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Adapting a Classic: our journey with “EMMA”–part 1

This is our third Home Stage Production of the season, and also our third adaptation of a famous story from another medium.  We started the season with a very short Bible story (Ruth), and presented it as two contrasting one-acts.  Then we mounted an O. Henry short story (The Ransom of Red Chief) as a full-length comedy.  Now we’re attempting to present a dramatic version of a much-loved novel by Jane Austen, Emma.

All adaptations have their challenges, and the challenges are different from story to story.   While the O. Henry story is familiar mainly for its twist, and Ruth is well-known for a couple of famous lines, Jane Austen has become a household name in the past twenty years or so, with film after film based on her six completed novels.  Three good screen versions of Emma (two of them for television) have been done just in the past 15 years.   So when we approach this novel, we do so knowing that our audience not only loves the story, but they can quote it at length and they have pictures in their heads already of what the characters are like.  They have expectations about the costumes, the scenery and music.

All of which makes it daunting to attempt to recreate Austen on stage–and on a small stage, at that.  And yet the idea was irresistable:  here was a much-loved writer whose work had not been produced here in Fort Wayne in my memory. When I discovered that Jon Jory, a notable theater director and writer, had published adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma, I knew at once that I wanted to do one of them.  It took very little contemplation to decide on Emma.  For one thing, I personally haven’t found the screen versions of Emma to be as completely satisfying as the other two.  (Who can compete with the BBC version of P&P, especially Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, really?  And Emma Thompson’s imaginative big screen take on Sense and Sensibility was so perfect, I wouldn’t want to compare it to any other.)  For another, those two stories range through many different locations, including London and Derbyshire, and multiple large estates figure in each book.  There are subplots and back stories to explain.  But Emma is a very simple, straightforward tale with one setting, the fictional village of Highbury, and a small cast of characters who all revolve around the eponymous central figure who touches all their lives.

Our season was announced, and at once I heard a buzz–there was more excitement about Emma than perhaps anything else we’ve ever done.  We had a decent turnout at auditions.  Not surprisingly, the majority of my potential actors were women, reminding me that Jane Austen is (perhaps unfairly) perceived as a woman’s writer.  This was reinforced at the first read-through of the script:  When I inquired, every female in the room had read the novel; none of the men had.

In order to immerse us all quickly in a culture and time period two hundred years remote from our own, I did something I’ve rarely done before: I gave the cast several homework assignments.  One, obviously, was to read (or re-read) the book.  I asked each one to find a) some passage about his character which described him in a way not found (or not so clearly) in the play, and b) a line of dialogue spoken by his character in the book, but not in the play, which gave him some new insight into his role.  This homework is to be shared with me, but not necessarily the whole cast. It is my way of reminding everyone (myself included) that the best way to be faithful to Austen is to develop these characters using all the information she left for us–much of which is not found in the pages of the very compact script adaptation.

The second assignment was due first: I assigned each actor a specific topic related to the world of Jane Austen and Regency England, which they were to research, prepare at least a half-page typed report, and email it to me so that I could format all the reports and distribute a packet of them to each cast member.  Each actor presented his or her research at either the first read-through, or the first ensemble blocking rehearsal.  I will be posting a separate blog before we open, with a condensed version of the results. These will serve as an expansion of the dramaturgy notes in the program (and we’ll put a link to the blog in the program, as well).  I hope that students in particular will find the background helpful.

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About godsbooklover

I'm a Christ-follower, a writer, a voracious reader, and a piano teacher. I'm married to my best friend and we have two grown sons and a gorgeous granddaughter. I am the Artistic Director of a theatre ministry. And in my "spare" time, I blog.

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