Shake Up A System: Interview with Kate Hamill

Interview conducted by Director of Dramaturgy Kate Farrington

Why did you wanted to adapt the novel, VANITY FAIR?

VANITY FAIR really appealed to me for a couple of reasons; first of all, my subconscious would not give me any rest about it. The first draft burned up my brain until I wrote it – I won’t write a play unless I feel strongly about it, and waking up at 3 AM and writing like a maniac is, for me, a pretty good sign that I need to do it.

For me, VANITY FAIR the play is about how we shouldn’t judge others too harshly, because the truth is we’re ALL so fallible. How often do we condemn someone for doing something morally questionable, and then turn around and do some version of it ourselves? I often think that if OUR lives – yours, mine – were on the stage, we’d be ashamed of ourselves. All of our little deceptions and self-deceptions and moments of cowardice and weaknesses – it would be sick-making. And yet we sit there and say, “oh, Hamlet is such a cad; oh, Gertrude is such a weakling.” Really? If OUR lives were on the stage, we wouldn’t want to be judged so harshly. In life, we are ALL pursuing what we want, constantly, by whatever roundabout means – because we think if we get all of our desires, we’ll finally be happy. But the truth is that even when we do get what we wanted, we quickly grow dissatisfied, and want more, and (too often) bend our own “rules” to get it. It’s a never-ending cycle. That’s why I wrote the role of Manager in the adaptation.  He constantly reminds us we’re not so perfect either, and we’re part of that cycle. We should find empathy when we can. We all should give ourselves AND each other a bit of a break.

I’m also ALWAYS on the lookout for women-centric and female-inclusive stories, and VANITY FAIR has some great characters. I really felt like I could use the two women’s stories – Amelia, who’s the “perfect lady”, who starts out with a lot of advantages (and thus tries to follow the systems set for her) and Becky, who starts from the absolute bottom (and thus is determined to USE the broken system, rules be hanged, to get to her goals)– to illustrate how the “good” and “bad” paths are not so easily delineated. It’s easy to judge, but not so easy to navigate an unfair world: we’re punished both for reaching too far, and for being too acquiescent. I’m very interested in how often we break our own “rules” about morality when it suits us, and how cyclical our lives are. If we are abused, we tend to abuse; if we are deeply hurt, we tend to cradle that hurt for decades. I’ve constructed the play very specifically to contrast Amelia with Becky and create parallels in their lives; both storylines are equally important. They’re cast as the only two women in the play. I think we need both of those stories, because they so clearly illustrate how the system will not allow you to reach beyond a certain ceiling. Becky’s the “bad” girl and Amelia’s the “good” girl, and you’ll see in the play how BOTH of those archetypes: the Madonna and the Whore – have terrible consequences. They literally cannot win. As Becky says in the play: “Nobody’s good or bad, really. We’re all just… trying to get along.”

It was also a tremendously challenging novel to try to adapt – and I’m always trying to challenge myself to do something hard, something that really scares me.

I also wanted to write a play with a deep female friendship – those relationships are so interesting and important in people’s lives, and sometimes rife with drama. I thought the relationship storylines were really fascinating and rich, as well. And,  I LOVED writing the other roles – I got to go really wicked in this one, and I love to write especially absurd or mean characters. Nothing makes me more gleeful. Dark comedy is just a joy to write. I thought there was so much potential to make this play funny AND moving, and I love to balance out the poignant moments with humor.

Why and how does the character of Becky Sharp resonates with you? 

Oh, gosh, that’s a loaded question – I think when you’re an actor, roles that call to you often either reflect some very true and fundamental part of yourself, or some hidden part of yourself that you don’t let yourself express often. Becky checks both of those boxes for me. She really called to me in such a strong way, from the moment I started writing the play. She’s someone who came from nothing – absolute degradation and poverty and abuse – and had to claw her way out and up towards her dreams. And without getting too much into it, I’m also someone who had to crawl out of a kind of gutter at a certain point in my life. At my “gutter” time, I didn’t have many people who believed in me (although there were always some, bless them) or much outside evidence that COULD get out of that gutter. What I did have was my stubbornness and my belief that I could, somehow, do what I wanted to do and defy that low expectation. Becky has that, too. She’s stubborn and defiant and so convinced that – despite being told the contrary – she has real potential. She’s ambitious! I’m also ambitious – even though saying that openly makes me nervous, because women are so culturally conditioned not to admit that (more on that later). You can judge Becky’s dreams or her actions, but they’re born of her admirable determination never, ever to go back to that gutter.

Becky’s also someone who’s very aware of the limitations imposed on her by what’s “expected” of a woman, and it makes her angry – and that anger is part of what drives her. I also have that. When I’m overtired and discouraged and I just want to crawl in bed and hide, I think “that’s what THE PATRIARCHY wants me to do!” and I get mad and I get up and keep going. Becky’s good at sensing what other people want, and giving it to them regardless of her own feelings: I have certainly gone through those phases in my life. Also, I love that she’s plain. You’re so often given or rejected for roles, as a woman, where your looks are the foremost consideration; Becky doesn’t get by on her middling looks, she gets by because she’s smart.

Now, there’s also part of Becky that probably calls to me because it’s something I personally don’t let myself express often: she has a real mean streak. She can be really nasty or very careless with people. I had that as a kid – I could be extremely sharp-tongued and rough when I was little, but I’ve sublimated it and worry about other people’s feelings so much that I don’t think it comes out often (maybe sometimes in online debates, heh). But somewhere, that sharp-tongued little kid is DYING to come out and play, just a little… and that’s Becky. I owe that little girl something! I never let her talk! Becky really requires going to a dark place, and that’s an exciting challenge as an actor.

Oh, and both Becky and I hated high school. Ha!

And why Becky is someone whose voice we need to hear from in 2017? 

I think we’ve recently seen, in a very concrete way, how uncomfortable our society is with ambitious women; that they are punished and judged and suspected at every turn. Nothing is ever enough; they’re always seen as unnatural and somehow untrustworthy. And Becky is – for all her faults – a woman who would have been applauded for her initiative and intelligence if she were a man. She’s someone who’s trying to make her way up in the best way she can, given the limitations put on her because of her gender. I think we need to see a story about a woman who’s ambitious – who tries to take on the world and is punished for it. Is she perfect? No, absolutely not – but the point of this play is that nobody is perfect or above reproach. We’re all flawed, we all act in hypocritical ways, ALL of our morality is subject to convenient flexibility sometimes, and we should think twice before we judge others – ESPECIALLY when culturally, we are being subconsciously urged to condemn them. I find it SO interesting when audiences hate Becky – and they really want to hate her, sometimes – because she’s actually not that much more amoral than the other characters. Everyone loves Rawdon, for example, and Rawdon literally cheats and kills people. Why the double standard? Hm…

And I also think we need to hear Amelia’s voice; that she’s the flip side of Becky. EVERYBODY gets punished by a society that uses people – and even if you’re temporarily on top, the rules won’t save you if you sink to the bottom. Amelia starts out with a lot of advantages (she’s beautiful, she’s rich, she’s popular) and she loses them, and the “skills” and “rules” that a lady was given can’t save her. All of that popularity goes right out the window when she’s broke and desperate. When the system is broken, you better hope you don’t end up vulnerable to that system. Amelia’s somebody who tries to always do the right thing and think the right thing – and society eats her up, anyway.

There are, of course, also cautionary tales in this; the characters are genuinely flawed, and their flaws trip them up. Becky’s someone who gets seduced by the trappings of “having”: of having status, power, wealth. She loses control of it. I think that’s a temptation for all of us. It’s easy to start feeling like you NEED the new gadget, the good apartment, the perfect relationship, the best job – and that the ends justify the means. We all like to think we’re above that, but the truth is a lot of us (I’m no different) are caught in a constant cycle of chasing our goals – of endlessly looking towards the next signpost of success. Some of that drive is a good thing! But it’s not good when we use that want to justify hurting others. The abused CAN become the abuser. I think that’s important to remember, that we have to constantly check ourselves. Are we really bouncing towards the next goal because it will make us happier, more fulfilled, more challenged? Or are we doing it to resolve old hurts, settle a score, or impress others?  In my opinion, the next President of the USA is a vainglorious, self-serving man who seemingly prides himself on being spiteful and covetous. Could there be a better time to examine what a constant servitude to our own desires means? What can it turn us into?

With the success of Sense & Sensibility and the forthcoming adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and Vanity Fair, you seem to be carving out a niche in adapting classical novels for the stage. What are you hoping to achieve by doing this? Is there something in general you look for when picking a new project?

Well, once you’re known for something, people start coming to you about it – so I get approached about adaptation fairly often. And I LOVE adapting; it combines two of my great loves, literature and theater. But I won’t do an adaptation unless it speaks to me, personally, on some level; unless I have some strong point of view. Honestly, like any other playwright, my plays often tend to speak to whatever I’m grappling with in that stage of my life. You have to put your soul in the pages – even the ugly parts – or the play won’t breathe, it won’t bleed. And I will only do projects that have strong, interesting female characters; I’m truly invested in creating work for women. So, when I come across a piece that has potential for great female characters and which activates me personally – which doesn’t just make me go “oh, what a great read, I’m so glad it’s a book” but which also makes me want to say something in a play, to create a completely new piece of art – that’s a good start. And, as I said, if it keeps me up at night… that’s pretty telling.

I’m committed to reclaiming the classics for both – for all – genders. For everyone. Listen, like so many other people, I LOVE the classics. I’m someone who will sit in the front row of Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, both of which I have seen approximately a million times, and cry like a baby every night. But the truth is that most classics are by men; they’re male-centric. That’s due not to innate ability, but for the fact that political and societal systems prevented women’s voices from being heard for generations. We are very, VERY fortunate to have been born at a time when women even have the potential to tell their stories. And yet, as of last year, ¾ of all new plays AND adaptations produced on the American stage are by men. Those aren’t Shakespeare, they aren’t Shaw – these are the new plays. This is despite the fact that 68% of the ticket-buying audience is female! Some of these male-authored plays, of course, have AMAZING female characters… but we’re losing women’s voices. That means we’re losing female artists, left and right, because they’re not getting the opportunities, and they drop out. And when you add to that the fact that male-centric stories have had a millennia-long head start, the battle for equal representation can be daunting. A way in which I feel like I can personally contribute is by trying to create new, female-centric classics. I want to create stories in which women aren’t just tertiary characters: where they’re fully realized people. I feel very much the responsibility and honor of being a female artist, born at a time when I actually have the opportunity to be heard.

You’re also an actress in these adaptations, and other plays. How do you balance all of the hats you’re wearing?

Actually, the balance keeps me sane and happy. When I’m only writing or when I’m only acting for too long, I start bouncing off the walls; too much energy. I’m like a bored border collie, chewing the legs off tables. I started out as an actress, so that’s home base for me; writing came next – now they’re truly 50/50. When I’m acting in my own plays, I do the first readings with another actress playing my part – this is not only to hear it, but also to make sure that I’m not just writing for myself, that other people can play the part in the future. I want to make work for lots of women, not just me. Then, depending on where the play is, I step in at some point during development: sometimes public readings, sometimes workshops. I’m fortunate that so far, I’m able to compartmentalize my brain – I’m not a control freak, so that definitely helps me focus my energies and trust the process. And I work with directors that I really, really trust implicitly. Eric Tucker’s also an actor – and often directs himself – so he really understands when to tell me to switch from “playwright brain” to “actor brain”. And when he tells me that – when we both feel like the play is ready to be its own creature – I really listen. Then it’s living on its own.

A final note on Vanity Fair and your work? 

I think we’re at a place in our culture where we need to ask why: why are we doing this, what are we fighting for? To really examine ourselves and the stories we tell. I’m trying to work out that question. I believe that theater and art – unlike so many things – can unify us and build empathy. Shake up a system or two.

Get more information on Vanity Fair at The Pearl and buy tickets today HERE