[article originally published in Prologue (the OSF member magazine), Fall 2017 .]
Two playwrights, Kate Hamill and Karen Zacarías, prove that female characters are limited neither by their senses nor their destiny.
Two theatremakers coming to OSF next season assemble new work out of existing genres with women’s voices, for women performers. Their plays are infused with feminism, humor and social commentary in equal measure.
Actor and playwright Kate Hamill adapted Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a story set in late-1790s England that addresses real estate, income, class and reputation in the lives of Dashwood sisters Elinor (sense) and Marianne (sensibility). The sisters, their mother and a younger sister make their own way after their father’s death and contend with reduced circumstances and the machinations of relatives. Austen novels, with their introspective heroines who suffer under various social pressures, are sometimes a challenge to dramatize. This adaptation theatricalizes those pressures in various ways, including prying eyes and ears pressed against the walls and windows and an energized set of “gossips” as a Greek chorus.
Destiny of Desire playwright Karen Zacarías embraces the telenovela genre as a theatrical lesson in the storytelling format that many folks (especially critics) have long misunderstood. The exuberantly plotted play she created is inspired by the art form she knew as a child in Mexico. Those new to this genre might see in Destiny a combination of soap opera, miniseries, lurid drama, Shakespearean comedy (with parental confusion and romantic entanglements) and operatically heightened storytelling. The Destiny of Desire plot is kicked off with two babies intentionally switched at birth—a sickly child born to rich parents is exchanged for a healthy child born to poor parents—and the plot complications pile on from there. Nuns, doctors, businessmen and young women yearning for romance fill the stage. There are villains you love to boo, and earnest, kind people you love to cheer.
These plays and their artistic teams have taken slightly different journeys to OSF. Sense and Sensibility was written for and first staged in 2014, and again in 2016, by Bedlam, a theatre company based in New York City. Hamill is a member of the company and performed in the productions. The play is now published, inspiring a range of productions around the country, several of which have featured Hamill as an actor.
Hamill appreciates the contributions of each creative team to the work. “One of the things that’s lovely and humbling to me is that the play on the page may be one thing, but the play when staged is really like a child between you and the director. The co-parents of a child really affect the upbringing.”
Destiny of Desire stopped over the past two years at Arena Stage, South Coast Repertory and the Goodman Theatre with the same director, José Luis Valenzuela, the same design team and many of the same actors. Both Valenzuela and Sense and Sensibility director Hana S. Sharif bring new production ideas to the shows at OSF.
“I really want to create more female-centered classics to try to even the playing field, and not just for me.”
Generous sources of inspiration
Several events conspired to support Zacarías and the development of Destiny of Desire. She is one of the founding members of Latinx Theatre Commons, a national movement to update the American narrative with Latino stories. “Instead of just begging regional theatres to do our work, we were going to start working together, do more work and invite everybody to our table,” Zacarías says.
The playwright met director Valenzuela in 2012 at Arena Stage when the idea for LTC was forming. Zacarías says, “Our friendship and kindred aesthetic grew” during the first national LTC convening in 2013 at Emerson College in Boston. The LTC, what she calls a “place of abundance,” inspired her to craft her own telenovela in several ways. First, she recalls actress Sandra Delgado articulating a frustration that many, including Zacarías, share: Critics using “telenovela” as a blanket descriptor of many plays written by Latinas. “Critics think it’s a clever thing, but it’s dismissive and lazy; it’s always derogatory,” Zacarías says. The very specific telenovela genre, she concludes, has archetypes and conventions that should be examined, honored and tested.
Second, Zacarías was researching the emotional and psychological hold the telenovela format has on people. Despite the love-hate relationship many Latinos can have with the genre, she notes, it’s a touchstone. “About two billion people watch telenovelas every night in the world,” she observes, including productions created in Korea and Serbia. The format of the art form transcends language. She concluded that she had to write her own version. “I am going to try to write the best telenovela play that I can,” she recalls, “so that no other play by a Latina ever gets compared to a telenovela, unless it sounds and looks like this one.”
Zacarías argues that the telenovela is a source of pride. “We need to embrace it as part of our culture. We need to take popular art and elevate it to high art, and both celebrate and test the limitations of the genre.”
Destiny of Desire is both subversive and celebratory. “It’s unapologetically a telenovela, and it’s also really subversive and playful,” Zacarías says. “Nobody is who you think they are.” And the subversively powerful structure of the play itself is more potent than any overtly political statement. The protagonists are women and all the action is sparked by the decisions of women. “It’s a very subtle thing,” she concludes, “but as the play grows, it really is like a feminist manifesto about what happens when women take destiny into their own hands.”
Putting women center stage
With Sense and Sensibility, Hamill embraced adaptation to create classic roles for women. “Theatres want to produce the classics,” Hamill reflects. “I really want to create more female-centered classics to try to even the playing field, and not just for me. One of the things I love about going to see my plays (e.g., Pride and Prejudice or Vanity Fair or Sense and Sensibility) is seeing all the people who have jobs in a female-centered play.” The fact that most new plays and adaptations are by men while most of the ticket-buying audience is female energizes rather than demoralizes her. “Some theatres aren’t even playing to their home team,” she says. “If you build it, they’re already coming. They want to see female-centered stories.”
Hamill’s adaptation project was an easy choice: She loves Austen’s stories, she related to the young female heroines and she was drawn to Austen’s humor and incisive observations about societal roles and expectations. She was creatively challenged by some critics’ dismissal of Austen novels as boring or precious. Hamill says, “I thought I could find a way into it that didn’t treat the story purely as a romance but also [examined] how women are treated in society and how that is relevant today. For me, Sense and Sensibility is about your reaction to social pressures. Do you break the rules like Marianne, who decides to throw caution to the wind [by socializing unescorted with a male friend and speaking her mind]? Or do you follow the rules like Elinor, who is cautious all the time? Both of those choices have incredible consequences, especially for women, especially for marginalized communities, and that’s still very true today.”
Hamill says the time is ripe to tell inclusive women’s stories. “It’s time for all of us and the American theatre to show which side we’re on,” she observes. The Bedlam production of Sense and Sensibility was running in New York City during the 2016 presidential election. “I remember the first show we had after election night was a matinee,” she recalls. “We had full houses every single show during the run, but that show was half-empty, and people looked like they were at a funeral. It was terrible, and we were going backstage and crying. At the end, people looked a little happier, and one woman looked at me, put her hand over her heart, and mouthed ‘thank you.’ I burst into tears. It’s important that we keep doing this stuff.”
Sense and Sensibility runs February 17—October 28.
Destiny of Desire runs February 18—July 12.