Emma: A Refreshing Take on a Timeless Classic

It takes something extra to adapt a 200-year-old classic novel that has already been adapted multiple times for stage and screen. Call it guts – call it ovaries – but actor/playwright Kate Hamill has now adapted five novels of Jane Austen, with her latest, Emma, staged at Denver Center Theatre Company.

“Jane Austen was a proto-feminist,” the New York-based actor and playwright says. “She talked a lot about something I’m very interested in, which is not only the interiority of women’s lives but also what to do when the dictates of your conscience and character are in direct opposition to what your society expects of you.”

In the 1815 novel and the play, Emma is a well-off young woman who, having made a successful match, decides matchmaking is her gift. Comic missteps ensue, as well as a hidden romance.

“When I started thinking about Emma, I was really interested in the frustrations of a woman who cannot work,” Hamill says.” I had an acting teacher who would talk about the tragedy of women before work, who were not able to put their considerable intellect and their talents into work that fulfills them. My ‘Emma’ became about that, this very brilliant woman who is trying to find someplace to put her excess energy, and matchmaking becomes her outlet, because it’s the only thing she can do.”

Hamill came to playwriting as an actor who was dissatisfied with the roles available to her and other highly educated and trained women.

“I was working, but I very quickly was frustrated, because I felt like I was constantly auditioning to play someone’s wife or girlfriend or prostitute,” Hamill says. “So often, I felt like my identity as a feminist person, which actually predates even my work in theater, was really coming into opposition with the work that I was auditioning for. I would be in these rooms with 600 other women who were all super funny and smart or talented, all of whom were auditioning to play one role out of ten roles. The plays were male gaze-oriented and they were almost always by men.”

Hamill wrote a check for $100 to her friend, Andrus Nichols. “I want to write a new feminist classic, and if I don’t write it, you get to cash it, “Hamill recalls.

The play, her first, was an adaptation of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, partly because Hamill could not find a stage adaptation that had not been written by a man. Hamill played Marianne, and Nichols played Eleanor. Her second career had begun. In the decade since, she has written nearly 20 plays, including four Austen adaptations and several original pieces.

The playwright’s approach to Jane Austen isn’t all reverence and bonnets. Rather, anachronistic touches, including recent music and dances, are sprinkled throughout. Emma herself regularly breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience.

“I’m always interested in creating a work which is in conversation with the original but which has lots of relevance and unexpected surprises in it,” Hamill says. “I’m always looking to create something that speaks both to people who know the novel very well and also people who have absolutely no relationship with the novel at all.”

This production is the adaptation’s second; it arrives at the Wolf Theatre following its premiere in the 2021/22 season of Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theatre. Once again, Meredith McDonough will be directing, and their collaborative relationship is so strong that Hamill will be in residence in Denver during rehearsals, unusual for later productions. Along with them will be some of the designers from the Guthrie, as they continue to try to improve the work.

The anachronisms, such as modern makeup and a popcorn machine, are a way for Hamill to bring the audience into what was, when written, a contemporary world, not a costume drama. “Both I and Meredith McDonough, who’s directing this production, we’re both really interested in injecting irreverence and timeliness into this classic work,” Hamill says. “I’m not a dramaturgically rigid adapter, so I tend to come at it from a new-play lens. I tend to come it at as a collaboration between myself and another author – some of whom are currently dead.”

As a writer, she is slightly skeptical of adaptations that hew too closely to the original, as if it were an unmalleable constitution.

“If we played just totally Regency music and Regency dances, it might be a little more dramaturgically accurate, but you’re not going to get the same feeling that [the characters] would get dancing these dances,” she says. “Anytime you have something that’s really dramaturgically rigid, everyone’s about a decade too old, and no one has smallpox scars, and everyone has their original teeth. We understand things through a modern lens. I believe in letting these acts of theater run around in the sun and coloring in crayon on our altars.”

Most of all, though, Hamill wants the audience to realize that this is a comedy. It led her to watch a lot of “I Love Lucy” in preparation for the script.

“She is super, super funny,” Hamill says of Austen. “I think she is often sort of pigeon-holed as a quote-unquote romance writer, but she’s so funny and she’s so smart about people’s characters.”

Apr 5 – May 5 • Wolf Theatre