Category Archives: Miss Buncle’s Book

An interview with Christina Calvit

Note: This is an interview with Lifeline Theatre ensemble member Christina Calvit, adaptor of our Fall MainStage production of Miss Buncle’s Book.

Q: How did you get started with Lifeline?
A: I went to Northwestern with most of the original founders: Meryl Friedman, Steve Totland, Kathee Sills and Sandy Snyder. I knew Steve the best and he recruited me to direct Lifeline’s very first benefit, back (I think) in 1984. It was an adaptation of “Why I Live at the P.O.” My first and last directing gig. Fortunately, my relationship with Lifeline wasn’t so abbreviated.

An early Lifeline ensemble photo, featuring Christina at center.
An early Lifeline ensemble photo, featuring Christina at center.

Q: What led you to theatrical adaptation?
A: In the early 80’s, Northwestern probably had the most robust performance studies program in the country, very influenced by Viola Spolin and Compass Players and all those Second City types. As a theatre major, you pretty much took at least one or two performance studies classes, whether that was interp of poetry or short stories or whatever. So I got a taste there. Then the professors and grad students were all doing much meatier adaptations of actual novels. I remember seeing Sometimes A Great Notion and End of the Road and Bleak House all brilliantly performed. The way people were exploring narrative and narrators blew my mind. I mean, people have been doing theatrical adapations of novels for as long as there have been novels, but what I was seeing at NU was entirely different.

Q: Tell me about an early adaptation experience. What did you discover?
A: It was my very first adaptation of Pride and Prejudice back in 1986…and in previews, it was clocking in at three hours long! Meryl Friedman, who directed, invited a classmate, Michael Grief, to come see the show and give feedback. After the show, they were both up in the back blah, blah blahing and I was like “I have a bad feeling about this.” Meryl came to me later and said I needed to cut some stuff. A lot of stuff. Boy, was I mad. I made the cuts, weepily, and we got the show down by 25 minutes or so. But watching the show during the run, I really saw that they were right and now I’m always interested in hearing feedback about cuts. But I remember at the time I was like, who does Michael think he is? He ended up directing Rent, so he I’m sure he could have given me many more brilliant ideas if I had been prepared to listen.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the process of developing a new script for production?
A: My favorite part is the first production meeting, when all the collaborators get together and talk and brainstorm and start to define the world of the play. I love to hear all the inspiring ideas and listen to people build on each other’s inspiration. We get to work with so many talented designers, dramaturgs and stage managers at Lifeline.

The scariest part is first preview…I always feel like that’s the first time I see the work objectively for what it really is. Sometimes that’s a great thing. And sometimes it’s like “OK, lots to do.” I wish I were better at seeing the big picture earlier.

Christina with author Ron Hansen following a performance of her adaptation of his novel, "Mariette in Ecstasy."
Christina with author Ron Hansen following a performance of her adaptation of his novel, “Mariette in Ecstasy.”

Q: What drew you to Miss Buncle’s Book? Why make it a play and why does it fit this moment in time?
A: Dorothy found this great article by Laurie Notaro (she wrote Autobiography of a Fat Bride, which I’ve always wanted to adapt) called “Toss the Book in Your Purse and Read These Instead.” It was basically “if you’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey, you should be reading Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons instead.” The article featured a lot of great forgotten books that are great reading. Miss Buncle’s Book was one of her suggestions. It rocked! Funny, meta, sweet and moving. I loved it. And I thought “the Lifeline ensemble would tear this up.” So I’m over the moon that some of them wanted to do it.

Christina (fifth from left) with the Lifeline ensemble at our 30th Anniversary benefit in 2013.
Christina (fifth from left) with the Lifeline ensemble at our 30th Anniversary benefit in 2013.

Why does it fit in this moment in time? I think the story of a woman coming into her own as a person and an artist is pretty eternal. Most of us feel stuck and squashed at certain times in our lives, which is why I think Miss Buncle’s journey feels as relevant today as it did in the 30’s.

Q: What ideas are you hoping to bring to the material that are specific to you and this production?
A: I think the idea that’s not in the book that most intrigues me in the play is the vision of a person becoming more of herself as she’s discovering what kind of artist she is and what it means to be an artist. The question of “what makes a writer a good writer” is very interesting to me. I think it plays well with the meta storyline (a woman writing a book about a woman writing a book) which is a part of Stevenson’s original vision.

Lifeline ensemble members Jenifer Tyler (as Miss Buncle) and Peter Greenberg (as Mr. Abbott).
Lifeline ensemble members Jenifer Tyler (as Miss Buncle) and Peter Greenberg (as Mr. Abbott).

Q: What do you hope the audience will appreciate most about Silverstream and Miss Buncle as they watch the play?
A: I hope they will be touched by the humanity of all the characters. And I hope they will agree with me that the observation and celebration of the small quirks of regular people in their everyday lives is an art form unto itself.

Q: What do you have coming up after Buncle that you’re particular looking forward to?
A: I’m looking forward to planning my next vacation with my husband. We love to travel. Angkor Wat here we come! Just kidding! But we’d love to!

Focus on Artists’ Lifestyles – A Smattering of Socialite Poets

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Fall MainStage production of Miss Buncle’s Book.

This article about the poetry and artists’ lifestyle in the 1930s provides insight into the inspiration for the character, Countess Marina Pavlova, in Christina Calvit’s adaptation of Miss Buncle’s Book. Christina created this character to help Miss Buncle on her journey through the play. The character Christina drew is a mix of the figures highlighted below.

Bright Young Things

In the late 1920s in London, a social group emerged that was referred to as the “Bright Young Things”. Described as “attention-seeking, flamboyant, decadent, rebellious, promiscuous, irresponsible, outrageous and glamorous,” they were the original celebrity personalities – defined in the eyes of the public by their raucous parties, bohemian outlooks, public practical jokes and overall extravagance. The movement started with upper class women hosting famous and boisterous treasure hunts all around town. These events attracted young men who, eager to join in the action, provided mobility for the group with their new cars and extended the events to day trips into the countryside. The larger the group, the more elaborate the parties became for the London socialites, the more raucous the nightlife they represented, and the more attention they got from the public. These Bright Young People were from the generation that was too young to fight in World War I but were reacting to the changing circumstances of the waning aristocracy and the rapidly changing social landscape in Britain. The group had an odd mix of the upper class socialites and the hard-core bohemian fringe, both choosing to live lives of leisure, which created an environment for an unusual number of writers, as well as other artists, some more dedicated to and more lasting in their art than others. Within their troupe, they encouraged and supported each other’s projects, particularly in their writing careers. They would publicize each other’s books and some of the higher-class members opened up their homes as meeting spaces. The more affluent members even financially supported writers’ groups in order to feel a greater sense of participation in the movement. By 1931, interest from the press and the public’s infatuation with the group began to wane since the excesses they were displaying became distasteful in the face of worldwide depression; however, some of their number did go on to become quite successful in the artist domain.

Bright Young Things at one of the infamous dress-up parties.
Bright Young Things at one of the infamous dress-up parties.

Here are some of the women who published poetry from the group or profited from writing about the Bright Young Things.

Edith Sitwell – Born into an aristocratic family, she and her two younger brothers had a significant impact on the art world of the 1920s. Influenced by the French symbolist movement, her greatest contribution to the modernist movement was as an editor, but she wrote her own poetry as well. Her work was stylized with a theatrical and grand use of emblems and diction. Robert K Martin explained:

Although she always remained a poet committed to the exploration of sound, she came to use sound patterns as an element in the construction of deep philosophic poems that reflect on her time and on man’s condition. [… She should be remembered as] an angry chronicler of social injustice, as a poet who has found forms adequate to the atomic age and its horrors, and as a foremost poet of love. Her work displays enormous range of subject and of form.

In her social life, she became “passionately attached” to the homosexual Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, and she never married. She was a strong advocate of London’s poetic circle, to whom she was unfailingly generous and helpful, even so far as to opening her home up as a meeting place for local poets.

Sylvia Townsend Warner – Educated at home and with a strong musical and literary background, she was first introduced to the writing world by being instrumental in getting Theodore Powys’ novels published. She was primarily a novelist and poet, known for changing the way unmarried women were represented in fiction at the time, but also a talented musicologist, a diarist and letter-writer, a political journalist, an occasional translator and biographer, and a prolific short-story writer. She published a joint collection of poems with Valentine Ackland, her lover in 1933. By 1935, Sylvia and Valentine became committed members of the Communist Party, attending meetings, fund-raising and contributing to left-wing journals.

Nancy Mitford – The eldest of the six legendary Mitford sisters, Nancy was a novelist, biographer, and journalist known for her novels on the upper class social scene and her life in England and France. She began writing in 1929 and her first novel was published in 1931, despite having no prior formal writing training. Her novel was a semi-autobiographical piece about her time as part of the Bright Young Things. During the war, she worked at a bookstore, which became a meeting place for the London literary society and her friends. Her online biography says, “She hid her deepest feelings behind a sparkling flow of jokes and witty turns of phrase, and was the star of any gathering.” Although this quote suggests she was unhappy in her personal life, she found great success later in life as a writer – publishing multiple novels including some worldwide bestsellers.

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova is considered one of the greatest women in Russian literature and a political and poetic ideal. Having joined the poetry group Acmeists in St. Petersburg, she married the group’s leader in 1910. After a few years, the two of them moved to Paris to immerse themselves in the culture and gain experiences of the poetic lifestyle abroad. Upon returning to Russia as a leader of Acmeism in her own right, she praised the virtues of lucid, carefully crafted verse in reaction to the vagueness of the Symbolist style that dominated the Russian literary scene of the period. To the group’s ideals, Akhmatova added her own elegant colloquialisms and psychological sophistication that demonstrated full control of the subtle vocabulary of modern intimacies and romance. In her writing, a small detail could and was meant to evoke a whole gamut of emotions. Her first collections were published as early as 1912, but in 1917 her primary themes of tragic love morphed to include the civic, patriotic, and religious motifs of the changing Russian society; however, she did not sacrifice her artistic conscience and personal intensity in developing her style. Her personal life was rocky and hindered by the political landscape in Russia at the time. In 1921, her ex-husband was executed under the new regime, and during the 1930s her son and her third husband were imprisoned while a close friend died in a concentration camp. She didn’t publish any poetry between 1921 and 1940 as there was an unofficial ban on her poetry by the government. During this time she took on other forms of literary work – translations, as well as literary criticism. Throughout her career, while she faced plenty of government opposition, she was beloved by the Russian people because she refused to abandon her country in their difficult political times.

Sources and Further Reading

Academy of American Poets Website. “Anna Akhmatova.” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/anna-akhmatova

Freidin, Gregory. “Anna Akhmatova.” Encyclopedia Britannica.com. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Anna-Akhmatova

Johnson, Ben. “Bright Young Things,” Historic UK. http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Bright-Young-Things/

The Mitford Archive. “Nancy.” http://www.nancymitford.com/nancy

The Poetry Foundation Website. “Edith Sitwell.” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/edith-sitwell

Sylvia Townsend Warner Society. “Biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner.” http://www.townsendwarner.com/biography.php

Waters, Sarah. “Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer.” Appeared in The Guardian on March 2, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012.mar/02/sylvia-townsend-warner

Tea Time with Mrs. Featherstone Hogg

 

Note: As an introduction to the world of Silverstream, this narrative account of the characters and the Society they represent has been created by production dramaturg, Annaliese McSweeney, inspired by the characters created by D. E. Stevenson in Miss Buncle’s Book and Christina Calvit’s adaptation of those characters for the stage production.

Martel Manning as Stephen Bulmer, Katie McLean Hainsworth as Mrs. Featherstone Hogg, Kate Hildreth as Mrs. Carter, and Elise Kauzlaric as Vivian Greensleeves
Martel Manning as Stephen Bulmer, Katie McLean Hainsworth as Mrs. Featherstone Hogg, Kate Hildreth as Mrs. Carter, and Elise Kauzlaric as Vivian Greensleeves

Tea Time with Mrs. Featherstone Hogg

Oh dear! Barbara Buncle realized she hadn’t heard a word Sarah Walker was saying. She had let her mind wander once more. But it is just so interesting to watch the people around her! She really should pay better attention to Sarah since she is always there when you need her. She hardly ever overlooks Barbara, and never judges her for her shabby clothes. Sarah’s lack of concern for things like that is probably what has kept Sarah on the outside of the social circles of the likes of Mrs. Featherstone Hogg and Mrs. Carter, but none of that really matters to Sarah, which is what Barbara loves about her. While Sarah was the kindest woman you could ever meet, her stories about her sweet little twins and her good-hearted husband couldn’t keep Miss Buncle’s attention like watching the hustle and bustle of Silverstream society in Mrs. Featherstone Hogg’s drawing room.

Speaking of, Barbara’s eyes catch the flashy host of this afternoon’s tea. As the richest lady in town, Mrs. Featherstone Hogg regularly hosts an afternoon tea party with a poetry reading in her home to help improve the lives of those around her, if only she could serve better coffee! Considered “new money” and filled with ideas of her own self-importance, she is constantly trying to impress the other wealthy neighbors and to assert her position of influence in the town. She does not speak much to Barbara, of course, because she is such an unimportant person, but when she does, Barbara could not help feeling it was good of Mrs. Featherstone Hogg to bother to speak to her at all. Mr. Featherstone Hogg is more tolerable, but has no problem letting his wife run the show; after all, it is easier than fighting with her. The town only ever takes notice of him as Mrs. Featherstone Hogg’s husband, not a person in his own right.

Miss Buncle’s thoughts wander to Colonel Weatherhead who is talking to his neighbor, Mrs. Dorthea Bold. Since he retired from the army, he can spend his days as he wishes, often at teatime with other members of the landed gentry. He is gallant and jocular and the ladies appreciate his social mannerisms. A kind man at heart, he is accustomed to helping and serving others when needed, but he also enjoys a good fight with the plants in his garden. Colonel Weatherhead often helps Mrs. Dorthea Bold deal with pesky workmen who don’t take a woman seriously. Widowed and living in her grand home alone, she is always bright and cheery and despite the workmen, tremendously independent. Barbara really must make plans to have Dorthea over for tea soon.

Mrs. Bulmer gets up to make her excuses to leave, a typical occurrence. Every time, Margaret heads home early to put the children down for their nap before Stephen tries to work on his book. Living a privileged life, Stephen has dedicated his days to writing the Life of Henry the Fourth, but everyone knows he does so very seriously. In fact, Margaret has to be careful not to cross him. That is very difficult, however, when he is ever so touchy and sometimes the neighbors do notice (although they always pretend not to). Needless to say, the atmosphere at the Bulmer’s home is a little tense, but Barbara has never heard Margaret complain because she loves her darling children so much, which is more important than her own peace of mind.

Mrs. Goldsmith interrupts Barbara’s thoughts by offering her a fresh scone. The town baker, Mrs. Goldsmith knows each member’s routine and what type of bread they prefer, and Barbara wonders what other secrets she knows. Not invited as a guest, Mrs. Goldsmith is working this afternoon and has only stopped here to drop off the fresh baked goods.

Before she leaves, Mrs. Goldsmith stops to say hello to Mr. Dick, Mr. Fortunum, and Mr. Durnet. Barbara thinks to herself that they look a bit out of place in this setting, staying off to their own, and talking among themselves on their brief break before heading back to their normal lives and jobs. Mr. Dick runs the local guesthouse at which Mr. Fortunum has staying and Mr. Durnet is working class, but old and hard of hearing and everyone just puts up with him.

Barbara notices a few new faces in the room. That young woman next to Mrs. Carter must be her granddaughter; although Barbara thought she was much younger by the way Mrs. Carter had talked about her. Mrs. Carter is from an old Society family in Silverstream with quite a bit of influence in London, even if she is an old stick in the mud. Of an older generation with charm and manners, she is regular entertainer and friendly with most of the ladies of the town. Having been neighbors for a long time, Barbara and Mrs. Carter get along just fine, although her options of the “youth” these days are a bit old fashioned for Barbara’s tastes. Perhaps living her young granddaughter will change that.

Her granddaughter, Barbara seems to remember was her name was Sally, seems interesting. On the surface she looks spunky and free-spirited. According to her grandmother, Sally has been living in town (London) with her father who is an influential diplomat and traveling the world entertaining her father’s acquaintances. Sally has no problem speaking her mind, as Barbara has already seen her speak up excitedly in response to prim grandmother. Barbara wonders if she could be the breath of fresh air Silverstream needs.

Vivian Greensleeves is talking to another new face, the new vicar, Ernest Hathaway. Barbara has heard some interesting rumors about Ernest. The only son of a wealthy investor, he has come to town to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who is also a religious man. An intellectual, generous, and good-hearted man, Ernest seems to be settling into caring for this town and tending to its flock well. With a privileged background and high quality tastes, no wonder he has attracted the attention of Mrs. Greensleeves. She is pretty woman who enjoys pretty things. Originally from town, Barbara suspects she only moved to the country because she is cutting back since her husband’s death. In any case, this new scheme of hers will be interesting to watch unfold.

In another corner, Isabella Snowdon is sitting with Miss King and Miss Pretty. Miss Snowdon is the righteous and proud daughter of another higher-class family still living at home. Quick to talk of her own accomplishments, she is not always the best listener. Miss King and Miss Pretty are two unmarried orphans, who have intertwined their lives to look after one another. They are regulars about town together and Barbara quite enjoys their company. They compliment each other well – Miss King is bold, forward, and confident, whereas Miss pretty is docile and tends to “lean” on others. They have a nice quiet life, with just enough to be comfortable without worry, although Barbara wonders if Silverstream is a little too dull for them.

Barbara’s attention snaps back to Sarah talking about her husband, who is the town doctor. John is a kind, well-respected Scotsman, with no patience for fake illnesses. Like her husband, Sarah is intelligent enough to help anyone, even her husband, work through the most difficult problems, although she would never talk about it to anyone else. Sarah is a genuine and transparent person, which is a rare thing in Silverstream, indeed! Just as Sarah asks Barbara her opinion on the subject, and Barbara is about to be caught out for not paying attention, Mrs. Featherstone Hogg calls the ladies and gentlemen in her drawing room to attention. It was time to begin the poetry reading. This class of people is expected to be refined and cultured, and if Mrs. Featherstone Hogg needs to be the one to make sure that happens, she is willing to take on that task, if only to prove that she can do it.

Who is D. E. Stevenson?

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Fall MainStage production of Miss Buncle’s Book.

DES

Meet Dorothy Emily Stevenson. She was the kind of woman who wrote on the sofa with her feet up and a green baize board on her lap while she smoked her cigarettes. She was a devoted wife, mother of four, and a “lovely cuddly granny” who played Scrabble with her granddaughters. But also, she was the author of over forty-five novels that were written throughout sixty years, including Miss Buncle’s Book, the source material for Lifeline’s upcoming fall production. A prolific writer during her lifetime, she was an international bestseller and to this day she has an international fan club who affectionately call themselves “Dessies” after her.

Dorothy Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1892. Her father was a lighthouse engineer and she enjoyed a privileged upbringing. While she was well-educated by a series of governesses at home, her father refused to send her to college because as she said in an interview, “he didn’t want a blue stocking girl in the family,” meaning that he thought it was improper to have an intellectual or literary young woman in the household. He simply did not think that it was worthwhile to educate a woman beyond primary school. Stevenson had showed an interest in writing from the age of eight, although she often had to hide her poetry and stories from her family due to their disapproval, and began publishing her writings in 1915. In 1916, at the age of 24, she married Captain James Reid Pepole and began to keep a diary about her life as an army wife. She had four children before 1930, the eldest of which died while away at school in 1928.

Although she had previously published some books of her poetry, her first novel, Peter West, was published in 1923 and was not very successful. Her second attempt fiction was a happy accident that was inspired by her own diary. She had lent it to a friend whose daughter was marrying a lieutenant in order to give her an idea of what life as a service wife would be like, but the friend liked the writing so much that her family read it aloud and laughed so hard they cried. They encouraged Stevenson to publish it, but instead she drew on it to write what would later become Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in 1932. Mrs. Tim has gone on to become one of Stevenson’s most beloved and popular characters. It was through this story that Stevenson recognized and developed her skill for characterization and her interest in interpersonal relationships of everyday life. She wrote another book before publishing Miss Buncle’s Book in 1934, the first of another series of one of Stevenson’s most beloved characters. Both Mrs. Tim and Miss Buncle have become staples of Stevenson’s stories, each having their own series of books as well as being woven into other stories and making cameo appearances in other books. Stevenson’s worlds of her books were often intertwined, so her characters were able to visit one another from time to time. Stevenson more or less wrote a novel a year from then until 1969. That year her husband passed away and it was to be the end of her writing career as well. She passed away in 1973 and is buried with her husband in their hometown of Moffat, where she and her family lived for nearly 30 years. Over her lifetime Stevenson published over 45 novels, and three have been published posthumously.

D. E. Stevenson is most commonly remembered for her “light romantic novels,” although over the course of her career she also wrote in a variety of genres: war novels, science fiction, and a few spy thrillers. Much of her work could be described as “fictional biographies,” but she also demonstrated the ability to move outside of her comfort zone in terms of content. While her body of work as a whole is difficult to categorize, her stories are always driven by character development and rich personalities. Her books look at the intricacies of the human condition and are filled with the nuances, manners, and details of the historical period, which make them familiar and yet unique. Through it all, her light-handed humor makes it all the more enjoyable.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in the novels of D. E. Stevenson, despite the fact that many of her books were out of print for quite some time. More than four million of her books had been sold in Great Britain alone, with another three million sold in the United States and there was always an active demand for them in the second-hand market. In 2008, Miss Buncle’s Book was re-published by Persephone Books, followed shortly by Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by Bloomsbury Books in 2009. Since then, three other Miss Buncle books have been re-published as well as four of her other books. After her death, three unknown novels were found and published by her granddaughter, who also later published two unfinished manuscripts. The Dessies, Stevenson’s fan club, have a worldwide following with members in America, Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. They keep in touch through the Internet and attribute new technology with a having a hand in bringing them together and renewing interest in D. E. Stevenson’s books. Many of them traveled to her hometown for the champagne toast and reveal of her previously unpublished novels in 2011.

“I am grateful for all my blessings; amongst them the Gift of Storytelling, which seems to please and amuse so many people all over the world.”

DES to American friend Jewelene Epps Jones, November 1973

Sources and Further Reading

D. E. Stevenson Website maintained by Susan Dot Daly:
http://dalyght.ca/DEStevenson/index.html

D. E. Stevenson Website maintained by Susan Monahan:
http://www.dalyght.ca/DEStevenson/des_monahan/index.html

“Staying Power” article by Mary Smith as appeared in Dumfries & Galloway Life in April 2011:
http://www.dalyght.ca/DEStevenson/smitharticle.pdf

For a complete listing of D. E. Stevenson’s books:
http://www.anglophilebooks.com/desbib.htm