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WBGO Radio: Interview with Kate Hamill

Kate Hamill is one of American Theater’s most celebrated contemporary playwrights. The world premiere of Hamill’s The Scarlet Letter runs through February 25 at Two River Theater in Red Bank.

Hamill is best known for adaptations of classic novels and this time it is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale of courage as Hester Prynne dares to strive for a better life for herself and her daughter.

Hamill, who first read the novel in highs school, spoke with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle about her latest adaptation. Why did she select The Scarlett Letter for the stage?

“In general, I’m really interested in creating new classical works for the stage. I feel like these classics are cultural touchstones for us. We do teach them in our schools. I think that they’re really powerful on stage to reexamine what a hero or a heroine’s journey is and what those stories can mean for us today. I was especially interested in doing The Scarlet Letter because I was interested in unpacking a sort of cultural legacy we have in America of misogyny. There is a fear of women’s sexuality as well as a want to control women’s bodies with this sort of moral panic that a woman’s body that belongs only unto herself, is dangerous to the rest of society. I think that is something we have inherited very deeply in our structures from the Puritans. On a broader scale, I was really interested in unpacking a story about if you’ve done something that you are really ashamed of, how do you find forgiveness? I think another thing we’ve inherited from the Puritans is we don’t have great paths to redemption in our society.”

One of the exciting part of Hamill’s new adaptation is the use puppetry to play the role of four-year old Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne.

“The challenge is staging this play at Two River Theater is a central character of Pearl. I can’t tell how difficult it would be to use an actual four-year old on stage with this amount of language. The Puritans would have found the child of an illicit marriage inherently sinful or suspect. There was something of the Devil in them. So I then became very interested in using a puppet because they are inherently cute but a little creepy, and a little bit alive and a little bit dead. Fortunately, Shelley Butler who is the director of this piece was also very much on board with this idea. It has turned out to be a really magical puppet experience. We have this wonderful puppeteer Nicki (Calonge) who is the actor who plays Pearl and puppets Pearl. It’s really a feat.”

Hamill has also developed a new character in the play who is only briefly mentioned in the novel.

“Goody Hibbins, who is the Governor’s wife, is now a central character because I think it’s very true of misogyny and violence against women that the world is also perpetuated by women.”

Mary Bacon portrays “Goody Hibbins’ in the new stage adaptation.

For more than a decade, Kate Hamill has been hard at work. In 2017, The Wall Street Journal named her Playwright of the Year. Hamill’s best known adaptations include five of Jane Austen’s novels. Her first adaptation was Sense and Sensiblity.

Hamill and her husband Jason O’Connell are both actors and have often collaborated on projects.

The Lansing. New York native received a BFA in acting from Ithaca College.

Watch the interview here:

Or listen here on The Art of the Story podcast: