OSF’s ‘Fingersmith’ An Inspiring Overseas Collaboration

Another season of innovative storytelling is underway on three stages to the north, heralding the eighth decade of theatrical excellence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).

Shakespeare fans will enjoy excellent productions of the comedic “Much Ado About Nothing” (read A News Café’s Lincoln Kaye’s review here) and the dramatic epic “Pericles” (in the intimate Thomas Theatre). “Antony and Cleopatra” joined the Bard’s offerings earlier this month in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

A gambler falls for a mission do-gooder in the musical favorite “Guys and Dolls” (Angus Bowmer Theatre). Eugene O’Neill’s American family drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” has joined the repertoire at the Thomas, while outdoor theater offerings also include “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Head Over Heels.”

And an OSF-commissioned adaptation of Victorian thriller “Fingersmith” (novel by Sarah Waters) has creating much buzz in its elaborately staged, nearly three-hour production in the Bowmer theater. A number of North State residents have gone to see the show, which runs through July 9.

Sue (Sara Bruner, below) listens to hear how the con is going upstairs with Gentleman (Elijah Alexander, left), Maud (Erica Sullivan) and Dr. Christie (Bruce A. Young). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Waters, a resident of Wales, joined OSF artistic director Bill Rauch (who also directs the “Fingersmith” play) and playwright Alexa Junge (whose writing credits include NPR’s “This American Life” and TV shows “Friends” and “Sex and the City”) for a panel discussion at the historic armory in Ashland during opening weekend this season.

Their discussion offered an inside look at a unique collaboration to bring one writer’s printed words to life on a stage thousands of miles away.

Waters had seen a working script or two of OSF’s “Fingersmith” adaptation but had not yet seen the play on stage when she answered questions from moderators and audience members. Rauch confessed this made him nervous.

“My stomach just went down to the basement realizing you’re going to see this for the first time,” he told her mid-discussion.

Junge choked up talking about her passion for the project. “Sometimes there’s a piece of art you read that stays with you, like a friend,” she said. “This story lived with me in my waking and sleeping hours. I just wanted to be part of it.”

She shared her “Fingersmith” obsession with Rauch more than three years ago, and they talked about what it what take to create a play based on the book. In 2012, Rauch met with Waters’ agents in England and first broached the idea. To their delight, Waters was open to it, and so began a collaboration of sorts.

“I’m a big theatergoer myself, so that made it an exciting prospect,” Waters said. “What would happen in the process of Alexa bringing her talents to this book and creating something of her own inspired by it? On an artistic level, I was fascinated by that.”

Gentleman (left, Elijah Alexander) reveals his plan to the residents of Lant Street (Ensemble). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Junge had never adapted a novel for a play before and found it a challenging but rewarding process. “In my experience, playwriting is more unconscious and instinctive,” she said, admitting that she had doubts about her ability to complete the project. “It took me three months to write 10 pages.”

She wrestled with what to leave out. “The hardest part was zeroing in on the story in its most streamlined version.” She used a lot of dialogue from the book but also created and added some language, as well as scenes “that don’t exist in the book, but I feel they were implied.”

The ending of the play is different from how the book ends. Waters admitted they did debate about the ending a little bit – “Oh, yeah, I went way off the rails,” laughed Junge – but decided, “if this is what Alexa wants to do, I’m fine with that.”

Waters said she recognized early in the process that her book was in “very safe hands” and she became enthralled with the new adaptive work inspired by her writing. “You brought so much to the characters that was entirely your own,” she told Junge. “This fantastic extra layer.”

Maud Lilly (Erica Sullivan) explains the circumstances of her birth. Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Waters noted the contrast between writing a book and live performance, “Theater is a communal experience, different every night. It’s noisy, right there, immediate. Writing a novel is three to four years in isolation and then sending it out in the world. If I’m lucky, others, often alone and in silence, will enter this world. They’ll have an emotional experience created by this book. I usually never meet them.”

The moderator asked Waters and Junge how the experience of partnering in such a way had impacted them.

Junge reiterated what a revelation the book had been to her, “and then the idea that Sarah was so open, and that I could participate in it.

“It really is remarkable to be sitting next to you,” she told the short-haired blond woman next to her. “The process of writing the play had a profound effect on my life. I’d turned 50 and thought if not now, when, as far as following my passion. It was a catalyst for me making huge changes in my life. I feel you’re inadvertently responsible for that.”

Waters said to Junge, “The fact that I’m meeting you, and that my work has helped you create this extraordinary thing of your own, which I’m about to experience, it’s just brilliant, isn’t it?”

Fingersmith author Sarah Waters, left, talks with an attendee of a discussion panel in Ashland, Ore.

Visit osfashland.org for ticket and play information.


Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor for 20 years. She lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.

Candace L. Brown

Candace L. Brown has been a newspaper and magazine reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.

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