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INTERVIEW: Playwright Kate Hamill’s New Emma at the Guthrie

The Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater. Photo by Gallop Studios.

This Saturday, previews begin at the Guthrie Theater for Emma. This new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic 1815 novel about a would-be matchmaker in Regency Era England is penned by actor-playwright Kate Hamill, who has made something of a speciality in crystalizing Austen’s works for the stage.

In Emma – the last of Austen’s novels to be published during her lifetime (Persuasion and Northanger Abbey only appeared posthumously, and Sanditon was left incomplete) – the 21-year-old Englishwoman Emma Woodhouse decides to play matchmaker to friends and new acquaintances. The resulting foibles of her journey through upper-class English society and courtship ritual has inspired countless adaptations to the film and television screen, notably including the 1995 film Clueless. The source novel was an immediate hit, and remains in print more than two centuries after its debut, and can be read in more than two dozen languages.

One of the highlights of the upcoming Guthrie Theater production (previews begin June 18, opening night June 24) is the new adaptation by Hamill of Austen’s novel – the fifth by Hamill’s pen. (The Guthrie previously staged Hamill’s Sense and Sensibility adaptation.) The production stars Amelia Pedlow as the eponymous Emma Woodhouse, is directed by Meredith McDonough, and work by a creative team including Lex Liang (Scenic and Costume Designer), Paul Toben (Lighting Designer), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Designer), Carla Steen (Resident Dramaturg), Jill Walmsley Zager (Voice and Dialect Coach), Emily Michaels King (Movement Director), Aaron Preusse (Fight Director), Tonia Sina (Intimacy), Jennifer Liestman (Resident Casting Director), Tree O’Halloran (Stage Manager), Nate Stanger (Assistant Stage Manager), and Jillian Robertson (Assistant Director).

The Arts Reader’s Basil Considine spoke with Hamill about distilling Emma for 21st-century audiences and the theatrical stage.

The title page of the first-ever edition of Emma, which (1816 date on the title page notwithstanding) was released for sale on December 23, 1815. Like all of her novels, it was not printed under her name during her lifetime – but was advertised as “by the author of” her prior hit novels Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

How did you first encounter Jane Austen’s Emma, and was this through the lens of the novel itself, or through an adaptation?

The novel – I’m quite careful about not watching other people’s adaptations, lest I be influenced! I probably first read Emma in grade school, and have read it many times since.

You’ve had quite the run in adapting 19th-century novels to the stage. Is there something special about this period of literature that speaks to you?

I haven’t just done 19th century novels, haha! But I do like this time period because, frankly, they were bumping up against a lot of issues that we are now: a vast wealth disparity, the desire for social change, the tyranny of rigid gender roles, how class can shape your destiny, the clash of technological progress and capitalism, the struggle of dictates of conscience vs. social pressure, and a real questioning of mores. It’s fertile ground for exploring our own era.

What circumstances (personal desire, commissioning details, etc.) led you to write your adaptation of Emma?

I’ve been on a years-long mission to adapt all the major Austen works for the stage – Emma was my fourth out of 6 (I’ve now done 5 – one more left)! I had a lovely pre-existing relationship with the Guthrie, as they did my Sense and Sensibility (that was 1 out of 6!), and they contacted me about commissioning Emma, which I was excited to do. Before I started, though, I had to make sure that I had a personal connection with the potential play and that it sparked something in me as an artist.

I approach everything with a new play lens – I’m a radical adaptor – so I have to make sure I have skin in the game, emotionally speaking! I also want to make sure everything I do speaks to the present moment, and as a specifically feminist artist I want to make sure I’m brining a socially relevant lens.

When I re-read the novel, I really saw an opportunity to make a spiky, brilliant, exciting heroine who’s got tons of potential, tons of energy… but is not allowed to work due to the constraints of her time. She’s got all of this energy, all of this talent – and nowhere to put it. When you’ve got lots of energy going in the wrong direction, that’s a screwball comedy – and I thought: that’s the play. I’m grateful to the Guthrie for opening the door for me to work on it!

Playwright Kate Hamill gives notes during a rehearsals for Emma at the Guthrie Theater. Photo by Tom Wallace.

What are two favorite moments in this play and why?

It’s hard to choose! You know, one of the best things about being a playwright is the brilliance your collaborators bring! I love watching my genius friend Meredith McDonough, our director: stage scenes. A really amazing director brings everything to life, and watching her craft is… wow. I love her brain. So I’m going to cheat on this question and say I’m a big fan of everything Meredith has staged.

I’m also such a fan of the dances created by our choreographer, Emily Michaels-King! We were all really interested in shooting this new classic through with modern music, and Emily has made movement that makes you dance in your seat. We’ve got a top-notch cast, crew, and creative team – it’s really a pleasure being in this room, and I find new things to be delighted by every day. I’ve laughed ’til I cried, over and over.

A set of four late-19th- and early-20th-century illustrations for editions of Emma by English illustrator Charles Edmund Brock (1870-1938).

You’ve been one of the most-produced playwrights in the United States for several seasons. How often are you able to attend productions of your works at LORT theatres?

It certainly varies! There are lots of productions I can’t see schedule-wise, unfortunately. But I’m always intimately involved with world premieres, so in a case like Emma, I’m here every day, writing and rewriting.

I do like to travel, which is good, as I bounce around quite a bit – I’ve become an expert packer.

Emma the novel is filled with rich descriptions of food. What are some of your personal favorite foods, and why?

Oh, gosh. I love to eat.

I’ve been truly enjoying the food in Minneapolis, which is stellar. I just ate at Young Joni for the first time and my mind was blown. That cauliflower appetizer! I lost it. [Editor’s note: The cauliflower appetizer at Young Joni includes shishito peppers, saffron chermoula, pickled fresno, golden raisins, almond picada, and cauliflower yogurt.]

In terms of food, I particularly love anything very spicy. I have bottles and bottles full of hot sauce back in New York, and always travel with a spare. But I’m kind of a sucker for any extreme taste – very salty, very bitter, very sweet, very sour. And, y’know: chocolate is a favorite.

Playwright Kate Hamill talks with Emma director Meredith McDonough in the rehearsal studio. Photo by Tom Wallace.

Many early-career playwrights spend much time thinking about when and where to publish a play. You have plays available through DPS and TRW – what factors led you to publish through these companies?

I feel extremely fortunate to be published by and have rich relationships with both! It’s all a bit about what they’re interested in, and what I have coming out in productions (plays are generally produced after publication), and how those intersect. I have three getting published this year (Dracula, Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt #2B, and now Emma), and I’m very excited about that, although it’s always a tiny bit bittersweet to send plays out for galleys to be compiled. Then they’re out in the world without you!

You had several plays (including this one) that were scheduled for 2020-2021 that are now seeing their premieres in the current season. What are some of the ways that you filled your time during the pandemic lockdowns and periods of reduced interaction?

I did some screenwriting gigs, and that was a fun pivot; it’s, in some ways, a very different medium. I also was fortunate enough to keep having acting and playwriting work coming in – writing in particular being something that one could still do from home. I spent time with my awesome husband. I got a wonderful dog. I got good at cooking. You know, the same things we all did.

I’m a bit of a workaholic – more than a bit – so the theaters being closed down for essentially all of 2020 was a blow, as it was for so many. I desperately missed the people and the rituals of this ancient art. But I’m so glad we can all gather again and celebrate this old, old form of communal catharsis – it’s much-needed!

Did You Know?

A publisher offered Jane Austen £450 (about $27,000 in current U.S. dollars) for the publishing rights to Emma, but demanded the copyrights of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility as well. A shrewd judge of her own success and worth – and with several hit novels already in circulation – Austen decided to self-publish the inaugural 2000-copy run of Emma, which soon sold out. The following 1816 American edition, for which she received a substantial advance, sold for a premium price of $4 (about $83 today).

Previews for the Guthrie Theater’s world premiere production of Kate Hamill’s Emma begin June 18 at the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage in Minneapolis, MN. Opening night is June 24.

Basil Considine