BWW Interview: Jessica Stone, Director, of VANITY FAIR at Shakespeare Theatre Company
Jessica Stone is the director of Shakespeare Theatre Company's upcoming production of Vanity Fair, adapted by playwright Kate Hamill from the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Stone has worked as an actress on and off-Broadway, in television and in film for the last 30 years. Broadway credits include Anything Goes, Butley, The Odd Couple, The Smell of the Kill, Design for Living, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Grease. Concurrently, she was an assistant/associate director on and off-Broadway to Nicholas Martin, Joe Mantello, David Warren, and Christopher Ashley. Ms. Stone's directing career began in earnest with her all-male 2010 production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for the Williamstown Theatre Festival. She has since been directing all over the country at such theaters as The Old Globe, Huntington Theatre Company, Two River Theatre Company, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival among others. Productions include Barefoot in the Park, Dancing at Lughnasa, Bad Dates, Ken Ludwig's Robin Hood! (world premiere), Ripcord, Bad Jews, Arms and the Man, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Charlotte's Web, June Moon, Last of the Red Hot Lovers,The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Absurd Person Singular.
Let's start with your background: you're directing this production, but have worn numerous hats in theater. Where did your interest come from, and how did your career evolve?
I started acting professionally at age 12. My father took me to anything and everything as a child whenever we would visit New York. I saw Annie, Trojan Women at MoMA, Carmen at the Met - we did the full range. Seeing shows as a child - it's a great education.
I started acting after school, doing community theater at 7 or 8, then started acting professionally at 12. I came to NY at 18 for Barnard, had an agent sophomore year, and was flying to LA for interviews for TV. Then I was cast in the national tour of Bye Bye Birdie (with Tommy Tune), and I dropped out of school.
I acted professionally until I was 40, and became friends with Nicky Martin (director) who had directed shows my husband and I were in - we traveled and performed together in Europe. Nicky suggested I could be a director, and I started assisting him and others. He gave me my first chance to direct - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Williamstown. He initially wanted me to be in it, but I wasn't sure it was a good fit because of the female stereotypes - but then I came up with the idea of making it all-male cast to poke fun at the sexism of the show, and he had me direct it. It was my first job directing, and I've been doing it since. I did one or two more acting jobs, but really I've been directing since. I think the optics now would be harder, but in this case, an all-male cast worked in addressing the misogyny - it feels less icky when it's men.
We've had a lot of compelling women's voices in this theater season - what's it like getting to help bring the characters from Vanity Fair to life?
It's interesting, looking at women navigating the patriarchy, and the idea that nobody in the novel ends up being 100% good - everybody is a little bit icky. Becky may be a little less radical on paper, but her ambitions lead her to make some very questionable choices. But the idea of a woman wanting everything being mocked for it is very relevant today. It's also about not being totally good - Amelia did exactly as she was expected to do, but has her own selfishness, own ambitions, and gets punished for making the altruistic choice anyway. I think it's less about exploring female heroines (like Austen), but more about what it means to do things the "right" way or "wrong" way as a woman. It mostly shows that the journeys are not dissimilar, even if the results aren't.
Along that vein, how do you balance the initial story, which is written by a man, with Kate Hamill's updated script?
There really hasn't been a conflict - I'm directing Kate Hamill's play, so I care the most about her lens. I'm not doing his play. Kate is my lighthouse.
Vanity Fair is known for poking fun at societal conventions from the time period - what did you feel was important to highlight in this production?
It's less about putting emphasis on when Becky is and isn't following conventions, and more about tracking these women's lives and choices, and finding the right tone for the piece. It definitely is a breakneck speed telling of the novel, but at the same time there's fun, wackiness, double-casting. But there are also moments of pathos. The goal is to weave those elements throughout.
Did STC approach you about the show, or was it something you actively were interested in directing?
STC and ACT [American Conservatory Theater] approached me. I was very taken with Kate's effervescent and prickly voice around this tale. I was also very taken with her ear for dialogue, and the adaptation. I do love the story and the characters. I love the idea of examining a story about ambitious women.
And the consequences of being ambitious.
Amelia's journey doesn't end all wine and roses, but it's better than Becky's. In this version, Kate leaves a few dangling storylines, so it's up to us to determine what really becomes of Becky.
Are there any highlights from that examination? Anything in particular that stands out?
I was really intrigued at telling the tale about ambitious women. I'm also happy to be working with this company of talented actors - they're very ambitious, talented, and smart.
What should audiences keep in mind when they see the show, or do you hope they take with them when they leave?
I hope they watch the show and think, "Wow, we've come so far, and yet. . . ." I just hope that it's a big tale. It's a 1000-page novel, and Kate has done a tremendous job adapting, condensing, and streamlining it, but I hope it flies with the wind and surprises them with laughter and the pathos. I hope it's over before they realize it is.
Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Vanity Fair premieres on February 26th, and plays at the Lansburgh Theatre through March 31st.