All posts by Lifeline

An Interview with Phil Timberlake & Elise Kauzlaric

In advance of the opening of Emma, dramaturg Maren Robinson sat down with adaptor Phil Timberlake and director Elise Kauzlaric to ask them a few questions. 

MR: Elise, this is your third foray into the world of Austen after having directed Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.  What do you think you have learned most about the world of Austen and her characters and why do you think they still resonate with us so much?

EK: The language of Austen is delicious and the character relationships are rich. It is challenging and exciting to dissect the nuance of the exchanges – what is unsaid vs what is said – as well as what the characters innately understand about the time they live in that the actors have to both understand for themselves and then convey to the audience. It’s been wonderful for me, personally, to have a deeper understanding each time of how the worldview and language can be explored in the rehearsal process.

MR: Phil, you have graced the stage at Lifeline and been a dialect coach, but this is your first adaptation? What has he process of adapting Emma been like for you?

PT: Elise a terrific collaborator! And being a part of an artistic ensemble is such a privilege. We workshopped the show and had multiple readings over the last couple of years. Now that rehearsals have begun in earnest, the ensemble continues to watch and give feedback. And with Lifeline’s production history, they know so much about Austen!

MR: For both of you, often at Lifeline actors take on multiple roles. In this adaptation of Emma you’ve taken this to a whole new level. Could you talk a bit more about the joys and challenges of having actors not only play multiple roles, but also having multiple actors play the same role at different points in the play?

EK: For the performers this is a fantastic challenge. They not only need to be able to collaborate on a character portrayal with other actors, but also differentiate for themselves between characters distinctively and immediately. We have had great fun developing the characters and then finding how we can celebrate the act of passing roles to each other or having a moment of personal transformation. One piece that has been a wonderful challenge for the actors is pushing the precision and dexterity of vocal and physical work toward characterization. It’s fascinating to watch how this evolves as they discover new things through the process.

PT:  I would add that it is also a great pleasure to engage the viewers imaginations – the audience has to “complete” the transformations in their own minds.

MR: Could you talk a bit more about the set design and how it works with this particular adaptation?

EK: Phil’s adaptation is a celebration of the act of storytelling, the event of theatre. As we started to look at the world for this production if felt right to set up a playing space rather than a literal Austen village so we started to investigate ideas of period theatre and toy theatre. Thematically, Emma also treats people as playthings so the inspiration of toy and paper theatre was exciting. Our final version is a theatrical space in which the actors telling us the story can play.

MR: Phil, I know you had the opportunity to spend time in England while you were working on your adaptation. Is there anything that you discovered in your time there that influenced your adaptation?

PT: Well, it was delightful. I was quite struck by the small size of the villages, and could imagine the “confined society” as Emma puts it. And therefore how new people coming to town could be of great interest – a big part of Emma’s story. I was also struck by the location of Jane Austen’s house in Chawton. It’s right on a deep curve in the Winchester road (nearly a 90° angle). I formed an image of Austen watching the comings and goings along the road as they slowed down to make the turn – another image of Emma’s life, perhaps. There were also a lot of sheep. And they made it into my script, ever so briefly.

MR: In this production there is singing, but it is not a musical. Why is it important to have this musical interlude in the play?

EK: While sharing music and singing at parties was a common occurrence of the day, dramatically it allows us to heighten the action slightly and spend some time on the unspoken narrative. Song is an emotional expression – of joy, of longing, of sorrow. What Emma chooses to sing vs what Jane chooses to sing is quite different. It reveals another aspect of their personal stories. Much like the dance moments, song also allows moments of observation, meaningful looks. We can linger in some storytelling moments in song in a way that is different than a text driven moment.

PT: Exactly so, Elise (as Mr. Elton would say). I always love to have music as a part of storytelling. And dancing if possible …. Although with Austen adaptations there are always a number of moments in rehearsal where someone asks, “Which party is this? Is this the Cole’s or the Weston’s? Or is it Christmas?” 

MR: If you had to liken yourself to one character in the Emma who would it be?

EK: Oh, goodness. I’d like to think I’m a Mrs. Weston. She’s fairly grounded, practical, positive, and wants the best for those around her. Though I do have a little Knightley in me – I try not to be too critical, but I do have strong opinions on how people should and shouldn’t behave…and I like to share these opinions.

PT: Oh, I totally empathize with Emma. Late in the book, in the midst of the unraveling of one her many matchmaking schemes Emma ponders: “How to understand it all … the blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!” Who can’t relate to that?

Emma runs through July 14 at Lifeline Theatre.

An interview with Bilal Dardai

Dramaturg Zev Valancy sat down with ensemble member Bilal Dardai to chat about his history with, and current adaptation of, The Man Who Was Thursday.

ZV: How did you first encounter The Man Who Was Thursday, and what about it made you feel like you had to adapt it?

BD: I first encountered the title by way of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — interestingly, by way of Gaiman making a passing reference to its imaginary sequel The Man Who Was October. I knew nothing else about the book or about Chesterton before I’d picked it up, but I loved its singular wit and characters. This was long before I was doing much playwriting at all, so the idea of adapting it didn’t come up until much later. I reread the book in around 2005 and this time I was struck by two things: (1) how much its combination of intrigue and chaos reminded me of the irrational arguments that had led the U.S. to invade Iraq, and (2) how much fun it would be to speak Chesterton’s dialogue aloud. As such, the adaptation reflected a number of my personal views on our state of geopolitics as well as my appreciation for dark, nimble comedy.


ZV: This adaptation was first produced by New Leaf Theatre in 2009, also directed by Jess Hutchinson. What made you two want to revisit it?

BD: I was invited to join Lifeline’s ensemble in 2017, and at the time Dorothy [Milne] had asked if I was interested in pitching Thursday as a project for the company. Dorothy also knew that Jess had recently returned to Chicago after finishing graduate school in Texas and was interested in having her work on the Lifeline stage, and encouraged us to work on this new version if we were both interested in revisiting it (which we were). Since that time, both of us felt like we had grown as artists and people; Jess had honed her directing and storytelling skills considerably on a number of shows and I, for my part, had grown preoccupied with the history of espionage and intelligence-gathering in a way that allowed me to think about the concerns of the adaptation in new ways. Additionally, we were both excited about the opportunities to play with casting in ways that we hadn’t in the prior production. The New Leaf production was cast with ten men; the Lifeline production has been cast with an array of men, women, and non-binary performers, and the script has been updated to deliberately reflect some of those choices.

ZV: A lot has changed in the world since 2009. Can you talk about how this has changed your view of the story, and the script itself?

BD: There’s a quote from my favorite Vonnegut novel, Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” It’s a warning that’s actually two warnings: First, beware of spending so long submerged in something you started out pretending that you become that something; and secondly, know that as far as the world is concerned you are what you pretend, and they will react according to that lie. At the heart of Thursday’s narrative is a tale of people who claim to have identities they do not have, and the consequences of those identities being stripped away either by themselves or by others. In the past ten years, especially in the online realm, I think it’s fair to say that anonymity has been weaponized in new and troubling ways, allowing malicious actors to set up training grounds for radicalization, metastasizing beyond angry discussion about pop culture into methods that can and seemingly have influenced elections.

When we first did this production I felt like we were examining the idea of people playing facetiously with serious threats. Now I feel like we’re examining how the inability to tell truth from falsehood, especially when you are the one perpetrating the falsehood and even when you’re doing so for noble ends, can lead to disaster.

ZV: What has been the biggest surprise in rehearsals for this production, or the biggest thing you have learned about the story?

DB: I find the rehearsal process to be full of many small surprises that accumulate into the largest surprise of all, when the play happens for an audience from start to finish. Beyond that: I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit more about theatricality in terms of how it’s employed both inside a theater and outside of it. The myriad ways you can toy with an audience by what you reveal and what you choose not to reveal are exciting and potentially dangerous.

ZV: You and Jess Hutchinson are frequent collaborators: this is your fourth full production together, and you have also worked on several short plays and an audio drama. Can you talk a little bit about why your collaboration works so well?

BD: What I’ve experienced in a room with Jess, and what I can tell about the way she directs plays by other people, is that when she chooses a project she does so out of an abiding faith in the text. For me, this often means that she believes in the play more than I do; that she sees opportunities and ideas that I hadn’t even recognized in the writing of it. She asks very incisive questions and I know that when I can’t answer them, it likely means that it’s because I haven’t thought about the detail as much as I should have, and being given that problem to solve is invigorating. Over time, this has also meant that disagreements we might have about a revision or adjustment don’t feel like disagreements — our clashing perspectives twist and braid around each other, figure out how to run parallel, and then become one direction. 

That’s a very long-winded way of saying we trust each other. And that while this trust started from a type of instinctual simpatico, the ongoing collaborations have been key in deepening it.

Madeleine L’Engle

Note: Julia Santha, Assistant Director for our upcoming production of A Wrinkle in Time, prepared this biography of author Madeleine L’Engle.

Madeleine_lengleMadeleine L’Engle, beloved author of A Wrinkle in Time and more than 60 other books, librarian, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, was born on November 29, 1918. L’Engle spent her early childhood in busy New York City, preferring to write stories and poetry in school rather than focus on her lessons. Although her teachers pushed her to conform, from a young age L’Engle was compelled to write and follow inspiration, rather than the rules of others—somewhat like our protagonist, Meg Murry. At the age of 12, L’Engle and her family moved to the French Alps, where she attended an English boarding school. There, her love for writing was first formally encouraged. Years later, armed with journals full of stories and a mature sense of confidence, L’Engle enrolled in Smith College, where she studied English, focusing on classics and her creative writing. After graduating with honors, L’Engle returned to New York, to work as an actress and continue her writing.

In her early years, while living in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village and supporting herself on an actor’s salary, L’Engle published her first two books, met her husband, fellow actor Hugh Franklin, and gave birth to her first daughter. Eventually, the family moved to Connecticut, settling in a tiny farm village. There, L’Engle enjoyed solitude and the village community. She and Hugh had two more children and together the family revitalized an old general store that became a humming village center. It was during these years that L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time. At first, L’Engle struggled to have her novel published, as editors warned her that it was too mature for children, but not quite a book for adults. But L’Engle would not change her work, declaring that it was a novel for and about people, adults and children alike. Wrinkle was finally published in 1962 and garnered immediate success, winning the prestigious Newbery Award “for the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children” in 1963.

After years in the peaceful countryside, L’Engle and her family returned to New York. There, L’Engle became the writer-in-residence and librarian at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where she would maintain an open office for 30 years. L’Engle continued writing, lecturing, and serving as a librarian and mentor in her community until her death in 2007.

A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” –Newbery Award Acceptance Speech: The Expanding Universe (Aug 1963)

Returning to Wrinkle

Note: This is a guest posting from emeritus ensemble member James Sie, adaptor for our Winter MainStage production of A Wrinkle in Time, returning to Lifeline for the first time since 1999.

Let’s do a little time traveling, shall we?

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A Wrinkle in Time, Lifeline Theatre, 1990

Twenty-six years ago, Lifeline embarked on our first stage adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s hard to believe that more than a quarter of a century separates the current production from that one, and yet here I am, tinkering with a new draft of the script while simultaneously reliving the excitement of the first one.

In 1990, I was not yet thirty. Lifeline itself was relatively young. We were just getting into the groove of the whole adaptation process, inspired by the successes of previous adaptations by Christina Calvit (ensemble member adept), and our shared love of literature. A Wrinkle in Time was my first MainStage adaptation, and I was grateful for the opportunity. I was also Lifeline’s marketing director, and I remember running to Kinko’s every week with graph paper and X-acto knife in hand, to literally cut and paste up the ads for the Friday newspapers. I was pretty narrowly-focused, then: Chicago and Chicago theater were my world, and that was fine by me. It was a different time. I had hair. Lots of it.

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James Sie with Madeleine L’Engle.

Twenty-six years is a long time.

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Press photo for A Wrinkle in Time, Lifeline Theatre, 2017

Now, I am returning to Wrinkle, a bit wrinkled myself, and so much has changed. Dropboxed scripts instead of dot-matrix print-outs. The internet for research, so if I need an Arabic proverb I can run a search, instead of trying to find someone to talk to me at the United Arab Emirates Consulate. I now read (digitally) those sections of the paper I used to toss aside in search of the theater section. Skype production meetings. Spellcheck. I still cannot get the pagination in Microsoft Word to work quite right, but I have a feeling that’s not technology’s fault.

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Rehearsing some tessering for the 2017 production.

My own perspective has changed, too. The art of adaptation is largely one of selection and enhancement, and I find I am focusing on different parts of the book. Certain lines from the book that I had cut out before now jump out at me with a new urgency. I had once identified with Meg, the misunderstood, perpetually angry hero and heart of the book; now, I have a teenager of my own. I know only too well the intense emotional maelstroms middle grade students experience on the daily and I ache for Meg and her alienation, but with the empathy of a parent, and that informs my script choices. When Meg is sent off alone on a mission, it is not just her father that cries out, “She’s only a child!”

And yet.

What has not changed, what has endured, is Madeleine L’Engle’s message of love, of personal strength and uniqueness, of the need to stand together to battle against the powers of darkness. These themes resonate as strongly now as they did at the book’s publication in 1962. Back then, we were deep into the Cold War; the threat of Communism made Americans feel like we were on the brink of some kind of annihilation. Today, many experience that same pervading disquiet, the same sense of a world badly askew. L’Engle’s book feels more timely than ever. In working with director Elise Kauzlaric to rediscover these deeper resonances, L’Engle’s words have proven to be both a comfort and an inspiration. In her universes, love and kindness may be temporarily extinguished, but they are just the qualities that will save us in the end. “May the right prevail!” Mrs. Who declares in the book, and her words give me hope that they will. I am as grateful to be working on this production as I was to be working on its maiden voyage all those wrinkles ago.

An interview with Christopher M. Walsh and Paul S. Holmquist

Dramaturg Maren Robinson sat down with Miss Holmes playwright Christopher M. Walsh and director Paul S. Holmquist to talk about the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes and how this new version of the character came about.

MR: How did each of you come to be introduced to Sherlock Holmes and do you have a favorite story or adaptation?

CW: I don’t remember I time I wasn’t aware of Sherlock Holmes on some level. I imagine my first introduction was through the Sesame Street character Sherlock Hemlock. Then Jeremy Brett’s run playing Holmes for the BBC started when I was ten, and his likeness became inextricably linked to my mental image of the character. I remember my parents telling me that if I liked Sherlock Holmes, then I really needed to see the Basil Rathbone films, because Rathbone’s was (according to my parents) the definitive interpretation. I’ve enjoyed many aspects of the more recent adaptations. I love how the current BBC show Sherlock handles the Holmes/Watson relationship, and its modern treatment of Holmes’ antisocial behavior. The CBS show Elementary is effective in dealing with Holmes the addict. The Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. movie Sherlock Holmes is fun because it shows on-screen what Arthur Conan Doyle said happened off-screen.

PH: In my culture, to say that I grew up watching the celebrated series MYSTERY! on PBS throughout the early 80’s should come as no surprise. The definitive performance by Jeremy Brett in the title role of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was my introduction to the character, and, my first appreciation for acting as a craft. (Indeed, between Brett and Joan Hickson in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, I became aware of how such detailed, thoughtful and subtle performances could move me to the edge of my seat.)

MR: Chris, what led you to make Holmes and Watson women? Why did you choose to keep the Victorian time period? As you were working on the adaptation where did your research on Victorian women take you and how did that influence your version of the story?

CW: It started with a conversation between me and my wife Mandy. We were comparing and contrasting the BBC’s Sherlock and the CBS show Elementary, which had just premiered at the time. Both were noteworthy because they updated the setting to modern day (which the Basil Rathbone films also did – although for them, “modern day” meant World War II.) There are many stylistic differences between the two shows, but the most noticeable change is that Elementary made their Watson female. We found ourselves wondering just how different the original Doyle stories would have been had the main characters been women. Soon, we had this idea for an exciting theatrical experiment: If everything else began at the same points as they do in the Doyle universe, what would have to change to bring two women of comparable intelligence and mannerisms to the point where they were running around 1880s London solving crimes together? How would secondary characters like Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, or Inspector Lestrade, or the landlady Mrs. Hudson react to these women behaving the same way their male counterparts did in the original stories?

Several years ago I read an essay positing that Sherlock Holmes’ behavior, as described by Doyle, indicated the character had Asperger’s Syndrome. That Asperger’s wouldn’t be identified as a diagnose-able condition for another 50 years or so made the idea that much more intriguing. How brilliant was Arthur Conan Doyle to identify collection of behaviors as all being part of a pattern? One of the first areas of research for this project involved looking into how women who exhibited such behavior would be treated in Victorian society. The answer presented itself readily enough: They would be institutionalized. This raised the stakes for our story significantly, as we now had a real sense of the kind of risks a female Sherlock would be taking.

The other area I dug into was the medical profession during the Victorian era, and women’s role in it. It turns out that the late 1800s were a revolutionary time for women who wished to become doctors in Great Britain. I learned about extraordinary people like Sophia Jex-Blake, who led the first group of women to enroll in a medical school in Great Britain; and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was the first woman to obtain a license to practice medicine in England. They formed the core of a very tight-knit group who, in the 1870s, managed to change the law in England to allow schools to grant licenses to women, and founded the first school of medicine just for women in London. The efforts these women had to go to in order to achieve their goals, enduring institutional, bureaucratic, and societal roadblocks that sometimes extended to actual physical abuse, was awe-inspiring.

MR: Paul, in rehearsal what did you discover was most difficult to grapple with in getting both the style of the mystery genre and in asking contemporary actors to embody the Victorian world?

PH: Victorian England and the mystery genre are sort of our bread and butter at Lifeline, but I did want to be careful that we not take it for granted that we know all we need to know. There’s a danger, I think, in generalizing details about a culture, assuming expertise. For example, I lead the women in the cast through a couple of hours of experiential research on what wearing a corset was all about. We have a preconceived notion, not wrong, of what that would feel like, but spending some time in the rehearsal room, working scenes and playing with movement in corsets, skirts and hard soled shoes, we tap into a kinesthetic wisdom, an embodied sense of both the limitations and opportunities that the period fashion imposed on a woman in the late 1800’s.

The challenge in telling a good mystery on the stage involves a careful organization of detail and character. We must be exacting in presenting the audience with the same opportunities to follow a thread of physical and behavioral clues so that the reveal of solving the mystery is a shared experience between our hero and the audience. For example, in directing Frances Limoncelli’s adaptation of the Dorothy Sayers mystery Busman’s Honeymoon, there was a very real physical danger presented in recreating the scene of the crime and duping the antagonist to set off his own death trap, provoking him to a wild and angry confession. The orchestration of that scene involved a carefully practiced and minutely executed climax. Live performance doesn’t have the benefit of editing in post-production, what you see is what you get, and in collaboration with the designers, the cast, and the exceptional team of the Lifeline Ensemble, we work to identify where we could use a little more hinting and a little less. It’s like working on a stereo equalizer, or cooking a pie crust, you have to add the ingredients in the right order and adjust them in fine detail to get the balance right. Ideally, after the show, a member of our audience can trace back through their experience of the show and recall all the moments that lead to the conclusion and feel a satisfying sense of Aha! Maybe even sensing that if Sherlock hadn’t figured it out herself, they would have gotten there on their own.

MR: What was the most fascinating piece of research or part of the original Holmes stories that influenced this production?

CW: I particularly enjoyed reading about the “Edinburgh Seven,” the group of women led by Sophia Jex-Blake who studied medicine together at the University of Edinburgh. During their second year, when their numbers had increased to around twenty, they were to attend an anatomy exam in a building called Surgeons Hall. The group was confronted by a crowd of several hundred people, shouting and throwing garbage at them. The gate to the building was slammed shut, and the janitorial staff had to help sneak them into the building. During the exam itself, someone let a sheep loose in the room where the exam was being held. Afterward, and group of Irish students who referred to themselves as the “Irish Brigade” escorted the women out of the hall and helped them get home. This event, known as the Surgeons Hall Riot, was only the most well-known incident during months of harassment and threats.

MR: Why do you think this character has been so popular throughout history and what do you think we get out of seeing the various iterations of Holmes and Watson?

PH: I see Holmes as one of the original literary superheroes of the modern age. The novels were sensational fiction, and we got to see Holmes’ abilities lead him into improbable, exciting adventures. We are a species of storytellers and fantasizers and we will never satiate our need to live the vicarious experience of the hero. Watson’s presence enhances the understanding and exposure to the world of Sherlock Holmes by acting as our substitute, we can relate to Watson’s moments of indecision, incredulity – he is more like us than Holmes is, after all.

CW: Doyle hit upon a formula that provided, in the form of Sherlock, just the right balance between character flaws and competence. In any detective story, the question is never “Will they solve the case?” The questions is always, “How will they solve it?” With Sherlock, the question becomes, “How will he solve it in spite of his rudeness, his bizarre quirks, his addictions?” In my favorite stories, the answer is found in his partnership with Watson. Watson simultaneously idolizes and humanizes Sherlock. It’s an impressive feat that cannot help but delight the reader because the reader IS Watson. We witness the stories through Watson’s eyes. And Watson is no slouch. He’s a doctor, a combat veteran, and a man of action. We are Watson, Watson is in awe of Sherlock, Sherlock needs Watson… therefore, Sherlock needs us.

Sherlock is not the first fictional detective – traditionally that honor goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin – but through Holmes, Doyle provided the template for all detectives in modern fiction. Characters like Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Mike Hammer, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Nero Wolfe, Columbo, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Veronica Mars, and even Batman have traits rooted in Sherlock Holmes.

MR: Without giving anything away, what to you think will surprise or delight fans of the original stories who come to see this production?

PH: I’ve been excited to discover how these familiar characters and their recognizable traits translate into a woman’s experience living in London in the late 1800’s. This theme feels very timely and timeless at the same time, by shining a light on the notion, we offer up something ripe for reflection and discussion.

CW: I hope audiences who are fans of the characters will enjoy the ways in which we’ve reintroduced or re-purposed certain quintessential elements of the Holmes universe. And I hope they’ll think we managed to strike a good balance between the Holmes everyone already knows and the brand new stuff we’ve invented for this experiment.

An interview with Elise and Robert Kauzlaric

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

20 Signs you may be the heroine of a gothic novel

In advance of our production of Northanger Abbey we thought you might want to make sure you yourself are not the heroine of a gothic novel before attending. Dramaturg Maren Robinson, after the close perusal of many a gothic novel, prepared this diagnostic list.

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1. There is some mystery surrounding your parentage.

2. You are unnaturally good in spite of your uncertain parentage, and people describe you as “an angel.”

3. You are being held against your will in a terrifying old castle/abbey/crypt/attic/tower.

4. You weep inconsolably.

5. You faint, a lot.

6. You are thwarted in love.

7. You might have a secret twin/brother/sister/parent.

8. You are an heiress, or you discover you’re an heiress when that whole “uncertain parentage” thing gets cleared up.

9. You have been taken to the wilds of Germany/Italy/Romania/Transylvania, where no one knows you and you are beyond the reach of good old British Law.

10. You’ve been dosed with laudanum.

11. You’ve had a prolonged fever because of a profound shock. Everyone is too polite to ask you what was so shocking.

12. Strangers in a carriage aid your escape, treat you like a daughter and give you nice clothes, but you are still sad because you feel undeserving of their attentions.

13. You meet a strange, sad woman in a cemetery/crypt/castle/carriage and she confesses to you a deep and secret tragedy then disappears. She might be a family member.

14. A malevolent man has malevolent designs on you.

15. You flee to a convent.

16. You flee from a convent.

17. You see a ghostly specter and faint. (See No. 5)

18. A building in which you are staying mysteriously catches fire.

19. You are forced to use a pseudonym, but it has some relationship to your goodness or sadness or secret such as Anonyma, Angelica, Dolores, or Mme. St. Ange.

20. Everything turns out okay: you are reunited with your mother/sister/brother. You are able to marry the man you love and have ample funds and a restored name. However, your beloved sister/servant/dog/horse died to save you. You and your children will always visit the grave marker you have erected to commemorate the sacrifice.

Joe Buck: The Real/Reel Cowboy

Note: This is a guest posting from Patrick Runfeldt, dramaturg for our Winter MainStage production of Midnight Cowboy.

It may seem a bit of a stretch to insinuate that Joe Buck has any measure of “true” cowboy in him. He’s certainly not the strapping presence of John Wayne (or even the Marlboro man) who is embedded in the very fabric of our culture as the gun-toting, swearing, and quaintly charming hero of the West in film and folklore. Frankly, he can’t even live up to the rhinestone-studded shoes of his contemporaries from the saloons of Texas to the nightclubs of New York. Digging a little deeper, however, Joe’s situation — young, homeless, and unemployed — meets the exact criteria of the cowhands of early ranching times.

Before the great innovations of turn-of-the-century America and the migration of railroad routes farther and farther West, the best way to transport cattle was via miles and miles of herding. Most cattle ranchers of early pioneering times were either quick to give the practice up or were consolidated into larger cattle ranch holdings by wealthy landowners (or even the occasional businessman from the East). As a result, the practice of actually herding, defending, and moving the cattle across the vast plains was handed down the line to a ragtag band of youthful, unemployed vagabonds who could hardly afford to scrape together the money for a decent meal, let alone a six-shooter or a pair of fine leather boots. These uneducated, rough and tumble men were a melting pot of recent immigrants (Latino, Chinese, etc.) and poor white farmworkers whose immigrant families had initially come West seeking fortune in gold mining or other quick wealth pursuits. Many were orphans, due to disease, poor crops, or the general exposure to the elements that shortened lifespans in the pre-industrial West. Few believed in the “American Dream” that was being formulated, fought for, or defended prior to and after the Civil War. All of them knew how to drink, heavily. In the shadows of mountain passes, these young men passed long winters defending miles of cattle from wild animal attacks, thieves (even though they were known to steal a certain number of cattle for themselves), and the dangers of the natural terrain. Though they tried several times to unionize, these cow hands were poorly paid, prone to lawlessness and robbery (they had to get their money from somewhere, right?), and sometimes just didn’t know enough to know of a better life.

In short, they were much like Joe and Ratso.

The myth surrounding these downtrodden workers began to develop as their own labors died out. In the late 1880s, a promoter named William Frederick Cody began to travel and ride under the name “Buffalo Bill” in a sideshow revue that began to attract huge crowds throughout the rapidly industrializing eastern half of the United States. Oftentimes, Buffalo Bill would recruit unemployed cow hands who had a trick or two up their sleeve, dress them up, and then craft a show and story out of their garish costumes (think rhinestones, spurs, and the elaborate designs you’d see in a 50s TV show). Dime novels quickly picked up on the popularity and TV shows and movies would follow from the 50s through the present.

Enter Joe Buck. As Joe grew up in the 40s and 50s, his formative ideas of masculinity, power, and romance would have all been formulated and shaped by the cowboy show. Sprinkle in the larger-than-life memories of his would-be father figure, Woodsy Niles, and it’s safe to say that Joe probably always wanted to be a cowboy. The problem, however, is that he never tended cattle. He never even saw much of the open plains. He lived in an era of paved roads, beauty parlors, and overly large Cadillacs, and his childhood was spent anywhere but outdoors. Several times throughout the play, Joe is faced with a dangerous situation and can only be protected by enacting his own method of “cowboy” justice. When he fails to play upon his cowboy persona to live a life of lawlessness, he falls further and further into squalor, distrust, and chaos. By the time he is able to reconnect with his image on a pedestal (the literal pedestal onstage) of Woodsy Niles, it might be too little too late. No matter what, the end result (real or imagined) had already been written for him. A cowboy he very well may be…

Prosperity?: The Gospel according to $3,000 suits (Or, a Conclusion.)

Note: This is a guest posting from Patrick Runfeldt, dramaturg for our Winter MainStage production of Midnight Cowboy.

A cursory glance at the themes of Chris Hainsworth‘s adaptation of Midnight Cowboy reveals a striking outlier not much present in James Leo Herlihy’s novel: religious promises of prosperity. Certainly Joe Buck attends Sunday school at the behest of his grandmother Sally and attempts to be vaguely involved in “church”, but the significance never reaches the forefront of the novel. Not so with Hainsworth’s adaptation, wherein the audience is guided and shadowed by the mysterious Mr. O’Daniel. He is a half-crazy street “preacher” mixed with just the right amount of foreshadowing present in predecessors like a Greek chorus or griot. O’Daniel provides Joe’s character with both diagnosis and decree at various moment, cycling back through a series of emotional peaks and valleys throughout Joe’s checkered past. The overall narrative, however, never strays from a clear trajectory of the “prosperity gospel” preached by such famous televangelists as Joel Osteen and his predecessor Oral Roberts. Perhaps an examination of Roberts’ wildly successful and ultimately troubled personal history will allow for further understanding of the implications of Hainsworth’s thematic move and, ultimately, what it all means for Joe in the play.

Oral Roberts was one of the most famous and celebrated televangelists of the 1950s through the 1980s and his career spanned near to his death in 2009. His wealth so far exceeded his needs that he opened an entire university dedicated to his philosophies, with the entire campus decorated in real flakes of gold. The dark corners hidden behind the TV lights, however, always ate away at Oral; his entire empire was founded on donations from mostly poor Americans who were convinced that what he was preaching would turn their economic and personal lives around. His philosophy (better known as the aforementioned “prosperity gospel”) has inspired the model for megachurches and religious profiteers for more than half a century now: “Plant a seed—meaning, send a check—and God will reward you with health, wealth, and happiness”. Oral’s own life (despite his material prosperity) was undercut by his distance from his family, his religious flock (several lawsuits and audits tarnished his ministry organization and his university), and, in his final hours, his God. Oral’s oldest son committed suicide in his 30s due to unrelenting pressure from his father regarding his queer sexuality and desire to remain away from the television spotlight. His oldest daughter died in a plane crash that he mysteriously half-predicted. He was left with his son Richard as the most likely (and least likable) air to his televangelist throne. Always in the spotlight from a young age, Richard became infatuated with fame, which ultimately led to a long history of drug abuse, public infidelity, and the near ruin of his father’s religious empire. Mired in audits, lawsuits, and negative speculation, Oral died reciting a series of his own sermons and prophecies, based on what he had heard from his God. The echo of his ministry lives on in the slowly crumbling university that he left behind, bathed in tarnished gold.

In Hainsworth’s adaptation, O’Daniel approaches Joe with a proposition similar to Oral’s prosperity gospel, but instead of money he asks for Joe’s physical self and his time. Having loosely grown up with an image of the Everyman Jesus in his mind, Joe is quick to listen, but slow to understand the implications of giving his own possessions away to obtain some kind of happiness (or, at least, the illusion of happiness). O’Daniel keeps reappearing throughout the drama representing both a corner of Joe’s conscience and the false promises of such a philosophy. It is less a question of whether Joe would have been less moribund if he had chosen O’Daniel as his companion instead of Ratso and more a series of landmarks pointing out how Joe’s selflessness ultimately fails him over time. Joe is profoundly lonely because he cannot figure out what he wants (as Perry so aptly noted), not for a lack of trying to relate to others. When he gives up Anastasia, Sally, and Bobby respectively so that they can try to make the most of their lives, he sacrifices his own desires. At the end of the drama, Joe is lonely not because he cannot articulate what he wants, but because what he wants and whom he wants to be with have been put out of his reach by forces beyond his control.