Fear not, dear reader, for I bring you news of the imminent arrival of LIVE theatre back in South Pasadena by way of the intrepid thespians of South Pasadena High School! A bold new production of the critically acclaimed Kate Hamill adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is set for one weekend only, November 12, 13 & 14, under the stars. A specially designed stage, set pieces, lighting and seating will magically transform the Tiger Patio to 19th-century England where a whirlwind of gossip will propel us through the breathless adventures of the Dashwood sisters who have been rendered socially and financially dispossessed by the recent death of their father.
The decision was made to present the show outdoors for safety as well as to allow the actors to perform without masks. Director Nick Hoffa says that while performing outdoors presents certain challenges, he assures us that the space will be theatrically transformed with LED torches, lanterns, tree lighting and the actors will have body microphones to ensure a very engaging theatre experience. “My hope is that the space will not be recognizable at all. You are coming to a theatre. It just happens to be an outdoor theatre” says Hoffa. He was inspired by the innovative Off-Broadway theatre company, Bedlam, when he decided to add the idea of wheels to the show. “Our show definitely takes place in 1790 England. It’s not ‘updated’ with leather jackets or anything like that. But the staging has a lot of chairs with wheels, set pieces on wheels, doors, windows – so that you just have this propulsive feeling of everyone sort of ‘flying in’ and you can involve people in really interesting ways. In a showdown scene you might have the two characters circling each other or being pulled apart or being pulled closer for an intimate moment. So the whole thing just ‘rolls’. It’s all super fun and quick and fast so all of a sudden you’re at a party and then suddenly everyone rips the chairs away and you’re walking through a forest. I’ve told the cast to embrace the fact that they are the props and the sets and they are this magic of theatre.”
The dynamic cast is brimming with excitement and emotion as they prepare to perform for an audience for the first time in two years. Many of the cast are seniors who have worked with Hoffa for four years. We spoke to some of them about bringing this show to South Pasadena and what it means to be coming back to live performance after the heartbreaks of the pandemic. Senior Levi Srebalus says that hearing there was no chance of live performances last year hit him hard saying, “it was one of the hardest things to swallow about the pandemic. Obviously there were bigger issues to worry about but, for me, not being able to do the shows last year was very tough. So being here, I’m just trying to really enjoy it – it’s my last fall play – so I’m trying to get as close to the people in my cast and make this a really meaningful performance and hopefully on opening night we get a good crowd and we’ll have that refreshing feeling of ‘oh this is why we love doing this and this is what we remember. Live theatre is something that is unmatched.”
“First and foremost it’s been so exciting to conceive of something we’re going to do live” echoes Hoffa. “It feels very much like a return to theatre. What’s been most exciting? We’re rehearsing. We’re talking about blocking, about where the audience is going to go, about diction, all the things we haven’t been able to talk about.” As for this particular production, it’s the first time for Hoffa doing a comedy for the fall play, and he says “it’s really fun to work on a piece like this that has this energy to it. And it’s been super fun to work on the accents. We all have to speak in our British accents during rehearsals and we have a “tipping jar” for anyone who drops their accent, so it’s been a hoot to rehearse.”
He chose the Hamill adaptation because he says “it’s fun and unique; it takes Jane Austen’s timeless story and infuses it with life and brings the relationships and dynamics into a lot more relief. I love the energy that it brings.”
Senior Quinn Manzo, who plays snobbish sister-in-law Fanny as well as honorable friend, Colonel Brandon, calls everything about the show, “very ambitious. There’s something really unfamiliar about rehearsing after almost two years of not doing anything like this. I think Jane Austen is commenting on misogynistic societal standards and one of the things that Mr. Hoffa addressed from the very beginning was that even though a lot of this play is about romance, it’s also about solidarity between women and trying to refute societal standards. For example, there are “gossips” in this play and their entire role is to be a perpetuation of all the judgment against women and so they will shame the characters and gossip about them. As a message to all of us, he told us he wanted this production to be about refuting those standards, refuting that shame and refuting those expectations. So that’s why the poster features the sisters and it’s more centered around them than the romantic interests in their lives.”
Playing one of those gossips (and Lady Middleton/Mrs Ferrars) is senior Franny Knight who tells us the cast has become very much a family, saying “it feels so good to be back and I feel so ready to perform! I’ve missed the rush of performing and I’m so excited for people to see this because it’s so different from previous productions in so many ways. It’s pushed all of us in a way we’ve never been pushed before.” For many of them, it’s their first time really tackling comedy. Srebalus takes on the role of Edward Ferrars, the reserved yet charming suitor of Elinor Dashwood, who is feeling pressure from his mother to make something of himself in the world. The senior has enjoyed playing Edward’s self-deprecating humor telling us “I cherish his awkward moments! He has a lot of them and those moments are what makes the show funny in a lot of spots. I just like soaking that in and making an utter fool out of myself is a lot of fun.” For the viewing audience he says, “it’s a very fun piece of art to watch, it’s very visual – throw in the wheels, the accents; it’s a lot of fun to be a part of. We have some great people in this cast who are really good at comedy but it’s also a perfect balance of comedy and drama.”
Senior Lulu Talesnick who plays Mrs. Jennings, the gossipy but well-intentioned mother of Lady Middleton, says she’s never played such a boisterous character and she’s having a ball. “she’s a very big character and it’s fun because it’s in a time period where it wasn’t seen as the best to be loud and obnoxious and she very much is!” Surprising Talesnick was this notion of putting the entire show on wheels. “I have never seen this done so it’s been amazing seeing how all the set pieces come together and it’s been cool to see the cast make things come to life. I’m excited to see it all and I think it’s going to be exciting for the audience to see…all of it…and for us to see what little moments they pick up on and feed off the energy of the crowd.” Manzo agrees, “I’m excited for the audience to see how we’ve adapted to being outside and how we’ve been able to not take ourselves too seriously despite the play having serious themes and I think it’s fun to watch”.
Hoffa is known for his keen ability to collaborate artistically with his actors, something they each mentioned and seem to really appreciate. “He really listens to us,” says Manzo. “While it’s clear we are teenagers, he puts trust in us as people and as artists. He wants us to feel appreciated and listened to, he knows how to incorporate our individual skills and has a natural ability to integrate different types of arts together.”
I, for one, dear reader, await opening night with bated breath. Won’t you join me as we curl up under the stars for this triumphant return to the theatre!
Read the full synopsis on SouthPasadenan.com. Sense and Sensibility (directed by Nick Hoffa, with technical direction by James Jontz) is performed three times: Nov. 12, 13, and 14 (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) at 5:30 p.m. The show is outdoors at dusk, dress accordingly. Hot cocoa, cider and blankets will be sold. (Actors will not be masked) Tiger Patio, South Pasadena High School, 1401 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena, Calif. General admission is $15. Tickets may be purchased online at sphsasb.org, in the SPHS student bank after noon, and at the door.