Playwright Michelle Deines takes a few creative liberties in the new Exit 22 Company production of Sense and Sensibility
Freya Wasteneys // Features Editor
In a whirl of tulle, faux fur, fascinators and feathers, Jane Austen’s beloved novel, Sense and Sensibility, is given new life on the BlueShore Theatre stage. Following the romantic trials and tribulations of sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, the story is a witty romantic comedy that revolves around the two siblings’ opposing natures – exploring the balance between the directives of the head and the heart. Thanks to set designer Heidi Wilkinson, it’s a feat of moving parts, with free-standing screens that glide around the stage marking each transition, keeping the student cast – and the audience – on their toes.
The original adaptation, written by CapU’s very own Michelle Deines, has been complex to render, but with the help of cast and crew, the play was launched on Thursday, Nov. 15, and will run until Saturday Nov. 24. “It’s been a huge challenge, but it’s been lots of fun,” said Deines, who in addition to writing the play, is the assistant to director, Bob Frazer.
Deines, who won the Special Merit Prize in Theatre BC’s National Playwriting Competition in 2013, has taught at CapU for the past two years in the English and Theatre departments. This is the first time, however, one of her plays has been produced on such a large scale.“It’s a really neat opportunity to write for a university stage,” she said. “In some ways it’s kind of freeing, because in the professional world it’s all about budgets.” Sense and Sensibility will be the first commissioned piece produced for CapU.
Deines fell in love with Austen’s work when she read Pride and Prejudice during her undergraduate degree. She then watched Emma Thompson’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, before reading the original novel. “It’s really different, but it’s a great story,” she said. “But I was always struck by how sad Marianne is at the end of the Emma Thompson film. I wanted to see if there was a way to bring out her story in a different way. Or at least to explore that character in a different way, and highlight the relationship of the two sisters.”
Having spent hours pouring over a footnote-heavy edition of Sense and Sensibility, Deines found an interesting letter where Austen questioned whether she had favoured “sense” over “sensibility,” or rather, reason over romanticism. “I thought that was actually really interesting, because I thought the book really favours sense not necessarily fairly,” said Deines. “So I guess what I’ve tried to do, is just to give Marianne more of a voice at the end, so that she has learned and transformed, but she’s still herself. She doesn’t totally lose the good side of her personality… the bubbliness and passion that she has doesn’t go away. She’s just a bit wiser.”
Courtney Burkholder, a Theatre student in her final year at CapU, is one of 20 CapU students cast in the play. The production has consumed her semester in a way that only theatre can. “It’s unique to have a piece written for us,” she said. “Everyone is so protective of [Deines] baby and it’s really turned out amazingly.” Burkholder, who plays the Dashwood sisters’ housekeeper, Sarah, noted that while Deines has made the play her own – injecting it with “wonderful Deines humour” – she has stayed true to the integrity of the characters, and the original book.
In her adaptation, Deines makes an effort to maintain Austen’s iconic style, mimicking her dialect – perhaps to the chagrin of the young actors. With a slew of subtext, scenes and archaic language, it can be challenging at times, but the end result is worth the effort. “It’s been exciting to watch the students work on that and develop their characters,” said Deines.
“This will be my last production at Cap,” said Burkholder, who will maintain fond memories of this particular cast and crew. “Probably my biggest takeaway is that no matter how loud you are on stage, you always need to be louder, and no matter how quietly you walk backstage, you are never quiet enough.”
From the cast to the set to costumes, the play will showcase CapU talent at its best. The result is what Burkholder describes as “Beautiful, but hefty!” Unsurprisingly, it promises to be a feast for the senses.
For more on Dienes process of adapting Sense and Sensibility for the stage, check out her blog.