Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Empathy and Adaptation: A Conversation with Gale Childs Daly

Author Gale Childs Daly, who originally
completed her adaptation of
by Marcella Kearns

At MCT, we’ve got a voracious appetite for great literature. So does Gale Childs Daly. It’s a match! 

Recently I caught up with Gale to talk about her history, the story of her adaptation of the beloved novel GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and Charles Dickens, the author of the novel. [Warning: If you haven’t yet experienced GREAT EXPECTATIONS, spoilers below.]

Marcella Kearns: What is the history of this adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS? It’s had an interesting life so far!
Gale Childs Daly: This adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS started as a 45-minute outreach play. I created it for six actors, because that’s how many actors were in the Outreach Company at PCPA Theatrefest in Santa Maria, California. [MCT Note: Outreach Tours’ mission is to enhance education by taking performances to schools, libraries, etc.] The production was a success, so the theatre asked me to complete it in a two-act version of the whole thing. I got to work on my Christmas break in 1992 and completed it in May of 1993. 

I directed the first production; since then there have been many productions of the play. It was the production that was done at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma that gave GREAT EX new life. A young graduate student there named Jason Gerace loved the piece, and when he left school, he asked the stage manager for a clean copy of the play. Chris Sadler, who had been my stage manager for the first production, had such a thing and gave it to Jason. Jason moved to Chicago to be a director and shopped the play around. Strawdog Theatre Company loved it and slotted Jason to direct it for their holiday show in 2014. The play was a great success there—standing room only, sold-out houses and amazing reviews. Kate Seidel of Dramatic Publishing Company came down to see it and as a result of that production the play was published in 2015. In Chicago, the play was nominated for Best play, Best Adaptation, Best Ensemble, and Best Director by the Jefferson Award Committee.

MK: What inspired you to adapt GREAT EXPECTATIONS in such an innovative way (5 narrators, Pip, and a musician…)?
GCD: When given the task of adapting this Dickens novel, I immediately tapped into a production that I had been part of in 1982. There was a production of THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY created by the RSC. A producer grabbed the first American rights (and the only rights at the time) for a production at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. It was done in a beautiful old theatre like the Cabot, only larger and there were 36 actors playing at least a hundred parts. I was privileged to be in that company—as was Jon, my husband.

 So—with that experience under my belt, I heard actors speaking narration, saw them changing character with a simple costume piece, and telling the story in a minimalist way. But, my job was to write a play that successfully tells Pip’s story using only 6 actors (there was no musician in the original piece). Putting the play together was like making a jigsaw puzzle. It was hard work, but great fun.

MK: This adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS weaves in scenes about the theatre—Shakespeare in particular. Why was this element important for you to include?
GCD: The scene of Mr. Wopsle playing Hamlet is one of my favorite scenes. It was great fun creating it and such fun for me to watch it performed. I also love the pantomime (the song that is sung was written by Jon in those far off days. I think he enjoys being part of the production and getting to sing his very own song)! I think it is important to add these scenes because Dickens was an actor and loved Shakespeare, so Mr. Wopsle’s readings of RICHARD III and HAMLET are my salute to the author who created the novel I adapted. 

Also, Shakespeare has been a huge part of my life. As an actress and director I have played many parts—in fact I have worked on twenty-eight of the plays. I taught Shakespeare Studies for fourteen years in California at PCPA, and then I have been the text coach in over twenty Shakespeare plays since moving to the Midwest. I have also continued to teach Shakespeare in the Milwaukee area, and until I retired last year I have had the pleasure of directing quite a few plays myself. So — Shakespeare! Mr. Wopsle and I have something in common, only it is not my intent to build the theatre up and then “crush it”! (However, I have been known to give some performances myself that were “massive and concrete”!)

"Dickens' Dream," painted by Robert William Buss.

MK: Dickens is arguably most well-known to Americans as the author of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. What ideas or themes—social justice, how humans treat one another, etc.—do you find most compelling in that work and GREAT EX? Why is GREAT EX an important story for the present?
GCD: I believe the single characteristic that makes us human is empathy. One of the most prevalent themes in both A CHRISTMAS CAROL and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, and in fact, all of Dickens’ work, is the human need for understanding and compassion. Pip and Scrooge both are seeking connectivity—Pip by being a gentleman and Scrooge by opening his heart that has been closed for so many years. Pip learns to love at the end of the play—not only Estella but Joe and Magwitch too. He puts himself in their shoes and at last understands what it means to have empathy. Scrooge finally understands what it means to have the Christmas spirit all the year long. Both lead characters discover that generosity and forgiveness make them good men. They also learn that money means nothing to them though it can be a means for good—as in Scrooge giving to the charity men, or Pip giving his allowance to Herbert to start his own company. There are so many other lessons, morals and themes in the works of Dickens—the fun thing is to read all the books and see how the themes recur and intermesh. Dickens’ characters, though, no matter what role they play in the story, always learn empathy.

MK: Which of the characters in GREAT EX do you find most sympathetic, and why? Do you have a personal favorite (and if so, why)?
GCD: The character I find the most sympathetic (and he’s my favorite character, too) is Magwitch, the convict. I know it might seem odd to have the “villain” of the piece be the most sympathetic character, but I think Magwitch and Pip are much alike. Pip would have been the boy Magwitch was if he had had a chance to be taken care of and loved. Magwitch is a gentle man deep inside — and finally has a chance to help someone besides himself. He learns empathy by loving and taking care of Pip. He and Pip both have that other important human characteristic — a conscience. When we first see him on the Marshes he confesses that he stole the pork pie—protecting Pip. From the very beginning, Dickens lays in that Magwitch is a “good” man. And he is — Pip just doesn’t know it yet.

MK: You come from a history of acting and directing yourself. What drew you to playwriting, and what kind of work do you find most satisfying to pursue?
GCD: I was drawn to playwriting in 1986 when I was pregnant with my son, Samuel. I read a book about a pioneer child named Opal Whiteley. It was called THE STORY OF OPAL and was a copy of her diary that she kept from the age of 5 to the age of 12. I fell in love with Opal and her interesting language and world view. I was reading the diary when I went into labor with Sam. About one year later I felt the need to create something that spoke to the mother in me—and that was Opal’s diary. I started adapting it whenever I got a few minutes, and before I knew it I had a one-act play. I put it on the road with the Outreach Company at PCPA. It has had several productions over the years, most recently at the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since then I wrote GREAT EXPECTATIONS and many short plays. My favorite of these short works was an adaptation of THE LAMENT FOR IGNACIO SANCHEZ by Federico Garcia Lorca.

As for satisfying work, I prefer directing to any other theatre activity. I like having a vision and seeing it come to life. I love rehearsing and having tech week. I like to be the boss! I am more of an objective artist than a subjective one, although I was an actor for nearly twenty-five years. I also love writing, but it is much more difficult than directing or acting. Now that I have “retired” I can concentrate on writing and am enjoying my next project—adapting FRANKENSTEIN.

MK: You have other family members in the theatre. What advice would you give (or have you given) to those who are just beginning their career? What expectations should they or could they reasonably have about the future, in your view?

GCD: It’s funny — Jon and I are theatre artists and we have been able to raise a family (two children) on the money we make as actors and or directors/playwrights. It hasn’t been easy, but we accomplished it and our children are on their way. Samuel is 30 and just finished a doctorate in Contemporary African History at Columbia University in NYC. He is beginning his career, and it is about as far from the theatre as you can get! Emily, on the other hand, has wanted to be an actress since she was four years old. She got a B.A. from The University of Evansville in performance art and is currently in her second year of an M.F.A. at the University of California-Irvine. 

Here’s what we told her: You’ve seen how your dad and I live. Sometimes it is paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes we have had to work apart — he out of town, me out of town  to make a living. Sometimes we have to do work we are not thrilled about just to bring in the money. But we have managed to work in the theatre for over 40 years and never take a day job (yet!). We have told Emily how hard it is — she has seen how hard it is and she still wants to do it. So we support her unconditionally. We hope she has a great career—at least one that pays the bills and allows her to have a family if she wants one. She is beautifully talented, and as one friend of ours says — "She didn’t get it licking it off the sidewalk!” Ha, ha!

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