and Northanger, I hope they will be delightfully surprised at how some of Austen’s phrases have inspired song. We are also not adhering as tightly to the Regency world as we sometimes do and some might be surprised by that. We have a cast that represents 2016 Chicago, we have relaxed some of the rules of dress and etiquette. Rob’s dialogue is his take on Austen. I’ve referred to it as Austen-esque in production meetings and rehearsals. We are celebrating her and the world in which she lived, rather than creating a museum piece. I hope audiences will find that as fun as we do.
Northanger Abbey costume renderings by Aly Renee Amidei
RK: For those that don’t know the novel at all and might think of Austen as more serious/stuffy/reserved fare, I hope that they end up being surprised by how light and fun and silly much of the story is (the first half, at least). Those that know the novel well may be surprised by how some plot elements and characterizations play out with a “twist” in our version. I hope they enjoy them as the work of a creative team both steeped in a love for the source material and aware that they’re re-telling this story two hundred years after it was written.
Northanger Abbey light concept sketch by Diane D. Fairchild
MR: It’s funny because for years, people thought Jane Austen made up most of the titles of the “horrid books” that the characters in Northanger Abbey enjoy reading so much and then they discovered they were real. You chose to create fictional titles for your adaptations. What freedom did that give you?
RK: My original plan was to use all of the novels Austen references in Northanger in the play, but the further I got into the process – especially during a period where were testing a concept of having Catherine speak directly to the heroines of her favorite novels – the more I realized I wanted the creative freedom to have Catherine’s favorite novels (and their respective titles and heroines) serve specific needs in my adaptation that might not perfectly mesh with the actual historical titles. I also wanted to have our musical-revolving-around-events-at-an-abbey revolve around Catherine’s obsession with a novel-revolving-around-events-at-an-abbey, and just decided to make up my own novel to serve that purpose.
Plus, a big element of Northanger Abbey is parody/satire. I liked the idea of being able to insert my own jokes into the mix by creating fictional books that riff off the titles that Austen references. Those who know the actual books will hopefully get a kick out of some of my creations. And those who don’t won’t miss a thing.
MR: For both of you, what is your favorite gothic novel and what is your favorite Austen novel? (I know asking people to pick favorites is a dirty trick but give it a shot.)
EK: I’m actually not a big gothic novel reader. While Wuthering Heights is bit of hard read at times, I adore the story. For Austen, I love Sense and Sensibility. The silent suffering of Elinor Dashwood and the whole Col. Brandon and Marianne plot is just heartbreaking and beautiful. My favorite kind of romance. Love that you have to wait for is totally worth it.
RK: My favorite gothic novel is definitely Frankenstein. I also have big, big love for all the weird, wonderful Wilkie Collins gothic-inspired novels. In terms of Austen, Sense and Sensibility for sure.
MR: Austen both makes fun of and simultaneously loves the Gothic novels and I think part of what comes out in both the book and your adaptation is this love of reading and the sometimes misguided worldview spending too much times with books can give you. Have either of you ever stumbled into an error because of too much reading?
EK: I certainly had to overcome a misguided view of what to expect out of life in general as I became an adult. (Don’t we all?) For me, that was probably more the influence of movies. Nowadays, I actually read a lot of non-fiction: reference books, books on how to do things, or ideas to ponder. I will say that sometimes I spend more time reading about doing the things I want to do than actually doing them. Certainly, I don’t want my reading to take the place of action.
RK: During my phase of discovering Shakespeare as an adolescent, I was definitely guilty of casting my emotional experience in a ridiculous, epically Shakespearean light during one particularly memorable break-up. Oof. And in terms of more mundane errors caused by reading I’ve, of course, been guilty of missing my El stop because my head was buried in a book.