Novel adaptation’s edge and heart
Bob Baker’s 17-year tenure as the Citadel Theatre’s artistic director may have wrapped last summer, but his connection to the company and Edmonton’s theatre community persists with Sense and Sensibility—the final production he’s directing this season.
Baker asked local playwright Tom Wood to adapt Jane Austen’s literary classic to the stage, because it’s more than a romantic comedy of manners.
“It’s got a lot of edge to it,” Baker says. “It’s got a lot of pain in it, it’s got a lot of heart in it. So I thought it would be a great production for the Citadel to present, but also for the participants of the Citadel Banff Program.”
The nine-year-old Citadel Theatre Banff Program—which Baker conceived—allows theatre professionals to engage in practice that’s more rigorous than what they receive from regular rehearsal. As a result, it’s a coveted learning opportunity.
For Sense and Sensibility, Baker auditioned 368 actors from across the country before selecting 12 to study with him in Banff.
“A lot of actors train in theatre school and then get zero training after that,” Baker says. “Then they go into the profession, and rehearsal periods are very short, so they don’t get to explore much. They just get shows up really quickly and perform them. So, for professional actors to go back to the training laboratory and challenge their own skills and find new ones, it’s really exciting.”
The Banff program’s cast channels that excitement and exploration into a months-long preparation for the show.
“We practised up their skills in handling the kind of text that is necessary for the play, and period manners and period movements,” Baker says. “We enhanced their skill sets so that when we start rehearsal, they’re already immersed in the world of the show.”
One reason Baker stepped away from his role as artistic director was to make room for his longtime love of teaching—something he says he continues to practise as a director.
“Often—when you’re directing a play—you find yourself in a way guiding, coaching
and teaching to get people to certain emotional states or to get them to increase their stamina, or to get them to be more agile in their thinking,” Baker says.
Performers reaching pinnacle potential is essential for Sense and Sensibility to work. Austen’s text posed a familiar challenge to adapter and frequent collaborator, Tom Wood. In 2008, Baker and Wood previously produced Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the stage.
“She’s a tricky novelist to adapt because she writes a lot of interior thoughts and a lot of letters,” Baker says. “It’s challenging because it’s a novel on stage. You take something that could take you four or five days to read, and you have to do it in two and a half hours.”
The play’s scenes are rooted in real emotion, featuring brief flashbacks of essential correspondences. Baker says it shows the various facets Austen carved into each character.
“She was quite a humanist,” he says. “Her characters are always three-dimensional. No one’s perfect, or no one’s just evil. They have lots of different colours. You have flawed heroins and redemptive villains.”
Baker feels that’s what makes the adaptation feel immediate and relatable.
“What I think makes a period show relevant is how much you connect to the human part of it,” he says. “You can set it in 1795 and have authentic costumes, but it’s the pain you’re going through, it’s she joy you’re going through—if the situation is full of life and heart, then it could be happening today.”
Bottling that universality for the audience is the task Baker relished during his last production of the year.
“You need big muscle to pull that together and tell the story,” Baker says. “I love it as a challenge.”
Until Sun., May 14 (7:30 pm, 1:30 pm weekend matinees)
Sense and Sensibility
Citadel’s Shoctor Theatre