BWW Interview: Jeff Davis of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER at Agape Theatre
BroadwayWorld recently had an opportunity to sit down with Jeff Davis, Artistic Director for Agape Theatre and author of an adaptation for the stage of Charlotte Perkins Gilman 's 1982 short story THE YELLOW WALLPAPER for a rare look into the process of adapting a classic piece of literature as a theatrical experience. THE YELLOW WALLPAPER will play the Hewlett Room of the Georgetown Public Library for one night only, Saturday, November 12th at 7:30pm.
BWW: What is THE YELLOW WALLPAPER about?
JD: The Yellow Wallpaper is based on a short story of the same name, which was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. The story is about a woman, Jane, who is clearly suffering from postpartum depression. Her husband and doctor, John, believes that a rest cure will restore her health, so they rent a colonial mansion for the summer. Jane takes an upstairs bedroom which is covered in yellow wallpaper. As her mental state deteriorates, Jane becomes more and more fascinated and obsessed with the wallpaper and even begins to see ghostly figures inside the pattern.
BWW: The short story of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER is by all accounts a classic piece of literature. Why do you think that is?
JD: I think that the reason why The Yellow Wallpaper has the reputation and acclaim it has is in part because it's such a multi-faceted piece of literature. I've always loved horror stories, and on its surface, The Yellow Wallpaper is a great haunted house or ghost story. But when you start peeling the layers back, you realize that the horror isn't derived from the house or from the things inside it. The horror is all in Jane's mind and in how she views her surroundings, like you'd see in a psychological thriller. But if you keep digging, you realize that Jane's mental decay is due to her prescribed treatment. The rest cure she's under is so restricting. She can't socialize or read or write, and she spends most of her time in one room. She's basically held captive by her doctor/husband, and that's the real reason why she sees the things she sees. There's some social commentary and feminist themes at play here, which is not surprising given that Gilman was one of the most influential feminists of her day. So basically, The Yellow Wallpaper is a piece of early feminist literature masquerading around as a psychological thriller masquerading around as a ghost story. That's a lot for a little 6,000 word short story!
BWW: What inspired you to write this adaptation of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER?
JD: I first read The Yellow Wallpaper in high school, and it grabbed me immediately. I was suffering from depression at the time, so the themes and subtext spoke to me. I thought it would make an interesting stage play, and I kind of filed that away in the back of my head for years. When I started working with Agape Theatre, I looked for a stage adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper and found there were several, but none were that great. They all either converted Gilman's text verbatim into one long monologue or got muddied up with too many characters and ideas. I wanted to find one that focused on Jane and both her relationship to John and to her surroundings. That adaptation didn't exist, so I started writing it.
BWW: How would you describe your creative process?
JD: My process really started with studying and analyzing the original short story. The short story is told through a series of journal entries from Jane, so naturally I figured each journal entry could become a scene. I quickly realized that wasn't going to work because most of the entries are about Jane staring at the wallpaper and kind of picking it apart. We can track Jane's mental decay through how short and terse her journal entries become and through the way she describes the paper, but nothing really changes journal entry to journal entry. I knew that on stage, I'd have to track Jane's story in a different way. She has to come to some new discovery about the house or the paper or John or herself in every scene in order for there to be some rising action. So I outlined the play with that in mind and eventually had a 10 page outline that became my roadmap for the script. And in terms of the actual writing itself, most of the play was written on insomniatic nights. If I couldn't sleep, I'd go down to my office, keep the lights off, listen to some Gothic horror film scores, and write a few scenes. I'm sure that sounds really weird, but it helped! This just wasn't the kind of play I could write during daylight.
BWW: How does your adaptation of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER differ from the short story?
JD: Well, aside from what I've already said about how Jane's story unfolds, there are a lot of changes between the short story and the play. The first is length. The short story is 6,000 words, and the play is almost 4 times that. While you could probably read the short story in a half an hour, the play is a full 2 hours and change. Another big change is the deletion of some minor characters. In the short story, Jane occasionally mentions her sister-in-law and her maid, and I decided to cut those characters out since they didn't add much and weren't integral to the plot at all. But I think the biggest change is that I've added quite a bit to the character of John. In the short story, we don't really know much about John other than that he's Jane's doctor and husband and that her rest cure was orchestrated by him. I knew that if I didn't develop him more, Jane would be playing most of her scenes to the wallpaper instead of to another human being. So I started to ask questions about John. Why does he prescribe the rest cure? Does he try any other treatment options? What's it like for him to be both Jane's husband and doctor? Does that create any sort of internal conflict? Does he love her? Fleshing John out was a lot of fun. I think he's ultimately become a great antagonist to Jane. He says and does some terrible things, but at the same time, you understand his intent. You dislike him, maybe even hate him, but it's really hard to label him a villain.
BWW: How much of the dialogue in your adaptation comes from the short story, and how much is completely original?
JD: Since the short story is written as journal entries, there's not much dialogue in it, but Gilman's writing is so wonderful I tried to keep as much of it as possible. A lot of it remains in the journal entries Jane writes in the show, and some of it worked its way into the dialogue as well. I also included some material from Gilman's other writings. But ultimately, I'd say 10% of the script is Gilman and 90% is me.
BWW: Has your cast influenced the script at all?
JD: Absolutely! My Jane, CiCi Barone, was the final kick in the pants I needed to start writing this show. I directed her in a production of Private Lives almost 2 years ago, and while we were working on that, she mentioned to me that she really wanted to do a strong dramatic role. I told her that I was thinking of writing an adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. It turns out, she knew the story and loved it and wanted to play Jane. I always had CiCi in the back of my head as I was writing, and that helped tremendously. CiCi has this great mix of vulnerability and strength, so Jane's taken that on. When it came to John, my fiancé said one night that our friend Ismael Soto III would do a great job with the role. Ismael's incredibly tall and has this deep voice and commanding presence on stage. From that point on, Ismael was in my head as well. Once I had a first draft, I sent it off to CiCi and Ismael, and both jumped at the chance. Once they were on board, we started doing some private readings of the script, along with Evelyn LaLonde who will serve as our Narrator for the Workshop Production. We've done two read-throughs so far, and we have one more planned before the Workshop. It's been so helpful to hear the dialogue spoken by these incredible actors. It's helped me realize what scenes are right on the money and which ones need some work. My cast has also given me a tremendous amount of feedback about how they interpret these characters and the story, and they've given me the courage to take this play into some darker emotional territory. It has been a dream to have three other gifted artists in the room with me at this stage of the process. Some of the best parts are theirs and theirs alone.
BWW: Your website says that the performance on November 12th will be a Workshop Production. What does that mean?
JD: A workshop production is a performance that isn't completely staged. It's often a part of the developmental process for a new work and allows a creative team to test out their material in front of an audience. For us, that means that while the script will be performed in its entirety, there will be no set, props, or costumes, and my performers will have their scripts in their hands. We will use some projections to give the audience an idea of what the show will look like, and there will be music and sound effects. We'll also have a narrator on stage to read the stage directions so the audience will understand what would be going on visually during each scene. It will be entertaining, but it won't be a fully realized production.
BWW: What are your long-term plans for THE YELLOW WALLPAPER?
JD: Agape Theatre definitely wants to fully produce The Yellow Wallpaper in the near future, and we're hoping that's something we can do in 2017. I also hope the play will eventually reach audiences outside of the Austin area. I want the play to spark conversations about women's rights and mental health just as the short story did and continues to do, but that can only happen if people see it. After we fully stage the show next year, I'd love to see it produced by other theater companies around the country. I wouldn't be opposed to seeing it published, too.
BWW: Why should audiences see THE YELLOW WALLPAPER?
JD: I think there are a lot of reasons why audiences should see us on November 12th. It's rare that audiences get a chance to see a new work in development, especially in Austin. That alone is, in my opinion, reason enough to reserve a free ticket to the performance. We're also holding a post-show discussion with the cast where audience members can ask questions and share their feedback, which again isn't often done, especially with a new work. But even if being a part of a new work in development doesn't interest you, I think this story and these performers will. I'm a big believer in the idea that the best theater gets people talking, and I think this show will do just that.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER plays the Hewlett Room of the Georgetown Public Library for one night only, Saturday, November 12th at 7:30pm. A discussion with the cast and playwright will immediately follow the performance. Seats are assigned and can be reserved at no charge at www.ticketor.com/agapetheatre or by calling 512-88-STAGE. Seats in the first 2 rows may be reserved with a $10 donation, and seats in the 3rd or 4th row may be reserved with a $5 donation.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
THE YELLOW WALLPAPER features some situations and language that may not be suitable for audience members under the age of 13. Parental discretion is advised.
This event is not affiliated with or sponsored by the Georgetown Public Library or the City of Georgetown.