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Inside HER MAJESTY’S WILL Part One: Adapting the Novel

Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.

By Robert Kauzlaric

In brief, David Blixt’s novel, HER MAJESTY’S WILL, tells a story of William Shakespeare’s “Dark Years” – the period of time between his early days in Stratford and his later successes in London – when the legendary writer fell out of the history books and next to nothing is known of his goings-on. David takes some historical hints that one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – playwright Christopher Marlowe – had been involved with espionage for the English government, mixes in details of a famous plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth that occurred during the period, grabs a whole host of tidbits about historical figures from the time, mixes them together and imagines young William Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe coming of age as wannabe spies in a comedic action-adventure romp, fighting against impossible odds to save the Queen’s life. And all along the way, David has Will encountering characters and situations that will later inspire details in his plays.

I fell in love with the characters in his novel the moment I started reading it. I adored the crazy plot and all the ridiculous shenanigans. I enjoyed engaging with all of the ideas he touches on throughout. And I knew at once that I wanted to take a stab at turning it into a piece of theater.

As I approached the possibility of adapting it for the stage, I had one main area (aside from all the usual who-to-cut/who-to-keep/what-plot-to-trim/what-ideas-to-pursue stuff) that I knew I would have to make a significant decision on: how to give the audience access to Will’s inner journey.

In his novel, David creates a Will that keeps a LOT of secrets. There’s all sorts of backstory about the circumstances that resulted in Will landing where he is at the start of his adventure that David doles out at neatly-spaced intervals, giving the reader just enough information to provide context for the larger story. But even though we (as readers) don’t know the whole story until the end, since the book is told from Will’s perspective and we have access to his inner thoughts, we’re kept keenly aware that there are more secrets to be revealed when the time is right. And there are also several key moments of decision that Will experiences purely internally.

Without access to Will’s thought process in these moments, the story of the play would not be as clear or rich as it could be.

But how to share that inner life with the audience?

Changing forms from a novel to a play almost always results in facing a structural decision like this. It’s frequently the adaptor’s job to figure out how to turn unspoken thoughts into dialogue (or action).

One possible family of structural choices is the creation of a style of direct address. This might involve a narrator, it might simply be about the characters being able to talk directly to the audience as though they were in the room, or it might be a convention that allows characters to speak their thoughts aloud under certain conditions.

This direction is not my preference unless there’s something inherent in the original novel that seems specifically (to me) to ask for that treatment. For example, when I adapted the Victorian epistolary novel THE MOONSTONE, it felt appropriate to mirror the structure of the novel – nearly a dozen separate people chronicling their piece of a mystery directly to the reader (often with conflicting reports) – in the structure of the play. The mystery itself is nearly unsolvable given the clues presented by the story, but the fun of the novel isn’t really the solving of the mystery, it’s the unfolding of tensions between conflicting accounts of the same story as told directly to the reader.

In the case of HER MAJESTY’S WILL, as I was contemplating the information that needed to be conveyed to the audience I knew I needed to do something to give voice to the unspoken. This got my brain turning on all the various conventions used by Shakespeare himself in his own writing and I thought it might be interesting to play around with my own version of some Shakespearean conventions – specifically, the Chorus and the soliloquy.

So I built for myself a Chorus character in the vein of what Shakespeare does in HENRY V or what he does with Time in THE WINTER’S TALE. This character speaks directly to the audience, establishes locations, moves some plot points ahead, and shares some ideas that Will doesn’t speak aloud.

And then, as the story progresses and the Will of the play starts to discover his own voice and unleash his own passions, he eventually supplants the Chorus as audience interlocutor and begins delivering soliloquies in the vein of so many characters from the plays he will eventually write – like, say, RICHARD III or HAMLET – walking the audience through a decision moment here, grappling with an idea there. It’s not something he can do continuously, but something that gets doled out in intervals.

It ended up being a convention that felt right for the play I was building, one very much nodding in a meta-theatrical way at what Will himself will eventually come to do in his own work, and one that I hope supports some of the larger thematic ideas we’re playing with: finding your voice, claiming your past, and staking out your own future.

Young Will’s inauspicious beginnings

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Summer MainStage production of Her Majesty’s Will.

Welcome to the inauspicious beginnings of our young hero and someday poet and playwright of great renown – William Shakespeare! Although very little is known about the specifics and inner-workings of William’s early life, for a young man of his social status, it is surprising that what is known about him has survived.

William was born to John and Mary Shakespeare in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. John, although of yeoman status, had somehow managed to marry above his station into one of the most prominent aristocratic families in Stratford. Despite both families’ Catholic backgrounds, the Shakespeares were a respectable heritage with strong ambitions. John rose to become a valued civil servant in the community. In addition to being a glover, or glove-maker, John owned a shop that traded in wool and farm produce. He may also have dabbled in being a money-lender, a dubious enough position at the time. By the time William was born he already owned multiple properties in town and had held a couple of elected positions in the town including Ale-taster (Stratford had a prestigious reputation for its ale) and chamberlain (a position which had daily meetings, was responsible for clearing town streets, and heard local petitions). In 1565, John was elected as alderman, a position that would have come with free education for the children in the local grammar school. It is assumed that William learned to read and write in Latin, and that he would have studied the Greek and Latin playwrights and poets at the local King’s New School in Stratford. John’s ambitions continued to climb, and he was soon appointed as high bailiff (or mayor) in 1568, then to his highest held position of chief alderman in 1571. William would have been expected to follow in his father’s honorable (although restrictively local) footsteps. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, John applied for a coat-of-arms to formally give the family the credibility he had worked hard to achieve. The application, a costly endeavor for such a man, was denied, perhaps because of the family’s Catholic connections.


William Shakespeare’s believed birthplace

Unfortunately, John Shakespeare’s prosperity was not long-lived. The 1570s brought trouble for the Shakespeare family. By the end of the decade, John Shakespeare had fallen behind on his taxes, stopped paying the poor relief, and needed to mortgage Mary’s inherited estate. The boys were removed from school to help with the family businesses and so came the early end of William’s formal education. John was fined for missing court dates and church. There is no clear evidence as to what caused this sudden downward spiral from a promising career as a dedicated civil servant, although many scholars focus on an inability to manage finances.

Things got worse for the Shakespeares when 18-year-old William announced that 26-year-old Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant with his child. This news would have been devastating to the family name. A hasty marriage was arranged with special permission from the Bishop of Worchester and William and Anne were married on November 27, 1582. Susanna was born in May the following year. Two years later, twins Hamnet and Judith were born. It is assumed that William helped his father’s business during this time, or possibly took up secondary work as a teacher or lawyer. William was rumored to have acted as a money-lender when he relocated to London, so perhaps it is during this time that he learned the specifics of that trade. Since there is no evidence that has survived to indicate what he may have been doing to support his young family, many theories have cropped up to fill in the blanks of William’s life. One thing does seem to be consistent, though. It seems pretty clear that Anne and William’s relationship was strained and distant, despite its scandalous beginnings. John’s and the family’s fortunes continued to flounder and by 1586, John was removed from the board of alderman due to a lack of attendance. By 1592, John was stripped of all his civic duties.


Anne Hathaway’s family cottage

The years between 1585 and 1592, and where our play Her Majesty’s Will finds the young William, have been known as “lost years” in Shakespeare’s history. There are no official records between when his children were baptized and his first writing credits in London, therefore it is a time of incredible speculation by scholars. How does a barely-educated poor, struggling man from Stratford-upon-Avon become one of the greatest writers of the English language? Scholars though the ages have tried to crack the mystery of how Shakespeare established a successful career when he arrived in London. Common theories include: a local legend about poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s property and a quick escape from his punishment (complete with a revenge ballad); that he headed to London to be a horse attendant at the theatres; or that he was working as a lawyer or soldier based on the knowledge he displays of these professions in his plays. There is no evidence to support any of these claims, however. The most plausible speculations, with a little (but still not a lot) of evidence are the following three theories: 1. That Shakespeare was a teacher during this time, either in a private household or as a schoolmaster (this story was recounted by the son of one of his fellow actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) which would have allowed him time to study and work on his craft; 2. That Shakespeare was recruited by a travelling troupe of actors that came through Stratford (most likely the Queen’s Men who came to town short one actor in 1587); or 3. A recently-developed economic theory that suggests far from struggling, John Shakespeare’s business was tied into shady dealings, so William Shakespeare left Stratford to be his father’s agent of trade in the booming city of London (this would have been how Shakespeare could have supported himself with his artistic pursuits). In any case, it is reasonable to assume that whatever the reason Shakespeare left Stratford and his family behind, it must have been fairly compelling, since he gave up a fairly respectable lifestyle for one with the lowly rabble of the theatre profession.

By 1592, the first recorded indication that Shakespeare was in London writing plays appeared. Robert Greene made reference to him (and a dig or two) in his last written work, referring to Shakespeare as an “upstart cow” reaching above his rank by trying to match the university-educated men around this time. At the time there was the belief that a man could not change his own destiny, but that artistry needed to be fostered by a patron or developed through formal education. By 1594, however, Shakespeare’s plays were being produced regularly and exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company in which Shakespeare would later be a managing partner. The company would go on to become the King’s Men after Queen Elizabeth’s death.

As for his personal life, much examination and speculation has come from studying his sonnets and his plays – from what actually happened during those lost years to whether or not Shakespeare had a homosexual relationship and even whether or not Shakespeare penned all his own works. While many theories exist, little evidence supports one over the other. For example, while many scholars point to the sonnets and extensive cross-dressing themes in his plays as explicit proof of Shakespeare’s support for homoerotic relationships, others point out a different understanding of sexuality in the Elizabethan age in which the homosexual identity did not exist, separating act from identity in a way that is foreign to modern understanding. So, the best we can do to understand and interpret Shakespeare’s heart of hearts is to guess.

It seems almost silly to try to sum up the legacy of Shakespeare’s plays for he is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest writer of the English language. His total body of work consists of approximately 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two narrative poems, and a few other verses. He produced most of his work over the 24 years between 1589 and 1613. Perhaps the greatest achievement in his parent’s eyes was that he was able to secure a coat-of-arms for his father before John passed away.

Shakespeare’s literary legacy changed the approach to Elizabethan theatre. He is credited with expanding the potential of characterization, plot, language and genre. He used the same devices that were popular in the age of Elizabethan theatre, not only to move the plot, but also to explore the complete range of emotions and conflict within his characters. He wrote plays that attempted to capture human emotion in a way that transcended his time and place. Shakespeare wrote within the conventional style of the day, but his innovative adaptations to language and flow changed the experience of the play, so much so, that critics have questioned how someone with such little education could revolutionize the genre. Without any evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of scholars do give him the appropriate credit. As his contemporary poet and dramatist, Ben Jonson, put it, he “was not of an age, but for all time.” David Blixt points out early in his book that theatre breathes life again into the playwright and characters every time the play is picked up and performed. Because of this, William Shakespeare continues to live a very long and celebrated life.

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.

Wrinkle in Time rehearsal photo
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.

Northanger Abbey
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.