Love and Frustration

NOV 26, 2017

Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility Adaptor Kate Hamill on the creation of women-centered classics.

Quite often, I get asked: “What made you adapt Sense & Sensibility?”

The truth is: an odd combination of love and frustration.

I love the theater. The theater, specifically; unlike lm, it’s ephemeral—changing from night to night, from show to show. A group of people gather in a room together and enact an old, old ritual: the audience and actors, all feeling and breathing together. I love the theater for its potential—for the empathy it can awaken. Nothing makes me feel more connected to others than when I experience a truly amazing play or musical, whether from onstage or off: when I find myself laughing and crying openly for the lives of imaginary human beings. Nothing cures me of loneliness like seeing the secrets of others’ hearts onstage.

And I love the classics: both theatrical and literary. I love stories that are so powerful they’ve stayed with us for centuries. My love for Jane Austen’s writing began when I was a teenager in a small town in rural America. Reading the novels of a woman who had died centuries before I was born, I recognized the eccentricities of my own neighbors. I read about people just like me, who struggled to reconcile their consciences with the dictates of society. And I felt a strong sense of kinship with Jane Austen—an intense love for her work that’s gone on to shape my life… the frustration came a bit later.

I grew up and moved out of that small town, and started working as an actor in New York City. Quickly, I became frustrated by the dearth of complex, female-centered characters and storylines in the theater. And it wasn’t just me: I had so many friends—talented, trained, passionate female artists—who were dropping out of the business for lack of opportunity.

For millennia, women working in the theater were largely relegated to playing tertiary characters in male narratives: the girlfriend, the wife, the prostitute.

This is particularly true, of course, in my beloved classics: there are three female roles for every sixteen male roles in Shakespeare, for example. Now, there are some great roles for girlfriends, wives, prostitutes, but I was tired of women losing the chance to lead the stories (and thus losing out on career opportunities). I wanted to create women-centered narratives. I wanted to create new female classics.

And then I thought, where better to start than with Jane Austen: also a young woman, and one with whom I had felt a long-standing connection? I started writing.

The play born of that love and frustration—Sense & Sensibility—has gone on to productions in theaters nationwide, employing dozens of women and men in a female-centered storyline. I think its popularity is a testament to how many people—like me—are hungering for female-centered stories. I’m very proud to have Sense & Sensibility at A.R.T., directed by Eric Tucker, who directed the world premiere and several ensuing productions, all of which bear Bedlam’s invariably inventive and exciting style.

The theater offers powerful opportunities for connection: with our past, with others, with ourselves. I adapted Sense & Sensibility because I believe so deeply that the classics belong to everyone. When we ensure that narratives of all types can take center stage, we know that we can all be protagonists, no matter our gender or background or circumstance: heroes—or heroines—of our own stories.

Kate Hamill is the Adaptor of Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility (for which she originated the role of Marianne). Her other adaptations include Vanity Fair, Pride & Prejudice, and Little Women (forthcoming).