Frances Limoncelli - Lifeline Theatre

Frances Limoncelli is Director of Marketing and an ensemble member with Lifeline Theater. She adapted Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novel, Gaudy Night, for Lifeline’s current production, as well as two other Sayers novels previously produced by the company.  Other adaptations for Lifeline include The Emperor's Groovy New Clothes and Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch with Queen Lucia's composer/lyricist George Howe.  She has also acted in and directed a number of productions, both for Lifeline and around Chicago.  Frances graduated from the Boston Conservatory with a BFA in theatre performance and an emphasis in directing.

Can you talk about Lifeline Theater?

Lifeline was founded by four Northwestern graduates.  They did their first show in 1982.  They were itinerant for only a couple of years until they were able to rent this building.  It’s a Commonwealth Edison substation that had been converted for a theatre and then a dance company.  Lifeline started renting it a few years after the company’s inception. 

The founding members worked as an ensemble and what’s been consistent throughout our history is the collaborative ensemble creation process.  Almost everything we do is new work, and almost all of it is literary adaptations, although we do the occasional original play by a local playwright.  All of these adaptations are developed by the company.  We read the books, we argue over their merits, we choose them.  Our Artistic Director, Dorothy Milne, leads us and she procures the rights when possible.  And if we get the rights, then one of us adapts it.  Then the ensemble reads the first draft, the second draft, we come to the first read-through, we come to the first run-through, we come to the first preview.  And at every step along the way the ensemble gives notes and feedback to the adaptor.  It’s really like a little market research group, a little committee.  As an adaptor, I find it a very safe and comforting cushion because I feel that there’s no way I’m going to make any terrible or drastic mistake.  I will never have egg on my face because I have fresh eyes coming in at crucial steps. 

How did Lifeline find this niche of literary adaptations?

Northwestern’s performance studies department, which was headed up by Frank Galati for so many years, was all about adaptation, so the founders had that background.  It was natural for them.  They also had a love for language and the written word which the entire ensemble shares.

Can you characterize Lifeline’s style?

 Most plays have a reasonable number of locations and a reasonable number of characters.  And  we could do books that are small like that.  But we are always attracted to huge stories.  You know, we’ve done Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings.  We’ve done Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  We staged the Battle of Gettysburg in Killer Angels.  And as you can see, sitting here in our theatre space, it’s not that big.  But what we love to do is to take a tremendously huge story, a story with scope and depth and breadth, and find creative ways to realize that scope.  We don’t have the Goodman’s size and budget, so we’re not going to give you physical scope.   Instead we’re going to give you imaginative scope.  And I think that comes across to our audiences.  We’ve done audience surveys where we ask them to describe us and even give them choices -- are we this, are we that, are we the other thing?  We always think they’re going to pick “literate”, “smart”, “literary”.  Never.  Instead, they say, “creative”, “imaginative”, “surprising”, “physical”, “visceral.”  Those are the words they pick.  And I’m so happy about that, because that means we’re succeeding.  We want to take the written word and explode it in a physical and aural sense in this little space.  And since this space is intimate, we feel you come right inside that story.  I think that we’re not just asking you watch the story, we’re inviting you right inside of it.  You can feel the actors’ breath on your face if you’re sitting in the front row.  We call it “Big Stories, Up Close.”  That’s what we call our style.

A lot of playwrights are grousing that theatres are only looking for little plays with few characters and not too many settings because plays with the kind of  scope you’re describing are  too expensive to produce.  How do you manage it?

I think that’s one of the reasons why Lifeline plays have not taken off and gone to other venues.  Our shows are too expensive to produce elsewhere.  We’re non-union, non-union actors, non-union shop, we have a ton of sweat equity.  Most of us are donating extra time, donating salaries towards materials when we have to. We aren’t here to make money, and that’s a good thing because personally we certainly are not!  So if all those people were getting paid market rate for what they do, our shows would  be extraordinarily expensive. 

Do you choose the season as an ensemble?

We do.  It takes about a year.  As soon as we choose one season, we start the next.  So right now, we’re working on the season a year from this September.  For the last 8 or 9 months we’ve been reading books, discussing them, pursuing rights availability.  It’s a very informal process. If someone loves a book and wants to propose it, they bring it in and two people are assigned to read it.  And if those two people say “I could see this having potential,” then more people read it.  That’s why it takes so long.  We all have a lot of reading to do.

Out of that process, we have generated a long list of books we love and would love to do some day.  But the realities of making money and being able to keep our heads above water -- which is difficult -- causes us to put many of our favorites on indefinite hold  because we’re looking for titles that will sell.

How do you know which will sell?

You never really  know.  We’re wrong as often as we’re right.  Maybe not as often . . . but we’re often wrong.  But each season -- at least with our current financial struggles, which are the same as for just about every theatre, especially theatres of our size -- we feel the need to balance the unknown titles with things that are known, things that are popular.  All of us like to see things that we already know we have a little interest in.  So, next season we’re doing A Room with a View -- a very popular book and movie, and a beautiful romance.  The audience doesn’t have to learn about it to know if they want to go.  They can say, “I love that story,  I want to go.”  In fact, all of the books in next year’s season are national bestsellers.  So we’re doing a bestselling book -- I see people reading it all the time, but it’s not a household title -- The Piano Tuner.  It’s such a beautiful, exotic, heartrending book.  And it brings up very timely issues about nation building and what’s right and what’s wrong, what responsibility does a colonial power have?  So we are all really looking forward to that one.  And then Crossing California, the final main-stage production for next season, is Chicago native son Adam Langer’s debut novel, which just exploded.  It’s huge.  We all read it and just loved it.  And it takes place right here in Rogers Park where Adam grew up, West Rogers Park, a  few blocks from here.  And the characters are so wonderful, so real and so funny.  And it’s our home, a reflection of the world right around us.  So we’re just so thrilled that Adam signed on and that we’re going to be able to do it.

What characterizes a book that might make a successful adaptation?

I’m asking myself that question every week of every year because that’s what we do at Lifeline.  We read books and we’re always looking for what book wants to be a play.  And there are a lot of intangibles about that.  But I do know some things that make me say, “Okay, this might work.”  Certainly, fantastic dialog.  A play is about the language the characters speak.  You’re not going to have the long descriptive passages of action or scenery.   So if there isn’t great dialog in the book, that would be a difficult adaptation.  But more intangible than that, there are some characters that just live on the pages.  Great dialog usually happens because the characters themselves, and the relationships between them, have a lot of life.  If there’s great dialog, it usually means those other things are in place -- beautifully fleshed-out three-dimensional characters and rich complicated relationships.  So the dialog is the clue, but usually those other two things are really the most important. 

It seems to me there are fundamental differences between literature for the page and literature for the stage.  How would you characterize what makes a novel “novelistic” -- what are the characteristics you have to overcome to adapt a novel for the stage.

Well, without having given it a lot of thought, my first answer is scope.  Because look at the stage plays that have huge scope:  they’re all adaptations.  Les Miserables.  Ragtime.  In a novel you have endless time to explore a large world and all the details within it.  Time is the difference.  No matter how good a play is, you physically are not comfortable sitting after a certain length of time.  So a play requires economy.  It’s like the difference between poetry and novels.  Poetry has to be completely economical and that limitation opens up all kinds of different creative options.  We have all these limitations for the stage that the novel doesn’t have, but those limitations force us to find creative ways to tell the story.

What do you gain by staging a great book?

There are things we can do on the stage that you can’t do in a book.  You don’t need all the words.  It’s not just that we have to cut the words because of time, which of course you do.  But you also don’t need all the words because when two breathing, living human beings are looking into each other’s eyes, you can cut reams of description and even dialog because flesh-and-blood living people communicate so much.  Why would you write a play to begin with?  Why would you write an original play?  It has to be a story that has the kind of life that you want live people to play out in front of you.  I go back to the fact that those characters have life.  They just seem to want someone to walk and talk the way they do.

Let’s talk a little about your adaptation for the current production of Gaudy Night.  Can you start by giving a little background about the book itself?

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote her first novel called Whose Body in 1923.  This was the first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel , and it was the one we adapted here at Lifeline in 2002.  Lord Peter is an aristocratic amateur sleuth.  He solves mysteries as a hobby.  His outward persona is glib and flippant and little pompous, a little foolish.  He wears a monocle and walks with a cane.  He’s affected.  But you quickly learn that persona is something he puts on in order to seem unassuming and in order to get information from people.  He’s really a deeply sensitive and intelligent genius of a man. 

The books progress all the way through the ‘20s and the ‘30s.  And in 1929, Lord Peter meets his first and only love interest, Harriet Vane.  That’s in Strong Poison,  which was the second Sayers book we staged here.  Strong Poison begins with the detective novelist, Harriet Vane, on trial for the murder of her lover.  She is being painted in all the papers as this fallen woman, someone with such loose morals that she is clearly not above murder; essentially she’s been hung in the court of public opinion.   But Peter Wimsey is a very instinctual person, and he feels that there’s no way she did it, so he resolves to solve the case and save her.  He falls in love with her when she gives her testimony on the stand, so when he first meets her in the visiting room of the prison, he bungles and stumbles over himself and immediately blurts out a proposal of marriage to her.  And he pays for that one mistake for five years because Harriet has a hard time ever taking him seriously after that.  She is grateful to him and admires him because he did save her.  And they clearly connect:  there’s such wonderful witty banter between the two of them, and that’s one of the things that makes the books so delightful and theatrical.  But she has really been wounded by love.  Peter is someone whom any woman would want -- he’s rich, and smart and funny, but she can’t get past the fact that she owes him the debt of her life.  She doesn’t want to marry him just for that reason, and that gets in her way.  And that’s where we begin Gaudy Night.

Have most of your audience read the books?

I do know that we get an awful lot of people who have read the books because we get fan mail from them.  And it’s been great the way the Sayers fans have supported us, because they could just as easily have said, “Peter Greenberg doesn’t look like Peter Wimsey.”  Or, “How could you cut that wonderful scene.”  They could very easily have nit-picked.  Instead, they have always said that we captured the essence, and I’m so flattered by that and proud of that.  But I don’t think we could be filling our audiences with just people who’ve read the books.  I think there must be scads of people who haven’t read them who are coming.

Do you plan to stage the next in the Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey series?

Yes.  That one is Busman’s Honeymoon andI’m sure we will be staging it in the next two or three years.  Not only do we love the Sayers books, but we’ve built an audience for them.  Every show has been more popular than the last. 

What were the challenges of adapting Gaudy Night for the stage?

I’ve now adapted three Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels and they are just these beasts -- they’re huge.  What makes them delightful to adapt is Sayers’ amazing characters and bubbly dialog.  What makes them seem impossible to adapt is her verbosity:  she writes in such detail, such wonderful detail.  That detail makes them wonderful reads, but there’s no way you can really put the whole book on stage.  With the first book, I tried to.  At the first read-through, I had to stop the actors half-way through and say, “I can’t let you guys continue reading this.  This is going to take us all night long.  It’s just too much.” 

So what I have learned is that I can only take a point of view on the book.  I have to choose what I believe is Sayers’ main point.  Or if she has five or six main points, as she often does, I have to choose what is the main point for me.  And then anything that does not apply to that main point has to go, no matter how delightful.  And then half of what does apply to that main point has to go.  And that’s just before the first read-through.  For the second read-through, I’ll have taken half again of the delightful stuff that applies beautifully to the main point and gotten rid of it.  Two nights before opening I’m still cutting.

Sayers has a parade of wonderful characters throughout her books.  In the book, a thumbnail sketch of somebody can skip on by and you can be satisfied with that.  But when they’re a flesh-and-blood person on the stage, that’s not enough: you don’t have time to get to know everybody.  So I have to take the characters I want the audience to care about -- or that I think it’s imperative for the audience to care about -- and then all the scenes have to happen with those people.  I have to take dozens of scenes and rewrite them for the characters I’ve left in.  So their voices have to change, their verbal mannerisms have to change.  If it’s a Cockney character and I’m assigning the information to an erudite character, I have to completely rewrite it.  I was very trepidatious in my first adaptation about trying to imitate Dorothy L Sayers’ voice.  But after three tries, I feel pretty comfy in it. And she was so prolific, I have alot to draw on.  Maybe there was a butler in another book and he had all kinds of turns of phrase that were cool.  So if I need lines for a butler in this book, I’m going to put in the vocal mannerisms of that other butler.  That’s all kind of fun.  I always have a bunch of her books open and they’re all marked up and have pages sticking out.  I rip out what I need and shove it into my new one.  Still and all, I have to do my own dialog writing more than I’d like.  I’d love it to be all Sayers, but over time I’ve embraced that challenge as well and do find it fun.

And there are other ways to compress.  There was a scene where Harriet was waiting for a letter or phone call from Lord Peter and she’s talking to the other women at the college and she’s talking to the scouts, the servants.  It was a five-minute scene, and we made it probably a 20-second scene by taking it out of time and space and giving it an abstract feel.   Here’s a letter, it’s not his; here’s a phone call, it’s not him. Time is condensed and just the high points -- the plot points -- of that scene are left.   When stylistically you can let go of real time, you’re able to condense it.  Like quick cutting in a film.

I’m thinking that detective novels might be easier to adapt for the stage because they may be less internal.  There is objective information that has to be gotten out that’s a big part of the story.

I think that is absolutely true for your typical detective novel and for Sayers’ early novels.  But Gaudy Night just breaks every rule.  It’s not really a mystery, it’s a romance.  Or at least I couldn’t have it be both a mystery and a romance, it had to be one or the other.  The audience may disagree, but my focus was on the romance.  The mystery was the context for the romance. 
Gaudy Night is much more internal than the other Sayers novels where Lord Peter is the protagonist, because Peter is always talking, he’s always telling everybody everything he thinks.  He’s chatting with his butler, Bunter, he’s chatting with his brother.  But Harriet, who is the protagonist of Gaudy Night, sits in her room and thinks.  So I had to give her opportunities to say her thoughts out loud.    And I knew that Peter’s presence in the book isn’t much; he’s mostly absent until towards the end.  You miss him the first two thirds of the book.  So I was pretty sure I’d be putting him on stage throughout Act I.  The way it’s turned out, Peter comes to Harriet in fantasy.  He can say, not what he would actually say, but what she would imagine he would him saying.  It’s her idea of Peter. 

I’ve heard it said that Dorothy Sayers fell in love with her own character, Lord Peter.  Do you think that’s justified?

Well, I fell in love with him. I’ve read Gaudy Night  ten times, and every time I get to the romantic scenes, my heart is beating quicker.  I am absolutely in love with him.  That’s what I think is the draw of these books.  I’ve said this in other interviews, but Lord Peter is the thinking woman’s Prince Charming. He is everything an educated woman wants: he’s funny, he’s sensitive, he’s tormented psychologically in some ways.  He’s brilliantly intelligent but also deeply sensitive and fair-minded and believes in equality.  He has one foot in modernity and the other in this aristocratic past and history and glamour.  He’s the most delightful person you’d ever want to spend the rest of your life with.  I do think we all fall for him.

Do men react the same way that women do to these plays?

I’m always surprised how many men are in our audience.  Lifeline has a shuttle van, and we all take turns driving it back and forth to the parking lot.  So I get a chance to talk to the audience members.  And so often it’s the husband saying, “Oh we’ve seen all your Sayers plays.  We love her.  We own the PBS series.”  Certainly men do like heroes.  Look at comic books.  They like super heroes.  It could be that Lord Peter is the thinking man’s comic book hero.

Some of what Sayers has to say about feminist issues is still quite striking.

I agree. And that was the one thing I decided to focus on in this book:  everything that didn’t apply to that went away.  Sayers had amazing understanding of her own social context.  Most people can’t do that until they look back 10 years.  But she was so observant about life around her.  It’s really an extraordinary quality.  One of the things that is in this book and play -- something that that the 60s missed - is that you really can’t have it all.  Mostly this play is about the choice between work/scholarship and love.  And I think that’s a choice most of us struggle with.  The feminist movement sold us on the idea that we can have it all.  And now that we have it all, we’re all exhausted and wishing we could just choose.  And that’s what I think makes this story so timely.

Anne Nicholson Weber
Theatre In Chicago News Contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw "Jack and the Beanstalk" at the Goodman Children's Theater and has loved the theatre ever since.  She is a Chicago writer and the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age