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Director Meredith McDonough: PlayMakers' New Austen Adaptation Is Not Your Grandmother's 'Emma'

Pink rectangle with silhouettes of men and women framed in cellphones. Text reads: Emma by Kate Hamill
"Emma" (Courtesy of PlayMakers Repertory Company)

Emma Woodhouse may be, according to Jane Austen, “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” but in Playmakers Repertory Company’s new stage adaptation of the novel by Kate Hamill, director Meredith McDonough finds Emma W. more appealing than ever.

Smiling woman with brown curly hair. She's wearing glasses, a black top and denim jacket
Veteran director Meredith McDonough (Courtesy of PlayMakers Repertory Company)

This Emma is educated and valued and yet is trapped – not allowed to do anything with her strengths because of the world she lives in -- so perhaps her behavior is more because of social context instead of personal flaws. McDonough says Hamill has described her play as: “This is what happens when you have a sheep dog that's given no sheep to herd. They will chew the furniture.” Or as McDonough puts it, this Emma is a proto-feminist, but, still, "she's also Emma": handsome, clever, and rich (for better or worse). In Hamill's adaptation, the heroine is asking, " ‘How can I help people? What do I have to offer?’" McDonough says. "Watching her learn in this world is really exciting.”

Acclaimed playwright Hamill – whose past credits include adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice" and “Sense and Sensibility” – gives her Emma an agency she might not necessarily have been allowed in Jane Austen’s time. That feminist twist is what excites McDonough about the play. “Austen lovers get to love everything about it, but also get to feel like, ‘Yeah, that's right, women get to take over the world!’ ” says the veteran director, who premiered the play in Minneapolis at the Guthrie Theater before bringing it to the stage in Chapel Hill, N.C.

As part of the play’s run in Chapel Hill, the Jane Austen Summer Program is hosting “A Day Out With Emma” on Dec. 3 – featuring presentations by scholars and experts, crafts, Austen-centric shopping, a pre-show reception and reserved group seating for an evening performance of the play. BUY TICKETS TODAY.

McDonough and Hamill worked on the play for about two years before the pandemic put a pause on their efforts. It debuted at the Guthrie this summer to warm reviews, with the Star Tribune praising its “fizzy staging” and cast chemistry. McDonough's experience with Austen stands her in good stead: She also has directed productions of Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon’s plays “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” and "Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley."

McDonough, Hamill, the cast and crew changed things constantly as they developed the new work at the Guthrie. At Playmakers, “we’re starting where we ended” in Minneapolis, she says: Instead of trying to figure out what a scene is about, for instance, this time “we’re just finding new ways to open it up.”

Here's a teaser video for the Guthrie Theater's production of "Emma."

This adaptation of “Emma” is set in the Regency era – but expect the unexpected. “We say it is a play made for today,” McDonough tells me. The world of the play feels both rooted in the Regency and the modern world. "It's not your grandma's ‘Emma,’" she says. For example: While the costumes may be Regency gowns, their construction and energy may be modern (look for contemporary fabric in a Regency shape), and the production might include, say, a popcorn machine or karaoke or music by hitmakers such as Lizzo.

And speaking of music … McDonough says the play “is the closest thing to a musical – it's just that no one sings.” Turns out, you can set a lot of Regency movement to contemporary music, and the diverse cast is taking that idea and running – er, dancing – with it. In fact, McDonough and I spoke while the cast was in a dance rehearsal.

McDonough says the play “is the closest thing to a musical – it's just that no one sings.”

In addition to dancing, the actors have spent time learning what would have been okay (and not okay) in the Regency period – but mostly so they could understand the changes and shifts that Hamill has made in her adaptation. They had to know the rules so they could break the rules, essentially.

Hamill approached “Emma” as a screwball comedy, McDonough says. "It's much closer to 'Clueless' than to Gwyneth Paltrow." she adds. Hamill is "super respectful of source material, but also ... wildly adventurous,” McDonough says. In 2014's “Sense and Sensibility,” for example, the actors were frequently on chairs and platforms mounted on ball bearings that sent them zooming across the stage, pinballing them through the drama unfolding before the audience. Hamill’s take on Jane Austen seems to be working: “When we did it at the Guthrie, we heard people in the bathroom say 'Jane would love this,'” says McDonough.

What can audience members expect to see at the PlayMakers production? According to McDonough, keep an eye and an ear out for a lot of Easter eggs from “Clueless,” Austen callouts and other surprises.

And in this version, viewers will see a "super-front-footed, playful" heroine, McDonough says. "It is definitely a play made for Emma."

Buy your tickets for "A Day Out With Emma" today!


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