An Interview With Phil Timberlake & Elise Kauzlaric

In advance of the opening of Emma, dramaturg Maren Robinson sat down with adaptor Phil Timberlake and director Elise Kauzlaric to ask them a few questions. 

MR: Elise, this is your third foray into the world of Austen after having directed Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.  What do you think you have learned most about the world of Austen and her characters and why do you think they still resonate with us so much?

EK: The language of Austen is delicious and the character relationships are rich. It is challenging and exciting to dissect the nuance of the exchanges – what is unsaid vs what is said – as well as what the characters innately understand about the time they live in that the actors have to both understand for themselves and then convey to the audience. It’s been wonderful for me, personally, to have a deeper understanding each time of how the worldview and language can be explored in the rehearsal process.

MR: Phil, you have graced the stage at Lifeline and been a dialect coach, but this is your first adaptation? What has he process of adapting Emma been like for you?

PT: Elise a terrific collaborator! And being a part of an artistic ensemble is such a privilege. We workshopped the show and had multiple readings over the last couple of years. Now that rehearsals have begun in earnest, the ensemble continues to watch and give feedback. And with Lifeline’s production history, they know so much about Austen!

MR: For both of you, often at Lifeline actors take on multiple roles. In this adaptation of Emma you’ve taken this to a whole new level. Could you talk a bit more about the joys and challenges of having actors not only play multiple roles, but also having multiple actors play the same role at different points in the play?

EK: For the performers this is a fantastic challenge. They not only need to be able to collaborate on a character portrayal with other actors, but also differentiate for themselves between characters distinctively and immediately. We have had great fun developing the characters and then finding how we can celebrate the act of passing roles to each other or having a moment of personal transformation. One piece that has been a wonderful challenge for the actors is pushing the precision and dexterity of vocal and physical work toward characterization. It’s fascinating to watch how this evolves as they discover new things through the process.

PT:  I would add that it is also a great pleasure to engage the viewers imaginations – the audience has to “complete” the transformations in their own minds.

MR: Could you talk a bit more about the set design and how it works with this particular adaptation?

EK: Phil’s adaptation is a celebration of the act of storytelling, the event of theatre. As we started to look at the world for this production if felt right to set up a playing space rather than a literal Austen village so we started to investigate ideas of period theatre and toy theatre. Thematically, Emma also treats people as playthings so the inspiration of toy and paper theatre was exciting. Our final version is a theatrical space in which the actors telling us the story can play.

MR: Phil, I know you had the opportunity to spend time in England while you were working on your adaptation. Is there anything that you discovered in your time there that influenced your adaptation?

PT: Well, it was delightful. I was quite struck by the small size of the villages, and could imagine the “confined society” as Emma puts it. And therefore how new people coming to town could be of great interest – a big part of Emma’s story. I was also struck by the location of Jane Austen’s house in Chawton. It’s right on a deep curve in the Winchester road (nearly a 90° angle). I formed an image of Austen watching the comings and goings along the road as they slowed down to make the turn – another image of Emma’s life, perhaps. There were also a lot of sheep. And they made it into my script, ever so briefly.

MR: In this production there is singing, but it is not a musical. Why is it important to have this musical interlude in the play?

EK: While sharing music and singing at parties was a common occurrence of the day, dramatically it allows us to heighten the action slightly and spend some time on the unspoken narrative. Song is an emotional expression – of joy, of longing, of sorrow. What Emma chooses to sing vs what Jane chooses to sing is quite different. It reveals another aspect of their personal stories. Much like the dance moments, song also allows moments of observation, meaningful looks. We can linger in some storytelling moments in song in a way that is different than a text driven moment.

PT: Exactly so, Elise (as Mr. Elton would say). I always love to have music as a part of storytelling. And dancing if possible …. Although with Austen adaptations there are always a number of moments in rehearsal where someone asks, “Which party is this? Is this the Cole’s or the Weston’s? Or is it Christmas?” 

MR: If you had to liken yourself to one character in the Emma who would it be?

EK: Oh, goodness. I’d like to think I’m a Mrs. Weston. She’s fairly grounded, practical, positive, and wants the best for those around her. Though I do have a little Knightley in me – I try not to be too critical, but I do have strong opinions on how people should and shouldn’t behave…and I like to share these opinions.

PT: Oh, I totally empathize with Emma. Late in the book, in the midst of the unraveling of one her many matchmaking schemes Emma ponders: “How to understand it all … the blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!” Who can’t relate to that?

Emma runs through July 14 at Lifeline Theatre.