While watching “Emma,” the 2020 film production of the famous Jane Austen novel, last August, Hayley Courtney started picturing some of her Washougal High School theater colleagues in the different roles. She envisioned Emma Free rather than Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse, and saw herself as Augusta Elton instead of Tanya Reynolds.
“I thought, ‘Wow, the people that we have in drama (club) this year are perfect for it. We should do it,'” said Courtney, a Washougal High senior. “And it has a small cast, so it would be good for COVID. I just thought, ‘If we do this at any time, it should be now.'”
After a drama club meeting earlier this year, Taylor and fellow student Aubrey Turner “ambushed” Washougal High theater teacher Kelly Greersen with a PowerPoint presentation, complete with music and animation, that listed many of the reasons why they thought he should choose “Emma” as their next production.
The pitch was a success. The Washougal High drama department will present “That’s Emma!” at 7 p.m. Friday, May 28, and Saturday, May 29, at the Washburn Performing Arts Center, free of charge.
Gregersen’s script reimagines the Regency Era comedy of manners as a reality television show, using a combination of live performance and video.
“I started looking at scripts, and I didn’t find a lot that really excited me. Scripts based on a book from 1815, some of them get a little dry,” Gregersen said. “The kids came up with a really fascinating idea of creating it as a reality television show, and we just ran with it. It’s a pretty light-hearted novel to begin with, so when I wrote the script, I thought of keeping true to those (themes) but also letting it resonate with a modern audience. It was originally written as a comedy, and we have definitely worked the comedy into it.”
In “Emma,” Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian-Regency England, focusing on issues of marriage, sex, age and social status.
“Specifically in our take, I really enjoy the humor in it and exploring the mind of this young woman who thinks she’s doing some really good things, but is actually doing the opposite, and I think that’s kind of relatable,” said Free, who had the right talents — and coincidentally, the right first name — to be chosen for the lead role. “It offers a unique take and brings forth (certain) perspectives. The time period is wonderful, and we get to see that with our costumes and mannerisms. It’s very different from anything I’ve done at Washougal.”
Even though the source material is more than 200 years old, the students “are connecting with how universal some of the themes are,” according to Gregersen.
“A girl wants to match-make her friends but doesn’t realize what she needs. I think that definitely connects with them,” he said. “I think doing it in a modern setting even brings that a little bit more (into focus). A lot of the lines are straight from the novel, so it still has a Victorian or restoration flair to it, but the kids are finding the modern pieces in it as well. And the script is a little glib with that – it plays around with the modern (aspects) quite a lot.”
Courtney believes that “Emma” has maintained its popularity because “it’s a good story that people can relate to.”
“There are themes of controlling other peoples’ lives, themes of class, all of these different things that go together, and you can say, ‘I know someone like Emma’ or ‘I know someone like Harriet,’ and you can relate to them,” she said. “You can take these characters and see them in other people because they’re so relatable in many cases.”
Free, a Washougal High senior, is “having a lot of fun” in her role as a high-spirited, intelligent and slightly-spoiled young woman who vows she will never marry but delights in making matches for others. She doesn’t realize the impact of meddling in other people’s lives, and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.
“It’s fun to take her and put her in this gaudy, over-the-top setting of reality television and really play up a lot of her qualities,” Free said. “I can see a fair bit of myself in her. I tend to err on the side of (dramatic roles), so it was really exciting to play more of a comedic character.”
The play marks the first time in more than a year since Washougal High students last performed on a stage in front of a live audience. Their most recent project, “War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast,” was produced virtually and broadcast on the Broadway on Demand website in March.
“It’s been so long since we’ve been able to perform in front of people, and it’s definitely different from filming, like the ‘Panic Broadcast,'” Free said. “You miss the energy that people give in a room. I really hope that everyone laughs and has a good time. If they can relate to the plot, that’s great. I hope they can recognize all of our silly references. I hope that everyone has a good time and remembers what live theater is like.”
Seating will be limited to 150 spectators, but groups of up to 10 family members will be allowed to sit together, according to Gregersen.
The theater department will also film the performance and broadcast it at a later date.
“The protocols have certainly changed how we do things,” Free said. “They’ve presented a little bit of difficulty in comparison to what we’ve done before. Things seem a little more awkward. ButI think they’ve provided a healthy level of challenge. They’ve challenged us to work in different ways and rely on other ways to tell stories — without touch, for example. (We’ve learned) that there is humor in that, and that’s very funny in certain circumstances. It’s exciting to get a step closer to what we would normally do.”
Courtney has been involved in most of the department’s productions in the past four years, but has no doubt that she’ll remember “That’s Emma!” as her favorite.
“The cast is so great, and we’ve not had as many problems as we did in the last shows,” she said. “I had a huge role in making it happen, so I’m really happy to see it come along like this.”