Sunday, October 19, 2014

A View from the Stage

The cast of "A Dangerous Intimacy"
Peter Sabor (Mr. Rushworth), Natasha Duquette (maid), Patrick Stokes (Prince Regent), Karen Doornebos (Julia), Frederick Duquette (Tom), Syrie James (Maria), Diana Birchall (Mrs. Norris), Karen Fuller (Fanny), Edward Scheinman (Henry Crawford), Juliet McMaster (Edmund), Miriam Rheingold-Fuller (Mary Crawford), and Kimberly Brangwin (Lady Bertram).  Picture by Erna Arnesen.
After the success of our "Austen Assizes" play in Brooklyn (at the 2012 JASNA AGM) to our delight Syrie James and I were commissioned to write a "behind the scenes" play-within-the-play in Mansfield Park for the Montreal AGM. We knew this would be even trickier to bring off, as Mansfield Park is arguably the least comic, and most structurally complex, of Austen's novels. So we decided to begin with a series of brisk sketches, each a dialogue between two characters, and then move into the rehearsal scenes incorporating dialogue straight from Lovers' Vows. That would link  that play to the Mansfield Park "actors," and reveal what, exactly, they would have been rehearsing. We didn't think the interaction between the two had really been shown before, and it would be enlightening, and funny.
Fred, Miriam, Syrie, Edward, Peter, in rehearsal

Fred, Syrie and Edward, as Tom, Maria and Henry emoting in "Lovers' Vows"

Of course, the actual writing was mostly done in the last six months when time started to press in! ("We'd better get serious.") Our method was basically to take turns, each writing a scene, the other countering with rewriting and then adding new material, back and forth, with several in-person discussion meetings (fortunately we don't live far apart), until we had what looked like an hour-long play. The polishing we did by sitting together and reading the whole play aloud, in several sessions, to meticulously refine the dialogue and make it funnier. By the time it was done, as usual it was hard to remember who had invented what. We do know that Laurel Ann Nattress suggested the green baize and curtain rod a la the Carol Burnett "Went With the Wind" skit, and Syrie actually sewed the contraption!  For every scene that one of us conceived, the other had improvements, changes and inventions, but remarkably, we nearly always saw eye-to-eye, and when one improved something the other had done, reaction was rapturous! It was a true joint effort, done in workmanlike, waste-no-time fashion, an efficiency which never ceases to surprise me, since I never wrote anything in partnership before. The most fun was the reading aloud and making subtle changes; we would alternate speeches, and both Syrie and I "were" Tom, Henry, Mary, Julia, all the characters, at different times. It gave us a facility and intimacy with all the roles, and a good idea of how the speeches should be delivered.
Miriam and Peter at rehearsal
Syrie and Ellen
From early on, casting was always under discussion. Syrie knew from the start that she wanted to be Maria Bertram, and probably wrote the part with herself in mind; I never could see it, and wanted her to play Mary Crawford, for I think of her as having more of Mary's qualities than Maria's. But I would not interfere, trusting she knew best for herself and would bring it off in the end - which she most emphatically did! For myself, I never had an idea of what part I could play, if any. I have virtually no acting experience (though I've always read my stories aloud), and have no clear idea of myself as any kind of "type." As I have trouble projecting (the one thing Syrie keeps on at me about!), I imagined I might make a "creepmouse" Fanny Price. So I was startled when Syrie, Laurel Ann, and even my own son Paul, declared with one voice that I must be Mrs. Norris - and everyone who heard the suggestion said "Oh YES!" Not very flattering, and I couldn't understand it, until I remembered that I do always seem attracted to the nasty caricatures (like Mrs. Elton and Lady Catherine), and that my age suited me to Mrs. Norris far more than to Fanny. To prove everyone wrong, I tried reading Mrs. Norris's part out loud to myself, and what came out was this alarming carping caw that was undeniably - Mrs. Norris! 

 The incredible costume!
The inspiration!
That settled, we knew that we'd ask Juliet McMaster and Miriam Rheingold-Fuller to play parts, as they'd been in other plays of ours; if Syrie was Maria, Miriam would be Mary. Juliet plays en travestie amusingly, with a specialty in clergymen, so she would be Edmund. The difficulty was finding not only men, but men reasonably young and handsome, with real acting ability, and who would also be in Montreal for the AGM! We needed several of them, Tom, Henry and Mr. Rushworth. Not easy! Laurel Ann suggested the brilliant young scholar and writer Edward Scheinman for one of the parts, Elaine Bander suggested Natasha Duquette's Shakepearean actor husband Fred for another, and my son Paul would do Rushworth. Fred liked the idea of orating as Tom, Edward would be a perfect Henry - but Paul got a new librarian job and couldn't go to Montreal. The almost last-minute replacement was one of our best pieces of casting. I remembered seeing McGill professor Peter Sabor read in a Fanny Burney play once, I knew he was good, and I thought it would be funny having such a brainy man play a complete dolt!
Peter Sabor (far right) making "Rushworth-face" in performance!
Picture by Sarah Emsley

Syrie and I had always agreed that her husband Bill would be Sir Thomas (fortunately he agreed too), and we always wanted stylish Kimberly Brangwin of Seattle to be the perfect languid funny Lady Bertram. Pretty Austenesque author Karen Doornebos would be the petulant Julia, in the cat-fight with Syrie, and Miriam volunteered her lovely twenty year old actress daughter Ellen to be Fanny.

Bill's entrance as Sir Thomas Bertram fresh from Antigua

Natasha was to persuade her and Fred's pug dog Esmee to play herself, with Natasha as the maid to mind her. Unfortunately, two days before we were to fly to Montreal (Syrie was already on a cruise up the St. Lawrence) the hotel belatedly decided that poor Esmee must be caged, muzzled, heaven knows what restraints put on the poor little thing. So, scratch Pug (so to speak), and I had to immediately come up with dialogue to explain her absence, since we didn't want any stuffed Pugs! Natasha remained in the play, doing her Maid with a soft Irish accent, and actually "maiding" me in earnest, helping me into my unwieldy costume, which tended to slip down my back.
I think Patrick Stokes, as the Prince Regent, was the last written and cast. Having met him in England, I knew he would bring the house down as the prince, but my emails went wrong, and I was sending him ones that began "Say no, if it is to be said," when he replied with bafflement that he didn't know what I was writing about, he had received nothing! When it was all explained, he jumped in with full alacrity and played the part to the hilt. There was the problem of his costume, since his luggage would already be exceeded with the Admiral's uniform he was bringing for his own presentation; but Bill lent a brocade vest, Patrick brought a very effective white wig, and I found a jeweled crown in the Salvation Army! He looked magnificent.
Syrie and Patrick in performance as Maria Bertram and the Prince Regent
Picture by Erna Arnesen
As with Austen Assizes, we had two hour-long rehearsals, one the day before and the other the day of the performance. Owing to scheduling and commitments, not everybody could get to both, but everybody did get to at least one.  Syrie using her staging knowledge to efficiently wield microphones and effectively direct the troupers, particularly difficult for her as she had the most ghastly cold acquired on the chill Quebec rivers; she had to save her voice for her part, and it was touch and go as to whether she might not succumb to laryngitis. But she didn't, real trouper she. On the day of the play her voice merely had a sultry huskiness that was just right for her part!

I was quite nervous when the actors assembled for the first rehearsal, not sure if the play would work or be as funny as the Assizes; but in the very first minute, when Fred Duquette stood up and delaimed in his resonant booming flexible voice:

"At Mansfield Park, November comes
There's naught to do but twiddle thumbs..."

I knew everything would be absolutely all right! All the words we had written jumped to vivid new life when spoken by these speakers of talent. Everyone was super good, and when Peter Sabor contorted his face into that of the doltish dunce and spoke in tones that showed complete inside comprehension of Mr. Rushworth, the effect of the whole was fantastic! (A video will eventually be available so everyone can see.)


Seen on the screen - Karen, Fred, Syrie as Julia, Tom and Maria
Screen set-up. Karen, Syrie, Kimberly

The actors assembled on the stage in the big ballroom at 7:15 for the 8 PM performance, and sat in their row of chairs, all but me, Bill and Patrick, who were going to make "surprise appearances," and mustn't be seen by the audience. We sat in a little tented alcove on the stage, in a litter of crowns, green baize, scripts and curtain rods. As the audience came in, I asked Syrie, who was sitting on the stage (in a "stage whisper" of course), "How's the house?" "Every seat is full," she said with suppressed excitement. Patrick and I amused ourselves counting and lost track at 500.

We began. Elaine gracefully introduced us, Fred as Tom did his Prologue, and people started to laugh as Maria and Julia expressed their booooredom. The laughter didn't stop - everything rolled out with perfect timing. One actor skipped a couple of lines but they were unimportant, and Syrie covered with aplomb. Soon it was time for my entrance, which was anything but an easy one! I had to emerge from the tent, wearing this curtain rod contraption across my shoulders, swathed in green baize, and walked forward slowly to the microphones giving everyone a sight of the costume. Laughter began, and proceeded to build, so I took my time. Then at the microphone I read my lines, remembering to project as young Ellen Fuller had coached me. She must have done it well because I was LOUD, and in Mrs Norris's meanest moments, the audience hissed - a new sensation for me!
Syrie was particularly wonderful as a deliciously amoral Maria, and got a lot of laughs, but then, everyone did - each part was played to perfection, with the elan and enthusiasm of people who are having fun, heightened by the audience having fun too! Special bring-the-house down laughter greeted Sir Thomas, straight from Antigua in his Bermuda shorts, talking of Mai Tais; and the Prince Regent, sweeping Maria away to see the Cupids on his ceiling. Lots of applause, call for "Authors!" and then we left the stage for picture-taking, and rapturous happy mutual compliments. Oh, what a night! And for the rest of the conference I had the happiness of being recognized Mrs. Norris!

Now - does anyone have any more pictures of the performance to share with us?  We'd be grateful!
Cast photo session
Picture by Erna Arnesen
After the play - me, Patrick, Syrie, Bill


Laurel Ann (Austenprose) said...

What joy, what raptures! Thanks for the lovely recap for those of us who were not in attendance and anxiously waiting for the blow by blow. I am still laughing.

(so glad that audience got the "green curtain" pun from Went with the Wind.)

Too bad pug was axed. Such prejudice is in modern times! It is probably just as well. You know what they say about sharing the stage with children and dogs. :-)

So happy for you and Syrie and your blazing success. Brava! Can't wait to see the film.

Cheers, LA

Unknown said...

Wow! It sounds like amazing fun! Kudos for writing AND performing!

Anonymous said...

Clever, clever, you - both of you ... all of you. What fun! I'm sure Jane would have hissed and laughed with you all.