"How did you become—?"
"A Jane Austen whisperer?" Kate Hamill finishes my question with a laugh and wry smile. A lover of classics who's dissatisfied by the "lack of meaningful female roles" within them, Hamill, an actor and writer, decided to try her hand at adapting. "The first thing I thought of was Jane Austen, because I love her. That's how I started."
Hamill's adaptation of Sense & Sensibility, in which she played Marianne Dashwood, premiered in 2014 at the Sheen Center. Mounted by the Bedlam theater company, the play and production were instantly hailed by audiences and critics alike. The universal acclaim was so strong that it returned for a 2016 engagement at the Gym at Judson, where it promptly sold out and played for 10 months.
Sense & Sensibility put Hamill on the map and became the first of her Austen adaptations. Now Pride and Prejudice, a coproduction of Primary Stages and Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, is up and running through January 6 at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Hamill takes center stage as Lizzy. Her Mr. Darcy is an actor with whom she shares a long history: Jason O'Connell. With Bedlam, O'Connell has played mountainous roles like Hamlet, Trigorin, and Bottom; across the country, he's played the likes of Falstaff, Benedick, and Petruchio. In Sense & Sensibilty, he played both Edward and Robert Ferrars. He also happens to be Hamill's boyfriend.
Over a cup of coffee before a long day of tech rehearsals, Hamill and O'Connell discussed what it's like to be in love onstage and off, and how to find the funny in the works of Jane Austen.
Take me back to the beginning. How did you two meet?
Kate Hamill: We were introduced by Vaishnavi Sharma, who was in the first production of Sense & Sensibility.
Jason O'Connell: She and Kate had been roommates, and Vaishnavi and I did Around the World in 80 Days together at Hudson Valley Shakespeare. Kate came to see the show and we became friends. When she wrote the first iteration of Sense & Sensibility, Kate asked me to play Edward Ferrars, which is the romantic lead.
In Around the World, I was playing a million different characters, with different costumes and silly accents. I was so taken with the fact that she saw me and then asked me to do something so different. I was very charmed by it. The first reading was nine months after we met.
Kate: We were friends, and then we were both single.
Jason: It was like When Harry Met Sally.
When you're adapting a novel, what's your way in?
Kate: I'm a big believer that you have to have your own point of view. You can do a copy-and-paste version of anything, but it's never going to be as good as the novel, and it's not doing justice to the stage as its own medium.
With these stories, I start by asking, "What does it say to us now?" If it's interesting to me personally, hopefully it'll be interesting to other people. But the thing I like is when the audience is surprised.
Jason: She teaches me a lot. I'm working on my first adaptation, of Cyrano, with Brenda Withers, who wrote Matt and Ben with Mindy Kaling. Just watching how Kate approaches adaptations and finds the essence of the story and characters, and then also what it means, not just in a contemporary context but personally to her, that feels like how to do it.
How do you go about finding the funny in Jane Austen?
Jason: Jane Austen had a wicked sense of humor, and sometimes people forget that. There's something about the time period, a repression that you figure doesn’t lend itself to that.
Kate: People are worshiping at this altar of Jane Austen, but our ideas of Jane Austen are not super accurate. Remember, they had thriving prostitution and criminal underclasses then. They went to the bathroom in chamber pots. People got scurvy. They had fleas.
Given your relationship, do you find that there's a pressure to impress each other onstage? Do you have a "don't bring the work home" policy?
Kate: We talk shop all the time. Our lives are our work. We talk about other stuff, but we love talking about work. We're very similar actors and extreme workaholics.
Jason: I don’t think we ever feel concerned that we're going to look bad in front of each other, but we really value each other's opinion, and we're constantly checking in with each other. She shows me pages of something she's writing, and I show her pages. If she gives the seal of approval, it feels good to go forward. It's the same thing with performance.
So far, knock on wood, it's been fun to work together and dissect and figure out why something went well or didn't play like we thought it would.
Kate: In this, we're on the same team. Pride and Prejudice is the first time we're ever playing opposite each other, too.
Jason: We have one big scene together where it's just the two of us, and it's a little different every time. There's a trust factor, obviously, because we know each other so well and how we like to work. We know what kind of curve balls we can throw at each other. We're very comfortable.
Kate: We just try to keep the ball in the air. Because we know each other very well, we can mess around.