In the struggle to create, sometimes it helps to put some money on the line.
Kate Hamill and Andrus Nichols, roommates and fellow actors, were driving back to New York after dropping off a friend in Vermont a few years ago. Along the drive they talked about the state of theater and their place in it.
Hamill, a Jane Austen fan since childhood, said she wished there was a great stage adaptation of “Sense & Sensibility” she could be cast in. Nichols said she should just write one. Hamill had gotten positive responses to some one-act plays she’d written, but mainly thought of herself as an actress. She said she’d give it a shot, but as a motivator she pledged to pay her roommate $100 if she didn’t follow through.
In the end, Hamill kept her money.
“Which was good,” she says, “because I was poor.”
Her adaptation was a big hit for the emerging New York theater company Bedlam in 2014, and again in its revival two years later that ran off-Broadway for 10 months. The production that begins performances on Sunday at the American Repertory Theater is one of eight scheduled around the country this season, placing Hamill in a group of playwrights tied for 10th in American Theatre magazine’s annual list of most-performed playwrights. (Among the folks sharing her ranking is some guy named Tennessee Williams.)
Bedlam, founded by Nichols and director-actor Eric Tucker around the time Hamill started working on her piece, found it an ideal vehicle for the company’s highly theatrical aesthetic, which features fast-paced adaptations, often performed in repertory with overlapping casts, that seem to cut to the essence of dense texts and make them feel light on their feet.
Tucker, who directed the play’s initial productions, takes the helm again in Cambridge. His vision includes a highly mobile set — everything is on wheels, and almost constantly in motion — and onstage “backstage” areas for quick costume changes.
“It moves so much,” Tucker, on the phone from New York during a rehearsal break, says of his production. “The script calls for so many locations and time changes, and every page or so you’re moving onto another scene. The cast is always pretty much working, ’cause it’s all actor-driven as the set continues to morph from one place to another.”
This will be the third straight year local audiences will have the chance to see Bedlam at work. Central Square Theater presented the troupe’s dual, separately conceived takes on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” last season. The year before, Bedlam performed its four-actor adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” at Central Square. And Bedlam will return in March, when ArtsEmerson presents “Saint Joan” and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in repertory, with the same four actors playing all the roles in each.
Bedlam’s latest show is an adult-oriented take on J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” now playing off-Broadway.
Tucker says “Sense & Sensibility” was such a hit for his company — not only raved about by the major reviewers but extended repeatedly because of audience demand — that he is hoping, but unsure, that audience members attracted by the material will stick around to hear what else Bedlam has to say.
“What I strive to do with my work is keep it accessible so that people can relate to it and find ways into it, while at the same time keeping as much of the gravitas as possible,” he says. “The way we’re trying to run the company is that we don’t necessarily want a predictability to the things we choose to do. We choose to tell a certain story and hopefully our audience will go with us each time, even if the material is surprising.”
While building from Austen’s characters and following her story, Hamill estimates that she wrote 60 percent of the play’s dialogue. She also introduced the device of a pack of chattering gossips who act as a kind of intermediary between the characters and the audience.
‘I wanted to create female-oriented classics for the stage. . . . What I wanted to do was create new works.’
“It speaks to everybody without resorting to the lowest common denominator,” says actor Nigel Gore, who returns to the production after appearing in its initial run three years ago. “Not meaning to be snobbish, but there’s still the elegance of the prose, there’s still the elegance of the dialogue. It’s not dumbed down in any way whatsoever. The nature of Eric’s production is just dazzling in and of itself, but the storytelling just grabs you so early and just brings you along.”
Hamill’s life has gotten a lot busier since she accepted her roommate’s challenge on that fateful car ride. She’s currently appearing off-Broadway in her own adaptation of Austen’s “Pride And Prejudice,” and her adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” bowed off-Broadway last season. She also has an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” set to premiere in 2018.
If it seems like she’s making a cottage industry of 19th-century literary adaptations, she says her inspiration is the simple desire to create more good roles for women.
“I really felt like I wanted to create female-oriented classics for the stage. I’m not a director, so I didn’t want to direct some female ‘Hamlet.’ What I wanted to do was create new works,” she says, speaking on the phone from backstage after a “Pride and Prejudice” matinee.
The demand for her “Pride and Prejudice,” she says, indicates that she’s tapped into something.
“It’s truly humbling because I feel like it’s symptomatic of how hungry people are for this, which was the same hunger that made me write it. It’s nice to know I’m not alone and that people just want these stories.
“The reason why it takes 40 women to take down a Harvey Weinstein is because we don’t value women’s stories as much as male stories. We can’t just keep telling the exact same stories over and over again. I’m someone who loves the classics, so I can watch ‘Hamlet’ for the 99th time, but it can’t be the only story we’re ever telling.”
Bedlam’s Sense & Sensibility
Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Tickets: From $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.