A Conversation with Kimberly Chatterjee, Kate Hamill, Amelia Pedlow, and Nance Williamson
Something joyous is happening at the Cherry Lane Theatre. That’s the home of Kate Hamill’s uproariously funny, clever, and at times deeply moving adaptation of Jane Austen’s most famous and celebrated novel, Pride and Prejudice. The limited engagement, directed by Amanda Dehnert and led by an energetic cast with Hamill herself playing the iconic Lizzie Bennett, is being presented by Primary Stages in co-production with The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival through January 6. We caught up with Kate and the other women in the cast: Kimberly Chatterjee, Amelia Pedlow, and Nance Williamson—whose palpable energy, playfulness, and affection towards each other suggested we were spending an afternoon with the Bennetts themselves—to discuss the role of women in the arts and the ways this 200-year-old text still manages to enlighten and surprise us.
Margarita Javier: Tell us about the character or characters you play.
Kate Hamill: I play Lizzie Bennett, and I wrote the script as well. Lizzie is a bit of a cynic. At least for herself, she’s extremely anti-marriage minded. And she has to grapple with what happens when you meet someone who kind of turns around your beliefs about yourself. Nowadays she would be a feminist, but she was born before those terms. She’s a proto-feminist.
Amelia Pedlow: I play Jane Bennett, who’s the eldest Bennet sister. She’s very sweet, she means very well, she’s a big ‘ol romantic, but she’s also a big believer in following the rules and doing the right thing. In that time, part of that meant not being too forward with guys. Not that we understand that at all! [laughs] That’s her tragic flaw. I also play Anne de Bourgh, who’s the daughter of a very powerful, very wealthy lady of the time, and she is going to inherit her mother’s estate and marry the love of her life, Darcy. That’s what happens at the end of the play, spoiler! [laughs] She’s a perfect angel.
Kimberly Chatterjee: I play Lydia Bennett, who is the best of all the Bennett sisters. [laughs] She’s the youngest sister, and she loves her mother. She thinks her mother is the absolute perfect prototype of a woman. She loves her sisters. She thinks she’s smarter and better than them, but she idolizes them, which of course makes no sense. What I think is so interesting about her and the amazing way that Kate wrote her is that you think she isn’t paying attention or is just bopping through life, but she’s actually taking away all these nuggets of information of things that she’s learned about how to be in the world. She gets it all wrong, but she’s constantly observing and taking in the world around her. And then when she finally takes charge, it doesn’t go great. But she has some good reasons for it, which is amazing. And I also play Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is Darcy’s aunt, the wealthiest woman in England; powerful, has no time for nonsense, but also loves to belittle and crush people for fun [laughs] just because she can. And her sweet, beautiful, perfect daughter Anne is going to marry Darcy. There’s nothing wrong with Anne. [laughs]
Amelia: Nothing is wrong!
Kimberly: Nothing is wrong! They’re been betrothed since probably before they were born, and it’s going to go great. She has not a care in the world when we meet her! [laughs]
Nance Williamson: I play Mrs. Bennett, who is the mother of all of these beautiful girls. My agenda is to get them married well. Because if we don’t, there are no sons in the family, there are just daughters, which means that our home will go to the next male heir, which is Mr. Collins. And if Mr. Bennett—my husband—dies, we’re out on the street. So I have made it my life’s work to prepare and prod and push and irritate my daughters into being marriage-minded. I’m the push behind them all. And I also play the servant, whom we affectionately call Lurch. [laughter]
Nance: A bubbling male, old, bitter…
Kate: …secret lover of Lady Catherine. [laughs]
Nance: Not true!
Kimberly: Not true at all!
Amelia: It’s on the record, guys. It’s going in the public record. [laughs]
Margarita: You just finished a very successful run at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and you’re coming into this Primary Stages production with high expectations. They announced an extension even before the first preview happened. What has this experience been like so far, and what are your expectations now coming to play in front of New York audiences?
Kate: I think we’re just trying to let the play and the production teach us what it is, especially in a new space. The space is very different. During the first show, we were like Oh, we don’t have to scream! Hudson Valley is a 500-seat outdoor theater, at which Nance has done 18 seasons. So automatically that’s a big difference. Otherwise, I think this is what the preview process is for. We’re feeling it out. I think it even changes the jokes.
Nance: It does. And, you know, we went to people’s homes and did scenes for fundraisers, so besides performing in the tent, we were in different homes, yards—in different kinds of places. There’s a sort of playful improvisational chaos to doing it. It can be, when you’re not tired, a really fun process to see how we shift this here, how do we do this or that. And it’s a wonderful cast.
Kimberly: I was going to say we all, even when we’re at our most tired and sick and grumpy, we still love each other, which seems kind of impossible, but makes even the most stressful parts of this enjoyable. We have each other; we trust each other to be able to navigate the jokes and the timing. If something doesn’t go right, it’s never because someone is incompetent. I never walk away like Well. Everyone’s terrible! [laughs]
Kate: I also credit so much our director, Amanda Denhert, who creates a really fun, happy, safe room in which you feel really free to make stupid decisions. [laughs] And she sets that tone so much.
Margarita: Given how well known and beloved Pride and Prejudice is, and how often it’s been adapted, is there any pressure in trying to contribute something new and unique at the same time that you want to appease fans of the original?
Amelia: My sister is the one who gave me this book when I was however old and said, “Here is your bible.” And she’s very literary in general, but she knew I was going to love this and The Princess Bride—she introduced me to both. When she was coming to see the show, she was the person I was most excited to see it because I knew that anyone who loves this book will have a whole other level of love for this production, that people who don’t know the book at all—my boyfriend, for one – had an amazing time. Kate so beautifully takes characters and moments and recognizable scenes from the book and hones in on exactly what has made them so easy to fall in love with throughout the hundreds of years people have loved this book. Bingley being a dog might be one of the biggest ones. [laughs] My sister lost her mind.
Kate: He’s not literally a dog.
Kimberly: He’s dog like.
Amelia: Inspired by a Labrador. And that, in essence, is that character! It’s such a beautiful, slightly theatrical, irreverent thing, but ultimately a real distillation of the character in the Jane Austen novel. That type of work is throughout the piece and I know my sister was one of those people—and we had a lot of them over the summer—who began cackling from the moment something was introduced without having to get to know it over time. It really speaks to people on both of those levels, and I’m really excited for all of those people to see it.
Kate: The kind of theater I dislike the most, I think, is when I go in expecting something and it just meets those expectations, and I leave and nothing in me was challenged. I like stuff that’s more surprising. I think this is like that. We surprise ourselves! Sometimes we’re like What’s happening? But hopefully it’s a way to see a story that’s 200 years old and that people, including so many of us, love so much in a new, surprising way while still honoring it.
Margarita: What do you think Jane Austen would make of the current political climate in the UK and US?
Kate: There was an article about a year ago about—derp—“Alt right says Jane Austen would have liked them.” No! You know what? When you’re a racist, sexist hammer, everything looks like a racist, sexist nail. Her writing is so feminist, so subversive, and I think she would tear apart Donald Trump and all his UK counterparts and flip them the bird in every single way. Bite me.
Margarita: There have been a lot of sexual harassment accusations coming forward against powerful men, in the arts and politics, and people, especially women, are feeling open to share their stories in ways we haven’t felt comfortable talking about it before. I think all of this brings relevancy to texts like this one, especially the way Austen talks about marriage. So I was wondering, what do you think is your character’s contribution to this discussion? What is her #metoo story?
Kimberly: Poor Lydia doesn’t know anything.
Kate: I got a letter from one of the other productions from someone who was quite nice but was saying, “It was so upsetting to me when Mr. Collins pursues Lizzie because it seemed like that was upsettingly sexual, upsettingly a sexual-harassment thing.” And I’m like “It is. She says no, and he won’t listen to her.” My experience being in it is the more terrified I am, the funnier the audience thinks it is. I think it’s a laugh of recognition. So for Lizzie, she sees so clearly how the power dynamics in a marriage situation are set up that she doesn’t even want to play that game. We were saying the other day that the subtext of this play is love can exist in patriarchal structures, but patriarchal structures make it harder. Lizzie eventually falls in love with a man and she’s like Gah! How do you reconcile that with feminism? So that’s Lizzie.
Nance: Mrs. Bennet, I mean, is in some ways so who she is, so in spite of being married, she views it is a necessary—I wouldn’t call it “evil”—but she’s very much in charge of that family, or so she thinks. Her husband has kind of distanced himself from the family, he loves Lizzie especially, and the rest of them are kind of silly, cackling creatures. She’s very much driven, she’s very much in charge, but it’s chaotic, and her agenda—I wouldn’t call it a “feminist” one at all—is a realistic one given the time. It’s not like Oh, you’re going to go to college and get a degree and take care of yourself. There’s a desperate need to get the girls married because they need to. So it’s a kind of survival mode, but it’s not necessarily a model marriage that the daughters would look at and go “I’m going to have a marriage just like my parents” because it’s a little dysfunctional.
Nance: And traumatizing. It is what it is, and it’s kind of loveable and sad, chaotic and crazy.
Amelia: There are so many things to say, because this play deals with all of these themes on a hundred different levels. One thing I will say that’s maybe inspiring, since the boys aren’t here: The men in power in this play, the men who have power, men who have wealth and money, who are meeting these girls behave in quite a respectful manner in many ways. They recognize their own power and they have genuine feelings, and so they err on the side of caution and hesitation and move very slowly. There’s a lesson there to be taken away. This was written by a woman, and these are the good guys, and that’s how the good guys should behave, especially when they have power and money, and know it. If they wanted to just take one of these girls, they really could. But they know it’s not what the women want, and I think that’s evidence of the author and the playwright. It’s really easy to fall in love with them when they behave that way. I’ll say that.
Kimberly: Lydia… We don’t get to see much of her post-marriage relationship. One can imagine that it is a very unhappy one. Because Wickham has absolutely no interest in any permanent relationship with anyone, even if there was a world—not to speak for Mark’s character, but from my perspective—if there was a world where he couldn’t love someone, permanence of any kind is not on his mind.
Kate: Yeah, he’s a narcissist!
Kimberly: And she’s young and naïve and incessant and outspoken and it’s going to be miserable. It’s going to be absolutely miserable. And she’ll have a level of protection because Darcy’s a good guy. She will never be on the street. But in that time, you can beat your wife, you can do whatever you want. I imagine she has a long, dark road ahead. But she will visit her family and come back to the women in her life as much as she can. Which is great to have that in contrast with Lady Catherine, who, when we meet her in the play, she’s in charge of everything; it’s her money, it’s her power, it’s her home, it’s her daughter. She gets to plan whatever she wants to do. Her values aren’t necessarily the most understandable. She doesn’t necessarily care what other people think, which is why things don’t work out. But it’s very freeing and fun to be like I don’t have to consider anyone else! You don’t get to see any other woman in the play do that. Lydia may act that way, but that’s not the actual reality. Catherine’s reality is “I can do whatever I want” until it comes down to the men.
Kate: I think it’s so interesting when people are like “Well, this is a comedy.” And a lot of it is very funny and very absurd, but I think it’s so funny when people want to censor out the darkness and the desperation. Do you think women’s lives don’t still have those things? Do you think they didn’t have them then? I think the love stories that work out in this play are moving because they get past that imperfection, or they embrace that imperfection, whereas it’s so funny when people are like “Well, I was just expecting a lot of polite conversation!” [laughs] “It’s not very theatrical!”
Amelia: And how could you even say that if you’ve ever read or seen anything by Jane Austen ever? Every single work, even the ones that don’t jump off the page in the most exciting way, it’s all about the struggle and the incredible things they have to overcome.
Kate: And how does that reflect people’s relationships? Even the happiest relationships have dark times and you mess up, and you fight, and, you know.
Nance: You do. I’ve been married for a long time, in a happy marriage, but you have to have the bottom notes, the bottom notes give it purpose. If it was just all that, why do it? You can’t live that way.
Margarita: I want to talk about the fact that some actors play multiple roles. I think it’s really cool that a lot of the female roles are played by men. It was the same in Sense and Sensibility and Vanity Fair. I’m curious, is this something that happens in the writing process, or something that comes about during rehearsals or casting? Is there some sort of thematic link by having the same actors play these multiple roles?
Kate: I like ensemble pieces. I like everyone in the ensemble to have basically equal roles. I think that that’s more fun for actors, and, if possible, in very contrasting roles. In this play, I wrote a lot of roles to be gender neutral, so Mrs. Bennett can be played by either a man or a woman, Mr. Bennett can be played by either a man or a woman, Mary can be played by either a man or a woman. Collins is most often played by men just because I want him to be disgusting. And the most perfect, beautiful woman in the play, Miss Bingley, is played by a man. I wanted it to be gender neutral just because sometimes I think the audience listens differently. For instance, all the men playing women in this particular production are the women who enforce patriarchal structures. They’re the ones who give them roles and say, This is perfect, this is imperfect, this is what you’re supposed to do, this is what you’re not supposed to do. But then having that choice of gender neutrality allows us to cast based on the energy of who comes into the room. Nance read Mrs. Bennett at the first reading and I was basically like Well! That’s cast! Phew! [laughs]. In Vanity Fair everyone except the two women were played by men because that is about women in a patriarchy, in a world full of men. So that was a choice. This one is more gender neutral. This is what we ended up with based on who came in the room.
Margarita: So in other productions it could be cast completely different?
Kate: Oh yeah! It’s listed as completely gender neutral. In general, I feel like the right actor can switch back and forth, so this is what we landed here. And it’s so fun having women play men, and men play women. You just listen differently. When the men are saying, “This is how women are supposed to act” the audience listens differently. Including Charlotte. I love Charlotte. I think Charlotte is the most sympathetic character, but she enforces those patriarchal rules, including on herself, and she pays the price, for sure.
Margarita: What has it been like working with the director, Amanda Denhert?
Nance: She’s great. I met Amanda when she was a graduate student. She was, I think, the assistant director or musical director of A Christmas Carol that I did in the mid-90s, at Trinity Rep. I vaguely remember her—I was a flying ghost—and I remember her with singing children. She was a graduate student, but I remember her because she would really rehearse the B-team. She was very bright and very smart. And over the years, she worked a lot over at Trinity Rep, and I had worked there a number of times. So you would hear about these amazing productions that were happening by this young woman, kind of in the tradition of Adrian Hall and Eugene Lee. Then I sort of lost track of her for a time. So to meet her again 20 years later has been really fun, because I grew up in that same tradition: a creation of what the play is. It’s not all decided before you come into the room; it’s very much a piece of alchemy that is discovered right then as opposed to an idea of what something should be and having to find your little nook in what’s already decided. It’s very freeing and very playful. She really sets a fun tone, as Kate was saying.
Kate: Yeah, highly theatrical, totally fearless. Working with her as a playwright as well as an actor, she really illuminates the text, really wants to be very specific about what the text is and that pushes me to be a better writer. Super collaborative. It makes it such a fun, happy, and loving room. She was described to me before we met as someone who creates “feminist fairy tales.” And I think that’s very true. They’re so beautiful, there’s so much heart, but they’re totally fearless as well. Oh my God. She has no fear.
Amelia: No, she actually doesn’t. You’ll meet some directors who’ll say, and she actually said on the first day, “I really want us to really mess up. I really want us to do it very wrong, to fully go down the road of a wrong choice for a week and a half and then we’ll swing back around.” A lot of directors say that. But she means it. And part of the reason she’s able to mean it, I think, is as much as she’s operating on instinct and she’s a brilliant musician, her instinct absolutely pairs up with her intellect in a way that she’s able to articulate why she wants your left hand not your right hand in that moment, or why this is the operative word and not that one, or why we’re cutting the cat, which actually happened in the middle of rehearsal. Some directors will say, We’re cutting the cat because we’re cutting the cat; the cat doesn’t make sense. Amanda will say, We’re cutting the cat because the cat is a creature and you’re a creature and if we’re focusing on this creature and how it moves in a new world in a new place, we’re not meeting your creature yet and you go Of course! That makes so much sense from an audience’s perspective! And she’s able to take that seat and tell you for storytelling purposes why she wants a ridiculous choice, or to take away a ridiculous choice. And that’s a really rare thing in my experience, to even take the time to do it. It gives the actors so much respect.
Kate: She really is a master director. And you can tell, because she’s a master of that craft. Sometimes she says something and I’m This should be in a book! She can defend the principle of what you’re doing. It’s never arbitrary. It’s based in the principles of her convictions.
Nance: And I would say that because of you, Kate, the relationship between the playwright and the director is so interesting. Kate will have the playwright part of her brain listen to a scene and go “How about if we change that?” and then the actor part of her brain says something else. And so the director is talking sometimes to the playwright part of Kate’s brain, sometimes to the actor part. And Kate will sometimes come out as one part of her in response, and the other part will come out and do this. It’s like an amazing relationship that the three of you have.
Kimberly: Sometimes she’d be like “Can I speak to the playwright now?”
Nance: It’s like Sybil, only everybody knows it’s going on. [laughs] I want to talk to Zuul now. Is Zuul in there? [laughs]
Margarita: It almost makes me angry that a piece like this one, based on a woman author’s book, written by a woman, directed by a woman, with strong female characters is so rare, especially in New York City, in this landscape. We’re so underrepresented in the arts. So I’m wondering, as women artists, what can be done? What is your role in improving representation for women?
Kate: To be completely honest, I think there’s no excuse. There’s no excuse, and it starts at the undergraduate level. When I was an undergrad, what I was told was: “There are more roles for men and there’s more work for men, and that’s how it is” as if it was handed down on stone tablets. And I liked my undergrad, but that’s how it was treated. And then in the world you’re often taught that there just isn’t as much work, and it’s de facto. What I think is really encouraging now is you see members of the public really putting pressure on: Why is this season all male? Why are you having all-male directors? And that’s why things are changing. I feel like that’s pretty key. There’s no excuse, actually.
Amelia: There isn’t.
Kimberly: This is the non-romantic version of this, but money speaks. Don’t go to see things that you think are hurting the art that you want to see in the world. And go see things that support it. I remember—and this is not theater—but when the Ghostbusters movie came out, I have so many female friends who don’t care for the genre and they were like Absolutely! I’m going to go spend money and support this to show box office numbers. Because people think it’s a risk. They think people aren’t interested in it, they think people won’t spend their money. But then time and time again you have things like the all-female Henry IV at St, Ann’s Warehouse—which was amazing—and it’s like Oh, that show is selling out every single night and it’s extending? Hmmm. Maybe we can do that.
Kate: Sixty-eight percent of the ticket buying audience is female. They’re already coming! Like “if you build it they will come”? They’re already coming! Why are you not playing to your home base? It’s so outrageous!
Kimberly: And I think it’s the idea that people think that female centric stories, if it’s an all-female anything, the female centric stories will be uninteresting or unrelatable. That’s what I think the undertone is. And it’s like Kate was saying: What did you think women’s lives were and are that would be so uninteresting or shallow, that people wouldn’t want to see that? Nobody ever says that. I grew up idolizing so many male centric stories and the inverse is absolutely true.
Kate: When Sense and Sensibility first came Off-Off-Broadway, a producer laughed in my face that it was happening, like “Haha!” and turned and walked away from me. And it ran for a year! That’s a story about women! That’s your ticket buying audience, and there’s no excuse anymore. It’s like, pick a side American theater—I’m sorry! Donald Trump is the fucking President. Pick which side you’re on. Really. Don’t be those guys. Don’t be the people who reinforce that the female is always the “other” because the female is half of your population!
Kimberly: And have conversations. There are so many conversations that people don’t want to have, about gender, about race, often the two going together, or how the two don’t go together, and it’s never going to be comfortable. And when we decide to avoid uncomfortable conversations, we get to where we are today in America, which will get better, but it’s awful right now.
Kate: I’m so interested to hear what Nance has to say, because Nance has been in the business for a long time.
Nance: I was going to say that Davis McCallum, who’s the new artistic director of the Hudson Shakespeare Valley Festival, has really done a good job. He hired Kate, and did Kate’s play. He did Lauren Gunderson’s play last year, and he hires women directors. He’s in a position now of power where he’s hiring women writers in a Shakespeare festival. A Shakespeare festival. And he’s putting women in men’s roles. He’s injecting women in a much more vivid upfront way than there have been in a lot of different places. I think to support theaters like that who do that is great. I think that there’s a lot of young artistic directors, young men artistic directors who are supporting that and doing that.
Kate: And female artistic directors.
Nance: And female artistic directors, obviously. We just did a three women version of The Scottish Play, and it was from a man’s point of view, but coming from a woman’s mouth. And how does that sound to you? How does that speak to you? Do you pretend that you’re a man? Do you pretend you’re a woman? Do you pretend that you’re androgynous? And so it opens up, I think, for the actor, for the audience, all sorts of different ways of looking at text that is broadening in a way, that’s kind of exciting and thrilling.
Kimberly: It was absolutely brilliant, that production. I understudied the production and saw it a bunch of times and I remember talking to a male director after. He said, “Don’t you think that’s a masculine story, that it’s such a man’s perspective?” And I laughed in his face because I assumed he was joking. It was a white male director who has directed in many places. I was just like “Hmm.” To me, it was such an incredible, beautiful production—and of course, no production is ever perfect—but it was definitive for me of Women can play men in men centric stories, unequivocally. And trying to articulate that to someone who so did not hear it was very Wow, we have to talk about it over and over and get people to see it over and over again before they listen.
Amelia: I’m with you. I’m just with you.
Nance: I think the bottom line is that you do the best work possible. Because I think the work is what makes people come. You have to make those choices, but it has to be done well.
Kimberly Chatterjee (Lydia/Lady Catherine) NEW YORK: The Tempest (Classical Theatre of Harlem); The Christians (Playwrights Horizons). REGIONAL: Pride & Prejudice, The General From America, Macbeth, Measure for Measure (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival); As You Like It (Folger Theatre). TELEVISION: “High Maintenance.” Proud graduate of NYU Tisch’s New Studio on Broadway. Kimberlychatterjee.com
Kate Hamill (Lizzy) is an actor / playwright. As playwright: Sense & Sensibility (in which she originated the role of Marianne), Winner, Off-Broadway Alliance Award 2016; Nominee, Drama League Award (Best Revival, 2016); 265+ performances Off-Broadway. Other plays include Vanity Fair (in which she originated the role of Becky Sharp; Nominee, Off-Broadway Alliance Award 2017), In the Mines (Sundance Lab semi-finalist), Em (Red Bull New Play finalist), Little Fellow (O’Neill semi-finalist). Additional acting credits include: The Seagull (Bedlam), All That Fall (Kaliyuga), Dreams… Marsupial Girl (PearlDamour). Her plays have been produced at the Guthrie Theatre, Pearl Theatre, Dallas Theater Center, Folger Theatre (Helen Hayes Award, best production: S&S) & others. Upcoming productions at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, A.R.T., Playmakers Rep, Seattle Rep, & more. Kate-hamill.com
Amelia Pedlow (Jane/Miss De Bourgh) OFF-BROADWAY: The Liar and The Heir Apparent (Classic Stage Company); ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Red Bull Theatre Company); You Never Can Tell (The Pearl). REGIONAL: Pride and Prejudice and The General from America (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival); Red Velvet and The Metromaniacs (The Old Globe); The Metromaniacs, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Merchant of Venice (The Shakespeare Theatre DC); Ether Dome (La Jolla Playhouse, Hartford Stage, and The Huntington); The Glass Menagerie, Hamlet, and The Liar (Denver Center); Legacy of Light (Cleveland Playhouse); The Diary of Anne Frank and The Tempest (Virginia Stage Company). TV: “The Good Wife”; “Blue Bloods”; “Shades of Blue”; “The Blacklist”. EDUCATION: B.F.A. Juilliard.
Nance Williamson (Mrs. Bennet) is thrilled to be reprising Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. During her 33-year career as an Equity actor Nance has performed on Broadway in Broken Glass, Henry IV, Cyrano and Romeo and Juliet as well as numerous Off-Broadway and regional productions most recently Amanda in The Glass Menagerie at Pioneer Stage and premier production of Book of Will at DCTC. Nance is happily married to actor Kurt Rhoads.