How do you update Austen for the 21st century? This creator knows.
“Mansfield Park” may be 201 years old, but its story is timeless. Just ask Kimberley James, the show runner of the Web series “From Mansfield With Love.”
The YouTube series, which ends Nov. 15 with Episode 100, centers on Frankie Price, a maid at the Mansfield Park hotel, owned by her dear friends the Bertrams. When the sophisticated design duo of Henry and Mary Crawford come to renovate the property, angst ensues. (Editor’s note: Just because the series is ending doesn’t mean you can’t start watching! Click here.)
So how do you adapt Jane Austen’s novel for today’s generation? We got a chance to ask James that question and more.
Tell me a little bit about your theater group and your role in producing the adaptation.
Foot in the Door Theatre was created in 2007, but was reinvented in its current form in 2010. We most of us went to the University of Winchester in Hampshire in various years. The company usually does outdoor theatre, and our past productions include “Much Ado About Nothing” in … 2010, “A Mid Summer’s Nights Dream” (2011), “The Importance of being Ernest (2012)” and “As You Like It” (2015). So a Web series set in the modern day is a huge leap for us!
My role is head writer, basically the story is mine, I’ve written a synopsis for each episode which then the writers turn into dialogue and add their own personalities to. I’ve written the Mary episodes as there are less of them, but edit all 100 of Frankie’s. I also direct, so I’m behind the camera on every episode, script in hand. I’m the show runner so I make sure everyone is where they need to be. My other job is the social media, so I’m the person behind the Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr account and the characters’ Twitter accounts.
What drew you to create a web series — and adapt this particular novel?
“From Mansfield With Love” came from the late ramblings of myself talking to Katie Raw, who runs Foot in The Door and is part of the Mansfield creative team. We are both avid Janeites and as such were keeping up with “Emma Approved.” I think I made a quip about how Pemberley Digital hadn’t attempted “Mansfield Park” (which chronologically sits between “Pride & Prejudice” and “Emma”). I thought this was probably because the novel was so problematic.
I told Katie that I had occupied many commutes to work with thinking about how Mansfield Park could be adapted into vlog form and told her a few of my ideas (very few made it into the final product). We chatted about it for a while, and a few months down the line Katie told me that she wanted to make my Mansfield Web series into a real thing. … It was always “Mansfield Park” for me, I studied adaptations of “Mansfield Park” as my undergraduate dissertation and had written in detail why none of them were quite right, and I was determined to try and make a faithful but watchable adaptation. “Mansfield Park” isn’t my favourite Austen novel but is my favourite to think about, talk about and pull apart!
How do you even begin to adapt a 19th-century work for today’s times?
Luckily Austen’s novels are timeless, it’s just the situations that change. As a creative team we’d go through the story and when something snagged (i.e., the cousin issue) we’d try and find a way around it that made sense. The whole Fanny being taken in by the country-manor-owning Bertrams isn’t realistic in 2015, so we updated it. Mansfield Park is a hotel run by the Bertrams; Frankie, an old family friend, goes to work there at the age of 16 and stays, because like her 19th-century counterpart she feels duty-bound.
There are some parts of the novel which are iconic that just don’t work. I think a lot of the scenes in which Mr Bertram appears were a little hard to update. Why would he be angry at Frankie for turning down Henry romantically in 2015? And I think that’s always the part in all modern adaptations of 19th-century novels that’s the hardest: Marriage to us is so different to marriage 200 years ago; our lives don’t depend on it like the heroines in Jane Austen novels.
What’s one thing in the novel that you wish you could have included but couldn’t for whatever reason?
Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Bertram and Frankie’s mum and step dad. It would have been great to have been able to have a bigger cast, but we made a decision very early on that it would be the character of Sir Thomas we would have as an on-screen personality. We felt that his story arc was the most important, and we were keen to see his interactions with Frankie. But it would have been great to have had the comic side of Mrs. Bertram and her pug and the menacing Mrs Norris! Although I think she’s just as menacing off screen.
Tell me about the casting process. What were you looking for in Fanny, Mary and Ed?
Basically we had two audition sessions over a weekend. We got the actors and actresses to act out short scenes from episodes 1-25 (the only ones we had written!) In pairs of Eds and Frankies, and Marys and Henrys. We then got them to do a screen test. I was dreading making a decision, but actually the cast came together quite easily. I think the main thing I looked for was an understanding of the script, to get the jokes, and the tone.
Actually Wesley [Buckeridge], who plays Ed, auditioned on the first day. and Holly [Truslove] (Frankie) and Alona [Walsh] (Mary) auditioned on the second, so Wesley never read with either of them — we didn’t have a chance to do on-screen chemistry tests!
I assumed that our Frankie would be mousey and shy. I never thought we’d cast someone who turned up to the audition with pink hair! But Holly really understood Frankie, her private more jovial side with Ed, and the very vulnerable side. It was similar with Ed and Mary.
Can you describe the production process: How long did each video take to produce and edit? How long does writing an episode take?
It differs from episode to episode. We began the project in June 2014, when myself, Katie (producer, writer and designer), Gina Thorley (writer, director, editor), David Parker (writer, editor), Sophie Terrell (writer) and Claire Kerry (writer) met to talk about it. So the whole thing from beginning to end is about 18 months. We film 4-5 episodes in a day, which usually takes us 10 or so hours, some episodes are one-take wonders and we can be done in 30 minutes, some take hours! Some are filmed over multiple days; I think some of the “Lover’s Vows” episodes where we’re in multiple locations were filmed on three or four different days!
As for writing I think it depends on the writer and the episode. Basically there are 100 Frankie episodes so each of the five writers wrote 20 each over the year. We wrote and filmed in ‘quarters’ so in each ‘quarter’ each writer has five episodes; and was filmed during weekends over about two months, with a month off for the actors (writing time for us). Personally I write quite quickly, then spend an age editing, but I’m sure the others would tell you a different story. I gave the writers four weeks to write their five episodes, then I edit like crazy to get a flow between them; we have lots of writers meetings to discuss changes and issues, and when we’re happy we hand them out to the cast to start filming again. Then finally Dave and Gina have the rather mammoth task of putting the final episode together in time. There’s been a lot of sleepless nights to ensure that we don’t miss any Wednesdays or Sundays!
Did you watch other literary Web series adaptations? What did you learn from them, or were there things you wanted to avoid after watching those series?
Well “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” was the start of it all, as it was for everyone. I loved “The LBD”; I thought it was so clever how they had adapted certain situations and translated the story in this vlog form. I also loved “Emma Approved,” but my first love will always be “The LBD.”
I think the things we wanted to avoid was that we wanted to be able to move around a little more, go outside, make use of the pretty part of the world we live in, to make the vlog seem more realistic. [“The LBD” and “Emma Approved” filmed indoors.] But we learnt so much from Pemberley Digital in how you can take a classic text and fit it so well into this genre. We were also really inspired by “The Autobiography of Jane Eyre,” and actually Katie e-mailed them asking for advice before we’d even had our first meeting and they were very kind and e-mailed back with some wise words!
What’s been your favorite episode?
It’s hard! I have two categories of favourite episodes, episodes that I love because of the quality and the content and episodes I love because it was a blast filming them. I shall pick one from each, but the list goes on and on. My favorite (so far) episode for content is Episode 87, where Ed rebounds onto Frankie. Holly and Wes (and Gina who wrote it) put their hearts and souls into it, and it was beautiful to watch. My favourite memory wise is Episode 27, “All Things Brighton Beautiful.” We took the whole cast in convoy to Brighton, and despite freezing to death and getting weird glances from passersby, we had a really lovely day!
What’s been your favorite part of creating the series?
Personally [it’s] seeing people react to it so positively. I wasn’t 100% sure that would be the case. I thought that either we’d put the videos up and no one would watch them or that people would be turned off either because they dislike “Mansfield Park” and thought we’d been too faithful or love “Mansfield Park” and thought we’d ruined Fanny Price a la any film or tv adaptation by giving her too much gumption. But people have been amazingly supportive and genuinely lovely.
What’s next for your group?
Well, we’ve got a few 2016 projects in the bag, but they are much more low-key. Foot in the Door are a theatre company ,and I think next year we will mainly be remembering what free time is and what Sundays away from filming feels like. But we do have a few Shakespeare-y and Austen-y projects in the pipeline so follow @FITDTheatre to keep up to date. We’d love to do more You Tube productions, but it’s all about finding the right project that we feel as passionate about as “FMWL.”
If you could adapt another novel (Austen or otherwise), which would you choose?
Well as a web series I’m not sure. We’ve talked about adapting quite a few different novels, (one or two fairly seriously), but personally you’ll be hard-pressed to find a novel that I care more about than “Mansfield Park.” “Persuasion” is my favourite novel, but I’d also like to try my hand at something that wasn’t Austen — what, though, I couldn’t tell you. Until further notice my brain thinks only of “Mansfield Park.”