Jeffrey Hatcher: On ‘Wait Until Dark,’ writing adaptations, and making audiences laugh

Jeffrey Hatcher
Courtesy of the artist
Jeffrey Hatcher, who has lived and worked in the Twin Cities for 30 years, is one of the most prolific and oft-produced playwrights in the U.S.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of “Turn of the Screw” just closed in Sarasota. His “Tuesdays With Morrie,” coauthored with Mitch Albom, opens next week in the Quad Cities. The History Theatre in St. Paul premiered his original musical “Lord Gordon Gordon” (written with Chan Poling) in May and brought back his “Glensheen” (Poling) in July for a third time. Tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 7), his adaptation of “Wait Until Dark” launches Theatre in the Round Players’ 67th season.

Locally, plays by Hatcher have also been seen at the Guthrie, Park Square, Illusion and Children’s Theatre Company. He adapted many of the Ibsen plays presented by the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro for its annual Ibsen festivals. In 2013, he won the Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Hatcher, who has lived and worked in the Twin Cities for 30 years, is one of the most prolific and oft-produced playwrights in the U.S. “My curse is to be prolific,” he told MinnPost last week, “but it’s kind of held me in good stead.” He was driving through Indiana as we spoke of many things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: How did you become a specialist in adaptations?

Jeffrey Hatcher: Friends of mine were doing adaptations in the mid-’90s, and I thought, “How come they’re getting all this kind of work? I think I’d be good at it.”

[Back then], when you were looking for work, you’d send out letters to artistic directors and literary managers. I wrote lots of letters saying, “Is there a book or an old play or a translation of an old play that you have never seen adapted, or adapted well? Would something like that be of interest to you if I were to take it on?”

Greg Leming, who was running Portland Stage in Maine at the time, had always wanted to do a new version of “Turn of the Screw,” the Henry James novella. We batted ideas back and forth for about two months and came up with the core idea of how to do it. And they did it, and that’s, like, 25 years ago, and that play gets done a lot even today. That was the first.

MP: What are some reasons for adapting an existing play?

JH: Usually it’s a play in translation. For example, [Nikolai Gogol’s] “The Government Inspector.” Obviously, that’s in Russian, and there are any number of good translations out there, but they aren’t terribly funny. My version is like “The Government Inspector” re-envisioned as a Bob Hope or Woody Allen comedy, because I think that’s in the original anyway.

Sometimes it’s updating a script. For [the Denver Center Theatre Company], we did a version of Feydeau’s “Le Dindon.” Our version was called “One Foot on the Floor.” The update was from 1890s Paris to 1930s Hollywood.

Every once in a while, there’s a play that was originally written in English, but there’s still something wildly creaky about it. And somebody will say, “Can you get your fingers into this and make it not 20 actors but 10? Can we turn it from three acts into two? Can the dialogue not sound so dusty and grandmother’s attic?”

For “Wait Until Dark,” Mat Shakman, the director [for the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles], said, “Let’s set it in the 1940s.” We both agreed very quickly that was a good idea. He wanted to stoke the film noir aspect, as a matter of style and tone. But something had always bugged me about the original play. Although it’s set in 1967 in Greenwich Village, it felt like 1954 Scarsdale.

Heather Burmeister as Susan Hendrix
Photo by Bob Suh
Heather Burmeister as Susan Hendrix in Theatre in the Round Players’ production of “Wait Until Dark.”
My guess is because [playwright Frederick Knott] was such a craftsman about suspense and connect-the-dots plotting, most of his energy went into the plot part, not so much the texture of living in New York at that time. By setting it in 1944, you don’t have to worry about why [Susan] is such a nice, middle-class white woman in New York at a time when everybody was taking acid and the streets were full of syringes.

MP: Your adaptation has become the go-to version for theaters today.

JH: I hope so. We also eliminated two characters, so I’m sure any theater that wants to save a few dollars likes the look of that. I was also able to combine a number of scenes so there aren’t quite so many blackouts and curtains. I believe the whole thing rolls a bit more smoothly now. The machine purrs a bit more.

MP: What is your secret to being so prolific?

JH: Much of my work is adaptation. Some adaptations are almost … I don’t want to say merely a resurfacing, but down at the Commonweal, for example, basically you were rewriting on top of the dialogue, and that doesn’t take as long as some people think. Yeah, you have to do it a couple times, and you rework it in rehearsal, too, but if it takes three months to write a first draft of an original script, I would say that an adaptation like that probably takes about a month and a half, maybe two months. So that leaves a lot of time for other things in the course of a year.

Plus I’m very comfortable juggling projects. The only thing I can’t do is start two projects at the same time. It’s good to be at least halfway through one script. Sometimes, frankly, it’s nice when you’re in the middle of a play to take a break and say, “I think I’ll start this other one that I should be getting around to.” That re-energizes me.

MP: How many projects are you working on now?

JH: Oh, dear … I would say four things that require attention every day or so, which doesn’t mean that I work on all four every day. Two are early-stage things, where some of it is simply working out the story and the narrative beats. Another, I’m probably two-thirds of the way in. Another, I have to do some research before I write a word. That’s a screenplay.

MP: Which do you prefer writing: adaptations, original plays or screenplays?

JH: I think anybody who does this kind of work would agree that the project that excites you most, whether it’s an adaptation or an original work, is one that’s your own idea.

For example, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was the artistic director’s idea. So was “Wait Until Dark.” So was “The Government Inspector.” But I’d always wanted to work on “The Government Inspector,” so when Joe Dowling said, “Do you want to do this?” I was off like a shot.

Right now, I’m in pre-planning for two things that might be one-person shows. One’s an adaptation, the other is completely original. Both of them excite me. The adaptation is of something that most people don’t know, so I feel like this is mine and only I can screw it up.

MP: Do you usually write at home?

JH: I write at home, but I’ll write anywhere. I write on airplanes, I write in hotels. Sometimes I like to go out to lunch or dinner and sit off to the side and write, because there’s something about people being around, and the clatter of restaurants or cafés, that is somehow useful. Probably more useful for writing in longhand than for typing, for whatever reason.

MP: Does it matter that the Ivey Awards are gone?

JH: Oh, yeah. I know there are lots of discussions on the good and the bad of the Iveys, but the most important thing was that it did bring people together once a year, and it did suggest a community that sometimes is a bit more splintered and spread out than we would want it to be.

One of the things I liked most about the Iveys, aside from winning things, is that they didn’t have competitive categories. They had categories, but you’d show up and there would be a recipient, as opposed to “and here are the five nominees.” Competitiveness was downplayed.

So I miss it, and I hope somebody finds some way to reconstitute it. There are so many people I can think of who deserve Lifetime Achievements more than I do, and certainly will in the future, so it makes me feel bad about them.

MP: Is there anything else people should know about “Wait Until Dark”?

JH: There’s one reveal I’m awfully proud of. I saw an opportunity in the original to get an extra bang that was never there before. These are the kinds of things that tickle me, because the audience always reacts. It comes at the very end of the first act.

I live for audiences laughing, and that sometimes pulls me in the wrong direction because I end up making too many jokes. I love gasps, and I love when [audiences] go “Uh-oh!” Like Ethel and Lucy are going to do something bad. I live for those gasps.

MP: This is not a funny play.

JH: No, but it’s a little funnier than it was. I would say there are more tension/relief laughs than in the original. I say this advisedly, because the estate is Frederick Knott’s daughter, and she only asked to change one word in the adaptation. I should be very grateful.

Frederick Knott will always be known for “Dial M for Murder.” That’s the perfect one. It’s terribly elaborate and wildly detailed. You have to focus your attention the whole time. But unless you try to screw it up, it always works. “Wait Until Dark” is the stepsister. It was nice to take a shot at something and say, “Well, ‘Dial M’ is still the major work, but I think we’ve made this a good runner-up.”

“Wait Until Dark” opens tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 7) at Theatre in the Round Players and runs weekends through Sunday, Sept. 30. FMI and tickets ($22). In a coincidence that could probably happen only where there are many theaters – like right here in the Twin Cities – Frederick Knott’s “Dial M for Murder” also opens tomorrow, at the Gremlin Theatre. FMI and tickets ($28).

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