In adapting plays, many writers stay close to the original source material. Kate Hamill is not most writers.
Hamill takes a different approach to older works that allows them to thrive and develop into somewhat unique works of their own. Hamill, an Ithaca native, has been in the national spotlight for her adaptations of works like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” and Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” among many others. In describing this art, Hamill explains an approach that may have an unknown result. Her adaptation of “Little Women” will be appearing at the Hangar Theatre from Aug. 8 to 17.
“I take a sort of radical approach to adaptation in that I think of it as a new play and not a recreation of what the novel is, because I am really interested in how those stories can change and adapt to today,” Hamill said. “I think of it as a collaboration between myself and an author who happens to be currently no longer with us. In this case, in the Hangar’s [Theatre] upcoming season, Louisa May Alcott is no longer with us but I was very interested in telling a story about American women and what it means to be a woman or not be a woman. And what it means to grow up when you’re forced into a sort of a very small box of accepted behaviors—and especially on American behaviors—at a time when the country is very torn by civil unrest.”
Hamill’s first experience in theatre began after she had a role in “The Crucible” at the Hangar Theatre when she was 14. She then obtained her bachelor’s degree from Ithaca College. Soon after she graduated, she moved to New York City but was disheartened by a lack of strong female roles. Hamill found that even if there was a good female role in a certain play, it was secondary to the male lead of the play. She found this to be especially problematic in her favorite works, the classics. So, she took matters to the page and began giving new voices to these characters, a task guided by the plays themselves.
“For me, the play teaches me what it wants it to be,” Hamill said. “I worry less about recreating some idea of what the characters from the novel are or how we tend to see the characters. It’s much less interesting to me than who these characters might be and they sort of find their voices as I write the play. In a weird way, it’s not a lot different from writing a completely new play from scratch, except that I have someone else’s voice sort of whispering in my ear.”
While Hamill deals with adaptations, she has also written several original works that feature strong female-centric narratives.
“I’ve written a bunch of stuff. I’m workshopping a play this month with a theatre company in San Diego called The Prostitute Play, which is a true story about a woman in 19th century England who is a very high-class sex worker who sued the most ruthless politician who tried to blackmail her, who then wrote a tell-all memoir about it,” Hamill said. “My god, that’s an interesting one to work on.”
Currently, Hamill is working on two new adaptations, one of “The Scarlet Letter,” and the other of “A Christmas Carol.” In writing her plays, Hamill has found that sometimes the actual writing of a play is more in the rewriting of it. With most ventures, there are some challenges, although Hamill faces each work head-on, determined to find the voice of the characters. Of all the plays that she has worked on, her favorite is an adaptation of “The Odyssey,” one of her favorite childhood books.
“My father, when I was a little girl, used to tell me bedtime stories from ‘The Odyssey,’ which when you get to know ‘The Odyssey’ is really screwed up,” Hamill said. “I really enjoyed delving into that world, which of course is a very stereotypically male world. It was really fun to take my feminist lense to that.”
Even though many of her plays are based on the classics, Hamill does have some contemporary plays in the works as well. One in particular is called “The Piper,” which is still in development. However, she has her own special reasons for adapting plenty of classic plays: an affinity for the heightened language commonly used in them.
Most of the time, Hamill stars in her own plays. She is going to be starring in the world premiere of her adaptation of Little Women in New York City, which is being directed by Sarna Lapine. A highlight of being onstage, Hamill said, is that the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling never goes away. For her, this is a barometer of where she’s at in her career.
“I think the day that completely goes away you should question if you should be challenging yourself more,” Hamill said. “I mean, I’ve been in runs of my plays Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. I was in both of those shows for almost a year. They both had 9- or 10-month runs. That was eight shows a week and that was hundreds of shows, and every single time I was a little nervous. It never gets old. If you’re addicted to a little bit of nerves, I think you’d choose this profession.”