Jane Austen, Dickens and "Chick Plays"

I’m in the 5th week of a 6-week run of “Sense & Sensibility”, adapted from the Jane Austen novel.  It’s a great group of people to put on a show with, and I’m always glad to be back at Hedgerow (a few blocks from where I grew up).

I read the novel (my first time reading Austen) without knowing which role I’d be.  Normally when Jared Reed (Hedgerow's Artistic Director) is directing me in an adapted novel, I’m one of the actors frantically changing costumes and playing all the “character-y” supporting roles.  I even tried to bribe Jared (with a dollar) if I was allowed to play Mr. Palmer, a hilariously rude minor role (hit out of the park by Hugh Laurie in the 1995 film). 

But to my surprise he cast me as Colonel Brandon.  Not only do I get to stay in the same character (and costume) the whole show, but I’ve never played a romantic role without also being some sort of comedic doofus.  But, I think part of Jane Austen’s point is that (WARNING: VAGUE SORT-OF SPOILER ALERT) the dashing gentleman sometimes isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, and the awkward boring fellows might be worth taking a second look at.  She’s essentially wrote some romantic roles for character actors.  It’s been an interesting challenge.

I’m happy with the work we’ve done, and audiences seem to like it.  We even had a review titled “I hated Jane Austen, But I Loved This” which made me smile.  The adaptation (by director Jon Jory) is quite good, it streamlines the story and gives us these pulses of scene that drive us through this eventful period for the Dashwood family.

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A few weeks ago we had a talkback with a group of boosters who help out Hedgerow, often above and beyond simply attending the shows.  These are important supporters of the theatre, and we’re lucky to have them.  Jared talked about his affinity for adapted novels on stage (which I absolutely share), and how Jane Austen in particular offers better roles for women than a lot of plays based on novels (my first ever experience with Austen in any form was seeing Hedgerow’s “Pride & Prejudice” a year ago). 

Several other issues came up, and at one point an open call for feedback was put to the few men who stayed for the talkback.  One cheerfully shrugged and said:

“Well, it’s a chick play”

I believe his general point was to that it was well done, but not really meant for him.  And, ok, I get it.  I made a few remarks in response to that, but his comment stuck with me, so I’m going to include a revised version of what I said below, along with some other points that I didn’t think of at the time (but let’s pretend I did, and said it all with eloquence and panache).

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So what exactly makes “Sense & Sensibility” a “chick play”?  Merely that the main characters are women?  I didn’t grill the audience member on this, but I bet that was a large part of it.

There are a lot of stories in the world’s history.  Most of them are by and about men.  Women in Western culture are naturally able to identify with a male protagonist, because they’ve often had to their entire lives.  Society has trained them to be okay with that.  Men have never needed to spend much effort identifying with stories of women, because there are so many stories about men lying around.  So when women latch onto books or other media that are about their experience and speak to them, it’s easy for us men to dismiss that as “chick lit” and go back to the rest of the bookshelves.  [I realized I just oversimplified a very large issue.  Welcome to the blogosphere.]

This is starting to change, slowly.  A few months ago, TIME magazine had a worthwhile article about how publishers and movie studios are realizing that there are a lot of young women who will pay money to see someone who looks like them kick ass.  Thus we have the “Hunger Games” books/movies, as well as the “Divergent/Insurgent/Detergent” trilogy of books/movies.

 Yeah, yeah, I know the third one isn’t actually titled “Detergent”, but that doesn’t even rhyme.    I mean, come on, look at it, it's a swirl of water, just the way it would look inside a washing machine!!

Yeah, yeah, I know the third one isn’t actually titled “Detergent”, but that doesn’t even rhyme.  I mean, come on, look at it, it's a swirl of water, just the way it would look inside a washing machine!!

Representation is proving especially challenging in theatre.  We know women make up more than 50% of theatre audiences, and are even more likely than men to be the “decision makers” for the couple/family to attend.  So you would think that stories about women would be filling half our stages every year.  But because men aren’t trained to go along with a female “journey” on stage, even female artistic directors and literary managers haven’t been championing new plays by women the way you might expect.  And the classics are what they are: their unfortunate gender ratios are set, so your choices are to cast across gender or otherwise change the text or your concept. 

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Let me change gears and talk about a different show.  Jared Reed has directed me in several shows at Curio Theatre Company, which he co-founded.  One of my favorites was “Great Expectations”, which Jared adapted himself.  He first directed it at Hedgerow about 15 years ago, but revived (with a few extra cuts) at Curio in 2011, and at Curio I had the pleasure of playing Jaggers, Orlick, and Bentley Drummle.  It was a great ensemble, and I had tears in my eyes during the final curtain call.

So what’s going on in “Great Expectations”?  Here’s a list off the top of my head:

  • Love, rivalries for affection, rejection and heartbreak

  • Money, class, and social status

  • Young people growing up and forming a more mature sense of the world and people around them

…sounds a bit like “Sense & Sensibility” to me.

But nobody goes around saying, “Dickens is such a ‘dude’ writer.  ‘Great Expectations’ is ‘dude lit’.”  It’s just a great work of fiction.  It doesn't need a categorizing label (sure, okay, "coming-of-age story").

Yes, okay, Dickens has more “action”.  Escaped convicts, manhunts, a fistfight or two, an old lady catching fire in her wedding dress, and far more characters die in it than in Austen.  I’ll admit that the first seven or so chapters of “Sense” (mercifully slimmed down by Jory for the stage) were a slog for me, and I worried the whole book would be equally slow.  I admit I cheered briefly when Marianne messed up her ankle (“Finally, something HAPPENED”). 

But is “Sense & Sensibility” a “chick play” because it doesn’t have enough explosions and fistfights (which YouTube has SOLVED for you, by the way) or because it focuses on female characters?  Or are both necessary?  And by calling it a “chick play”, are we implying that most men don’t/shouldn’t value stories of women, or that stories of love/money/class/social status aren’t things men care about? 

Perhaps it’s the order of priorities, since love and attachments are the main focus in Austen, while love is just one of many issues Pip works out in his coming-of-age story.  Both books are about equally chaste (there's multiple out-of-wedlock births in the Austen, and none I believe in the Dickens), and I got through “Great Expectations” just fine without my gonads shriveling up, so a love story can be valid for guys even if there’s no sex included. 

[SIDEBAR: I’ll admit I find Dickens the better writer, but let’s ignore any subjective gap in quality and call it a wash, since both have survived to be read to this day.  So I don’t think we can excuse labeling “Sense & Sensibility” as “chick lit” to imply it’s inferior, or that it’s only popular because it appeals to women and not because it’s any good. 

And even when that happens, when a play or movie is popular because of successfully targeting female audiences while the rest of us judge its quality and find it wanting, can we throw stones?  When we still have such a dearth of stories about women, can we blame some of them for being so hungry to see themselves in a story that they embrace something we’d consider an inferior product?]

 

So let’s be mindful when we’re quick to call stories about women “chick lit” or “chick plays” or “chick flicks”, while stories about men are just “books”, “plays” and “movies”.  It implies that male stories are the norm or the core, and the modifier “chick” segregates all of that as something other than the norm.  And guys, let’s be a little more open to the huge chunk of our culture that sometimes gets that modifier. 

Just don’t be this guy:

 (I mean, at the very least buy the t-shirt instead of the trucker hat)

(I mean, at the very least buy the t-shirt instead of the trucker hat)

 

 

Men, start broadening your horizons today by getting a ticket to… “Sense & Sensibility”!  [What did you think I wouldn’t finish with a plug?]  It closes Sunday, June 1st.  Parking is free, and if you call in advance we’ll even pick you up from the train.  Come on out.

 

 

Posted on May 24, 2014 .