When ISU Theatre brings Jane Austen’s classic novel “Sense and Sensibility” to the stage this month, the quick-witted, romantic adaptation will have Austen spirit and alumni pride.
Penned by Kerry Skram (’95 English), the adaptation captures the story of the Dashwood sisters – sensible Elinor and hypersensitive Marianne – as they are plunged into financial and social uncertainty after the death of their father. The sisters must learn to weather the societal pressures of the time to secure love and happiness.
Skram majored in English at Iowa State and performed in Iowa State’s “The Glass Menagerie” and Stars Over VEISHEA, but never pictured her own work on the Fisher Theatre stage.
“I never in a million years considered myself a writer,” Skram said. “I actually really enjoyed reading literature and then analyzing it and writing about it that way.”
Jane Austen’s prose inspired her to give playwriting a go. After Skram attended “Pride and Prejudice” at a Minneapolis theatre, she suggested Iowa Stage Theatre Company, where she is a resident artist, also do a Jane Austen piece.
“Finally, a friend of mine who I consider a mentor said ‘Why don’t you just adapt your own version?’” Skram recalled. “And I said, ‘Okay!’ I jumped in with full feet.”
Adapting an English classic for stage meant parting ways with some plot points and picking the scenes that pushed the story forward. Focusing on dialogue helped Skram discover her voice.
“Finding how I wanted my characters to sound made a big difference,” she said. “I know that being an English major absolutely helped me. I knew how to write and I’d also been an actor for a long time. It clips along, and people might consider the language fresh because there aren’t these long monologues. It’s a quick conversation back and forth.”
“Sense and Sensibility” was performed in early form at Terrace Hill, the Iowa Governor’s residence, and then premiered with the Iowa Stage Theatre Company in 2012. ISU Theatre’s production includes a new ballroom dance scene Skram wrote at their request.
“I’m leaving them to find someone to teach the dances,” Skram said, laughing.
Whether people discover love at a Regency-era dance or online doesn’t matter. Austen’s works remain fresh because they’re about relationships, she said.
“It doesn’t matter if it took place in 1801 or 2019,” Skram said. “It’s finding someone and testing the waters and ‘Do they like me?’ and ‘Do I like them?’ The simplicity of the story and of their time and the conversation between two people is lovely.”
Skram is also adapting Austen’s “Persuasion,” giving the novel a Downton Abbey meets Jane Austen twist by shifting its setting and heroine Anne Elliot to the post-World War I 1920s.
“What I love about that story is it’s kind of about second chances,” she said. “Anne is so introspective and quiet in the novel. I’m going to look at giving Anne more of a voice. I’m so excited to finish that.”
Theatre as activism
Skram is passionate about using theatre to give voice to people today, too. Her one-act play “The Hashtag Me, Too” recently provided a platform to discuss the #MeToo movement at the Des Moines Social Club.
In the play, a woman comes home after dinner with friends and begins talking to her husband about a powerful man in the news who is facing sexual misconduct allegations. The woman then shares a private incident from her own past and wonders if she should confront the man who harmed her.
“The play ends with the husband saying ‘What are you going to do?’ and then the play is over,” Skram said. “We did a stage reading of this play, and we had a question and answer session with a panel of women afterwards. It was very powerful.”
While she is thrilled to have ISU Theatre perform “Sense and Sensibility,” Skram won’t be in the audience for opening night.
An accomplished actor herself, she’ll be on stage in Des Moines, commanding attention as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in Iowa Stage Theatre Company’s production of “The Lion in Winter.”
Rest assured though, Skram, who received the Distinguished Alumni Award from ISU’s Department of English in 2011, will still feel the love from Ames.
“I’m so grateful to Iowa State and the English department and the Music and Theatre department,” she said. “They’ve been so encouraging and so supportive. I graduated in 1995, and I’m still getting support and love from both departments which is really wonderful.”