Houston's Theatre Community offers something for everyone-ranging from the very modern and experimental to the classics. Next week, on September 26, 2012 Classical Theatre Company will be opening MISS JULIE at their new home, Studio 101 in the Spring Street Studios. Director of MISS JULIE, Julia Traber and I recently chatted about the show, Studio 101, August Strindberg's legacy, and the impact of arts on politics.
August Strindberg wrote MISS JULIE in 1888. What challenges did you face making the show relevant to modern audiences?
Julia Traber (JT): Well, we had a lot of challenges. [Laughs] During the 1880s, especially in England, Northern Europe, or even the United Sates, there was this whole idea of the hierarchy of class that was a dominant thing in society. Women did not have the right to vote and the ability to divorce or to own property. We hadn't really quite had the suffrage movement yet. All those things going on made the play so relevant in his dealing with rising above one's class or rising above one's station. So, initially, I thought it was going to be really challenging because I just thought, "How will American audiences relate to that? So many Americans believe part of our makeup is that anyone in America can make it, despite what you're born into, you know, with hard work." There's this notion of rising above in the United Sates, but I think it's kind of topical that in the last twelve months, with the elections, this whole argument of the 47%, the 1%, and people saying "Oh, this is class warfare" and "There is no class warfare in the United States." It's really still kind of topical and relevant. I also think the whole notion of feeling that you're stuck in your place in life is still relatable, whether it's class or whatever. Ultimately, the story is about two people who do feel trapped and feel that they can't escape the life that they're in. They don't know how to escape it, and that's all they long to do. I think that that's something we can all maybe relate to. Maybe not on that same level as Jean and Julie's class structure, being a servant and being an aristocrat, but, ultimately, I think that struggle's very human. I think modern audiences can relate to it on that level.
To help it along, we've pushed the action of the play forward to 1920s New Orleans, rather than setting it at the turn of the century in Sweden. A lot of people have played around with MISS JULIE. There have been contemporary productions where it's set in 2000, and there have been productions where they've set it in the Civil War. There have been some productions in England where it's post World War II Great Britain. In Britain, I think, it's very real because I think there is definitely openness about the class struggle there, but I thought in the United States we definitely can relate to race relations. That's kind of where we are in America as far as class goes, in our history. And New Orleans in particular, it's such a mix of so many different ethnic and religious groups. In the 1920s, Jim Crow laws are still in effect. Women had just barely gotten the right to vote, so women still are struggling for the same rights. And, I thought it would be interesting to play with the idea of race a little bit because in New Orleans and Louisiana history Creoles were able to own property, and they themselves even had slaves prior to the Civil War. But, after the Civil War, they were labeled as African-Americans-as black-as well, so they lost all of their rights and property. So we kind of set it in 1920s New Orleans and play with the idea that Jean is Creole, Christine is African-American, and of course Miss Julie is white, the Southern aristocrat type.
As a side note, with the Creole elements, if you haven't already, you should read Nella Larsen's novel Passing. Those similar ideas, especially concerning skin tone, play a big role in that novel.
JT: Okay. Passing. I need to write that down. Someone else mentioned that one. And we're not overtly saying anything. We've changed the text where we talk about Mardi Gras instead of Midsummer. You know, we've made those references, but I didn't change the language to specifically talk about skin tones. But the whole notion with Jean, you know, is could he pass the paper bag test? Could he pass? And he possibly could. That also drives his drive to get out of this world. He thinks he deserves something better than being a valet. So, I thought maybe American audiences, especially in the South, could relate a little more to that. Again, carrying over to everything we're talking about in the 2012 elections-the haves and have-nots-I think that's still a theme that everyone can identify with.